From the character of Long Duk Dong in cult classic Sixteen Candles, to the yellowface of Keith David in 2012’s Cloud Atlas, even to Mickey Rooney’s uncomfortable Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I think we can aļl unequivocally say: Asian men have not been treated the best by Western media. From Asian characters played by white actors (hi Scarlett Johansson!), to reducing characters down to a single attribute, the portrayal of Asians in the West has long been damaging. But how is this affecting today’s young Asians? Has representation got any better in recent times? And what does this have to do with the dating scene for young Asians in the Anglosphere?
Before the rise of film and media, Asian men were considered to be a threat to white men—white women were attracted to the bachelor communities of Chinese workers, leading Asian men to be labelled as “predatory”. In the 19th and 20th centuries, amidst economic immigration and restructuring between China and the West (and stemming from the effects of the two world wars), Asian men started to be portrayed derogatorily, and as a group to be feared.
Interestingly, the rise of K-pop and various “new” media in the Western consciousness has begun to represent Asian men as attractive, again. The crackdown on the rise of “小鲜肉” or “small fresh meat” in China proves that effeminate-looking Asian men still feel threatening when placed in nationalistic contexts, though this ‘type’ of man, partially as a result of Kpop, is becoming more openly attractive elsewhere. “Small fresh meat” consists of androgynous men with features that make them appear young, enticing, and almost seeming fluid in gender.
Western media seems to love the idea of portraying Asian men as either exotic martial arts masters, or effeminate (think, Bruce Lee and the Gaysians), and this may partially be due to the history surrounding comparisons between young White and Asian men that society has seen in the past. In effect, this creates a sort of divide surrounding gender portrayals and allows for the two nationalities to be distinct from each other without the idea of Asian men once again becoming a threat.
However, the rise of “effeminate” Asian idols hasn’t stopped the insidious climb of racial sexualisation. Mara* notes that even as a devout Kpop fan, the way fans sexualise their “idols” becomes “creepy”, arguably crossing a moral line when fans start making claims on the idol’s behalf, particularly regarding assumptions around members’ perceived sexualities.
Additionally, both Jasper* and Leo* mentioned that the media predominantly focuses on stereotypes, a consequence perhaps of America’s domination in the film industry. Jasper described the representations as a “strong gender binary” where the women are painted as exotic and mysterious, and the men are “not very masculine.” Pandering to such stereotypes seems to please white audiences while not considering more than one or two specific Asian cultures. Even in more recent, more positive depictions such as Crazy Rich Asians, we still have the echoes of harmful stereotypes. Take Astrid Leong’s husband. When confronted about an affair, he doesn’t stand up to her, therefore embodying to an extent the ‘weaker’ Asian male stereotype. While this is somewhat of a reach, it’s something I noted after a couple of watches when considering the framing for this piece.
The Atlantic notes that the palatability of the Asian characters to white audiences is still paramount in the 21st century—perhaps it’s no surprise then that the Asian diaspora of the Anglosphere are still subject to these insidious, and often sexualised, stereotypes.
Of course, representation of any kind is something to be celebrated, especially when it caters to groups that are usually more marginalised within mainstream culture; however, when this media comes with inbuilt stereotypes, it affects the biases and mindsets of viewers. Leo and Jasper both noted that while they hadn’t experienced overt discrimination, they’d experienced plenty of microaggressions—a common theme amongst the experiences of Asian diaspora in the Anglosphere.
The fact that we live in an age of dating apps and social media further complicates matters—especially considering the West’s long history of fetishising Asian women, and now with the rise of the sexualised “effeminate” Asian man.
That’s not to say dating preferences are inherently harmful—for example, someone might prefer a partner to have similar interests or hobbies to them if considering a serious relationship—and that’s fine! But much of the research done recently points to how dating preferences can hide implicit racism.
One of the clearest examples comes from Grindr. The prominent dating app has come under public scrutiny for its implementation of ethnicity ‘filters’ which allow users to select a certain type of nationality to hook up with or date. Some have embraced this, but it also perpetuates much of the sexualised racism and discrimination that seems to follow Asians. Statements such as ‘Race A/B/C only’ or ‘No Asians/No Latinos’ create an uncomfortable and potentially unsafe space for other users, who become fetishised or targeted. Whether this comes from a personal attitude or the media, it’s clear to see why these might be considered problematic.
And these attitudes affect individuals on a personal level, too. Leo notes that his dating experience has become more uncomfortable, as people have “internalised the stereotypes” surrounding his ethnicity, and don’t see who he actually is when it comes to romantically centered interactions. If you’re an Asian woman, this testimony sounds all too familiar, no?
Ultimately, the media has a long way to go, and it’s worth asking what more can be done to create further realistic portrayals. Maybe one day, ethnic minorities won’t have to feel the consequences of sub-par representations in their everyday lives.
*names have been changed for privacy.