Sunday, September 28, 2003

As-liens

I wrote this for an Asian American Studies class back in 1999. Some interesting points, some stuff I don't know that I still believe but I got an A.

For years various groups have protested the way Asians are portrayed in the media. In 1985 pressure from Asian American advocacy groups led to a disclaimer being added to the film Year of the Dragon. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) attempted a similar action with the film Rising Sun in 1993. The issue in both cases was the fact that these films cast Asians and Asian Americans in a negative light. Both films used the same Asian stereotypes that people have seen a thousand times before. It is an old story, ever since Chinese Laborers began to come over in large numbers in 1852[1] anti-Asian propaganda has been an accepted part of the American landscape. By now the basic stereotypes are well known, and well documented. Asians occupy a duplicitous role in American media, images and stereotypes that at times appear to be polar opposites serve to affirm the right of the west to dominate the east. Franklin Wong ties these contradictions together in his work On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures, notes, fantasies of threatening Asian men, emasculated eunuchs, alluring Asian dragon ladies, and submissive female slaves all work to rationalize white male domination[2]. So, despite the fact that Asians can occupy any of these poles, they are not allowed the middle ground, and therefore, not allowed to be fully developed characters. The fact that Asians in film have been perpetual second class characters is bad in and of its self; however there is an even more insidious element working in the mass media. This is, subliminal Asian stereotyping through the use of characters that are not overtly Asian, yet embody all the same fears and prejudices usually applied to Asian people. Often, this tactic is used by white characters and entertainers who attempt to exoticize themselves through the use of Asian imagery. This covert stereotyping is even more dangerous than kind seen in such films as Gung Ho, or The World of Suzie Wong because one cannot point to it an obvious or overt denigration of Asian people. Yet these images are clearly focused on Asians and their effect is doubled because these anti-Asian stereotypes are often thrust upon those whom the audience finds most alien: extra-terrestrials.

Asians have long been seen as the perpetual other. They cannot assimilate to the degree that most European immigrants can because their appearance always gives them away. Asian Americans, even those whose families have been in the US for several generations, are constantly faced with comments like, You speak very good English, and So, where are you from?. Since their citizenship cannot be determined by looks alone Asians are always seen as alien. Therefore, giving Asian attributes to an extra-terrestrial serves to re-enforce this feeling. To paraphrase Frederick Douglas, you cannot oppress a person with out first stripping them of their humanity[3]. There is no better way strip Asians of there humanity than to make them entirely not of this world. Also, many science fiction stories revolve around either a) a group of white male heroes setting out to conquer the universe or b) aliens invading Earth, usually by way of the US. These heroes see those aliens who are uncooperative as the enemy, so, it is natural for these sci-fi Matthew Perrys to destroy and subjugate the offending alien worlds, often questing after their exotic alien women as well. Often there aliens are made up to look like old Asian stereotypes, many look as though they have just stepped right out of an old WWII propaganda poster. The very foundation of science fiction as a genre is based in the ideas of manifest destiny and Yellow Peril.

The history Asian extra-terrestrials can be traced to Sax Rohmers character Fu Manchu, who, Only served to enhance the most negative images of Asians and Yellow Peril. (Fong, 175). Fu Manchu, an evil Asian man bent on world domination, found his extra-terrestrial counter part in the character of Ming the Merciless. Ming, the thinly veiled Asian villain first appeared on screen in 1936. With his Fu Manchu mustache and taped on epicanthil fold Ming (Richard Alexander) wanted to take over the Universe, the ultimate embodiment of Yellow Peril. Of course he is thwarted in his plan by the dashing Polo player turned super hero[4] Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe). Gordon of course is all that white America sees as ideal, tall, blonde, and good looking. Therefore it is seen as natural that Mings (Caucasian looking) daughter (Jean Rogers) rejects her father and falls in love with Gordon. Mings daughter had to white in order to get around Hollywoods anti-miscegenation laws. This film series exemplifies how Americas attitudes and fears towards Asians could be placed upon a wholly foreign (extra-terrestrial) entity with great success. When the Japanese sprang forward as an economic power during the 1980s Flash Gordon was reborn to the silver screen, and once again Ming, unchanged from his previous incarnation threatened the western world.

