Culture Stories

The “Asian” Role: Moving Past What’s Been Written For Us

A bit of background: ‘Mean Girls’ is a highly popular movie (that has just turned 10 years old) that commented on the tensions and concerns of teenage girls with a comedic lens. It has since remained well-loved, and most of its portrayals of teenage angst and poor choices are still applicable to high school (as well as college and workplace) life. The main protagonist, Cady, walks the line between ‘mean girl’ and staying true to herself, while hilarity ensues between the ‘mean girls’ (Karen and Gretchen, led by Regina) and Cady’s friends and misfits, Damien and Janis. Multiple renditions and parodies have been made, most notably ‘Mean Gurlz’ by Todrick Hall and ’AZN Mean Girls’ by QTFilms.

A few days ago at work, my colleagues were heatedly debating who their ‘Mean Girls’ counterparts were–namely, which of them could claim the title of ‘Regina’, queen of the mean girls. I kept one ear open while working with my usual detachment, until I was pulled into the conversation by Jake*, who plopped himself in front of my desk and said, ‘Sorry, Cat, not many options for you.’

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I naively thought he was commenting on my moral uprightness, my refusal to get involved in petty gossip, or even simply that with the three of them taking up 3 out of 4 main roles, I only really had one choice, had I been interested in joining them. He grinned. ‘You know, because of your race.’ He paused a beat as I stared at him in surprise. ‘But you could be that Asian chick who made out with the coach,’ he quickly added. Another awkward silence as my stare turned into a glare, the silence this time longer and more pronounced. He eventually took the hint and walked away, and I was left to my own thoughts.

Although I really have zero interest in being lumped in with their ‘mean girls’ clique, it bothered me that I was excluded because of my race specifically. Of the aforementioned three, one was male and of the two women, one was Hispanic, the other Caucasian. Aside from the blonde, blue-eyed woman who ultimately received the title of ‘Regina’, the other two, like me, didn’t quite fit the bill. But if his gender and her race didn’t exclude them, why were my characteristics any different? Why didn’t he cast himself as one of the boyfriends? Why didn’t she associate with her respective minor character? Why was the role of sleazy Vietnamese girl (which, by the way, was an awful portrayal of Asian girls that no one has quite covered in its entirety) immediately dumped on me? I’m Chinese, speak English perfectly, and have a relationship history far, far removed from Trang’s in the movie. In fact, I barely even remembered Trang’s name. True to her overall purpose in the movie, Trang was forgettable, dismissed as ‘that Asian chick who made out with the coach’.

One of her few scenes in which she shows any uniqueness of character.

The 2004 film certainly has its fair share of issues in accurately representing ethnic minorities, but contemporary perceptions of what the characters ‘should’ look like seems to allow for little movement in terms of stretching to accommodate different races. In truth, the concept of a ‘mean girl’ is plastic across cultures; they exist everywhere, in every color, shape, size, and age. The notable characteristics of Regina are mean, narcissistic, self-serving, manipulative; of Karen, vapid, naive, without self-will; of Gretchen, attention-seeking, needy, sensitive to betrayal and in want of approval. Race does not factor into these traits–these descriptions are universal. The descriptions of the minor characters, too, are universal. My coworkers were willing to sacrifice the original faces to allow themselves to fit the role. But when they looked at me, at the cast, and then back at me, the first description and role they jumped at was ‘Asian’. Never mind that my personality didn’t quite fit any of the characters anyway, or that maybe the closest role I could have fit was Janis’–they played match-up with my race rather than take into consideration the rest of who I am.

I love being Chinese, and I am proud of what we as Asians and Asian Americans have accomplished in those ten years. We have had our fair share of setbacks and we are far from living in a post-racial society, but we are finally being recognized as a group with a voice, and people are finally listening. As a minority that has been traditionally raised to turn the other cheek, being acknowledged now as a vocal, passionate advocacy is significant and worth being proud of. That said, I’m tired of being cast as the token Asian, as the exotic tease, the nerdy Chink, the yellow slut, the spineless, ethnicity-less Asian girl who cowers behind her white savior, the dragon lady, the ninja, the mysterious femme fatale who does little but dress in obscene qi-pao-hanbok-kimono fusions and wear bright red lipstick.

These roles are worn out. They are outdated. They are begging to be retired. In those cases, I’m okay with not fitting the bill. And just because the character exists as a poor choice of casting in a film, it doesn’t mean that these stereotypes can then be pressed onto the next Asian within sight. We deserve better. And if the film industry won’t do us justice, the public should at least give it a good effort. Roles for Hispanics and African Americans have improved significantly over the past few years, and though Lucy Liu in Elementary and Grace Park in Hawaii Five-O are examples of how the industry has graced us with recent good roles, we still have a long way to go.

As for what defines ‘a good role’, Arden Cho sums it up perfectly in an interview on her character in Teen Wolf–the creators “don’t ever make her ‘the Asian girl’….She gets to be like any other main character on the show.”

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(image taken from Hypable)

While correctly translating a foreign language and attributing specific cultural references to the appropriate culture are extremely important, it is equally essential to allow the role to be ‘raceless’, in a sense, in its portrayal. The best way to explain ‘racelessness’ uses the example of American shows, which, in order to reflect accurately the culturally diverse population of the places in which they are set, often attempt to have similarly diverse casts.

CBS boldly broke through both race and gender expectations in the casting of its hit show Elementary, in which Lucy Liu, an Asian American woman, was chosen to play Joan Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ right hand.

Lucy Liu as Watson

Lucy Liu as Joan Watson (image from The Guardian)

Her character is smart because she has a brain and went to medical school, not because she is Asian and Asians are expected to be smart. Her character can defend herself, not because she is a martial-arts master, but because Sherlock has forced her to learn self-defense in order to protect herself. Not once is her race used as an excuse for a particular trait. Joan Watson is human, flawed, and perfect in every way, because she is real to herself as a person, unconfined as an ethnic minority, unlimited as an actress. This is the ‘racelessness’ that we are after. The role of Joan Watson as the writers created it could be played by anyone, transformed into anything. Rather than stuff Lucy Liu into the characteristic, stereotyped role of Laundromat worker (think Arexis Fongman) or resident nerd, they allowed her depth of character and freedom of interpretation. They saw potential in her ability to break past stereotypical race and gender barriers and let her fly despite the risk of public rejection. Seeing Asians (especially Asian women) in the role of characters traditionally white and male is new, even radical, and intensely refreshing.

For those reasons exactly, I’m okay with not fitting the bill. Because if ‘Asian’ is all you have going in describing me, I’d rather step out entirely. Here’s to a big thumbs-up for CBS for daring to cast outside the box, and high hopes for future ‘raceless’ roles.

*Names have been changed for the usual reasons.

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