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GeekGirlCon ’14 Recap: The Year of the Asian

Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.

2014 is in the rear-view mirror, so perhaps now we can answer the question posed at GeekGirlCon last year by LeiLani Nishime and Kristine Hassell: “Is 2014 the Year of the Asian?” Whether or not it was, can we take the improvements made in pop culture depictions of Asian people, and continue to build on them in 2015 and beyond?

The two panelists picked their title because, as LeiLani observed, many conversations about the future of Asian Americans in media were all about the new season of TV. But before digging into why people are so excited about the new shows, the panel took us on a retrospective of the depictions of Asian and Asian American people over the past few decades.

The asked the audience, who was the first Asian American character you remember on TV? Answers came from all corners of the room: Mrs. Swan from MADtv, Harry Kim from Star Trek: Voyager, Arnold on Happy Days, Tina on Ghostwriter, Mr. Sulu from Star Trek: the Original Series, and Hop Sing on Bonanza.


George Takei as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek.
Image source: Memory-Alpha

Many of these characters are cringeworthy over-the-top Asian stereotypes, speaking broken English. Even the relatively relatable, like Harry Kim on ST:V, are stuck in subordinate roles–he never got promoted from Ensign throughout the whole series, despite commanding the ship during the night shift for years. Other classic Asian roles include the cook, the nanny, etc. Mrs. Livingston in the late 60s-early 70s series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father is a great example–she is held up as the perfect picture of femininity, and teaches a white woman to be more feminine, “Like a Japanese woman.”

This is just one example of the ways in which Asian women are pitted against white women–used as a stick to beat them, and get them back in line after white women expanded their social role during World War Two.

Some people, looking back on older media, or considering more recently-made period pieces, will claim that Asians were not present in the US in previous decades. John Cho, for example, gave this in one interview as the reason why he doesn’t get many historical roles. However, this is just not true–you only have to look at the influx of Asian (especially Chinese) immigrants to California at the turn of the 20th Century.

Even in places where there have historically been very large Asian populations, when it comes to media depictions their characters are frequently whitewashed. 58% of the population of Hawaii considers themselves either Asian or mixed race Asian–a figure that’s remained pretty consistent since Hawaii became a state–and yet consider the TV shows that are set there. Hawaii Five-0, Magnum, P.I., The Byrds of Paradise… all starring white people in the lead roles.

Star Trek, asserted the panelists, was ahead of its time–a large ensemble cast featuring people of different races has since become standard for many genre shows. However, progress stalled out soon after. These ensemble casts are still where the majority of Asian characters appear, which has the effect of isolating them from other Asians, and forcing them to conform to a white norm. Even when the individual characters are well-rounded, they end up becoming a token. Examples of shows where this happens are Heroes, Lost, and The Walking Dead.

heroes-msn-return-cast-photo lost Walking_dead_cast

The casts of Heroes, Lost, and The Walking Dead.

Sources: Screen Rant, i09, Walking Dead Wikia

Other common Asian stereotypes include the best friend/sidekick (see: Gilmore Girls, Drop Dead Diva, The New Girl, and Carrie Diaries) and comic relief (Entourage, Community, Two Broke Girls). Rarely are Asian characters–particularly Asian men–given the chance to be seen as sexy or desirable.

In Romeo Must Die, Jet Li and Aaliyah have great chemistry, but never get to kiss. In Heroes, Hiro is just about to kiss the woman he has feelings for, when–BAM!–he is sent 300 years into the past.

One example of this trope being averted was the love story between Sun and Jin in Lost. Even today it is still very rare to see two Asians kissing each other on US TV.

LeiLani and Kristine talked about the character played by Harry Shum, Jr. on Glee. On the one hand, they point out, seeing a talented Asian American dancer is refreshing, and goes against the usual stereotype of Asians being pure intellectuals. On the other hand, it took three seasons for his character to even get a name. Outside of Glee, Shum has mainly been featured in settings such as the iPhone silhouette commercials, where it’s impossible to tell that he is Asian.

All this is to say that shows featuring Asians prominently are rare enough; shows featuring Asians in non-stereotypical roles, and who get to be protagonists and have meaningful relationships with other Asians are almost unheard of. Even in news media, as one study showed, Asians are usually only mentioned in passing as part of a list of other races. Asian American perspectives are rarely showcased.

Which brings us to 2014, the year of the Asian!

All eyes were on the fall TV season, with several shows both new and returning, which prominently featured Asian characters and perspectives. The panelists listed The Mindy Project, Selfie, Fresh Off the Boat, and Elementary as great examples.


Poster for Fresh Off the Boat.
Image source: Angry Asian Man

The audience were excited to discuss Fresh Off the Boat in particular. As a show that stars an Asian immigrant family and directly tackles race, racism, and race politics, it could either tread exciting new ground, or play to tired old stereotypes.

One particular concern is that Asian immigrants are often held up as a model minority, used to criticise other immigrant groups: “Look at how well they’re doing!”

As Kristine pointed out, Asians are often treated as all the same, whether Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and so on.

An audience question asked whether the panelists include Indians under the Asian umbrella. For both panelists, it’s a political decision. Kristine mentioned her college Asian American Student Union, who realized they had more power if they banded together. As LeiLani pointed out, in the US it’s hard to have a voice if you are not a big enough group, so people tend to band together and form coalitions. She acknowledged the danger in coalitional politics where the largest group can take over, saying that Southeast Asians in particular have that problem. Their problems are different from those of the most visible Asian groups (East Asians); they are not as economically successful, oftentimes because their are fleeing war in their countries of origin. Their needs don’t get addressed. Coalitions need to be mindful and inclusive of their most vulnerable members.

We ended the audience discussion by talking about a recent event in Seattle, where the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society had put on a production of The Mikado, a play commonly criticised for its depiction of Asian characters to begin with. This particular production went a step further and, unable to find Asian actors, cast white actors in yellowface.

Why are people so invested in putting on this play? asked LeiLani. Why must new productions of insensitive plays continue to be made?

There was some discussion back and forth about what to do when a racist narrative becomes a cultural artifact. One audience member gave the example of what Amazon did with some older Tom & Jerry films–made them available, but put a viewer discretion notice in front of the film so people could choose whether to engage with outdated and racist views.

As another audience member pointed out, it’s a very different thing altogether to make a brand new production of something racist.

Kristine closed us out with some widely-applicable advice. If a friend of hers from a different marginalized background (eg. African American) says that something is offensive, it’s her job to listen.

It was a thought-provoking panel, though ultimately since 2014 was still in full swing it was difficult for the panelists to answer the question posed by the title. What do you think? Was 2014 a great year for Asians in the media? Has 2015 so far been better?

Perhaps by the time GeekGirlCon ‘15 rolls around we may have more answers to that, so grab your passes and join us in our future discussions!

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Winter Downs
“Rock On!”

Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

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