White Avatars and Asian Men in the American Media

A friend of mine forwarded me an article about Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a Nickelodeon cartoon aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds. The story takes place in a heavily Asian-influenced fantasy world where the characters fight with martial arts, practice Eastern religions and philosophies and have names like Aang, Katara and Toph Bei Fong.

Apparently, M. Night Shyamalan is directing the movie version scheduled for 2010. According to Nicole Sperling at Entertainment Weekly:

M. Night Shyamalan has found the cast for The Last Airbender, his upcoming live-action film based on the popular anime-inspired Nickelodeon series. The youthful group is mostly filled with unknowns who are likely to be household names by the time Paramount opens the first in its potential three-film franchise in July 2010. After an open casting call in Texas, Shyamalan discovered karate star Noah Ringer and offered him the part of Airbender’s 12-year old hero, Aang, an Avatar with superpowers who must stop the Fire Nation from destroying the world. Twilight‘s Jackson Rathbone has been asked to play Aang’s pal Sokka, while Nicola Peltz (Deck the Halls) will star as his sister Katara. Genial singer Jesse McCartney, meanwhile, is negotiating to play against type in the role of the Fire Nation’s evil prince Zuko.

In short, the main Asian characters are being played by prototypical White people. This has obviously caused a bit of a stir in the Asian community. As a Filipino male, when I first heard about this, I found it hard not to see it as just another blatant act of scrubbing out the “yellow” and replacing it with a more eye-pleasing White. Then I saw a picture of the characters.

Let's play "Where's the Asian?"

Let’s play “Where’s the Asian?”

I don’t know about you, but if I saw this cartoon without knowing where it was from or that the characters are supposed to be Asian, I’d think they were a bunch of White kids. I mean, look at how wide their eyeballs are! Natural blue eye color? C’mon. How many Asians have that going for them? So even though his last two films were disappointing on almost every level, I’m going to give Shyamalan a pass on the casting of Avatar. If anything, the artists are the ones that need a talking-to.

Wherever the fault lies, the end result is the same: Cool/interesting roles – even the ones that are specifically made for Asians – have once again been given to White people.

An average cross-section of America.

An average cross-section of America.

Actors Needed: Asians Need Not Apply

If you’re not Asian, it’s probably difficult for you to understand our frustration. You probably watched Friends on NBC and thought that it was perfectly plausible that six, young middle-class people living in Manhattan, New York would have no Asian acquaintances or any contact with minorities for that matter. And no, token extras in the background mimicking conversation with other extras do not count.

If that’s the case, then there’s definitely a problem, because if you’re going to buy that, then the entertainment industry has carte blanche to concoct any kind of ridiculous plot contrivance to get the yellow out. Take, for instance, Die Another Day, a terrible movie in its own right made worse by its central gimmick.

What every Asian male wishes he looked like.

What every Asian male wishes he looked like.

Here we have Colonel Moon played by the clearly freakish and alien-looking Will Yun Lee. He undergoes a drastic cosmetic procedure to turn himself into the handsome and debonair Gustav Graves played by the normal-looking Toby Stephens who has approximately 90% more screen-time than Lee.

I know. It’s fiction, right? In that same movie James Bond drives a car that can turn invisible. The whole Asian-to-White thing was just a gimmick. OK, I’ll buy that. Then comes along a movie like 21, which was based on the MIT card-counting team populated mostly by Asians. Here’s a great comparison from the site Chasing the Frog.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read that there are Asians in that film and they’re characterized as goofy and maladroit. I’m sure it’s not to the point of Mickey Rooney’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

…but I bet it isn’t encouraging either.

We do, however, have all of the karate masters on our side. I don’t care where you’re from or what your racial make-up is, Jackie Chan or Jet Li fight scenes are undeniably cool. Unfortunately, they’re getting up there in years and there doesn’t appear to be any newcomers to replace them. I think it’s going to be a while before Tony Jaa makes his American transition mainly because of his English and his high-pitched voice. Furthermore, I think The Matrix has revived America’s faith in White people performing martial arts believably that seemed to have died off with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s and Stephen Seagal’s careers. With this resurgence of White-Fu and no one to take up the Asian mantle, we may be stuck with Jason Statham and Matt Damon in Transporter 11 and The Bourne Dead Horse Beating respectively.

Asian Role Models in the Media or Lack Thereof

The American-Asian male experience is just like any other male experience, only more so. It’s a constant struggle for identity, masculinity and coolness. It’s just harder for us, because we don’t have anyone to show us the path. Our friends had television and movies to provide role-models they could identify with. Our Black and Hispanic friends had sports stars and rap artists. Our White friends had everyone else. We had our fathers. That’s alright, I guess. We all turned out to be hard-working, intelligent, successful individuals. However, our fathers couldn’t provide everything that we were looking for as boys and young men. Instead, our heroes were all Caucasian, because that’s what we saw on television. We identified with White men, emulating their actions. So when we saw White guys with White girls on TV, it was only natural that we be attracted to White girls too. This wasn’t a problem when we were kids, because we didn’t really comprehend race. We were all just lumped into one giant, writhing mass of children.

Then we grew up. Suddenly, glass divisions sprouted all around us and we were viewed as these social miscreants that were good at math, ate dog and knew karate. The change was dramatic. It was like showing up to a house party, taking a turn through the wrong door and ending up locked outside in the rain. How the heck does something like this happen?

