The Dark History Behind Media’s Portrayal of Asian Men
Steve Harvey, known better as the one who announced the wrong Miss Universe winner and for a daytime television show that covers a variety of topics, is back in the news. Earlier in January 2017, he made a series of comments on his show that disparaged Asian men.
Have a look:
In the video, he’s seen ridiculing Asian men in referencing a few obscure books he found online. For what seems like awkward taste, the camera pans around to show a laughing audience with Harvey keeping the line of joking going. Many media outlets, including the New York Daily News, The Hollywood Reporter, and Fox News have reported on his comments, which have even angered lawmakers around the United States. As far as the backlash is concerned, Harvey is definitely uninterested in walking back his comments or apologizing, instead claiming to be a victim of what he considers to be unjustified anger (UPDATE 1/17/17: Harvey did apologize on his Facebook page.)
Harvey definitely wasn’t the first and he most definitely won’t be the last.
Would he — or any TV personality for that matter, have responded the same had the insults been levied at Caucasian Americans? Hispanic Americans? How about African American men? Probably — but not in this case, because Asian Americans — and men especially, have served as the media’s punching bag for a significant amount of time now.
Since I’m tired of explaining this over and over again to friends and strangers on the Internet why these insults Asians (and Asian men in particular) receive is nothing new and needs to stop happening, I decided that I would finally write out what I know, and invite others to share what they know too.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
Asians didn’t become part of the collective consciousness of American life until the mid-19th century, when many immigrated to the United States to seek the riches promised by the California Gold Rush. As California increased in population, so did immigrants from China who not only were efficient in their work, but also healthier due to their brewing of tea as opposed to disease-laden water that other miners found themselves drinking.
The health issues of the day brought on an immigration problem that draws stark parallels to contemporary issues, characterized by cheap and available labor. Threatened by the importing of “coolies,” Chinese men were subject to the enactment of harmful legislation including that of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first ever piece of legislation passed under President Chester A. Arthur to prevent an ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. Not only did this legislation prevent Chinese nationals from making their way to the United States, it also hamstrung Chinese men currently in the country who couldn’t bring over their wives and families, and did so until the law’s repeal in 1943 through the Magnuson Act.
The societal implications of the Chinese Exclusion Act were wide-ranging. Stripped of their masculinity and torn away from their families, many men found themselves forced to seek other areas of employment, some opting for more femininely-driven professions including restaurant and laundry work. With such an identity, Chinese men had to settle for a much more feminized role, reducing their statuses as males in American society.
But that wasn’t their only issue — Hollywood was growing at the time too, and also had ideas of their own.
The Concurrence of Culture
The 19th Century saw great upheaval in the Asian Pacific Theater. We all recall the story of Matthew Perry — not to be confused with the man of the same name of Friends fame — and his forced opening of Japan, followed by the Opium Wars of China that eventually forced the Qing Dynasty to hand off Hong Kong on a 99-year lease to the British in 1896. While these displays of military and economic might brought about a western influence to a largely independent region, the invasion and subsequent conquering also influenced a century’s worth of sexual frustration, denigration, insults, and misappropriation that still continues with the language of Steve Harvey.
Case in point:
The successful takeovers of major Eastern ports by Western powers invited the mixing of races — which itself is not a bad thing. What was bad was the fetish-laden intentions of those who were a part of the economic upheaval, led none other by Madame Butterfly, the famed 1898 novel by Frenchman Jon Luther Long that described the Japanese women he met as “graceful”, “dainty”, “little women” with a “natural skin of deep yellow”. Reduced to mere descriptions, this was enough to set off enormous romantic interest — and to this day, Long’s work is still romanticized in the play Madama Butterfly, a fixture in many playhouses across the world.
Of course, Madame Butterfly is updated a little less than a century later in 1989 to reflect changing attitudes. With the Vietnam War coming to a close, you get Miss Saigon, complete with modern racism, misogyny, and cultural appropriations. Oh and guess what — it’s Broadway’s 13th longest running show too so you can not reinforce Asian male-female stereotypes, but literally do it this weekend if you were so inclined.
But back to the timeline. Just three decades after Madame Butterfly hit our conciousness, came the movie portrayal of The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s seminal work concerning the struggles of post-revolution China. While the book itself did justice in explaining the struggles faced by the Chinese, the movie insulted Asians directly by casting Caucasian actors including Luise Rainer as O-Lan, the lead female character. Despite the blatant whitewashing (a theme that we’re going to cover a lot here), the film went on to be a commercial success, winning for Best Cinematography at the 1937 Academy Awards. Rainer herself would also win Best Actress that year.
This is ridiculous, you might be thinking by now. Or you might disagree. It gets crazier.
In 1956, everyone’s favorite Hollywood badass John Wayne gets cast in a historical action film. Andrew Jackson you might hope? Nope. Abraham Lincoln fighting slavery? Guess again. How about George Washington leading the soldiers of the revolution against the British? You wish. Instead, Wayne gets cast in Genghis Khan, a film about the Mongolian invader of the 13th century who managed to extend an empire all the way from China to Eastern Europe. While the film was a flop and generally known more for it’s cancer controversy having been shot downwind from nuclear tests, Wayne’s whitewashing was yet another example of Asians (and Asian men) being tossed under the bus for star power (which didn’t really end up helping anyway).
5 years later in 1961, whitewashing happens again in one of Hollywood’s more iconic films, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Though Audrey Hepburn steals the show with her fantastic performance, Asians are once again thrown under the bus with Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed impression of a Mr. Yunioshi (seen in the above cover photo). Though he expressed regret for the role nearly 40 years later, it’s mere portrayal is an insulting representation.
