The Asian American Student Organization ZINE (aaso_zine) wrote,
The Asian American Student Organization ZINE

Representation of Asians and Asian Americans in Film - By Nina Reyes '05

Film, television, print, and music; media is all around us. It is easy to disregard how prevalent media and popular culture are in daily life, and often, consumers are unaware of the influence that media has on them, from the minuscule to the most noteworthy. By acting as a powerful apparatus, media helps to establish, perpetuate, and reinforce beliefs and stereotypes about racial-ethnic, social, and cultural groups in order to further subjugate them, unintentionally or otherwise. While those who produce media, particularly those involved in television and film, have become more and more aware of issues of representation that stand both in front of and behind the camera, we still see new films and television shows produced that propagate the dominant ideas of the hegemony under which a culture operates. Over the past several years, we have seen a rise in films that attempt to approach racial-ethnic stereotypes with a critical lens, some successful, and others not. I have chosen here to focus on Asians and Asian Americans in film. In recent years, several significant projects have discussed Asian and Asian American stereotypes in such a successful way that they have taken to the mainstream. Because media in general interacts with its audience, it is safe to say that what we see on screen is often a reflection of how we as a whole think and approach any given issue. Do the Right Thing (1989), Better Luck Tomorrow (2003), and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) are all examples of films that portray and question stereotypes and prejudices about the Asian diaspora.


Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, portrays the story of a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that is multi-racial and has endured a great deal of racism within a community that resides within a one-block radius. The racial makeup of the block that Do the Right Thing takes place on is split primarily between blacks and Latinos, but of the two sources of commerce that the audience encounters in this neighborhood, one is a pizzeria run by an Italian-American family, and the other is a small grocery owned by a Korean immigrant and his wife. As far as the audience can see, racial tension has always existed in this neighborhood, but the story begins when Buggin’ Out, a black customer at the pizzeria, points out that no one on the restaurant’s Wall of Fame is black. Sal, the owner of the pizzeria, insists that because he is Italian-American and owns an Italian-American restaurant, no one but Italian-Americans will ever be on his Wall of Fame. Buggin’ Out is bothered by this because Sal makes a decent amount of money while working in a black neighborhood but refuses to acknowledge the accomplishments of those of the same race as his primary clientele. Buggin’ Out tries to rally the community against Sal’s pizzeria but is only joined by one person, Radio Raheem. Later on, at what is the beginning of the film’s climax, Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and their friends go to Sal’s pizzeria. Radio Raheem is carrying his boom box, which, as usual, is blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at the maximum volume. Sal demands that he turn the music down but Radio Raheem refuses. In a fit of rage, Sal breaks the boombox with a baseball bat that he keeps around. In response, Radio Raheem attacks Sal, and a fight breaks out in the pizzeria that eventually spreads to the street. More people join in and cops arrive on the scene. The audience sees that only one officer is black, while the rest are white despite the fact that they are in a predominantly black neighborhood. Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out are handled by the police; Buggin’ Out is arrested, but Radio Raheem is killed. The fighting continues and Sal’s is burned down. The angry mob moves towards the Korean-owned grocery store, where Sunny is waiting outside in an attempt to fight them off and protect his shop. He shouts at the crowd and tells them that he is not white but black, and that he is one of them. The angry crowd decides to spare him, and the fighting continues. When the riot finally ends, Smiley, another local, stands in the burned down pizzeria in front of the remains of Sal’s Wall of Fame and hangs up a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands.

One of the first incidents of racially-motivated frustration that the audience sees, unfolds in a scene where three older black men who have turned the corner of their block into their regular hang out talk about Sunny, the male owner of the Korean grocery. M.L., the main character in this scene, criticizes Sunny for being a Korean business owner who manages to make his living by opening up shop on a predominantly black block where most of the residents are jobless. M.L. goes on to say that Sunny has only been in the United States for about a year but has managed to have his own successful business. He is very bitter about this, and one of his friends chimes in to say that Sunny just “came off the boat” only recently. A number of stereotypes are being played out in this scene: one is that of the Asian or Asian American small business owner, and the other is that of the model minority. One stereotype of Asians is that many of them own or work at dry cleaners, nail salons, or other local service businesses (the first two being the most prominent). The model minority myth, to be explained in more detail later, suggests that Asians and Asian Americans are overachievers who reach success no matter what they do. This is part of the stereotype that M.L. sees; he views Sunny as an outsider who was able to inject himself into the community and run a successful business as a minority, even though he just moved to the U.S. recently. He envies Sunny’s success and rhetorically wonders why no one belonging to the local black community has been able to achieve that with the exception of Da Mayor, a radio jockey at a station that is housed on that block.

