Presented to: Popular Culture Association Conference, Orlando, Fla. April 11th, 1998
Since its birth in the late 1800s, the medium of film has grown and developed as fast as culture and technology have allowed. In today’s motion pictures it is often difficult to differentiate the world of film from the world in which we live. Computer-aided editing, more-spectacular-than-life special effects, and talented actresses and actors all help to create life on the screen that seems more “real” than ever before. The popularity of film in America is enormous—the 1993 film Jurassic Park grossed over $346,000,000 in one year. This is just one example of the amount of money audiences paid to be entertained and educated by two hours of moving pictures and sound. Although television has become more accessible to the public, many argue that film’s influence has not waned. Miller states, “Even today, after the rise of television and the breakup of Old Hollywood, the movies hold a firm grip on the American consciousness.”
Film functions as an educator. Although film is categorized as a form of entertainment, it is difficult to deny its educational power. bell hooks states: “Whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people. It may not be the intent of a filmmaker to teach audiences anything, but that does not mean that lessons are not learned.” Not only can film create meaning for an audience, film also can impact how an audience thinks. Cortes states, “Beyond providing information, movies (and television) help shape viewer structures for perceiving, receiving, processing, thinking, and organizing new images.” From a rhetorical standpoint, film functions in potentially powerful ways.
As it has grown, the American film industry has undergone many superficial changes; however, a cursory review of the way in which the American film industry creates and portrays images of Asian males suggests that the stereotyping of ethnic minorities has always been a part of American film. In America, stereotypes about Asians have existed since the mid-nineteenth century when Asians first reached American shores seeking work. Since that time, the American film industry has portrayed Asian males as nerds, rapists, eunuchs, evil villains, gang members, kamikaze pilots, and kung fu masters—the white man’s “other.” It is difficult to accurately assess the impact these images have on the viewing audience; however, as Wong states, “The portrayal of Asians in the American feature films reflects and influences white American perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans.”
Research on the images of Asian males in American popular film has been sparse. A limited number of studies specifically address Asian males in American popular film. In terms of the social and historical analysis of Asians in American films, one of the earliest and most important works is Eugene Franklin Wong’s On Visual Media Racism. Wong believes that film cannot be separated from issues of race. Wong states, “By literally socializing white racism into the audience, the film industry plays an important role in supporting forces of white racism in America.” Wong studied the occurrences of miscegenation, interracial sex, in forty-five years of American film and concluded that the American film industry “presumed that white males should be depicted as having free sexual license with Asian females, whereas Asian males as sexual partners for white females remained the epitome of the sexual threat to white males.”
Richard Oehling gives a comprehensive analysis of the history of Asians in American film in his 1980 article, “The Yellow Menace: Asian Images in American Film.” Oehling states, “…the image of both the Chinese and Japanese in the media depended more on political factors among the dominant Caucasian population of the United States than upon the characteristic behavior or attitudes of either immigrant group.”
In her essay, “Ethnicity, the Cinema and Cultural Studies,” Gina Marchetti uses the film, Year of the Dragon, to identify the negative portrayals of Asians in film. Marchetti summarizes the roles of Asians in the movie, “…fantasies of threatening Asian men, emasculated eunuchs, alluring Asian ‘dragon ladies,’ and submissive female slaves all work to rationalize white, male domination.”
The goal of this study is to discuss, from a cultural perspective, the rhetorical dimensions of Asian male representation in American popular film from 1991 through 1995. This study analyzes the images of Asian males in the top-ten money-making films from 1991 through 1995, as reported by Screen World and Variety International Film Guide–yearly publications about the American motion picture industry. Because there are so few images of Asian males in American popular film, this study analyzes every image that is found. Access to these films has been readily available from video rental stores. See Appendix I.
The Asian-male images that were found in these narratives represent the script writing and casting decisions of filmmakers. Thus, the concept of race is a critical element in the understanding of how culture is portrayed by filmmakers in popular American films. This study identifies and discusses the popular white-male narrative, the Asian-male spectacle, constructions of the Asian male as the “other,” and the de-sexualization of Asian males in the top-ten money-making American films from 1991 through 1995.
The Popular White-male Narrative
From a cultural perspective, identifying constructs of race in popular narratives is one avenue toward understanding how society creates and defines meanings of culture. This study and other studies like it, focus on how non-white peoples are portrayed in popular-culture texts. However, identifying and understanding the narratives in which Asian males were found, also plays a critical role in the analysis of the cultural dimension of American popular film.
