Isn't He Lovely: Fear and Loathing of Asian American Male Sexuality

Cristen Conger
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Gene Wantanabe as Long Duk Dong, hanging upside down in John Hughes' Sixteen Candles.This is the first of two related posts.

As a white, heterosexual female, my experience is very different from that of Asian American males. Aside from gender and political ideologies and, say, being left-handed, I'm rarely a part of any minority group. So when I decided to write about the Western stereotype of the emasculated Asian American male, I understood going into the topic that this would be an exercise in imparting while learning—and that I needed an expert guide. I therefore turned to Amy Sueyoshi, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University.

When I called up Sueyoshi to chat about the "cultural castration" of Asian American men, historically cast as impotent nerds, lacking virility and sex appeal (or played derisively by white men, a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's), her insight quickly reminded me that explanations for How Things Came to Be are far more complex than the kneejerk responses and belief systems they manufacture over time. Because that's what these gender- and ethnicity-based stereotypes are—prefab constructs that we erect, brick by brick, bound together with a mortar of fear and discrimination.

"Discussions of race are almost always inflected with meaning of gender and sexuality," Sueyoshi said. "Frequently, when we talk about sex, it's about moral anxieties about race as well as gender, and it's all built in."

And in the case of Asian American men, those moral anxieties didn't always manifest in modern pop culture stereotypes of the slapstick eunuchs like Gedde Watanabe's Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Although Europeans and Americans have associated the East with the feminine for roughly 400 years, an association that has fetishized Asian women and asexualized Asian men, it hasn't always been like that. Sueyoshi says, "there are moments in U.S. history when Asian American men are actually seen as sexually super scary and predatory."

She continued:

…in the 1860s, Chinese men were seen as dirty and immoral and potentially people who would seduce white women in opium dens and impregnate them. In the 1930s, Filipino men are seen as having potent sexuality and stealing away all these white women who claim that Filipino men are actually better dancers than white men and better lovers. So, in different turns and different times in history there's been different depictions of Asian American masculinity for sure.

That isn't to equate "different" with "better" in any way, either. Desexualizing and hypersexualizing people based on race is flatly wrong and serves to reinforce outsider status and devalue social roles and contributions. That observation does, however, provide a crucial dimension to grasping the cultural roots of stereotyping, and also makes us wonder how things evolved from fearing the hypersexual to actor and artist David Muru writing in the New York Times about Mike Yanagita, an inept bit character in "Fargo":

"In the movies, as in the culture as a whole, Asian-American men seem to have no sexual clout. Or sexual presence."

And Canadian writer and theorist Richard Fung noting:

"Asian men, however—at least since Sessue Hayakawa, who made a Hollywood career in the 1920s of representing the Asian man as sexual threat —have been consigned to one of two categories: the egghead/wimp, or—in what may be analogous to the lotus blossom-dragon lady dichotomy—the kung fu master/ninja/samurai. He is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism."

I asked Sueyoshi when and why that shift occurred, and it seems it began in earnest in the 1980s, as Bruce Lee's popularity began to wane. Not coincidentally, this also happened as the Japanese economy began to flex its muscles.

"…that's the flip side of the emasculating argument—that in fact, Asian American men aren't seen as weak but as economically potentially powerful. During the '80s when the Japanese car industry was booming and causing all these closures for U.S. car factories, that's when a lot of these nerd representations came out. It might be something to be thinking about."

Where does that leave us today? Sueyoshi thinks Western society may have reached a turning point where the old Asian American male stereotypes are changing, which I'll explore more in the next post.

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15 Comments Have Been Posted

This makes me think of Fear

This makes me think of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. She's married to an Asian American therapist and is having an affair with a white man, and sometimes it seems like the power she loses in the relationship with the white man, she turns around and tries to assert over the Asian man (cheating on him, calling him names, etc.). Even though women generally have less power than men, when race comes into play white women often have power over minority men. Just an interesting thought.

I'm curious why you have

I'm curious why you have taken an interest in this topic. I'm a Euro-American woman married to a Korean man, and he talks about this topic all the time. What sparked your posts?

When I started this guest

When I started this guest blogging series, I wanted to cover the beauty/body/sexuality standards and experiences beyond the white mainstream. I'm not an expert in the area, particularly as it pertains to Asian American men, and I wanted to know more about it. That's why I called up Sueyoshi who really piqued my interest to dive even deeper into the it.

I love the inner-workings of

I love the inner-workings of the Conger mind :)

I think this perception is

I think this perception is changing somewhat. I mean look at hawties like John Cho. Andy Lau and Tony Leung really changed this perspective through many of their films that have become hits stateside. And Chow Yun Fat was a bit of a sex symbol in the 90's. And with tons of kids online watching the Korean Wave dramas for free they are getting to know the likes of Hyun Bin and others.

I mean if we keep talking like it is still the eighties and that the west is fixated on feminizing eastern men as a stated fact, then it becomes an almost self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's still worth talking about...

...especially if you listen to Asian American men talk about this. That's what struck me most about the research I did and what compelled me to write about it. Do I personally perceive Asian American men as desexualized, stuck in a John Hughes script? Of course not, but I don't comprise the entire mainstream.

Check out this roundtable discussion and accompanying commentary over at Racialicious : Good stuff!

Asian Men in Hollywood

It kind of still is the 80's in many parts of the Western world, can definitely see that in Hollywood and I think while the straight-up stereotyping of the "Asian nerd" might not be as prevalent due to political correctness, the fact is that Asian men, or most non-white men for that matter, are not getting the same roles as white men. Why? Because they don't have get the same fiscal numbers. Now, maybe someone needs to take a risk and cast an Asian man in a role wherein he is marketed to the larger movie going audience (i.e. predominantly non-Asians), but "IN THIS ECONOMY" studios are not taking risks such as this.

