Vincent Ann 「Navigating Asian Masculinity Images and Stereotypes」

Posted on January 26, 2016
The opening scene of the iconic movie 「Breakfast at Tiffany」’s shows actor Mickey Rooney playing the role of the bumbling landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. In his character, a painful caricature of an Asian man is brought to life. Rooney wears a protruding buck-toothed mouthpiece, has artificially slanted (read: taped) eyes, and wears “yellowface” makeup. Mr. Yunioshi is heavily accented, foreign, perverted yet sexually impotent, and nerdy. He stumbles all over his apartment – squinting, making incomprehensible grunts, running into furniture – and is patronized and talked down to by the other characters throughout the movie. I can’t help but wince when I realize that this character helped shape stereotypes and images of Asian men for an entire generation.

Perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that racist depictions of Asians are still prevalent in today’s film and media, albeit in less offensive forms. Hollywood still consistently typecasts Asian-American men into one-dimensional roles – heavily accented foreigners, evil Oriental villains, awkward nerds, asexual sources of comic relief, and so on – that often emasculate and desexualize them. And when Asian actors won’t conform to these stereotypes, they are often denied roles altogether.

I wanted to see how these images and stereotypes have influenced my Asian – American peers, so I interviewed ten Asian – American men and ten Asian-American women at Wash U and asked them about their experiences with masculinity. From the men, I wanted to know how negative racial images and stereotypes have impacted their security in their masculinity, and from the women, how these stereotypes have affected their perceptions of Asian-American masculinity.

What Does It Mean to Be a Man?
To understand Asian-American men’s experiences with masculinity, we first have to understand the mainstream definition of masculinity. This is what society – through media, expectations, and stereotypes – has told us about what “being a man” means. This conception says that “men” are strong, confident, assertive, tough, muscular, physically attractive, emotionally reserved, and adept at interacting with women. These expectations are strongly perpetuated in outlets like action films, sports culture, and beer and cologne commercials.

When I asked the sample of Asian-Americans at Wash U how the expectations and stereotypes differed for Asian-American men, both the men and women picked up on several key stereotypes. First, that Asian-American men are expected to be more “quiet, timid, and passive” than other men and “won’t stand up for themselves.” Second, that Asian-American men are stereotyped to be short and skinny rather than to fit hegemonic expectations of being built and muscular. Third, that Asian- American men “lack confidence” and are of the “awkward, nerdy, study type.” Finally, they noted that Asian-American men “lack game” in the realm of dating and may even be stereotyped as unattractive and unromantic. “Asian men are told they’re not sexual creatures, said one respondent. “They can be smart, intelligent, [and] good at martial arts... but no movies ever portray us in a romantic or sexual light.” The strength of these stereotypes led another respondent to ask, “Is there even an expectation for Asian men to be masculine?”

We have to understand that degrading media images are not solely to blame for these stereotypes. From early laws that forbade Asians from marrying whites, to race riots, and to the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, America has had a long history of white hostility, discriminatory legal practices, violence, and negative attitudes towards Asian-Americans. Images in media have simply reflected, and continue to reflect, some of the lasting impacts of these attitudes.

Breaking Out of the Box
The stereotypes for Asian-American men affected respondents to varying degrees, but all respondents said that they have experienced some kind of distress from negotiating these stereotypes, either currently or at some point in the past. One respondent explained how stereotypes impacted his self-image: “One large insecurity is that I’m a small dude. I’m like 5’5”, 5’6”. It’s funny because no one else seems to notice I’m short, just me. But it’s definitely something I’ve internalized because of the stereotype of Asian men being weaker and less built.”

Interviewees cope with negative stereotypes, and the stress from those stereotypes, in different ways. One respondent mentioned how he avoided other Asian-Americans to avoid being typecast: “I don’t like the stereotypes for Asian men so I try to avoid Asian people.” Other respondents seemed to confirm this: “I know a lot of people who consciously or subconsciously avoid being heavily involved with other Asians for fear of being grouped into them and being written off as a ‘stereotypical Asian.’”

Other interviewees negotiated stereotypes by making active efforts to “perform” their identity differently. For example, many men talked about trying to break the stereotype of being quiet and timid: “Sometimes, I just feel like I’m trying way too hard by acting really boisterous and acting hard. Sometimes it’s a joke, but there are times where I act really hard when I know I’m soft as fuck.” In this sense, respondents are aware that they sometimes “put on an act” where they may try to be more outgoing or confident in order to distance themselves from stereotypes.