This study found that the narrative structures of the fifty movies were similar in many ways. There were similar protagonists and antagonists. At a deep narrative level, many of the films’ plots were the same–the protagonist overcame conflict, successfully navigated through the final climax, and resolved the narrative. From a cultural perspective, the major similarity found between the films was the fact that the images of white males were consistently present within the center of the narratives analyzed.
All but four of the fifty movies had a white-male central character–a character around which the narrative was structured. Aladdin did not have a white-male central character. However, Aladdin, who was supposed to be from the Middle East, spoke fluent English without the slightest foreign accent. He also had white facial features: round eyes and light colored skin. The Lion King also did not have a white-male central character. However, true to Disney style, the male lion, who obviously does not live in America, speaks fluent American English without the slightest accent. Also, the lead character of this narrative and all of the other “good” lions are noticeably lighter in color than the lion Scar, the villain of the narrative. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II also did not have a white-male central character. However, the Mutant Ninja Turtles had European first names and spoke fluent American English without an accent. In Sister Act, the fourth film without a white-male central character, Whoopi Goldberg plays the part of an African-American woman who hides from Mafia hit men by joining a convent and teaching white nuns how to sing.
In the remaining forty-six of the fifty films analyzed, white males were the characters in the center of the narrative. Ten of the white males starred as central characters in more than one film. Jim Carrey had a major role in four of the fifty films analyzed—The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever , and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Tom Hanks had a major role in four of the fifty films analyzed—Apollo 13, Toy Story, Forrest Gump, and A League of Their Own. Kevin Costner had a major role in three of the fifty films analyzed—Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Dances With Wolves, and The Bodyguard. Robin Williams also had a major role in three of the fifty films analyzed—Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, and Jumanji. Harrison Ford had a major role in two of the fifty films analyzed—The Fugitive and Clear and Present Danger. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a major role in two films—Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies. Maccauly Culkin had a major role in two films—Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Tom Cruise had major roles in both A Few Good Men and The Firm. Tim Allen had major roles in both Toy Story and The Santa Claus. Tommy Lee Jones had major roles in The Fugitive and Batman Forever. All of these white-male images were seen, or heard (Toy Story and Aladdin), in at least two of the fifty films analyzed.
White males were consistently portrayed as the protagonists of the narrative. Although the stories varied in settings and messages, a white male almost always played the infallible hero. They had a variety of central roles: they were heroic international spies in Goldeneye and True Lies; heroic lawyers in A Few Good Men and The Firm; and heroic police investigators in Seven, Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear, Lethal Weapon 3, Basic Instinct, The Fugitive, Speed, and Die Hard with a Vengeance. They also were loving fathers, heroic astronauts, personal bodyguards, protective robots, glorified criminals, and billionaires. Additionally, some of these heroes played the roles of a white-male post-Civil War soldier who was accepted into the Native American culture; a white-male alcoholic baseball coach who turned his life around to successfully lead a women’s baseball team; and white-male “action figures” of different varieties who, among other things, protected presidents, stopped runaway buses, and single-handedly defeated malicious terrorists.
In many of these narratives, the white-male protagonist successfully gained the trust and empathy of the audience. For children audiences, there were white-male lovable cartoon-like characters (Toy Story, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and The Flintstones). For romantic audiences, there was a white-male widower who found new love because his only son called into a radio talk show (Sleepless in Seattle). And, for the post-Vietnam War audience, Americans learned about the fictitious story of a developmentally-challenged man who became a national folk hero (Forrest Gump).
White males of all ages were heroes. Home Alone, Sleepless in Seattle, and Casper had young white males playing charming and endearing roles. The white-male protagonist of the Home Alone movies successfully negotiated the adult world as a child and protected himself and his property from adult villains. Through a series of trivialized violent acts, the young white male solved his conflicts and eventually gained his “hero” status—a narrative that spawned an even more popular sequel. The young white male in Sleepless in Seattle helped his father to find a new partner after his wife died. In the film Casper, a ghost befriended a young female who moved into his haunted mansion. The audience did not know Casper’s ethnicity until he materialized into an actual young white male during a party. Although Casper changed back into his ghostly form, his white-male identity was forever defined.
