Welcome to Feminist-ish: a video series deconstructing the feminist-adjacent tropes that we love to hate.
Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). Go Go Tomago from Big Hero 6 (2014). Tina Cohen-Chang from Glee. What do these characters all have in common?
In Episode 3 of Feminist-ish, Marina Watanabe explores the infamous “Asian hair streak” trope. In television and film, a colorful hair streak serves as a visual and narrative shorthand to signal to Western audiences that an Asian character fits into a specific archetype. Asian American characters with a hair streak are often rebellious and have problems with authority. They’re considered cool, edgy, and mysterious by everyone they interact with, and they may even be a little rough around the edges.
Due to its prevalence in media, recent criticism has been levied against the Asian hair streak trope. In its most egregious examples, which can be found everywhere from Disney Channel to the X-Men franchise, the trope is used to camouflage underwritten characters who lack personality. In other cases, more fully fleshed-out characters at least attempt to reckon with Asian American stereotypes. But do they actually succeed? And why is this trope so pervasive?
Watch the full episode of Feminist-ish below to find out! And click here to catch up on previous episodes.
[FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT]
[Title sequence with Feminist-ish logo]
[Episode title card: Episode 3 The Asian Hair Streak]
[Voice over narration over silent footage and lo-fi music]
MARINA WATANABE: What do these characters all have in common?
[Short clips featuring Asian characters with colorful hair streaks, including Knives from Scott Pilgrim, Juniper from The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, Go Go Tomago from Big Hero 6, Tina from Glee, Lane from Gilmore Girls, Jade from Bratz: The Movie, Kimmy Watanabe from Rugrats: All Grown Up!, Stella from Lemonade Mouth, Psylocke and Blink from the X-Men franchise, and Maria Wong from Braceface.]
MARINA: If you answered “rebellious Asian hair streak,” you are correct! In recent years, criticism has been levied against the Asian hair streak trope, which is used as a visual marker to distinguish between Asian American characters.
[Title Card: What is the Asian hair streak trope?]
The Asian hair streak trope serves as visual and narrative shorthand to signal to Western audiences that an Asian character fits into a specific archetype. For fictional characters, dying their hair can signify rebellion, freedom, and finding their own sense of self.
[Gilmore Girls Clip]
LANE KIM: I need to make a clear statement—one I can’t go back on or chicken out on, one that everyone can see. [Holding up hair dye] And this is my instrument. It says, “This is me. This is Lane Kim.”
RORY GILMORE: That is you—it’s black hair dye.
[Title Card: Asian American characters with a hair streak often embody the following traits.]
A rebellious nature and problems with authority
Being considered cool and edgy by other characters who interact with them
A tendency to be impatient and quick to anger (or being overwhelmingly chill with everything)
And having a personality that is somewhat rough around the edges.
[All Grown Up! Clip]
Kimi walks into her dad’s cafe with a newly cut and dyed pink-streaked mohawk.
CHUCKIE: *gasps* Bad girl hair…
[Title Card: Underwritten Characters]
MARINA: In the most egregious examples, the trope is used to camouflage underwritten characters who lack personality…like the Bratz movie.
Bratz: The Movie is a film so bad it almost swings back around to being entertaining in its ineptitude. In Bratz, Jade—the token Asian character and my favorite Bratz doll as a kid—has a stereotypically strict Asian mom who prevents her from expressing herself.
[Bratz: The Movie Clip]
JADE’S MOM: Remember, Jade, you have mathletes, science club, Kumon, and violin.
MARINA: Like all of the Bratz characters, Jade has a “passion for fashion,” but unlike her friends, she is forced to hide her “true self” from her family. As is common with the trope, the divide between Jade’s external identity and her internal sense of self is blamed on her cultural background. It should also be noted that it’s completely unclear what Jade’s specific cultural identity is. She’s just vaguely…Asian.
MEREDITH, presenting photos of Jade to the entire school and Jade’s parents in the audience: The fashionista? I say, imposterista. She lies to her parents, to her teachers, and to you. This is who you think she is. This is who she really is.
Meredith reveals an image of Jade wearing “trendy” clothes to school. The audience gasps.
