Asian American Portrayals in Mainstream Media

Drawing from Stuart Hall’s essay on “Racist Ideologies and the Media”, it is important to first understand from a sociological standpoint that hegemonic ideology in media emerges from the way power relations have been historically constructed before seeing how alternative media responds to hegemony.  Media’s “imagery and themes are polarized around fixed relations of subordination and domination,” which has stemmed from historical relations such as colonization, and in turn, legitimizes white superiority and non-white inferiority in popular culture (Hall, 274). Within this historical and cultural framework, the dominance of white superiority in mainstream media has and continues to subjugate and stereotype Asians and Asian Americans. In order to understand how alternative media responds and challenges hegemonic ideology, we have to first establish what is being said in mainstream media.

Historically, Asians have been constructed as a homogeneous group of “Orientals” and following stereotypes have permeated many media formats: “yellow peril,” “model minority,” and gendered divisions such as “dragon lady” and “lotus blossom/Madame Butterfly” for women and either “emasculated/undesirable” and “born martial artists” for men. Many of these stereotypical portrayals came to existence during the mass exodus of Asian immigrants starting in the mid-19th century (“deviant” and “pollutant”) and the turn of the 20th century (“yellow peril”). While these are all important in the field of studying Asian and Asian American representations, I will draw attention to gender stereotypes and “model minority”, for being one of the more recent identification codes.

Lotus Blossom or Dragon Lady versus Kung-Fu Master or Unattractive Nerd

Anna May Wong depicting Asian women stereotypes

Starting with gender representations, gender and cultural scholar Laura Kang has followed historical anthropology and dominant mainstream culture, marking how the West has imagined and constructed Asian and Asian American women and men to be polar opposites. Dominant culture has portrayed Asian American women in two contrasting portraits: “the dialectic of the virgin and the whore” (Kent, Ono; 66). On one side, we have the Lotus Blossom and Madame Butterfly stereotypes (the virgin), a notion that emphasizes women’s chastity, perpetual sexual availability and lack of power, as desirability for the heterosexual male’s control and possession. On the other side is the Dragon Lady (the whore). She is considered to be a dark force, deceiving and conniving, and utilizes her sexuality to gain means for her advantage (or for the advantage of whom she works for). Ultimately, the way Asian women are constructed through Western media eroticses their race and culture, legitimizing white male power.


From Asian American Webcomics

For Asian and Asian American men, if they are not seen as threats such as gangsters or martial art foes, then they are emasculated down to “asexual, geeky computer nerd,” and ordinarily, as physically unattractive types (Kent, Ono; 71). Following colonial logic, the dominant culture “constructs them as desexualized”, a 180-degree reversal of their female counterparts, marking them as less powerful and inferior to other men. Here, the Asian American male identity’s role is to also bolster and reaffirm the white male image over all other minority masculinities.

It is important to know what sort of gender roles have been outlined as prototypes for Asian American identity and see how such images are being represented in alternative media in contrast. When we look to alternative media to challenge dominant imagery of Asian Americans, we are stepping away from any parallel structuring to the hegemonic and a restructuring that encourages, appreciates, and celebrates “a multiplicity of racial, gendered, sexual, and classes identities” in Asian American men and women (ibid, 73).

Model Minority

The term, “model minority” was first coined in the 1960s to refer to Asian Americans who are racially exceptional in academic and economic success. While the characterization described Asian Americans as immigrants overcoming obstacles on the road to success, “model minority discourse drove a political wedge between racially disadvantaged groups and undermined legitimate struggles, activism, and legislation for social justice” (ibid, 80). Model minority insinuated Asians to be quiet, hardworking individuals who stay out of trouble rather than take on the responsibility for change. “The model minority stereotype has been criticized by Asian American scholars because of its political implications and also because it does not tell a story that resonates with the lived realities of Asian American” (Kawai, 111). This public discourse assumes that Asians are all capable of receiving high education, adopting successful careers/high employment, and experiencing little social and mental problems. The term not only pitted Asian Americans against African Americans but also Caucasian Americans as well. “As early as in 1971, Newsweek published an article titled ‘Success Story: Outwhiting the White’ in which it was argued that Japanese Americans ‘on nearly all levels of conventional success…not only have outshone their minority groups but…have the whites’” (Kawai, 116). On one hand, Asian Americans are stereotyped as “racially superior” to one group, placing African Americans in a further discriminated-against position. On the other hand, model minority reinforced the divide between Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans, upsetting the predominance of White superiority and hegemony.

The model minority representation shows mainstream media’s way of responding to the protests for civil rights, educational equality, and social justice in the 60s. Model minority is a double-edged sword; it appears to complement Asian Americans on their success and achievements but simultaneously constructs them as threats to hegemonic ideologies and the status quo. In addition, model minority racial stereotyping has affected Asian families and communities, sometimes setting unreasonably high expectations of its youth (Zhou, Lee; 15-16). The result ends in pitting Asian American youth and adults against each other in high-pressure competition for top marks, top careers (often in science or mathematic fields), and grow up to have a successful, unnervingly perfect marriage/family life and nonexistent mental disorder or problems (Sue, Sue; 17-18).

Now that we have established what kind of gendered misrepresentations and stereotypes masquerading as flattery exist, we can look at how outside spaces such as alternative media challenge and critique them.

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