Older white males also were found in the center of narratives. Many of the lead characters were well into their fourth, fifth, and possible sixth decade of life. The main character of Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear is an older male. Despite his white hair, he still gained the romantic interest of a younger woman and physically defeated criminals. The central character of In the Line of Fire was also an older male who proved that he was as psychologically and physically fit as any young man. Interestingly, females over the age of thirty were relatively invisible in the majority of these same narratives.
White-male protagonists remained heroes even after they took another human’s life. The white-male hero of Terminator 2: Judgment Day exterminated numerous human lives until a young boy told him that killing was wrong. Throughout the remainder of the film, the white-male protagonist, instead of killing them, maimed law enforcement officers and other people who got in his way. A violent demeanor was another characteristic of the white-male hero in Pulp Fiction. In this film, Bruce Willis played a boxer who had to maim and kill his way to a happy ending. In the film Seven, Brad Pitt, the white-male protagonist, took the law into his own hands when he executed the villain of the narrative. These acts of violence were portrayed as justifiable acts to the viewing audience. The narrative developed the white-male characters’ ethos to a point where the audience was asked to accept their acts of violence as necessary means to resolve the plot.
The sexuality of white males was a predominant theme in the fifty films studied. Many of the white-male lead characters engaged in implicit or explicit sex. In some cases, sexuality was a crucial element to the development of a narrative’s plot. For instance, the film Basic Instinct revolved around the central white male’s dilemma of balancing his lust for a female suspect and his duty as a law enforcement officer. At one point in this film, the central white male, in a fit of anger, physically forced himself on a female co-worker—who briefly resisted but inevitably gave into and enjoyed his sexual assault.
White males of all ages engaged in both implicit and explicit sexual acts on screen. The youngest white male to engage in implicit sex was Casper the friendly ghost. In the scene where Casper metamorphasized into an actual young white male, he danced with and then passionately kissed the young female lead of the film. The oldest white male to engage in sexual activity on screen was the lead character of Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear. This character, who was well into his fifties or sixties, engaged in sexual activity with a female. White males also engaged in sexual activities with women younger than them. The lead character of In the Line of Fire engaged in sexual activity with the female lead of the film—who was at least twenty to thirty years younger.
White-male sexuality also crossed cultural divisions. White-male heroes engaged in both implicit and explicit sex with a variety of non-white females. The central white male of The Bodyguard engaged in sex with an African-American woman. Implicit sex between another central white-male character and a black African woman was portrayed in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Central white-male characters also engaged in implicit and explicit sex with Native- American women. Dances With Wolves had a white-male lead engage in sex with a female who was raised in a Native-American tribe. Pocahontas depicted acts of implicit sexuality between the central white male, John Smith, and the Native-American woman, Pocahontas. White males also engaged in implicit and explicit sexual activity with Asian females in Wayne’s World, Forrest Gump, and True Lies. White-male sexuality was clearly defined by depictions of both explicit and implicit sexual activity between white men and a spectrum of non-white women.
The Asian-male Spectacle
The concept of spectacle is one of the rhetorical dimensions that can be used in an effort to analyze the depictions of ethnicity in American popular film. There are many spectacles in contemporary American popular films—murders, explosions, alien encounters, sexual intercourse. Some would argue that American popular film could not function without the concept of spectacle. Race has been depicted as spectacle in many Hollywood films. In the same way that Hollywood’s car chase scenes are “larger than life,” Hollywood’s portrayals of Asian males are “larger than life”—both are spectacle. Marchetti discusses how spectacle affects the audience, “Spectacle tends to be contradictory. It both attracts and repulses, encouraging viewer identification while keeping that involvement at a distance.” This could explain why audiences spend more money every year on films with more special effects, more graphic violence, and more spectacular narratives about human life. For this study, the concept of spectacle refers to the exaggerated visual depictions of Asian-male images. Exaggerated depictions of race are a result of the purposeful scripting and directing of the filmmakers. Filmmakers guide audiences through visual circuses where Asian males are cast in the part of the laughable clown or the intimidating predator—audiences are encouraged to laugh at or fear these men.