JADE: Here’s the dealio. I’m not either of those girls Meredith showed you—I’m both. I love science and math and my parents. A lot. But I have a passion for fashion. It’s how I express who I am. And if I can’t do that, I’m nobody.
MARINA: Another example of the rebellious Asian hair streak trope is Stella from Lemonade Mouth, the 2011 Disney Channel original movie that asks the question, “What if the teens in The Breakfast Club started a band instead of getting blazed in the school library?” Stella Yamada, played by Hayley Kiyoko, is essentially the Judd Nelson of the group—she’s rebellious, tempestuous, and values self-expression above all else.
[Lemonade Mouth Clip]
PRINCIPAL: I’m afraid that shirt is…
STELLA, wearing a ripped shirt that says “QUESTION AUTHORITY”: What? Is there a dress code here?
PRINCIPAL: Well, no, but there is an unwritten line, and that shirt crosses it.
STELLA, smirking: What about freedom of expression? Do you have that here?
STELLA’S MOM: Stella!
MARINA: Stella Yamada isn’t an especially harmful example of this trope—but, as with most DCOMs, the movie itself just happens to not be very good, and all of its characters are lacking in complexity.
In X-Men: Apocalypse, Psylocke is a mutant played by Olivia Munn, and she is barely even a character. To be clear, this movie is just, like…hot nonsense, and Psylocke’s essentially there to stand beside the film’s villain, Apocalypse, and do purple light tricks. She becomes more interesting when she tries to take out Apocalypse, but it turns out to be Jennifer Lawrence’s character Mystique in disguise. So—you know—we get to see an Asian woman get choked out onscreen for no reason. At the end of the movie, Psylocke literally just disappears into the unknown, never to be heard from again.
The X-Men franchise in particular loves using the Asian hair streak for characters who have no personality, unique characteristics, or individual storylines. Blink and Yukio are two other examples of this.
[Title Card: Complicating the Asian Hair Streak Trope]
Now to get to the examples of the Asian hair streak trope that I actually mostly, kind of like. I started with the more egregious offenders, but the following characters all at least attempt to reckon with Asian stereotypes.
[Title Card: Tina Cohen-Chang from Glee]
In Glee, Tina Cohen-Chang is a talented singer, but when she’s not performing, she’s depicted as shy and has a stutter until Episode 9. Similar to other characters portrayed through this trope, Tina’s hair and clothing style is a core part of her identity.
PRINCIPAL FIGGINS: Miss Cohen-Chang, you’ve got to find yourself another style of dress.
MR. SCHUESTER: Hold on a second. Tina is shy, and one way she’s found to express herself is through her clothes.
MARINA: Over Glee’s six-season, chaotic gay mess, Tina eventually loses the hair streak and comes out of her shell…but I will still never forget the crimes that Glee commited.
[Title Card: Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World]
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the most infamous example of the trope: Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim.
[Scott Pilgrim Clip]
SCOTT: Knives Chau. She’s Chinese.
YOUNG NEIL: Wicked.
MARINA: When we first meet Knives, she is a decidedly uncool 17-year-old girl. Her adult boyfriend, Scott, takes advantage of the fact that she’s significantly younger than him and enjoys explaining obscure video game facts to her and knowing more about cool music.
When Knives realizes that Scott is developing a crush on the local hip white girl, Ramona Flowers, she starts mimicking her style, cutting her hair like Ramona and wearing similar clothes.
[Scott Pilgrim Clip]
Knives buys hair dye and vents to a friend on the phone.
KNIVES: Oh. My. God. He’s dating a fat-ass hipster chick.
Knives is back at home, dying her hair in the bathroom with her friend.
KNIVES: She’s got a head start. I didn’t even know there was good music until, like, two months ago. Hey—this really burns.
FRIEND: You should rinse.
Knives looks in the mirror at her newly dyed blue hair streak.
KNIVES: Oh god. I look so…good.
MARINA: I should point out that Bryan Lee O’Malley, the creator of the Scott Pilgrim series and Knives Chau’s character, is Korean Canadian. And unlike other characters who dye their hair to visually express their personality, Knives subverts the trope in the sense that her hair streak is in direct conflict with her own internal sense of identity. She doesn’t dye her hair as a form of self expression; she dyes her hair to imitate Ramona so Scott will like her more.
