There is an issue that is haunting Asian America.
It’s a topic that is only talked about in whispers behind closed doors, safely out of the earshot of children. This problem entails a seemingly innocent concern that raises more disturbing questions. It involves a phenomenon that is more rare than Big Foot or Loch Ness Monster sightings. And it relates to that bête noire of Asian American cultural politics—interracial dating. I am talking about why there aren’t more Asian American couples depicted in mainstream film or television.
When is the last time that you saw a screen kiss between two Asian people, let alone a romantic relationship? You could probably count on one hand the number of Asian couples on network TV, and find even fewer in Hollywood movies—whether that be straight, bisexual, or gay. For Hollywood, you might have to go back to the 1961 musical Flower Drum Song to find a full-fledged Asian American romance.
In other words, where’s the love?
More often than not, when an Asian person is romantically portrayed by the entertainment industry, it’s usually an Asian female paired with a White male. This type of couple is almost a stock formula whenever Hollywood wants to include a dash of non-threatening diversity to its casting. Asian women are considered more “acceptable” (and maybe safer) than Asian men for mainstream media representation. Guy Aoki, head of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) comments, “I think that media image-makers are always more comfortable with Asian females than Asian men…. Seventy percent of TV shows in prime time are written by white males, and 80 percent of motion pictures.”
Writing about the rise of Asian actresses in her article, “There’s something about Lucy,” Michelle Chihara notes, “Hollywood simply never pairs Asian American women with Asian American men. In fact, the Asian babe explosion is made all the more noticeable by the glaring lack of Asian leading men—or at least leading men who do not karate-chop bad guys.”
At base, the stereotypical WM/AF pairing does not challenge White power and patriarchy. Instead, it reinforces this power—but with a harmless veneer of diversity. Even on the fairly rare occasion that you see an Asian male romantic lead in the media, he is usually hooked up with a White or other non-Asian woman. For instance, John Cho, one of the more famous Asian American actors today, was paired with Latina actress Paula Garcés in his best known film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and with Gabrielle Union (who is African American) in the TV series Flash Forward. Compare this situation to the representation of White, Black, or Latino couples. This kind of curious racial dynamic isn’t present.
Some people will say it’s no big deal. It’s just entertainment. Or it’s the free market simply giving audiences what they want to see. It is politically incorrect even to raise these issues of race and representation. After all, we live in the age of Barack Obama and post-racial America. And love is colorblind.
Not exactly. The media not only reflects how race operates in American society but also molds racial experience in the first place. This is true from public policy to the most personal of issues like sexuality. As the saying goes, the personal is political. For Asian Americans, the reality of White media racism is ever present. It’s like breathing or sleeping. It’s normalized, unquestioned, and a part of everyday life–available at the click of your remote control. Some people alibi for these media representations. Others uncritically embrace and promote them. And a few people even question them. An example of the latter is University of California-Davis professor Darrell Hamamoto, who has employed “creative” ways to explore these issues.
As Harry Mok’s article “Yellow Porn” suggests, “Hamamoto wants to start a discussion about Asian American sexuality, which he says has been damaged by years of colonialism and racism that has turned Asian women into a sexual fetish and Asian men into eunuchs. Asian Americans have internalized these attitudes, Hamamoto says, causing a rift between the genders and perpetuating the stereotypes.”
Nowhere is this rift greater than in the hot button topic of interracial dating, which often generates division between men and women in the Asian American community.
As Michelle Chihara writes, “It’s a commonplace in the Asian community that white men date Asian women far more often than Asian men date white women. Statistics show that Asian American women are twice as likely to marry outside the race as Asian-American men. [Guy] Aoki sees a direct link between that and what we see at the movies. “I’m not against interracial dating,” he says. “But when you get one message, and one message alone, it has an effect.”
Indeed, Hamamoto’s own work in Asian American studies revealed a troubling discovery: many “Asian Americans of both genders didn’t view each other as sexual beings.” This finding eventually inspired his unique method for addressing this topic: a porn film. For Hamamoto, the persistent stereotyping of Asians by mainstream society is most explicitly played out in the world of straight pornography, where the pervasive presence of Asian female performers contrasts with the virtual absence of Asian male counterparts. Hamamoto’s response was to produce a porn film featuring Asian male and female leads. Titled “Skin to Skin,” the movie generated notoriety not only in the Asian American community but also nationally from snickering comedians and news outlets alike. But the point of the film was simple: to depict an Asian American (hetero)sexual love rarely found in the US media.
Controversial? Yes. Provocative? Even more so. But more importantly, it demonstrated how sexuality, race, and representation involve a nexus of issues impacting how we Asian Americans perceive ourselves at the most intimate of levels. Sexuality is not just about sex. And a kiss is not just a kiss.