While the racial conflict here happens primarily between the black community and the Italian (white) community, it is important to note that at the peak of the riots on the block, the members of the other two racial-ethnic minorities align themselves with the black community to show solidarity against the white community for any wrongdoings. This act in itself speaks volumes about the Other and how members of the Other view themselves in relation to those who fall within the dominant social group. When Sunny is approached by the angry mob, for example, he shouts at them saying, "I no white! I black!! We same!" There are a variety of reasons why he chooses to say this. One could easily be the language barrier (which is brought up in nearly every scene where he is present), and another is that he knows that there is no room for Asian racial identity in that community at the time. Only a racial binary existed: people were either black or white. The two other racial-ethnic groups in this film, Asians and Latinos, might as well not have even existed. Such a narrow definition of race fails to include anyone who does not fall into either of the black or white racial categories.


Better Luck Tomorrow is often thought of as the first mainstream truly Asian American film. Premiering in 2003, director Justin Lin tells the story of a group of Asian American students at a California high school who are bored with their lives and seek out their own entertainment. These students, Ben, Daric, Virgil, and Han, are do-gooders by day and work to meet their parents’ expectations of having good grades and staying out of trouble. They work part-time jobs, study for the SATs, hope to get into top universities, and compete on the school’s Academic Decathlon team. They quickly find that this has become boring, however, and begin to find other ways to keep themselves busy, all while maintaining their perfect reputations to the best of their parents’ knowledge. The group starts with petty theft at an electronics store and also sells cheat sheets to other students. Soon, they escalate to substance abuse, fights, and gun violence. The students’ notoriety on campus quickly grows after a fight at a party the night before, and rumors spread that they have links to the Chinese mafia.

As members of the Academic Decathlon team, the four are invited to compete at the championships in Las Vegas. They get a thrill out of being in Sin City, making the most of their stay, despite being underage, and continue to do so until they are caught. Without anything else to do, Daric hires a prostitute for his friends. Tension results between the group once the prostitute leaves in an angry fit after Virgil pulls a gun on her, yet they go on the next day to win the Academic Decathlon. Upon their return to California, Steve, another Asian American student with whom the group had associated with earlier on in the film through their drug use, approaches Ben and asks if he and his friends could stage a robbery at his parents’ house. Steve reasons that his parents could use a wake-up call of sorts, as they try their best to live the perfect lifestyle. He wants to change this. Because of a love triangle between Ben, Steve, and a female student, Ben seizes the opportunity to give Steve his own wake-up call at Han’s suggestion. The group agrees to meet with Steve under the guise that they are going to help him buy a gun. Instead, the four unintentionally beat Steve to death with a baseball bat. They bury the body in the backyard, only to hear Steve’s cell phone ring from underground the next day. At the end of the film, Virgil attempts to kill himself and brings the group together one last time before they all go their separate ways and try their best to return to their normal lives.

In this film, Lin has played on the notion of the model minority myth. In “Stereotypes,” Richard Dyer discusses the portrayal of homosexuality in various forms of media and its basis in stereotypes. He explains that stereotypes define rules that are meant to exclude certain people and are clear-cut and thus difficult, if not impossible, to change (Dyer 355). The model minority myth portrays Asians (a term that encompasses people with origins from a rather large continent) and Asian Americans as an idealized group of people, with particular regards to high academic achievement. The myth also alludes to higher income, higher accomplishments, lower rates of drug use, and family stability. This is clearly a stereotype. Asians and Asian Americans are compared here to white Americans who are thought of as the standard, and because the ‘model minority’ accomplishes just as much as the white American standard, they are just as good as the majority but will still be excluded from the standard group simply by the mere classification of ‘minority.’

Better Luck Tomorrow is viewed as a film of great significance in the Asian American community. After an overwhelmingly successful debut at Sundance, the film was ultimately distributed by MTV Films, but the road to MTV was a long one that involved having to max out the director's own credit cards to foot the cost of production. Lin was unable to find funding for the production because no one believed that there was an Asian American audience. I had the good fortune of speaking with him a couple of years ago, and he said that in his experience, as well as that of his Asian American peers, it has been difficult to pitch films in the U.S. geared towards Asian American audiences because studios are unable to identify the Asian American audience in their viewer demographics. Since the consumption patterns between Caucasians and Asian American audiences are so similar, the two figures are lumped together into the same group, making the Asian American audience invisible to production companies. Better Luck Tomorrow is the film that showed that there is a strong enough Asian American consumer base in mainstream films, and the film is also responsible for the green lighting of the more popular Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. In 2006, Lin produced his second "passion project," as he calls them, titled Finishing the Game.

