Article by:
Kenneth Kim

I’d first like to preface this piece with a clear statement that my thoughts on this issue are mine alone, and that they aren’t reflective of a larger perception of Asian male masculinity. Nor is this a piece to minimize the intense problems of Asian women, particularly in a society that seeks to fetishize them as less important than the struggles of Asian men. I also am not arguing that effeminate traits are bad, or that having effeminate traits is any better or worse than any other trait. This piece is to provide some context to the frustrations that drive deep within Asian male culture, and to offer both questions and potential solutions.

The role of Asian males became a dual-ended sword, and one that has worked to a devastating degree.

A global demand for labor and a reputation as a land of opportunity caused Asians to first begin immigrating en masse into the United States of America in the 1800s. As they poured into America in order to fill this demand for labor, White America has set about to emasculate Asian males while simultaneously reducing Asian females to little more than sex objects. While there probably wasn’t an objective decision made by all of White America to do this at the same time, this emasculation of Asian males combined with this reduction of Asian females very quickly allowed for white men to present Asian men as non-competitors. The role of Asian males became a dual-ended sword, and one that has worked to a devastating degree; Asian men are frequently embodied as effeminate, passive, and emasculated, while Asian women are “valued,” often by white men, as “pure objects” ready to be taken. Asians have always been portrayed as hard-working, effeminate, and in-mass-numbers, a stereotype that finds itself lodged in the American psyche even in modern times, with famous celebrities such as Chris Rock choosing to poke fun at the expense of Asian stereotypes.

These stereotypes pervades themselves throughout  American pop culture, quite possibly due to their seemingly innocuous nature: consider characters like Jin from the American show Lost, who is depicted as an over-suppressive, harshly antagonistic character ultimately revealed to be impotent; and Lloyd from the show Entourage, an effeminate Asian whose only purpose in the show is to be the token gay character. These figures stick around in the American psyche long enough to make an impression. Neither of these stereotypes are inherently harmful, but these work to typecast Asians over a period of time as something exotic and foreign, a force that can’t maintain the same level of masculinity that America “represents.” It’s all part of the same racist entertainment paradigms that paint African Americans as aggressive and uneducated, Latino Americans as criminals, and White Americans as “normal”; thus, Asian-Americans are robbed of their ability to self-characterize, having to instead perform via White America’s lenses and always being portrayed as slightly incompetent. This incompetency runs through characters, films, and shows, consistently placing the Asian male as the token character of humor. It’s frustrating, because it’s not like this characterization is something that is extremely evil or messed up;  it’s a relatively seemingly-innocuous characterization on the scale of harmful characterizations. That being said, it’s consistent enough to have a long-term negative effect on how Asians are portrayed, something that is unacceptable no matter how innocuous it seems.

Part of this characterization does come out of kernels of truth, the largest one being the Asian culture of consistent hard work, even at the personal cost of freedoms and luxuries. The “Marginal Man” theory, a sociological concept developed in order to explain the drastic cultural divide immigrants would experience, essentially argues that an individual stuck between two extremely different cultures wishes desperately to undergo assimilation in the culture he wishes to live in, while simultaneously having to defend his original culture and maintain relevance to it in any capacity possible. The “Marginal Man” theory is an extremely influential reason as to why Asian culture stresses the importance of work above all else; any Asian parents worth their salt will tell their children that they need to work hard so that they can establish themselves with high-paying jobs (such as becoming a doctor or a lawyer) so that they can overcome this invisible “Marginal Man” theory and become a part of the American culture they so desperately wish to reach.

This, of course, leads to developmental issues when combined with the reality that Asian men are often portrayed as subservient to their white counterparts in media; as a result of their necessity to work combined with their lowly positions of power compared to white peers, Asian men often find themselves as middle-level managers, comfortably dealing with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism they face due to the overwhelming feeling of needing to stay in. It doesn’t matter if one suffers at the hands of those who wish to call their Asian peers inferior, just so long as that one Asian person manages to maintain some level of power in any capacity (such as a paycheck). 

Of course, this isn’t to say that Asian figures in modern American media are all gross bastardizations of what it means to be Asian; TV and film characters like Glenn from The Walking Dead and Han Lue of the Fast and Furious series portrays strong Asian men who are able to prove their self-worth and strength in ways that aren’t inherently emasculating, while entertainment figures such as BTS take broad steps to show people that Asian men can break down masculinity and present it in their own manner. Despite this, however, there’s a lot of work left to be done for the matter.

Unless the American media is able to sufficiently and consistently portray Asian men as no less masculine as their non-Asian counterparts, it will have failed Asian-American males in their quest to do away with the stereotypes that label them effeminate.