Takeo Rivera, BU expert in performance studies and new media, examines media representation of Asian Americans through both a historical and contemporary lens.
By Thalia Plata
A 2021 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than six percent of speaking roles and less than four percent of leads and co-leads in Hollywood films. While Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) continue to be underrepresented in the media, their portrayal has historically been influenced by structural and systematic racism.
Media has the power to form public perception, sometimes accidentally but other times very deliberately. In this Q&A, in recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, Takeo Rivera, a College of Arts and Sciences Assistant Professor of English with a focus on race, sexuality, and gender in U.S. American cultural production walks us through some of the impact and implications of AANHPI media representation — from its capitalist origins to examining the model minority stereotype.
Can you give us a brief history of major themes in AANHPI representation across the media, literature, and performance arts? What factors have shaped this representation?
It would take hundreds of pages to adequately provide such a history. However, if we are to locate some commonalities across the multiple ethnicities of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders — loosely from the 19th century onward, from the perspective of the United States and much of Europe — trends of representation correlated with whatever imperial or capitalist interests were dominant at the time. These attitudes are reflected in print media, minstrel theater, and literature alike.
In the mid-nineteenth century Yellow Peril, sinophobia towards Chinese folks, corresponding both with Britain’s colonialist opium war as well as the influx of cheap post-Civil War coolie labor, resulted in their image as crime-ridden labor competition. The Philippine-American War saw representations of Filipinos as ape-like savages in need of violent disciplinary repression.
Within the U.S. in the twentieth century, we see similar dehumanization towards Asian Americans when their countries of origin corresponded to geopolitical enemies — Japanese Americans in World War II, Koreans, Vietnamese, and so forth.
This kind of representation was also intensely gendered — Asia and Asians were depicted as either hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine depending on what was most helpful from a propaganda standpoint. From hyper-masculine Chinese predators in opium dens to hyper-feminine Hawaiian women lying in wait for conquest by American sailors, there has also been a tinge of sexual perversity attached to Asianness, as well. The hyper-sexualization of orientalized women (the pornotropes of the geisha, the exotic sex worker, and so forth) was a tremendous force behind anti-Asian misogyny from the Page Act of 1875 all the way through to the massacre in Atlanta in 2021.
Yet, Asian Americans themselves have been, in various ways, seizing the means of their own narratives since before the beginning of the 20th century through literature, theater, art, and so forth, blooming especially with the Asian American Movement of the late 1960s and 70s, and flourishing in ever greater presence since.
How does this media representation impact and influence AANHPI individuals and U.S. society-at-large?
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live under the weight of stereotypes, like all folks of color. I can attest to that personally. Writing in his own context, Frantz Fanon as a Black West Indian man in France, described the “epidermal schema” — the sense of being marked and hyper-aware of your own sense of otherness at all times — and one can say that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have tended to experience a different but similar form of that. A sense of unbelonging, perpetual foreignness.
Of course, there is a cyclical relationship between cultural representation and material and policy conditions, and that sort of discursive and ideological power has the ability to devalue orientalized life. It’s how you can get someone like Gen. William Westmoreland to say “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it: Life is not important,” during the American War in Vietnam to morally justify the mass slaughter of Asian peoples (meaning if they don’t value their own lives, why should we?).
But of course, even ostensibly ‘positive’ notions of Asian Americans, such as the model minority idea, produce extensive harm. Besides the grave psychological effects — see, for example, erin Khuê Ninh’s brilliant new book Passing for Perfect for the definitive account of this — of Asian Americans treating themselves and others brutally in order to fit a model minority image.
What is a model minority? How has this idea been represented in the media you’ve studied and what has its impact been on the AANHPI community?
The term originally was coined by sociologist William Petersen to describe Asian Americans (Pacific Islanders are generally not racialized within the scope of this particular narrative) who were such exemplary Americans that they outperform other minorities, and often even outperformed their white counterparts — particularly economically and academically.
East Asian Americans in particular began to acquire a model minority image at the turn of the 20th century, intensifying mid-century, particularly solidifying around the economic success of formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans after World War II.
The Hart-Celler immigration reform in 1965 further changed the demographic population of Asians in America, producing a population that was increasingly professionalized, which then reinforced this model minority picture of Asians (East and South Asians in particular) as hard-working, law-abiding, dutiful pursuers of the American Dream.
Nowadays in the U.S., the model minority exists mainly to validate a meritocratic, antiblack racial status quo — to put it bluntly, it is a disciplinary apparatus directed toward non-Asian people of color to say, “If they can do it, why can’t you, too?” The logic goes: “if the racially othered Asian can succeed under American capitalism, then the ‘structural barriers’ you’ve been complaining about can’t be that bad.” Thus, it’s not so much a ‘myth’ as it is an ideology. It also serves to homogenize Asian American experiences that are fairly diverse; not all Asian Americans are upper class, after all.
What’s interesting is that the “nerdy Asian” or “rich Asian” is such a ubiquitous trope that there isn’t necessarily a single prototypical example in fictional media to point to; in many respects, its most iconic examples are from journalism, some of it still quite contemporary.
But again, it’s not exactly a myth. There are, in fact, many Asian Americans who actively participate in model minority discourse and ideology (take, for example, Andrew Yang, or the Students for Fair Admissions). And even those who consciously oppose model minoritarianism will oftentimes find themselves occupying the subject position of model minority, anyway, and find themselves admonishing their role for stabilizing a racial status quo just by existing. As my new book describes, the model minority is itself a landscape for Asian American cultural politics, as a battleground for these two different positions — those who embrace it, and those who oppose it.
In your research have you found a type of representation that resonates with the AANHPI community? How can individuals advocate for empowering representation in the media they consume?
This may come across as a little controversial, but I’m not precisely interested in more ‘positive’ representation as a political solution to anti-Asian racism.
Don’t get me wrong — we should absolutely be promoting the creative work of AANHPI artists who have been under-celebrated and under-recognized in contemporary media, and I’m as excited as anyone for the success of recent works like Everything Everywhere All At Once, or the theater of Lauren Yee and Young Jean Lee, the hip-hop of Ruby Ibarra, and many other breakthrough performances in Asian American media (all of which I enthusiastically endorse). It’s also always a delight to see AANHPI folks onscreen or online take on non-stereotypical roles. However, it’s very, very important that we don’t overstate the role of representation, as it’s very easy for Asian Americans to be caught up in the politics of representation as the sole terrain for struggles of racial justice.
The presence of an Asian American Marvel superhero is not going to stop the deportation of Cambodian refugees (although, as a side note, issues of race and Marvel are nevertheless close to my heart). ‘Positive’ representation, in fact, can even be a trap to reinforce normative social conditions (i.e. we may not problematize what makes a particular representation ‘positive’) — the model minority, uncritically portrayed, is actually a very clear example of this.
And any pursuit of an ‘authentic’ representation is always doomed to fail — authenticity is as socially constructed as any stereotype, and often dangerously excludes a community’s most marginalized people who don’t fit the most dominant narrative. The 2018 breakthrough of Crazy Rich Asians (one that certainly ‘resonated’ in the community) was, for example, luscious in its celebration of bourgeois excess and embraced an East Asian-centrism, relegating its Desi characters to literally shadowy margins.
It’s imperative that we focus less on positive or authentic representation, or the mass visibility of those things, as the end goal of Asian American media and performance. That may be a starting point, but it’s insufficient for creating a more just society. Instead, we need to focus on Asian American-produced work that doesn’t simply affirm normative idealizations of what Asians should look like onscreen, but instead pushes us, whether that be politically, philosophically, or aesthetically, and much of the work that does so isn’t necessarily supported by big Hollywood budgets.
For example, two low-budget independent documentaries from the 1980s — Who Killed Vincent Chin? and Fall of the I-Hotel — remain among the most important and impactful films to teach in Asian American Studies. Cruel representation can also provide some of the most important critique and dialogue, such as 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, whose depiction of Asian American youth is actually quite searing. At its best, Asian American media can widen the possibilities of what we’re capable of and our political and social imaginations.
Here in Boston, we’re privileged to have some institutions that promote a wide range of independent Asian American media: the Boston Asian American Film Festival and the Asian American Playwright Collective, for example. Checking out the cutting-edge independent work of these groups is one great way of supporting more meaningful work for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
It’s also great that several neighboring universities have Asian American Studies instituted on campus, such as UMass Boston, Tufts, and Northeastern; this is something that BU needs to catch up on, for which I’ve been advocating. BU has the potential to be a leader in developing scholarship and programming in Asian American issues by investing in growing Asian American Studies faculty, as well as academic and student resources for Asian American issues.
Interested in learning more? Takeo Rivera’s new book, Model Minority Masochism, is focused on masochism and techno-orientalism in Asian American cultural production across multiple media, including theater, literature, graphic novels, historical archives, and video games. This project explores the relationship between power and pleasure within the traumas of racialization, examining affective attachments to nonhuman, machine-like stereotypical forms.