Hollywood’s Contribution to the Perpetuation of Asian American Stereotypes

A hypersexualized Asian woman, a submissive nerdy Asian man and the Bruce Lee martial artist trope. These are the typical representations of Asian Americans we see on screen. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.

Studies show that people’s perceptions and beliefs have been shaped and heavily influenced by media consumption, but it is important to distinguish what to believe in the media and what not to. Especially with Hollywood’s glorification and promotion of racial stereotypes, which contributed to the stigma laid upon racial groups and minorities, it’s important to educate ourselves instead of relying on films and the mainstream media. According to the 2019 Census Bureau, Asian Americans make up about 5.7 percent of the nation’s population. However, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asian American actors account for only 1% of all leading roles in Hollywood. With the lack of on-screen Asian representation, Asians are depicted mostly in a negative way and are either stereotyped or tokenized rather than being portrayed in a realistic manner, which makes them feel misrepresented and misunderstood.

Some people associate minorities, in this case Asians, with images and scenes they see from the media, particularly Hollywood. You’ve probably heard of the “model minority” stereotype or have at least encountered it, but weren’t aware of what it means. The “model minority” cliche is the most prevalent stereotype that we see in mainstream Hollywood. The term “model minority” is defined by Harvard Law Education as “a minority group perceived as particularly successful, especially in a manner that contrasts with other minority groups.” Self-sufficient, hardworking, rich, well-behaved, extremely intelligent and excelling at STEM subjects are all examples. Some people may wonder why Asians are complaining when all of these traits appear to be positive. For Asian Americans, this model minority concept deteriorates their individuality and sets unrealistic expectations. Saying that an Asian person got good grades because of their race diminishes their hours of hard work and just pursues the harmful “you are what you are because of your race” narrative, which could also lead to toxic expectations. Asians, especially kids, carry the burden of living up to expectations put on them by society. Expectations such as being a perfect child who gets straight A’s and is hungry for success undermines their self-esteem and challenges their worth as a person. In an anonymous survey I conducted, a respondent stated, “It puts unrealistic expectations on other Asians who might be not as ‘smart’ as others.”

This concept also aids the division between Asian Americans and other minorities, turning them against each other because one is more “socially accepted” than the other. 

Asians on-screen are typically portrayed as caricatures designed to be a subject of comedy. Tropes like nerds with glasses who lack social skills, martial artists, sidekicks, people who speak “broken” English and tiger moms are just some examples. However the most harmful and problematic ones are the hypersexualized “exotic” Asian women and submissive Asian men tropes. In movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember, The World of Suzie Wong and TV shows such as Family Guy and the “A Benihana Christmas” episode in The Office, the prominent theme was degradation. 

The movie Full Metal Jacket further perpetuated the dehumanization, sexualization and fetishization of Asian women. The infamous “Me so horny, me love you long time” line has been repeatedly referenced in different movies and TV shows. Because of this, Asian women are seen as sex objects not only in films but also in real life; this delineation has provoked dangerous experiences for Asian American women. On March 2021, a perpetrator who claimed to be a “sex addict” killed six Asian women in a spa shooting in Atlanta. The perpetrator allegedly saw these spas as his “sexual temptation.” 

When asked how these stereotypes made them feel in a survey, an anonymous respondent said, “It makes me [feel] uncomfortable and disgusted.”

While Asian women are hypersexualized in Hollywood, Asian men are seen as submissive, unattractive, emasculated and are also meant to provide comic relief. According to two anonymous survey respondents, Asian men are also often portrayed as capitalist robot businessmen and are also seen as “Being unable to [be] seen as attractive to women/men.”

In the infamous movie Sixteen Candles, Asian character Long Duk Dong, played by Gedde Watananabe is considered, as quoted by NPR’s Alison MacAdam,  “every bad stereotype, rolled into one character,” due to being illustrated as lustful but unattractive in the “Chinaman” jokes. For Asian American men who lived in this movie’s era, they were a subject to continuous racist “Donger” jokes and were often ridiculed because of this stereotypical character. 

In recent years, films like Crazy Rich Asians, Never Have I Ever and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have been challenging these misrepresentations and have been trying to show the authenticity and individuality of Asian Americans. Another anonymous respondent stated that Crazy Rich Asians portrayed Asians as who they really are. The films defied the “model minority” stereotype by showing imperfectionism—not all Asians are smart and only care about grades (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before), and not every Asian has a perfect relationship with their family (Never Have I Ever and Crazy Rich Asians). 

Hollywood has an evident effect on the experiences of Asian Americans and despite all of the “Asian” characters we see on screen, almost all of them are stereotyped and tokenized. Asian Americans want authenticity on screen and not more misrepresentation. Asian Americans are not like those stereotypical characters. We are not your model minority.

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