One of the films that made a spectacle of Asian males was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. Characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II had spectacle accents. Shredder, Tatsu, and Master Splinter all had Asian accents. Their accents were set against the perfect American English that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spoke. Their accents were exaggerated and unnecessary to the development of the narrative. Keno, the pizza delivery boy, also contributed to the spectacle of Asian males in this film. The spectacle of a young Asian boy with excellent martial arts skills was once again etched into the audiences’ minds. In this narrative, the overzealous young Asian male courageously fought evil along side life-size ninja turtles. This narrative, marketed toward younger audiences, supported the popular myth of the exotic Asian. Two of the Asian males were evil crime lords, one Asian male was a martial arts master, and one character, who was, literally, a rat, said Confucius-like sayings with an Asian accent and wore martial arts clothing.
Another film in which the Asian males were portrayed as spectacle was Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear. In this film, an Asian male played the part of a police investigator working at the scene of a crime. The Asian male was dressed in a white lab coat. He was shown inspecting a piece of evidence. However, the Asian male was holding the piece of evidence with a pair of chopsticks. Rhetorically speaking, this was an instance of spectacle. The scene was so extreme in its depiction of race, that the audience could not help but laugh at Asian culture. This interpretation reveals the clear message that the filmmaker was trying to create: Asian culture is odd—especially when it is contrasted with the “normalness” of white, American culture.
The monks in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls are another example of spectacle. The monks that the filmmakers created were not to be taken seriously; the filmmakers portrayed a temple of Asian monks as an oddity. In the first scene in which they were shown, the monks were all sitting in neat rows meditating with candles lit around them. The spectacle was created by the way in which the filmmaker juxtaposed the two different shots of the Asian-male monks. The audience first saw the monks in the temple while they were meditating. After they found out that Ace Ventura was leaving their temple they celebrated. The monks were shown dancing, jumping in the air, drinking champagne, and yelling with joy. As Ace Ventura and his friend left the temple, one Asian male ran through the middle of the shot dressed in nothing but his cotton briefs. Ace Ventura looked at the character briefly and made a disgusted face. The doors of the temple closed behind Ace Ventura and his friend, sealing the spectacle of Asian males in the temple forever in the audiences’ minds.
These exaggerated depictions of Asian-male images reflect how contemporary American popular movies make a spectacle out of ethnicity. Marchetti states “Moments of spectacle that feature ethnic and racial differences can define and reinforce the boundaries between ethnic and racial groups to keep the dominant culture’s own power intact.” Thus, portrayals of Asian males as spectacles can create and reinforce cultural stereotypes. Also, Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian males as spectacle keeps the white-male power system intact. This study found that Asian males were portrayed as spectacles—larger-than-life images. Audiences walked away from the movies remembering the spectacles: car chases, explosions, and sex scenes. Audiences also walked away from the movies remembering the spectacles of ethnicity.
Constructing the Asian Male as The Other
This study found that, within the realm of American popular films from 1991 through 1995, Asian males were consistently constructed as the other. To be other is to be different from the norm. Asian-male images were created against the backdrop of normal white culture. They were defined and portrayed as humans who were not white. Oftentimes, Asian males played parts rhetorically opposed to white-male lead characters.
In the film, Forrest Gump, the only Asian male was portrayed as the white man’s other. In this narrative, the developmentally-disabled, central white-male character, Forrest Gump, was injured when he rescued a friend in the Vietnam War. While he was rehabilitating his injuries in the hospital he mastered the game of pingpong. Forrest became so good at playing pingpong that he ended up playing for the United States pingpong team. Forrest traveled to communist China and defeated the only Asian male found in this film in an international pingpong match. Not only is the Asian male not the American hero, an American company celebrated Forrest’s victory over the Chinese by making a pingpong paddle. On one side of the paddle, which was blue, there was a picture of Forrest Gump. On the other side of the paddle, which was red, there was a picture of Chairman Mao. In this juxtaposition of the two images, the Asian male is constructed as the white man’s other. The Asian-male image was set as the opposite of the white-male image. Physically, the Asian male was across the pingpong table from the white-male protagonist of the film. Politically, the Asian male’s communist affiliation was the opposite from the white-male protagonist’s democratic background. Psychologically, the Asian-male athlete was portrayed as competitively inferior to the developmentally-disabled white-male protagonist. Within the context of this film, the Asian male was present as the enemy—the opposition. This number-one money-making film of 1994 also referred to Asian males as “Charlie” and “Dink son of a bitch.” Although these phrases connote racial hatred and political misunderstanding, the producers of this 1994 film obviously believed that derogatory terms of Asian males were necessary in order for the audience to identify with the anti-Vietnamese sentiments of characters in the narrative.
The Asian-male scientist found in Jurassic Park also was created as the other. By his dress, role, and speaking part he was contrasted against the normalness of the central white-male characters. Like the Asian male, both of the white-male lead characters were scientists. Although all three men were scientists, only the Asian male was dressed in a lab coat and formal working attire. The two white-male scientists were dressed in casual, somewhat trendy, clothing. Thus, the Asian male was defined only by his occupation whereas the white males were defined by their occupation, personalities, and styles of dress. The role that the Asian male played also cast Asian males as the other. The Asian-male scientist worked for the white-male billionaire who conceived and financed the dinosaur park. The white-male billionaire was a grandfather-like character. He introduced the central characters of the narrative, and the viewing audience, to the glory of Jurassic Park via a technology-driven presentation. The white-male central characters became dismayed and abruptly left the presentation. They entered the lab where the Asian-male scientist was working. The Asian male then contributed two important elements to the narrative; first, he explained to the audience that his team of scientists was cloning only female dinosaurs (to prohibit dinosaurs from reproducing on their own). And second, he revealed that his team of scientists was breeding velociraptors (one of the most vicious predators that ever walked the earth). The central white-male characters were both disapproving of what the Asian-male scientist said. The white-male mathematician was upset and told the audience that human beings could not control nature—that nature would find a way to continue. The white-male archeologist was upset by the fact that velociraptors were being cloned. As the narrative progressed the audience soon learned that the white-male scientists’ concerns were valid and the Asian-male scientist’s theories were wrong. The velociraptors escaped from their cage and terrorized the white children, and the dinosaurs successfully reproduced themselves into the film’s sequel. Because the Asian-male scientist was never seen in the narrative after this one scene, his sole function in the film was to represent the scientific and ethical views of the other.
Groups of Asian males also were consistently portrayed as the other. In the film, The Santa Claus, the group of Asian males found in the restaurant functioned as the other. The central white-male character of the narrative and his son entered the restaurant where the camera deliberately panned over the group of Asian males. The central white-male character and his son then sat in another part of the restaurant occupied only by white families. This depiction of racial segregation rhetorically helped to illustrate the difference between Asian males and white males. The group of Asian males was portrayed as different from the norm—they were not with their families, they were not celebrating Christmas, and they were not concerned with the narrative’s plot. Although the narrative was situated in the Christmas season and focused on family bonds, the Asian males were portrayed as single, working, businessmen—all were dressed in suits and there was not one woman anywhere near the side of the restaurant they were in.
The group of monks from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls was also portrayed as the white man’s other. All of the Asian males in this movie were found meditating in the hall of a temple. Although the central white-male character was living in the temple and supposedly modeling the Asian monks’ lives, he was shown meditating alone in a separate room. Again, the image of the group of Asian males was contrasted with the central white-male character—Ace Ventura worshipped by himself. He was dressed more elaborately than any of the Asian-male monks and he had his own room. The physical separation of Asian males and white males in this film reflected how filmmakers portray race as an important difference among human beings. This scene clearly set up the Asian male as the white man’s other.
These depictions of racial segregation created and reinforced beliefs of cultural difference in the audiences’ minds. This narrative taught audiences that Asian males are different than white males. They do not value the things that white males value; they do not worry about the problems that white males worry about; and, they do not live their lives like white males do—they are different, they are strange, they are the other.
Other Asian males simply got in the way of white males. The Asian-male extras who were found crowding their way into an elevator in Indecent Proposal also were defined by their role as the other. After the central white-male character of the narrative agreed to let another man have sex with his wife, he reconsidered his decision and frantically searched for the two before they consummated their agreement. The filmmakers created a sense of urgency and regret reflected in the music, cinematography, and script. However, during the white man’s search for his wife, a group of Asian males physically got in his way as he was exiting an elevator. The central white-male character failed to find his wife because he was too late. The Asian-male extras in this scene function as the rhetorical other. They were portrayed as a group of Asian males dressed in business suits without any females among their company. When compared to the emotional situation that the central white-male character was in, the Asian males became the central white-male character’s other—they were single, happy, and physically going in the other direction.
In the popular narratives studied, Asian males were defined as different from the white-male norm. The difference of ethnicity and race was used by filmmakers to create notions of the other. The central white-male characters functioned as the ideal protagonists of a narrative. When compared to the position and function of white-male characters in the popular narratives, it was clear that Asian males were defined by their otherness—their difference from the white-male norm.
The De-Sexualization of the Asian Male
As part of constructing Asian males as the other, filmmakers, whether intentionally or not, de-sexualized all of the Asian males found in this study. Not one Asian male was portrayed as a sexual being. None of the Asian males engaged in a single act of implicit or explicit sex. When looking at the images of Asian males set against the backdrop of the white-male narrative, it is clear that Asian males had no sexual identity.
Depictions of Asian-male sexuality were vastly different from depictions of white-male sexuality. In some instances, white-male sexuality clearly was valued over Asian-male sexuality. The Asian-male gambler in Goldeneye was depicted as sexless and powerless in comparison to the white-male lead. Not only did the white-male lead defeat the white-female villain—the one who had just previously beaten the Asian male—he went on to have sex with her later in the film, proving his superior gaming skills and irresistible sexuality.
Indecent Proposal had a similar depiction of a de-sexualized Asian male. In this film, an Asian male played the part of a gambler in a casino in Las Vegas. The white-male billionaire beat the Asian male—who became visibly upset. The white-male billionaire then took his winnings and bought the sexual favors of the central white female.
Many times Asian males were not even placed in the films’ scenes next to women. Asian males were not portrayed with partners. They sat by themselves in class, they walked down streets by themselves, they dined out by themselves; generally, they existed in the world of American popular films by themselves. They were never shown with partners of their own race. This is not because Asian females were absent from the films. Asian females were present in the narratives; however, every time an Asian female was portrayed as a sexual being, her partner was always a white male. The comical loser of Wayne’s World was sexually paired with an Asian female. The Asian-female villain of True Lies only sexually engaged white men. Lieutenant Dan, the Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in Forrest Gump, ended up with an Asian-female partner in the closing scenes of the narrative. Unlike many of the white males in the narratives, not one Asian male engaged in either implicit or explicit sexual activity with a woman of any race, but white males were the sexual partners of African-American women, Asian women, and Native-American women.
In the world of American popular movies, white males are allowed to have sex with whomever they please. Asian males, on the other hand, are not allowed to have sex with anyone. According to the Hollywood formula for movies, Ernie Reyes Jr., the character Keno of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, had the highest likelihood of being depicted as a sexual being. He was a young, handsome, athletic, well-spoken, and determined person. He courageously fought evil along side mutated ninja turtles. In one scene of the movie, Keno fought the evil ninjas at a local high school dance. Keno saved a young white female from the clutches of the villain. However, rather than getting a hug or a kiss, the usual case when a boy saves a girl in American popular films/narratives, the young white female was comforted by another male. In this narrative, Keno’s only cherished characteristic was his ability to physically defend himself and others.
This one-way miscegenation reflects the cultural fears of the white-male societal position. Young explains that, “One of the reasons that may be posited for the intense emotional responses to interracial relationships is that of a fear of dissolution of the self represented by fusion with the Other.” Thus, the desexualization of Asian males in American popular narratives functioned to keep Asian males in the position of the other. Not only were Asian males different than white males, they were different from all males—they were unavailable and undesirable as sexual partners. In comparison to the sexuality of white-male images, Asian males were clearly not “normal” males.
Within the American popular films from 1991 through 1995, one aspect of the Asian-male identity was to be the other—different from the cultural norms of the narrative. To be an Asian male in these American popular films was to be a non-white male. Although Asian males were portrayed as businessmen, scientists, criminals, gamblers, and a variety of other roles, they were still portrayed as the white male’s other—different and unlike the male norm. They were not portrayed as having equal societal positions that white males had. Asian-male identity was compartmentalized into very specific roles.
Asian-male identity was also defined in spectacular ways. The images of Asian males in the fifty American popular films studied demonstrated Hollywood’s practice of exaggerating depictions of ethnicity and race. These exaggerated depictions of Asian males created lasting pictures in audiences’ minds. The spectacle of Asian males contributed to one part of the Asian-male identity: to be odd—to exist outside the normalness of the white-male narrative. Spectacle portrayals of language, martial arts, and other Asian culture simultaneously attracted and repulsed the audience. Audiences may have initially been attracted to the exotic images; however, they were soon repulsed after learning that Asian males were the other. Portrayals of the Asian-male spectacle also contributed to the lack of an individual identity for Asian males. This notion of identity was seen in the fact that all of the groups of Asian males, three or more, were defined homogeneously. They were cinematically portrayed as one entity. They were defined as a group of monks, or, more frequently, they were defined as a group of businessmen. These groups were portrayed as spectacles—they were simultaneously contrasted with and set apart from the discursive functions of the narrative. Groups of Asian males also were defined as the other—they existed in popular narratives to help define what is normal (white) and what is abnormal (Asian). Part of the popular Asian-male identity is this notion of ethnic grouping. In the popular narratives analyzed, Asian males were defined by spectacles of ethnicity first, and in very rare cases, by their actions and personalities second. The popular saying, “They all look alike,” is clearly supported by the portrayal of Asian males in American popular films.
To be an Asian male in American popular film is to be abnormal. The identity of Asian males in the fifty films analyzed was defined as different from the identity of white males. Young states “…white identity has managed to assume a normativeness which has left it underinterrogated. . . .” When contrasted with the normativeness of white identity, Asian males are odd, strange, exotic, and mysterious. Because the large majority of American popular narratives are centered in a white-male perspective, Asian-male identity within these texts becomes simplified and trivialized.
The popularity of film is increasing dramatically. With the rapid advancement of technology comes the increased reality of narratives. In the very near future, the availability and accessibility of popular films, and other popular rhetorical texts, will increase dramatically. With the development of digital technologies and internet distribution, popular narratives will have the potential to reach billions of people. The result may be that audiences are not only becoming desensitized to things such as graphic violence and unrealistic fantasy, but perhaps they are also becoming desensitized to cultural ignorance.
Appendix I: Data for Study
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day ($112,000,000
- Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ($86,000,000)
- City Slickers ($60,750,000)
- Home Alone ($60,000,000)
- The Silence of the Lambs ($59,900,000)
- The Addams Family ($55,000,000)
- Dances with Wolves ($52,500,000)
- Sleeping with the Enemy ($46,300,000)
- The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear ($44,200,000)
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II ($41,900,000)
- Home Alone 2: Lost in New York ($102,000,000)
- Batman Returns ($100,000,000)
- Lethal Weapon 3 ($80,000,000)
- Sister Act ($62,420,000)
- Aladdin ($60,000,000)
- Wayne’s World ($54,000,000)
- A League of Their Own ($53,100,000)
- Basic Instinct ($53,000,000)
- The Bodyguard ($52,900,000)
- A Few Good Men ($52,000,000)
- Jurassic Park ($346,260,000)
- Mrs. Doubtfire ($219,140,000)
- The Fugitive ($183,410,000)
- The Firm ($158,350,000)
- Sleepless in Seattle ($126,500,000)
- Indecent Proposal ($106,100,000)
- In the Line of Fire ($102,320,000)
- The Pelican Brief ($100,770,000)
- Schindler’s List ($96,150,000)
- Cliffhanger ($84,100,000)
- Forrest Gump ($323,660,000)
- The Lion King ($312,780,000)
- True Lies ($146,160,000)
- The Santa Clause ($144,800,000)
- The Flintstones ($130,520,000)
- Dumb and Dumber ($127,160,000)
- Clear and Present Danger ($121,990,000)
- Speed ($121,230,000)
- The Mask ($119,930,000)
- Pulp Fiction ($107,600,000)
- Toy Story ($191,340,000)
- Batman Forever ($184,100,000)
- Apollo 13 ($171,850,000)
- Pocahontas ($141,480,000)
- Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls ($108,270,000)
- Goldeneye ($103,800,000)
- Jumanji ($100,300,000)
- Casper ($100,290,000)
- Seven ($100,100,000)
- Die Hard with a Vengeance ($99,970,000)
© Jeffrey B. Ho
Jeff just finished his Masters Degree in Speech Communications at CSU. He will join the Speech Communications faculty at CSU in the fall. He is currently studying finance to one day take advantage of Wall Street’s booming success.
Source: Ho, Jeffrey. 1998. The Yellow Menace in American Popular Film: 1991 through 1995. http://nieveroja.colostate.edu/issue3/menace.htm [accessed: 2013-01-12].