Asian Depiction: Is It Getting Better?

Hmm, I think... YES.
August 16, 2013

Quickly looking over the throng of 2013 releases of novels and films with Asian protagonists, I’m beginning to think, culturally speaking, that the American media is being more thoughtful about how Asians are depicted these days. There is also an influx of emerging writers who are Asian, and they’re steadily changing the landscape of storytelling involving Asians. I like where this is going.

I used to think that the only kinds “Asian books” were ones where the characters were so super hardcore Asian that their racial challenges were the primary plot-drivers. And the Asian characters wouldn’t ever let you forget it, too. It’s as if they were saying, “Oh don’t mind my personality, I’m just acting this way because I’m sooooo Asian.” But times are changing! Stories that hearken back to the usual stereotypes of Tiger Parenting, overcoming racist bullies, and poor First Generation kid woes (which, don’t get me wrong, are still active points of contention in almost every Asian young person I know) are coming up fewer. It’s a good thing. Because then again, aren’t those so-called stereotypes true of ALL races and cultures? Classic themes time and again, I’ll say.

Earlier this year Tao Lin, who is a rockstar author at this point, released his memoir-ish Taipei where his NYC-based writer-hero Paul travels to (spoiler alert) Taipei to reconnect with his familial roots. Let’s not forget about his endless episodes of being under the influence of drugs! And really, who the fuck cares what his Asian mother would say. There’s also Don Lee’s The Collective, about the lives of three Asian-American artist-types who become friends at the decidedly alt-vibey Macalester College in the late 80s. It’s kind of like The Marriage Plot, but with Asians. Also from this year, the similar-sounding book titles of Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (which is also a Bookmarked), both glaringly indiscreet about their books’ premise, explore the rousing intrigue of “Asian wealth” which is newer territory in terms of Far Eastern themes. The film rights to Crazy Rich Asians have already been acquired by Color Force, the production studio behind The Hunger Games franchise. Additionally, I admire authors like Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) and JK Rowling (the Harry Potter series, duh) who have previously written in Asians as their protagonists’ love interests in the most natural way; literary heroes have crushes on Asian chicks, so what! And them being Asian really has little to do with anything else plot-driven in the book. It’s cool shit! No one cares!

HOT.

HOT.

Over in TV land, things are also getting interesting. Funny writers Danny Chun (The Office), Alan Yang (Parks and Recreation), and Elaine Ko (Modern Family) have all inked exclusive deals with major networks. These deals come years after they wrote for characters who aren’t even Asian — maybe this means TV shows with Asian actors will also eventually get better, who knows — but most importantly, this goes to prove that it’s possible to be a successful storyteller and be an Asian. A few years ago you would have found me arguing that almost all Asian roles were objectified as nerdy, submissive, or weirdo caricatures, even if intentions may seemed meaningful at the time by way of “diversifying” the cast: Rory’s BFF Lane on Gilmore Girls, Ari Gold’s assistant Lloyd on Entourage, the not-one-but-two “token Asians” in Pitch Perfect, Ming Huang (whatta name!) on Awkward., actor Ken Jeong in anything he does — to name a few (and there are ONLY a few) — are all painfully meh to me.

Not so hot.

Not so hot.

Yeah, there’s still a lot of work to do. Can’t Asian actors be granted normal roles? I think almost every “white role” on TV and movies could easily be replaced by an Asian performer since race rarely matters to the actual plot of most stories. Mindy Kaling, who in my book is one of the best comedy goddesses both onscreen and behind-the-scenes at the moment, embodies the most magical kind of trajectory, that it is possible to have a career where you can simply be a comedian or a writer and not have to be labeled an Asian-American while you’re at it. (I’m probably glossing over a handful of other rising TV writers, screenwriters, and performers of Asian descent here but you get the idea.)

Though The Bling Ring is one of the year’s most mixed-reviewed flicks of the year, I’m still in love with the fact that the titular group’s mastermind was this wildly influential, manipulative, and insouciant Asian girl who rounded up a group of badass teens. My other all-time favorite badass Asian chick is the infamous Hipster Grifter, whose story I’m just waiting for some film producer to adapt (seriously movie people, get on this). If more captivating stories and complex characters like these popped up on our radar, which I’m eagerly awaiting they will, I think in the near future the Asian-American experience can simply be realized as an American experience surrounding an Asian person. You know, it’s an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to what’s next.