Instead, Knives’ growth happens when she starts to come out of her shell. Throughout the movie, there’s a running joke with Scott telling Knives to “be good” around his older friends, despite Knives being very quiet and submissive.
[Scott Pilgrim Clip]
KNIVES: [whispering] I’ll be quieter.
MARINA: However, it’s still worth examining the fact that Knives is weirdly racialized throughout the movie.
[Scott Pilgrim Clip]
SCOTT: She’s Chinese.
MARINA: Even though you could argue that the film’s POV isn’t aligned with Scott or the other white characters’ racist microaggressions—because they’re supposed to be terrible—the movie still creates a binary that contrasts Knives’ “uncool” Asian identity with her proximity to her older white peers’ comparatively cooler interests, knowledge, and aesthetics.
[Title Card: Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls]
I debated about including Gilmore Girls because Lane Kim doesn’t technically have a hair streak, but it feels like she has a hair streak, ya know? Plus, she does have one for her gig in Season 6, so I’m counting it.
[Gilmore Girls Clip]
RORY: The bleach is going to stink up the whole house.
LANE: Let it! Let it be the first clue that something’s happened when my mom gets home. Let the thick smell of bleach meet her at the doorway like a force that’ll usher her into the next chapter of Lane Kim’s life. The smell of bleach is the smell of freedom.
RORY: You’re very dramatic today.
MARINA: Lane is another example of an Asian American character whose internal and external identity clashes with their cultural background, but I think it’s important to note that Lane is based on a real person, Helen Pai, a producer and script coordinator on Gilmore Girls. The name of Lane’s band, Hep Alien, is even an anagram of Helen’s name.
[Title Card: Tracing the Origin of the Trope]
The Asian hair streak trope likely came about as a response to stereotypes of Asian Americans as submissive, nerdy, or unfuckable brainiacs. I mean, have you met the ‘80s?
[Revenge of the Nerds Clip]
Takashi is in the locker room holding a washing basket of football players’ dirty laundry.
JOCK: You know karate?
The jock puts his dirty jockstrap on Takashi’s head.
MARINA: Upon its inception, the rebellious Asian trope probably seemed refreshing and subversive at the time. Finally—Asian American representation that depicted us as cool. But with so few examples of Asian characters in Western filmmaking, it ended up creating a weird dichotomy between the “nerdy Asian” character and the “cool Asian.”
[Mean Girls Clip]
JANICE: Asian nerds, cool Asians…
MARINA: In a way, the Asian hair streak trope ends up feeling like the racialized embodiment of “I’m not like other girls,” a.k.a. “I’m not like other Asians.”
Truthfully, I feel a little bad criticizing this trope because there is minimal Asian American representation in Hollywood, and I don’t love calling out some of these examples because hey—at least Asian actors got jobs. That is, unfortunately, still a rarity in Hollywood.
Of course, the problem with this trope isn’t the fact that Asian characters dye their hair with brightly colored highlights. I have to admit that I, too, dabbled in having hair streaks in high school.
Asian Americans on TikTok have even started riffing on this trope. TikTok users play the Knives Chau audio clip from Scott Pilgrim while dying their hair.
[Video clips from TikTok users partipating in the trend]
MARINA: It’s actually great.
The problem, for the most part, isn’t actually the stereotypes themselves. Asian Americans who are nerdy and good at math and have strict parents exist, and it’s not wrong to reflect that in media. Like, I too am an Asian nerd who likes Sailor Moon and plays Nintendo games and got good grades in school. Sue me.
And as evidenced by TikTok and Lane Kim’s real-life analogue Helen Pai, Asian Americans with brightly colored hair streaks or a figurative streak of rebellion in their personalities exist too.
The problem is when that becomes the only type of Asian character that we ever see depicted on screen. And the solution to that problem? Hire more Asian Americans in Hollywood. It’s not that hard.
[End Credits: Written and edited by Marina Watanabe, designed by Jessica de Jesus, music by MarbleSpace]
[Title Card: What tropes should we cover next? Leave your ideas in the comments!]
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