Interestingly, it is unclear how effective these “acts” are. Interviews with Asian-American women illustrated the difficulty of breaking stereotypes. One female interviewee said, “When I see an Asian guy who is very confident 19 and very masculine, I wouldn’t say he’s being himself. I would say he’s confident and masculine because he’s whitewashed. I guess I subconsciously make the connection that being confident means being white.” This presents a troubling catch-22 where no matter what Asian-American men do, they cannot be seen as masculine. Other female respondents seemed to share this sentiment: “I think the thing about stereotypes is when you fit the stereotype, you reinforce it; but when you don’t, you’re seen as the exception.”

Altogether, the male respondents experienced significant amounts of distress and insecurity in their masculinity because of the negative stereotypes associated with Asian- Americans, although the degree of distress and insecurity varied. However, it is important to emphasize that I interviewed several individuals who were very comfortable and secure in their masculinity. They tended to judge their masculinity internally and cared little for others’ perceptions of them. One respondent articulated this well: “Honestly, I don’t care if I meet the societal expectations. As long as I fit what I think a man should be. Some of the criteria society has put on us... we don’t have to buy into it. Like the idea of being soft-spoken. I think you can definitely still be soft-spoken and masculine as long as you’re comfortable in who you are.” However, this level of comfort in one’s masculinity, while encouraging, was not characteristic of the majority of my respondents.

Moving Forward
At the end of every interview, I asked respondents what they thought members of the Wash U Asian-American community could do to help Asian-American men feel more secure in their masculinity. Some expressed confusion, others helplessness, because of the strength of existing stereotypes. Still others said that one’s self-conception of masculinity is an internal affair that needs to be worked out individually. I am inclined to reject this latter statement because it is clear, through existing literature and my interviews, that societal expectations and stereotypes have tangible effects on the identity, self-esteem, and psychological health of members of society; consequently, everyone should actively dispel negative expectations of masculinity. The consequences also extend beyond the psychological – recent studies have shown that “dominant” East Asians are “unwelcome and unwanted” in the workplace while “meek” East Asians are received favorably. Some respondents even alluded to this idea playing out in group work and extracurricular groups at Wash U. This unwillingness to accept Asian-American men who deviate from racial stereotypes creates a “bamboo ceiling,” often preventing Asian-American men from climbing workplace ladders.

I don’t know how to tackle this issue. It is clear that much of the problem comes from a lack of visibility and limiting roles in Hollywood and media. Currently, Asian-Americans occupy less than three percent of roles in film, television, and commercials – the lowest of any panethnic group. Furthermore, within film, television, and commercials, only 1.7 percent of lead actors are Asian-Americans. This means that the vast majority of Asian-Americans are playing minor or secondary roles, where they most likely are being asked to play stereotyped, one-dimensional characters.

This not only perpetuates existing stereotypes, but also can make Asian-Americans feel foreign in their own country. We all desire to see ourselves in film and media. We long to see ourselves portrayed in real and human ways, to see ourselves as sensitive and nuanced, as protagonists and as heroes. I am happy to say that shows like ABC Family’s 「Fresh Off the Boat」 and Fox’s 「The Mindy Project」 are helping to break down some of these barriers by casting Asian-Americans in expansive and varied lights. Another part of the problem seems to come from a societal definition of masculinity that is unnecessarily limiting. Surely, men can still be “men” even if they don’t fit expectations of being loud, confident, womanizing, and muscular. Surely, “men” should be allowed to be weak sometimes, quiet, have different body types, or be attracted to other men.

Again, I don’t know how to tackle the issue, nor do I think there’s an easy solution. But, I believe acknowledging the problem and starting conversations within our peer groups is a start. These conversations may be difficult. It’s not easy to talk about masculinity and it’s not easy to talk about insecurity. But it is clear that negative racial stereotypes are affecting Asian- American men and should be broken down. Hopefully, through dialogue, we can begin to do this, and also begin creating a more fluid definition of masculinity that is more accepting of different ethnic groups and characteristics.

Note: I used the term “Asian-American” loosely in this article, but Asian-Americans as a panethnic group are not a monolith and have diverse experiences. In this article, I only interviewed East Asians, who tend to experience different stereotypes of masculinity than, for example, South Asians. Also, this article focuses on conceptions of heterosexual masculinity and cannot be generalized to the experiences of gay Asian-American men, who experience different stereotypes and expectations.

Author: Vincent Ann/Date: January 16, 2016/Source: