The Last Racebender

I am a Filipino-American born from 1st Generation immigrants.  I fully support the progressive inclusion of Asian-American actors in American Media.  However, the lack of Asians in mainstream television/film/music is not because the creators of these projects are racist.

This is not about race for them.

It’s all about money

Try to think of one American-made commercially successful film that featured an Asian-American protagonist without any obvious stereotypes.  Can’t think of any?  Do they all do Kung Fu?    That’s because there are almost none made in the US.  The predominant example that comes to mind is Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.  The creators of this comedy were very conscious about the tropes they were playing with in having two Asian actors playing male leads.  A central theme of the movie is how the Asian-American protagonists come to terms with their heritage while retaining their unique Asian-American identities.

We need an Asian Superhero

Why do we have so many superhero movies these days?

Spider-man.

In 2002 Sam Raimi’s Spider-man showed the world the amazing potential of the comic book superhero movie.  Ever since then every comic book superhero movie has attempted to live up to that original level of groundbreaking success. There simply has not been a breakout movie like that with Asian-American actors playing a central role.  If movie producers saw an example of a film featuring Asian-Americans they would try to replicate the formula because the formula was proven.  And proven formulas make money.

Executive Producers of films have a responsibility to get a return on investment for a movie studio and movie studios are much less likely to invest millions of dollars into a project knowing that it has an inherent risk.

Are Asian men attractive to an American audience?

I am of the opinion that the typical image of an Asian male is not considered attractive to a broader American audience.  There is plenty of history regarding this issue.  I am not here to judge the fairness or rhyme or reason for Asian males perceived attractiveness, but to comment on the ramifications of this perceived level of attractiveness for Asian men in film.

Daniel Henney, Tae Yang, John Cho, and Daniel Dae Kim, these are some of the most famous, attractive Asian male celebrities I can think of.  But do they hold a candle to Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Ryan Gosling?  I obviously can’t speak for American women in general but I would guess that the majority of women in the United States would pick the three white guys over the three Asian guys and the minority that would pick the Asian guys is made up of predominantly Asian women. Is this because the default standard of beauty in America is white?  Has the media shaped our perception of beauty to favor white standards of beauty or is it merely a reflection of a collective societal subconscious?

In this list of 2011 romantic comedies there are ten couples that are composed of predominantly white people with the exceptions of Rosario Dawson, Mila Kunis, and Adam Sandler (unless you can call Jewish people white?).  Actresses such as Rosario Dawson and Halle Barry have an appeal that transcends race.  Their identities do not revolve around their identities as black, African-American, Puerto Rican etc. and because of that they are considered suitable for a wider variety of roles. So what is the solution?  Cast a female Asian American actress to star with Ryan Reynolds in a romantic comedy?  No dice.  A Yoko-John relationship, as it was called by the premiere Filipino comedian Rex Navarette, tends to bring about feelings of imperialism by the “white man” and Asian women are more broadly recognized as attractive by a wider variety of ethnic groups than Asian men are.  Not to mention the problematic phenomenon of “Yellow Fever” in which men (often white) fetishize Asian women and vice versa; famously mockumented in Wong  Fu’sYellow Fever.”

And don’t even get me started on the feminizing gender-bending that goes on in Japanese Rock music.

We need an Asian-American actor that appeals to a wide demographic to star in a feature film that gains critical acclaim, wins prestigious awards, or is a blockbuster hit.  Is this possible?  Can an American audience embrace an Asian American actor so wholly without subjecting him/her to stereotypes?

Asian-Americans need our own Sydney Portier

Image

Sydney Portier was the first black (Bahaman) actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.  In 1967 Portier starred in three films that were well received and made him the top box office star of that year.  The success of Sydney Portier paved the way for the success of Denzel Washingtons and Will Smiths.  How did he do it?  Why was he so successful?

He was too good to be ignored.

His movies were too successful.  His performances were too heartfelt.  The films he was in addressed the issues of race but placed him in a role of a good-natured everyman.  Not a paragon.  Not a stereotype.  He was just a character that an audience could relate to. The only way Asians or any underrepresented minority group in the United States will be better represented in the media is by doing whatever it is they want to do and simply doing it better than anyone else.  If that means that an Asian American actor has to be more attractive or funnier or more relatable than their competition (white or otherwise) then that is what needs to happen.

I appreciate the efforts of the people at racebending.org, the group most often identified as representing the movement for further inclusion of Asian Americans and other minorities in media.  However they are a group which protests and I am of the belief that creation is the best form of protest.

Chicken and the Egg

Asian-Americans are caught in a catch-22.  Asian-Americans want the opportunity to prove that they can play leading roles in financially successful films (without resorting to tired stereotypes).  Film producers want an example of a financially successful movie with leading-role Asian-Americans before they would cast Asian-Americans in a leading-role (without stereotypes).

The solution?

Asian Americans and everyone else that supports diversity need to come together to create movies and television that are so good that they cannot be ignored.

Other Sources (Link Crawl):

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/34246559/ns/today-entertainment/t/history-african-americans-film/#.TrwlKkOXunA

http://www.npr.org/2011/07/05/137631005/looking-at-the-bamboo-ceilling http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Poitier http://www.cracked.com/article_19549_5-old-timey-prejudices-that-still-show-up-in-every-movie.html

http://youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily.com/psychology-today%E2%80%99s-ugly-black-women-asian-guys-jungle-fever-time/

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