In 2012, a study examined the correlation between TV watching and self esteem in children, and came up with some not-so-surprising results: white boys who watched television had higher self esteem, while white girls, black girls, and black boys who watched television had lower self esteem. Both lack of representation and associations with undesirable behavior contributed to the low esteem outcomes, while, on the other hand, white male characters were far more often associated with strength, logic, and accomplishment, as well as a more varied set of character traits.
A less scientific study decided to tackle the question of representation more broadly: What would the U.S. look like if it mirrored the main characters on prime-time TV? Well, for starters, an estimated 57% of the population would be men. Accordingly, white men would make up more of this hypothetical population than white women (50% compared to 34%) as would black men than black women (5% compared to 3.8%). However, there would be fewer Latino and Asian men than women – 1.9% compared to 3.8%. In fact, this television-based US population would have just as many supernatural creatures or robots as Latino and Asian men.
Considering these reports together, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised last year when my then 11-year-old brother told me that the reason why he wasn’t cool – and why he would never be popular – was simply because he was Asian.
As an Asian girl, I had been vaguely aware of my own worries about coming off as too nerdy or boring or unremarkable, especially as I tried to make my hardworking immigrant parents proud. (Apparently, these worries are common enough among the Asian American community to warrant a wikiHow on “How to Be Cool When You’re Asian.”) However, I hadn’t considered the unique challenges facing Asian American boys and men specifically, of which I quickly realized there are plenty. It’s pretty apparent that “yellow fever,” for example, seems to largely address attraction and often “exoticization” of women only. Accordingly, many acknowledge the significant disparity between rates of interracial relationships involving Asian women versus Asian men. Further searching turned up articles with titles like, “Are Asian Men Undateable?”, “Asian-American Men: Hunks of Burning Love or Wimps With Small Wieners?” and “Where’s the Cool Asian Americans At?” Even more poignant were personal accounts entitled, “How I Learned to Feel Undesirable” and “Big Little Man.”
Members of the Asian American male community are usually aware of their lack of strong public role models, a present reality fueled by over 150 years of silent Asian American history. As Alex Tizon writes in Big Little Man, “They were invisible in the high-testosterone arenas of politics, big business and sports. On television and in the movies, they were worse than invisible. They were embarrassing. We were embarrassing.” But most alarming is the fact that Tizon’s reflections on growing up decades ago continue to ring true today. I still get so, so excited when I see a single fleeting male Asian face on the big screen during movie previews (The Maze Runner!) or even during a crowd scene – surely a sign that things are changing! But I am disappointed when I realize, after two decades of growing up in this country, the incidence of Asian American male role models simply hasn’t grown with me. Instead, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, John Cho, and Jeremy Lin have all seemingly had their peak time in the limelight – with no more than one notably famous Asian American man at a time (and none that come to mind right now). Their exceptionalism is emphasized by various weak Asian American male characters, from Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, to the goofy Leslie Chow from The Hangover, to the silent dancer Mike Chang in Glee. And let’s not forget the equal parts perplexing and embarrassing casting of a white male as lead in the Avatar: The Last Airbender film, keeping in line with films like The Good Earth (1937) and 21 (2008) in the tradition of shameless white-washing. There is undeniable inertia here.
The lack of strong high-profile characters further validates current societal expectations toward Asian males. While issues in and abuses of African-American male representation contribute to expectations of athleticism, violence, and irrational behavior, the tokenism of Asian-American male representation (in other words, the continued perception of strong Asian-American male characters as exceptions) contributes to expectations of studious and boring behavior and invisibility. As most are aware, this is a challenge that white men simply do not encounter, as there is no overbearing stereotype for white men.
Even though he had grown up playing basketball with our neighbor, who was arguably the best in their grade, my brother didn’t expect to have a shot at a spot on the basketball team because he didn’t expect the coaches to take him seriously. And they probably didn’t. Their inherent bias about how a basketball player should look probably prevented them from noticing my brother much at all – unless he played spectacularly.
It’s not hard to imagine a fork in the road for Asian American boys that gives two stark paths to success: fulfill the mold or try to break it. Both result in overcompensating and building a false sense of superiority. Consider the superiority complex of the Asian guy who rests on his academic laurels and gaming prowess, in a bubble of like-minded peers who look like him, proud of their embodiment of traits expected within their subculture. Consider also the superiority complex of the only Asian guy on his high school football team, proud of his “escape” from peers who look like scrawnier versions of him. Both deny the realization of “okay, what do I really want to do?” and “who am I?”, replacing them with identities heavily defined by the societal structures around their gender and race.
Beyond grappling with identity and confidence in adolescence, the congregate effects of representation and expectations translate into pigeonholing the career track and long-term opportunities for Asian American males from childhood, resulting in the so-called “bamboo ceiling,” a specific version of the glass ceiling concept. The US Department of Labor reports that in 2010, 16.1% of employees in computer and mathematical occupations were Asian, despite their comprising about 5% of the national population. And even within industries known to employ many Asian men, very few appear in leadership roles. I fear that what emerges as self esteem problems in childhood is evolving into sustaining the current paradigm for who and what an Asian American man is supposed to be. Even after my brother and other Asian American boys grow into men, I fear that this country will continue to expect to use them primarily for the mechanical productivity of their brains, and they will continue to have these same expectations for themselves.
But there are promising hints at change from alternate routes. In the world of animated film, Up portrayed a (supposedly) Asian boy in 2009, and, more recently, Big Hero 6 did so as well. The low budget 2013 film A Leading Man directly addressed the frustrations of an Asian man landing respectable acting roles, though unfortunately it was not widely publicized. Viral success in the past decade of male Asian Youtubers, including comedians, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers, has constructed a veritable mini-media with millions of fans. Yet it’s no surprise that all of these efforts were borne out of California and Hawaii, boasting the highest percentages of Asian American populations: 14.9 and 57.4, respectively. So though the credibility and acceptance of Asian American men in mainstream media is still not on the public’s radar – especially as the reception of Fresh Off the Boat is still mixed from Asian and non-Asian perspectives alike – continued efforts from the most concentrated and diverse pockets currently do have promise in reminding the rest of Asian America of its importance.
With transformation of representation comes transformation of the limiting rhetoric surrounding the Asian American boy. My hope then is that the force of the many smaller efforts will overtake the backward mainstream trends, knocking down hindrances of mobility and opportunity. Someday soon, this country will know to notice and value not only the brains, but also the voices, strength, personalities, diversity – and maybe even coolness – of the American men that my brother and his generation will become.