This is the first of two related posts.
As a white, heterosexual female, my experience is very different from that of Asian American males. Aside from gender and political ideologies and, say, being left-handed, I’m rarely a part of any minority group. So when I decided to write about the Western stereotype of the emasculated Asian American male, I understood going into the topic that this would be an exercise in imparting while learning—and that I needed an expert guide. I therefore turned to Amy Sueyoshi, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University.
When I called up Sueyoshi to chat about the “cultural castration” of Asian American men, historically cast as impotent nerds, lacking virility and sex appeal (or played derisively by white men, a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), her insight quickly reminded me that explanations for How Things Came to Be are far more complex than the kneejerk responses and belief systems they manufacture over time. Because that’s what these gender- and ethnicity-based stereotypes are—prefab constructs that we erect, brick by brick, bound together with a mortar of fear and discrimination.
“Discussions of race are almost always inflected with meaning of gender and sexuality,” Sueyoshi said. “Frequently, when we talk about sex, it’s about moral anxieties about race as well as gender, and it’s all built in.”
And in the case of Asian American men, those moral anxieties didn’t always manifest in modern pop culture stereotypes of the slapstick eunuchs like Gedde Watanabe’s Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Although Europeans and Americans have associated the East with the feminine for roughly 400 years, an association that has fetishized Asian women and asexualized Asian men, it hasn’t always been like that. Sueyoshi says, “there are moments in U.S. history when Asian American men are actually seen as sexually super scary and predatory.”
…in the 1860s, Chinese men were seen as dirty and immoral and potentially people who would seduce white women in opium dens and impregnate them. In the 1930s, Filipino men are seen as having potent sexuality and stealing away all these white women who claim that Filipino men are actually better dancers than white men and better lovers. So, in different turns and different times in history there’s been different depictions of Asian American masculinity for sure.
That isn’t to equate “different” with “better” in any way, either. Desexualizing and hypersexualizing people based on race is flatly wrong and serves to reinforce outsider status and devalue social roles and contributions. That observation does, however, provide a crucial dimension to grasping the cultural roots of stereotyping, and also makes us wonder how things evolved from fearing the hypersexual to actor and artist David Muru writing in the New York Times about Mike Yanagita, an inept bit character in “Fargo”:
“In the movies, as in the culture as a whole, Asian-American men seem to have no sexual clout. Or sexual presence.”
And Canadian writer and theorist Richard Fung noting:
“Asian men, however—at least since Sessue Hayakawa, who made a Hollywood career in the 1920s of representing the Asian man as sexual threat —have been consigned to one of two categories: the egghead/wimp, or—in what may be analogous to the lotus blossom-dragon lady dichotomy—the kung fu master/ninja/samurai. He is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism.”
I asked Sueyoshi when and why that shift occurred, and it seems it began in earnest in the 1980s, as Bruce Lee’s popularity began to wane. Not coincidentally, this also happened as the Japanese economy began to flex its muscles.
“…that’s the flip side of the emasculating argument—that in fact, Asian American men aren’t seen as weak but as economically potentially powerful. During the ’80s when the Japanese car industry was booming and causing all these closures for U.S. car factories, that’s when a lot of these nerd representations came out. It might be something to be thinking about.”
Where does that leave us today? Sueyoshi thinks Western society may have reached a turning point where the old Asian American male stereotypes are changing, which I’ll explore more in the next post.