For the almost 23 years I’ve been doing this column, I’ve often reported — usually in a positive way — on television shows and movies that pair Asian men with white women. Yet I’ve tended to roll my eyes at Asian women with white men.
Am I being hypocritical? Using a double standard? Well, no, it’s been a reaction against the fact that historically, there has been a double standard about the different ways Asian men and women have been portrayed sexually.
Although the majority of couples in the Asian American community have been with both partners being Asian, in the media, Asian women were almost exclusively paired with white men whereas Asian men (who were mainly used as villains or comic relief) were romantically paired with no one. This sent the message that Asian women were accepted by the dominant culture and Asian men by no one, not even women from their own community.
This led to a lot of internalized racism and self-hatred issues, including many Asian women who didn’t want to date Asian men because they’d remind them of their fathers or brothers (I’m sure white women have had bad experiences with their fathers and brothers too, yet I’ve rarely met any who say that as a result, they didn’t want to date white men).
I believe all people of color should be accepted by the dominant white culture, but not for stereotyped expectations (e.g., “Asian women are so docile and know how to take care of their men!” “Latinas are insatiable in bed!” “Black men have big er… units”). But because the Asian female/white male model has been used so often and encouraged the aforementioned problems, I’ve felt it’s better for Asian female regulars on television shows to be paired with Asian men and Asian men regulars to be paired with white women.
In the former situation, Asian men are seen as being accepted by their own women (and producers prove they’re not afraid of having a couple of the same non-white ethnicity for fear that it’d make it “too ethnic” for the white audience). In the latter, it demonstrates that Asian men can be attractive to anyone, especially women from the dominant culture.
Over the years, I’ve heard others express the same values. An Asian photojournalist in Baltimore once told me that she and other reporters had covered an event featuring Yo Yo Ma and other musicians, and she was surprised all of the women were gaga over Ma, agreeing he was the best-looking guy there. “And these were white women!” she exclaimed.
An Asian American man, talking about a well-known Asian American activist lawyer in the Bay Area, reported always seeing women in bars buying the lawyer drinks — “and these are white women!”
On the other hand, I’ve often heard negative feedback from people when an Asian female regular was paired with another white guy. Of course, if the relationship was one devoid of racial stereotypes, it might’ve ultimately been a constructive one. For instance, I came to the defense of the Ling Woo character (Lucy Liu) on “Ally McBeal” when misguided people mistook her outspokenness for being a Dragon Lady. She was not, and ultimately, the interracial pairing was not a significant issue.
NBC understood the significance of promoting Asian men as attractive, romantic, and heroic. I remember two meetings opening with an executive saying, “Guy, you’ll be glad to know that in this upcoming season of ‘Heroes,’ Masi Oka will have a love interest.: Another year, “In the [rebooted] ‘Bionic Woman,’ Will Yun Lee will have a relationship with the Bionic Woman and the past one as well [it was later modified to just the latter].”
ABC did a great job with “The Neighbors.” Over two seasons, Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) was caught in two love triangles, one between him, series regular Amber (Clara Mamet) and a nerdy but adorable girl he befriended to make Amber jealous, then later between Reggie, Amber, and a blonde from Reggie’s home planet who had been designated his soulmate.
And of course, they did a community service by casting John Cho as the love interest of redhead Karen Gillan in the late (well, so far; let’s hope someone picks this up for a second season, given the demonstrated loyalty to this show), lamented sitcom “Selfie,” where he also had a white girlfriend and an Asian American woman and another white woman showed interest in him.
A few years ago, on CBS’ “The Mentalist,” Agent Cho (Tim Kang) got into a relationship with the attractive Summer (Samaire Armstrong), and when he realized he ultimately had to break up with her, the look on his face was haunting — though trying to maintain his stiff upper lip, he looked as if he wanted to cry.
In this current season, a new regular, rookie FBI Agent Michelle Vega (Josie Loren), kept looking at him while a white male co-worker tried to engage her in conversation. He ultimately realized it was a waste of time and recommended she just go over and talk to Cho. She asked to work with him because she admired the way he worked, though we knew she also admired him on a romantic level.
But I have to say I was alarmed while watching a “Harold and Kumar” film where, towards the end, John Cho kissed his love interest Maria (Paula Garcés), and no one clapped or seemed too happy or excited about it. Sure, they loved to laugh at the Korean and Indian American characters, but maybe they still weren’t comfortable seeing them “getting it on” with women.
And what about pairing Asian females with other minority actors? ABC recently announced that Blair Underwood was going to be cast as an ex-boyfriend of Ming Na Wen’s character on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” At a MANAA meeting, someone said that was positive: two different ethnics together. I pointed out it would’ve been more impressive if they’d cast an Asian American male as her former lover, because producers have shied away from that so much. There was a lot of nodding in the room.
Last year, the Internet was abuzz with a report that studied which races received the most responses on online dating sites. To no one’s surprise, Asian women got the most attention from men in general, while Asian men got the least from all women. Meaning the women Asian men were interested in might not even consider them as potential romantic partners simply because of the fact that they were Asian.
While it’s ultimately up to every Asian man to try their best to attract women and give them reason to be want to be involved with them, it’s pretty difficult when many of those women have already made up their minds against them before they’ve opened their mouths.
Therefore, the media can — and should — play an important role in reversing some of that biased thinking toward Asian men that they’ve encouraged over the years.
Pleasant Surprise Department: Most Asian American activists don’t want to be put in the uncomfortable position of defending what the Japanese did during World War II, but because their portrayals potentially affect Asian Americans, I was pleasantly surprised that in “Unbroken,” the Japanese aren’t shown killing anyone in the POW camp. No beheading, no stabbing, no shooting (even off camera).
Miyavi, who played the sadistic camp leader, was a curious choice, as he looked so effeminate, like a curious Japanese schoolgirl. Well, better than a squinty-eyed stereotyped prone to shouting “Banzai,” I guess.
Déjà Vu/Bad Feeling Department: When ABC announced the long-awaited “Fresh Off the Boat” was going to be scheduled for Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. — the same time slot that killed “Selfie” — many cringed. The situation is a bit different, however, in that the network will debut the show the previous Wednesday at 8:30 with “The Middle” as its lead-in, then again at 9:30 following the popular “Modern Family.” Hope that sampling will encourage regular viewers for the “normal” Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.