Apart from representative, historical, and sexual themes, Hollywood has also characterized Asians as needing saving, including films like Tom Cruise saving the Japanese empire in The Last Samurai. Furthermore, lazy casting also permeates modern Hollywood with films like The Last Airbender, The Social Network, 21, Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, and Aloha.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a tough time in America, particularly for the auto industry. Detroit, beset by increased competition from Japanese auto manufacturers, saw stalwarts like Chrysler go through massive layoffs. Socially, Asian-Americans faced increased racism and discrimination as many sought to lay out their frustrations on someone.
The face of what became a casualty of that frustration was Vincent Chin, a Chinese man celebrating his bachelor party in the Spring of 1982. Mistaken for being Japanese, Chin was severely beaten to death by Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz. Chin would die of his injuries just four days later.
The subsequent events of the Vincent Chin murder would be considered disturbing and ridiculous, even in 2017 as Americans navigate the discussion surrounding Black Lives Matter and allegations of police brutality. Let me count some of them out for you:
While the crime was clearly inspired by hate, local civil rights organizations including the ACLU passed on litigation, preferring to not focus on someone of “model minority” status.
Though Ebens and Nitz were found beyond a shadow of a doubt to be guilty, their sentences hardly fit the billing. Neither were served any jail time, instead given 3 years probation, fined $3,000, and ordered to pay $780 in court costs.
A civil rights case was then held in 1984 found Ebens guilty and sentenced to 25 years, while Nitz was acquitted. However, an appeal overturned the verdict in 1986 after it was found that prosecution witnesses were improperly coached.
A retrial in 1987 cleared Ebens of all charges. Done. Gone.
If there was any solace however, Ebens and Nitz were asked to pay in the civil suit the damages for Chin’s death to the tune of $1.5 million (Ebens) and Nitz ($50,000), which would have been Chin’s earnings had he survived to complete his engineering career.
Though considered the beginnings of the Pan Asian movement and the notion of “Asian Pride”, the story of Vincent Chin continues to impact and influence even to the modern day. Though Ebens, who never served an iota of jail time, decided that he would apologize in 2013, he still has yet to pay out the civil damages and in 2015, even tried to have the lien on his home removed. While numerous other races get the attention and respect, this has fallen by the wayside.
Are you outraged yet? They don’t even teach this in school, much less cover it on the news. I learned about Vincent Chin because I follow some specific Facebook pages that honor its anniversary every June.
Why is that, and why aren’t we angrier about this? The media again does not deliver.
(And there are other stories too.)
“But Asians are just 5.6% of the United States population!”, some will bemoan. “Do they include [insert non-Asian race] in Asian countries?”
Let me stop you right there.
While it is true that Asians consist of a smaller population of this United States, unlike Asian countries where most populations are homogeneous, the United States population is heterogeneous with a variety of cultures. None are so thrown under the bus as much as Asians are and then ignored in the same vein.
The minority notion is important because it does impact other aspects of growing up and living as an Asian in America. While Asians as a whole benefit from being a model minority and are rewarded in their quest for employment, the pursuit of love is a completely different story. Leave it up to OK Cupid to do the research, where they found from 2009–2014 that Asian men were the least desired out of all demographics considered. In that same popular research study, Asian women were also noted to be the most popular, while Asian women themselves rated their male counterparts lower than other races.
Understandably, Asian men as a whole grow up in a tougher environment that doesn’t help their dating, being emasculated by culture while also having to deal with the above. This has been written about by everyone from the Washington Post to Mic (who in 2013 even dared to wonder if Asian men were worthy of a date in the first place), and what appears to be something that is fun quickly turns into a quest for self-preservation and extra work.
So if you thought this was crazy, it goes even further. With Asian women not desiring their own, the rise of the X-male/Asian Female relationship combination has become a topic of late, gripping everything from Asian empowerment Facebook groups to Reddit and everything in between. Members cite more modern media pieces including Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and even Wai Lin in James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies as reasons for why it’s just so difficult for Asian men to gain any semblance of respect anywhere. While I do hesitate to consider these groups, media, and a cursory walk down Castro Street in Mountain View, California as key indicators of change, it’s enough to simply make you wonder about the future.
Steve Harvey — Not the First, Nor the Last
So that pretty much brings me back to Steve Harvey. Let me repeat that what he said wasn’t anything new, and definitely a microcosm of more than a century’s worth of transgressions. Whether its the media portrayals that promote the Asian women to the insulting of Asian men to the impacts on literally everything afterwards, it’s clear that popular culture isn’t on our side either.
While Asian men don’t have to play victim to what others say, there is no doubt a mountain to climb when overcoming media biases, which play a critical role in dictating what’s popular and what isn’t. After all, we’ve yet to see an Asian male on The Bachelor — either as a candidate or the bachelor and comments such as Harvey’s only put that possibility further away. Heck, some food critics started labeling Pho, a Vietnamese diet staple, as something to consider in 2016. You’d think it wouldn’t be an issue anymore.
That said, there are also rays of hope that perhaps show the changing tides of culture. John Cho of Harold and Kumar fame starred in the short-lived Selfie as the romantic lead and later was imagined on movie posters, Steven Yuen played Glenn on The Walking Dead before he was killed (though his transformation from a pizza delivery guy to a resourceful husband is something to admire), and content-driven websites like Buzzfeed have devoted more time to showcasing Asian men.
So if you’ve read this far, thank you. We covered a lot and if there is anything I missed, let me know in the comments. If you feel strongly about the perpetuation that Steve Harvey continued, share this post and get the conversation going. We’re making progress, albeit slow, but it’s my hope that we’ll overcome the biases, discrimination, and throwing under the bus that have and continue to dog us.