Better Luck Tomorrow is one of many films that live under the hegemony despite their attempts to break free from it. The film's reception at Sundance that year began as mixed. During post-screening Q&A, one audience member, a white male, stood up and told Lin that he had a responsibility to his community to portray Asian American teenagers in a positive light, and in producing Better Luck Tomorrow, he had failed. This prompted angry responses from the cast, crew, and other audience members, but most notably, Roger Ebert, who was also in the crowd that night. Before Lin and his crew could even respond, Ebert stood up and shouted at the other audience member, asking him who he thought he was and what place he had in telling Lin what films he should and shouldn't be making with respect to a community that he, the audience member, had no role in. While I think that this was a fantastic response on Ebert's behalf, it is, at the same time, frustrating that the voice that was listened to here was that of yet another white male's.


July 30th, 2004, marked the release date of Danny Leiner’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Often thought of as a comedy sharing the same caliber as American Pie or Dazed and Confused, the movie’s plot revolves around Harold and Kumar, two best friends and roommates who smoke marijuana and, in an effort to satisfy their munchies, embark on a quest for White Castle’s infamous miniature burgers. What should be a short trip turns into an all-night drive all over New Jersey and includes a run-in with a rabid raccoon, a cheetah, Doogie Howser, M.D.’s Neil Patrick Harris, and an adventure in makeshift hang gliding. In the end, the heroes get exactly what they want, making their misadventures worth the struggle.

What sets this particular movie apart from others with similar content are the Asian American main characters: Harold is Korean-American, and Kumar is Indian-American. Many Asian American viewers, myself included, were thrilled at the prospect of finally seeing a mainstream movie where the main characters not only looked like us, but also broke the Model Minority mold. While much of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is tongue-in-cheek humor, it provides audiences with a glimpse of life as a young second-generation immigrant. Many stereotypes are raised and poked fun at throughout the movie, such as the Asian American Princeton students who appear to be the Model Minority, and the Jewish neighbors (also best friends) who speak Yiddish whenever possible to accentuate and exaggerate their identities. Though it appears to be just another superficial comedy, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle touches on issues related to cultural studies and representation and can be seen as a form of empowerment for Asian American viewers (though others would argue the opposite).

The model minority myth is portrayed throughout Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and is evidenced from the very beginning. The opening scene features two white males in an office setting, one of whom is complaining about work that he needs to do that will interfere with his weekend plans. His co-worker then suggests that he pass his work along to Harold, because “those Asian guys love crunching numbers.” Feeling as if he has no other choice, Harold accepts the assignment and finishes his workday with this extra project weighing on his mind. Shortly thereafter, the scene cuts to Kumar sitting in an admissions office, interviewing for medical school. This too is based on the model minority stereotype and plays on the idea that Asian Americans are often academic overachievers who go on to careers in medicine, law, or engineering. The audience quickly learns, however, that Kumar has no interest in becoming a doctor. He is at the interview simply because his father, also a physician, insists that he follow in his footsteps, just as his older brother has done. Kumar’s interview is interrupted by a phone call from Harold, and the two make plans to spend their weekend smoking marijuana and getting high – much to the surprise of the admissions officer, who witnesses the exchange and hears Kumar’s side of the conversation. He is so shocked that he spills his hot coffee on himself. Kumar has perfect MCAT scores, good grades, and is a legacy because of his father, and the admissions officer has all but handed him an acceptance letter until this point. Needless to say, Kumar is not accepted at that particular institution and walks away from the interview content.

These antics carry on throughout the movie. Other Asian American stereotypes come up through parts of the film. While at Princeton University, for example, Harold is invited to talk about his job with members of the East Asian Students Club. The students who attend his talk all look nerdy and very eager to speak with Harold about his job as a junior analyst at Brewster Keegan Investment Bank. To them, Harold has rock star status despite how unhappy he is with his job. The event ends quickly and Harold leaves as soon as possible. Harold joins Kumar once again and they try to resume their plans of smoking and finding White Castle. As they try to leave Princeton, they walk by a party and see that it is actually the very same group of people that Harold was just talking to moments ago. Both are shocked to see what resembles more of a nightclub rather than the group of nerdy students that they had just seen.

In addition to illustrating stereotypes, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle briefly touches on Orientalism, as well. In “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks writes about the commodification of the Other, which is any group that falls outside of the racial norm (here, it is anyone who is not white):

“…Mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference. The commoditization of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 366).

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle only grazes the surface of eating the Other, but nonetheless, it is still there. The main characters’ friends talk about having “yellow fever” and “yellow plague,” referencing their desire for Asian American women (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle Script”). Use of the terms “fever” and “plague,” however, infer some sort of negativity, as if this sort of desire is an infectious disease that should be feared (which, in turn, alludes to another stereotype of Asian Americans - yellow peril). This implies that Asians and Asian Americans, and the Other in general, are supposed to be hands-off, but in this case have become objectified and are craved.


In “Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction,” Robert Stam and Louise Spence discuss the idea of the positive image with regards to racism in cinema. Here, they say that the approach many theorists and critics have taken to solve the problem of cinematic racism is wrong and too simplistic in nature: simply taking characters of the Other and placing them into a role that audiences are used to seeing non-Other characters in is too reductionist and subjective in nature (Stam and Spence 883). Here, they use the character of Kunta Kinte in Roots as having been assigned a family structure by the filmmakers that is more reflective of that of the American WASP. Whether an image is positive or negative is dependent on the scope and the hegemony in which the image is working under, and even if an image is thought to be positive, it does not mean that it actually is. The model minority stereotype that is placed upon Asians and Asian Americans has been incredibly harmful despite its positive connotations and is a good example of this type of positive image. The portrayal of Asian American students as anything outside of the model minority stereotype was an issue in the initial reception of Better Luck Tomorrow. The Asian American students portrayed in the film were meant to be "regular" students, i.e. like their white counterparts (though the movie may take this to an extreme with all of the drugs and violence), and because of this, many critics reacted and asked why these Asian American students were being portrayed in such a negative light. It is very likely that this question would not have been asked had the cast not consisted of Asian American actors.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle angered many Asian and Asian American activist groups, most notably a group called South Asian Sisters. This organization slammed the film for having “represented Asian American men as being homophobic, spineless, sex-crazed misogynists” (“DRUM Beats on Harold and Kumar”). Kal Penn, the actor who plays Kumar, responded by saying:

“It would have been a poor artistic decision (and one that would have made the film boring to watch) if either myself or the writers had allowed race or ethnicity to define Kumar’s personality…Kumar is flawed, as all human beings are. He does not treat women with the kind of respect we hope most men would. Kumar is, thankfully, not the model minority. Our intention was not to represent ‘Asian American men as being homophobic, spineless, sex-crazed misogynists.’ Our intention was to represent Harold and Kumar as real, flawed human beings…” (“DRUM Beats on Harold and Kumar”).

What South Asian Sisters saw as a harmful portrayal of Asian American males in this movie is the opposite of what Asian American males are often thought of as in other media. Weak, asexual, and nerdy have been used to define Asian American males in other roles in films and television. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle shows both ends of the stereotype spectrum: Harold and Kumar are who this particular organization referenced, though Kenneth Park, the student who questioned Harold about his career, falls on the opposite end as the awkward Asian American student lacking social skills. This fits with Penn’s defense of his work; having a range of characters, all of whom have the same Other background, who do not fit the usual stereotypes granted to this Other group erases the stereotypes and makes the characters seem more like humans rather than just members of a particular social group.


The angry response that these films incited from many critics or organizations simply demonstrates that even though some films will try to break from the grasp of the hegemony, ultimately, what the viewer sees and what gaze they bring to the table will determine the success of the film in terms of what it is trying to accomplish. It is important, however, to realize that all audience reactions are determined by the hegemony and the way in which each audience member interacts with dominant thought. The way in which the audience and Roger Ebert reacted to Better Luck Tomorrow, for example, illustrates this very well, right down to how Ebert, a white male, was the one who stood up for the film against the angry audience member who did not understand why Lin and his crew had chosen to portray Asian Americans in such a negative light – all while forgetting that the film was loosely based on the true story of a murder that actually did happen. The nature of such reactions demonstrates how film and media in general are crafty in the ways that they help to establish or propagate new or already-existing stereotypes and expectations of racial-ethnic minorities, attacking audiences with these ideas aggressively but subtly, so subtle in fact that they often remain oblivious.


“DRUM Beats on Harold and Kumar.” 13 August 2004. Sepia Mutiny. 11 December 2008. .

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotypes.” Media and Cultural Studies KeyWorks. Gigi Durham, Meenakshi and Douglas M. Kellner, eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 353-65.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Media and Cultural Studies KeyWorks. Gigi Durham, Meenakshi and Douglas M. Kellner, eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 366-80.

Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction.” Film Theory and Criticism. Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. New York: Oxford University Pres, 2004. 877-891.

Note: This paper was originally written for Nicole Koschmann's NMDS5182 Practicing Film Theory class at The New School on December 12, 2008.

Tags: article, essay, film
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