It's enough of a gamble to cast a nobody in a role, although, as Ryan Gosling points out, he was a kind of nontraditional-looking nobody (albeit a white one, but I'm talking baby steps here) before he got cast in The Notebook and now he is a huge sex symbol: "I'm not that good looking. I think I'm a pretty weird-looking guy. Every role I got up until The Notebook was the weirdo, freak, psychopath, nerd, outsider character guy. Maybe things have changed a little bit." This is coming from a pretty attractive white man who even had to overcome something, even if it was just the fact that he didn't look like Brad Pitt (I also want to point out that I'm pretty sure Ryan Gosling has had a nose job). Could and should "risky" casting choices be done with a wider variety of men? Would it work? It COULD work. And it SHOULD work. But as it stands, it is a financial "risk."

But we are talking Hollywood, not just social mores. Hollywood mores is a beast unto its self, because the money guys spend a lot of time thinking not just about what could work or what should work, but what has been guaranteed to work in the past. It is a classic case of men making and selling things based on what they THINK women will want or will not want.

This presents a larger issue: women (and all consumers) often want what they want because it has been presented to them in an appealing way, which is to say, since women have not been presented recently or widely (I'm talking big box office) with sexy Asian males on screen, they do not demand sexy Asian males on screen. As it stands, the market is not large enough--but it COULD be. I think a large number of white and non-Asian women perhaps just don't know that they could think Asian men are as sexy as non-Asian men--yet anyways. I definitely think this could change, perhaps especially as the Western and/or white world begins to hold less power and dominance.

That last fact is why it IS a

That last fact is why it IS a bit like the 80''s a similar economic time, and when the status of the white western world is being threatened as it is, you are not likely to see non-whites celebrated cinematically.

Am I missing something?

I grew up in the 80's and became an adult in the 90's. While I have seen these stereotypes portrayed on large screens and small, I (a white, hetero, cis-gendered female - so I know my limits on this subject) always saw them as a joke. Much like Mel Brooks-esque portrayals of multiple minorities. Certainly not to be taken seriously or given any kind of credibility in terms of shaping my worldview.

Maybe I'm the product of being brought up in a very middle-class area that is also fantastically racially mixed (local Air Force Base guaranteed this), but despite all kinds of pop-culture references and influences, I've never perceived a particular race/culture as either "neutered" or "a threat". I am and always have been attracted to people of pretty much every race that has crossed my path, Asians most definitely included. My "Big High School Crush" à la 80's movies was an Asian dude who I'm almost positive never knew I existed. HE was in the "in" crowd, while I walked my own fringe path.

I don't deny that these problems exist - my upbringing made me pathetically unprepared for the racism alive and well in the rest of the U.S. - but I'd hate for people to think that this is somehow a universal thing. So I'm sharing my own view: I have never seen Asian males as neutered (or dangerous), and have often found them attractive, much as I have males of ethnicities all across the board. For me, hot is hot, and background is irrelevant. It isn't about "danger" or "power" - financial or physical - it's about what is pleasing to me at a particular moment. Again, I know the limits of my personal perspective, but I feel compelled to share.

You're missing

You're missing everything."Hot is hot" to you because you have the privilege of not having to think about how people of color have been racialized and sexualized. Must be nice.

As I said...

I am well aware of the limits my privilege places on my perspective. I made that clear more than once. And while I don't *have* to think about how people of color have been racialized and sexualized, I do. I also try to not dismiss the perspectives of others merely because they may or may not fall in line with my own, regardless of whether or not I feel they're coming from a place of blind privilege or belligerence. That's just me.

there's a certain amount of

there's a certain amount of naivete around these well-intentioned statements of "i find ___ men attractive" or "i don't see these stereotypes." it's not about personal opinions; it's a highly documented history of politicized constructions of race, sexuality and masculinity that have been so pervasive over centuries that the images of ___ men or women conjure up particular associations even at a subconscious level. that has affected a lot of lives. what ethnic studies and sexuality or gender studies advocates have been trying so hard to do is to get people to think about the issue beyond the microlevel lens of personal experience which is undoubtedly clouded by privilege. and saying "i just don't see it" can easily come off as a dismissal of another's frustrations or struggles even if it is from the standpoint of a supportive "we all don't buy into into these stereotypes" sentiment. knowing that there are others who don't think of Asian men in this way is swell, but unless there's an understanding (outside of an individual's perspective) that these images are purposefully loaded with specific meanings and that people consent (probably unknowingly) to those images and meanings, it does little to address the problem. in fact, it may exacerbate it by taking the equivalent of a "colorblind" stance.



Everyone should read or watch

Everyone should read or watch a performance of David Hwang's 'M. Butterfly.' It makes a lot of thought-provoking points about Western chauvinism/hyper-masculinity compared to the "feminine" East. Lots of observations about Western perceptions of Asian people, their men in particular.

Mike Chang on Glee

I just feel the need to point everyone's attention to the episode of Glee entitled "Asian F." It focused on Mike Chang and his dual pressures to be the most successful in his dad's eyes and to fulfill his dreams of being a star. He has always been a great dancer on Glee, and this episode he started singing (for real). His performance of "Cool" from West Side Story was thrilling (and extremely sexy). Maybe this is worth taking a look at? (sorry about the subtitles, couldn't find any great versions)

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