It happens because for better or worse, America views television and film as a reflection of reality to a large degree. With that in mind, it’s a wonder that White people ever have low self-esteem. They’re represented as people that can go everywhere and be anything. Want to be a samurai? No problem. We’ll just rewrite Dances with Wolves, setting it in post-American Civil War Japan and cast Tom Cruise. If you’re Japanese and want to be in the Civil War, you’re cast as a “Chinaman” extra building railroads as the White lead (probably Tom Cruise) rides by on his horse and kicks you.

If White people ever feel inferior to another person, that other person is probably White. Now I don’t bear White people any ill will for being White and I don’t think they need to feel inferior to me, Asians or any other race. I’m just pointing out that the entertainment industry is clearly biased in their favor.

Asians, however, get to deal with the likes of Joan Rivers reminding the world that all Filipinos eat dog. When she was still aired on local channels several years back, she made an off-color statement right before a commercial break, stating (and I’m paraphrasing here), “[During the commercial break] You’ll have enough time to wash your dog, walk your dog or, if you’re Filipino, eat your dog.”

On her blog, as recently as June 22, 2008, Joan Rivers writes:

Everyone keeps telling us to be patient and that he will come around, but I think I know my Max best.

He will NEVER like Sam. Unless, of course, she is in a pot down the hall in my Filipino neighbor’s kitchen.

Then, of course, there’s Rosie O’Donnell speaking perfect Mandarin – or is it Cantonese? I can never tell.

I’m told that she does Blackface pretty well too. She kicks off her shoes and socks, rolls up her pant legs and plops down on a porch, pushes her lips out and grins, while double-fisting a slice of watermelon in one hand and a fried chicken leg in other. Non-Blacks tell me it’s quite the riot and shouldn’t be taken seriously or as something offensive, but unfortunately this performance never makes it on air.

Still, if having a weird-sounding language and being accused of eating dog are the worst negative Asian examples in the media, then things aren’t that bad. After all, I live in a country where a good percentage of people find it odd that I eat mushrooms and get angry over instructions written in multiple languages. When I worked at the Olive Garden, one guest actually wrote in a complaint about the menus being half-written in Spanish. The guest was wrong, of course. The menus are written in half-English and half-Italian being an Italian restaurant. That’s neither here nor there. The point is, minorities are going to have negative stereotypes and these two – sounding weird and eating weird food (even potentially dog) – weren’t insurmountable.

Then American Idol chose to define the Asian male by highlighting William Hung:

It was Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi all over again: bucked-toothed and unintelligible, except this time he’s a civil engineering major. I doubt American-Asian kids were watching and saying to themselves, “I want to be just like that!” When Idol Gives Back, I’d like them to send Hung out to Africa and see if all the kids are willing to hold William Hung dolls, like they did for Carrie Underwood. It’s doubtful.

The movie front is really no better for positive Asian male role models. Even in martial arts films – the hallowed ground of Asians – the Asian male is still boxed in by social mores. Take Jet Li for example. Here he is in three American films, playing a badass, kicking ass, taking names and saving the female lead. In Kiss of the Dragon he saves the beautiful Bridgette Fonda and her daughter from a life of drugs and street-walking, but in the end, they’re just friends. She doesn’t even offer to turn a free trick for him.

In Unleashed, arguably Li’s best dramatic performance, there’s zero sexual tension between him and the spunky Kerry Condon. In fact, Li’s character, Danny, seems deathly afraid of intimate contact with her.

Finally, there’s Romeo Must Die, where Li acted opposite of the late Aaliyah. Here, expectations ran high for an Asian-African romance in the end. The bad guys even taunt Li’s Han Sing about “not getting into her panties.” Furthermore, it seemed likely Sing would get his sexual reward because Aaliyah was a fellow discriminated minority. Alas, all Sing gets at the end is a hug. It made me think of a big sister hugging her younger brother at a funeral.

Now, replace Jet Li with Jason Statham in any of those roles and you tell me if he isn’t taking all three to the boneyard at some point in each of the films.

Basically, Asians in America still aren’t viewed as normal people by the entertainment industry. As such, they don’t know how to define us or represent us, so they attach stereotypes to everything we do. Do you remember that shaving commercial a few years back? It had an Asian guy shaving and I remember thinking, “Hey! That’s pretty normal!” Then suddenly some ninja-dudes bust into the commercial and the Asian guy has to karate-fight them off. I wish I could find the video, because it’s hilarious. Also, I can’t be sure, but I don’t think it has the ubiquitous beautiful White woman stroking his freshly shaven smooth face at the end, but I think we’ve all come to expect that at this point.

You stay classy, Spain.

You stay classy, Spain.

So what’s the answer here? I don’t think there’s a realistic or practical one. See, I don’t think the entertainment industry is excluding/replacing/stereotyping Asians out of some racist agenda. Entertainment is a business. I’m sure they’d exploit Asians if they brought in the ratings or the box office sales. As it is, America isn’t interested in the Asian-American experience. The unrealistic solution is for people to make a concerted effort to boycott films and shows that misrepresent Asians and actively and financially support positive Asian productions. I don’t think that’s going to happen since there’s no reason for non-Asians to care and I think most Asians are too wrapped up in assimilating to want to make waves.

I guess scenes like this from the excellent film Full Metal Jacket will have to be our standard-bearers for a while longer: