An Analysis of Asian Stereotypes in Comedy TV

Straight-A-achieving, badly-driving, small-eyed math geniuses- is this how the world wants to see Asians represented?

Clearly not, as this past August Crazy Rich Asians, a film with an all-Asian-American cast, grossed over $117 million over its first weekend. Thousands of people from all races filled up theaters to watch Asians portrayed with a wide range of personalities. The world is ready to see mass media step out of the Asian-American stereotype.

During our studies in Women and Minorities in the Media class at SMU, my friend Brooke Herigon and I decided to delve into Asian stereotypes in media. In lieu of movies like Crazy Rich Asians and a larger presence of Asian Americans on mainstream television, we were interested in examining on Asians are represented on comedy television.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center, The U.S. Asian population grew 72% between 2000 and 2015, the  fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group. This research suggests that they will quickly become the nation’s largest immigrant group, surpassing hispanics by 2055. But does this reflect on the way America is shown on screen?

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According to New York Times, a study by multiple universities reported that, over a one-year period, of the 242 scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming TV, just one-third had a series regular who was Asian-American or Pacific Islander.” (New York Times, 2018)

Teresa Nguyen, an SMU alum and the head of a PR agency called Red ID, the only Asian PR company in Dallas, studied journalism at SMU because there was such a lack of representation of Asians in media. “There were a lot of stories about sororities and fraternities and no one was writing about Chinese new year,” said Nguyen. She expressed the desire to see more asians in lead roles playing 3-dimensional characters.

Nguyen mentioned good and bad examples of the media’s treatments of Asian characters. She condemned the casting of Tilda Swinton as the head monk in Doctor Strange, “or Emma Stone as an “Asian” character in the movie ‘Aloha’. Not even close,” she said. “Good/great example is Crazy Rich Asians.  A diverse group of Asians- Malaysians, Asians with English accents, good looking Asian men…”

Looking back on my childhood as an Asian immigrant in America, I never realized how much the lack of representation affected me. There are so many of us. but why do we not see that in the movies or TV? When I moved to the US, my best friend was blonde. So growing up, whenever we’d play house or princesses, she would be the princess. She would take the lead playing the part of the protagonist. I felt demoted to being the best friend, duchess or the sidekick. I wasn’t mad about it, I just thought that was how it was supposed to be. My job was to be quiet. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for someone to show me that I could be more than the sidekick, I wanted to be the main character in my own reality.

Stephanie Ho, an Asian SMU student, has seen the media portray “the typical stereotypes of being smart and nerdy with the traditional controlling parents but I feel like they have been doing it lately in a lot of TV shows and movies in a comedic way rather than an offensive way,” she said.

If Asians are in movies/tv shows, they’re often portrayed as nerds, which can be upsetting,” said Frances Bentley, another Asian SMU student.

Andy Xue, a recently graduated SMU alum, said, “I do believe that Asians are stereotyped in the media as are other ethnicities. They are generally portrayed as a passive, shy, but highly intelligent person with broken English.”

We could talk about the lack of distinction between Asian American ethnicities in the media and how there needs to be more complex Asian roles, but we will focus on the stereotypes we’ve identified in today’s popular, comedy television series and why these constructs are detrimental to the way we view this minority in our media. Nerds with overbearing parents that are fighting to connect with their true identity like Mike Chang in the television series “Glee”  or whitewashed characters with no connection to their ethnicity like Kelly in “The Office”. These character developments saturate the comedy television landscape.

There are many examples of mass media putting Asians into a certain box, but over the past few years  there have been gradually more “different” and complex personalities represented. Sometimes it seems like the media is a crazy racist monster but other times the mainstream media does actively work at breaking down Asian stereotypes and presenting them in more sophisticated, multi faceted roles. An argument could be made for both sides, but what we saw prevalent in many underlying messages was a general struggle between what was expected of the Asian American character and their true identity at their core.

We can’t debunk the stereotype of Asians being academic because it’s kind of true. Asians do tend to go after getting good grades and wanting to be successful, but this in part, is because of our culture. From a young age we are under constant pressure that we must fight for things because we are foreigners. As an Asian child new to the United States, the exposure to the “American dream” and it’s meaning creates great inner turmoil. What if I don’t want to be a doctor? What if I want to leave that stereotype?  Yes, I see the pressure of conforming to the Asian culture in the media, but I also see a fight against that.

One example of this comedic representation is on the popular sitcom “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”.  The series from 2005 had two characters names London Tipton and Maddie Fitzpatrick. Maddie was played by Ashley Tisdale, and was a smart blonde. London was played by Brenda Song and was a dumb Asian. Though this irony probably went over the heads of the shows target audience, it was a notable satire that was rather ahead of its time and marked an evolution in the portrayal of Asian Americans on television.

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Perhaps a grown-up version of the ironically un-academic asian is Kelly Kapoor on the Office. Both Tipton and Kapoor are known for being shallow and materialistic. Not only are they completely whitewashed as characters, but they also portray the total opposite of the typical Asian stereotype of being academic and going after what you want. Both Kapoor and Tipton rely heavily on other people- Tipton on her father’s money and Kapoor on Ryan’s love and attention.

Here we hear the voice of TV comedies calling out the Asian stereotypes in a radical way, showing two examples of Asian women without any of the stereotypes normally associated with them. These two satires makes us question what we expect in Asians in media by making us laugh at ourselves for putting them in a box in the first place.

In other examples, comedy TV plays with representing Asians by presenting the characters’ personal struggles with the box they are forced into.

In Glee, we see Tina Cohen-Chang and her boyfriend Mike Chang struggle with wanting to be dancers amidst the pressure of their parents wanting them to be doctors. As a whole, Glee does a great job at showing so many different kinds of teenagers in high school and their struggles with identity and navigating relatable difficulties, and here the show does not disappoint. Though the show does tend to be a bit heavy on the “Asian jokes,” it does a good job of walking you through what an Asian kid feels when he or she feels pressure to conform to a stereotype.

Perhaps a more complex version of this portrayal of “the struggle,” is in “Master of None.” Comedic actor and stand up performer, Aziz Ansari touches on the stereotypes and ethnic bias he faces as an American Indian in a lighthearted, multi-dimensional way. Ansari’s character, Dev, is seen as a true millennial going on dating apps, eating tacos with friends, and  fighting with his parents. This representation of Dev is different than other shows in that it talks about race while actively breaking down racial biases and barriers. Ansari’s real parents play the part of his parents on the show, which speaks to the authenticity and vulnerability of Ansari’s character.

“It’s been a great year for Asians in the media,” said Nguyen, referring to Crazy Rich Asians’ breakthrough. But she is looking forward to seeing more.

So maybe media is doing better than we thought. Yes, there is a lack of representation, and yes, the representation we do see is often saturated in stereotypes, but media has also often shown the struggle of Asian-Americans in their search for identity amidst the adversity they are faced with. We appreciate the portrayal of that struggle and are optimistic of a better portrayal of Asians on television. We look to the days when Asians can be anything- dancers, doctors, villains, heroes, A+ students, or, dare we even say it? Good drivers.

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