In 1966 Gene Roddenberry unveiled his creation to the world. It would become a sci-fi legend. In Roddenberrys universe the Earth has been unified into one government. Indeed much of the known universe has joined The Federation of Planets and dedicated its self to peace and scientific research. Roddenberrys story follows a multiracial cast as they attempt to go ...where no man has gone before. Star Trek was meant to be a utopia, a time when all the people of Earth were united in a common cause, and, on the surface it succeeded. There they were, White American, African, Asian, Russian, and Alien working together to explore the unknown. However a more critical evaluation of the shows dynamics reveals another message. The ships overtly Asian character is Hikaru Itaka Sulu played by Japanese American actor George Takei. People have critiqued Sulus role on the show, saying that it was the typical Asian sidekick role seen on earlier shows like, Have Gun Will Travel, and, The Green Hornet. Timothy Fong says that Sulu , was an obvious sexless character. While all the primary male crew members...had intergalactic encounters with women --human and alien-- Lt. Sulu was always left alone. ( Fong, 184). With just this superficial reading of the character it is clear that he is fulfilling the model minority stereotype; he is smart, subordinate. a good worker, and a-sexual. However, not only is Sulu is not the only Asian stereotype on the show, he is also the least stereotyped Asian type on the ship. There are two other far more harmful Asian stereotypes displayed through extra-terrestrial characters.

First there are the Klingons, people who follow the Star Trek world today know Klingons as made popular by African American actor Michael Dorn. Currently the Klingons resemble Humans with large bone structures on their foreheads. Still like Humans, they come in a variety of colors. This version of the Klingons first came about in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, (1982). From here on the Klingons began to adopt an increasingly African American look, until the most recent episodes and movies which have made them more racially diverse. This is a far cry from 1966, originally the Klingons were scotch tape Asians (Fong, 176); White actors given slanty eyes. The Klingon race incarnate all the characteristics that most scare White America. The Klingons are violent, ill tempered, lustful, and drunk. They are on a mission to destroy the peaceful Federation and take over the universe. Finally, they fight to the death preferring death to defeat or capture. One scene from an episode entitled The Trouble with Tribbles almost mirrors a scene from the 1944 film Dragon Seed. In both scenes the evil Asians show up at a restaurant and demand liquor, when they are denied they go on a violent rampage. Often, they are shown eating large hunks of meat off the bone Gengis Kahn style. The association with the Mongol Hordes is further intensified with the naming of the villain Kahn played by Ricardo Montelban.

Just as the Mongolians were related to the more civilized and refined Chinese, the Klingons have a correspondent race, the Vulcans. The Vulcans are an alien race that was at one time just like the Klingons, (with whom they share common ancestors), warlike and evil. However the Vulcans chose logic as their religion, and so, became smart calculating, and totally devoid of emotion. The most famous Vulcan is none other than Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) the first mate on the starship Enterprise. Mr. Spock personifies the ultimate model minority, he is smart, calm, reasonable, and he always obeys his boss Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Spocks most important characteristic though is his complete lack of sexuality. Spocks a-sexuality is even more pronounced than Sulus, in one episode it is revealed that Vulcans only desire to mate once every ten yearsduring a time called Pon Far. During this brief mating period Spock becomes consumed by lust, he nearly rapes a female nurse, and almost kills Kirk. To top it all off Spock shows shades of Charlie Chan, in that he often spouts off old Vulcan proverbs in a Confucius Say manner. These depictions of Asian like extra-terrestrials clearly demonstrate the prevailing attitudes towards Asians, that is that they are fine as long as they stay in their place, and dont have normal libidos.

As time and social attitudes have changed it has become slightly less acceptable to throw around Asian stereotypes out in the open. While it still happens the Political Correctness of the nineties has brought more attention to the issue. Writers like Gina Marchetti and Elaine Kim have turned a critical eye towards the media and its depiction of Asian people. Groups like MANNA, and the JACL try to educate both the public and film makers about Asian stereotypes, however the Asian as alien imagery lives on. In fact one of the most successful movie franchises ever is one of the worst perpetrators of this kind of subliminal racism. George Lucas Star Wars series is rife with racist images many of them associated with Asians. The first featured Asian like extra-terrestrial appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. The first and most prominent Asian extra-terrestrial is the wise old Yoda. Yoda represents the wise old shopkeeper stereotype, also found in movies like The Karate Kid. Yoda plays the Sensei to young Luke Skywalker and teaches him the ancient and mystical ways of The Force, just as Mr. Miagi takes Daniel under his wing in Kid. This story line draws influence from Asian ideas of Karma and Chi. The Force is both the living and spiritual energy of the universe that can be used to enhance the body and mind, and eventually rights all wrongs. At the end of the film a pilot named Nim Num who speaks a Asian like language helps the heroes fight the evil Empire. Nim Num is short, has large round eyes with slanted lids, and an almost fish-like appearance reminiscent of old anti-Asian propaganda. Nim Num however, was only a glimpse of what was to come.

In 1999 Lucas released the long anticipated prequel to his Star Wars Trilogy. People crammed theaters to full capacity to get a look at this latest addition to the Star Wars series entitled The Phantom Menace. To the dismay of Asian audience members there are two Asian stereotypes represented, the Yellow Peril, and the Geisha. First the audience is introduced to the sinister Viceroy Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation. The Federation is the precursor to what is in the later episodes the Empire. The Federation wants to control the economy of the galaxy and they will do anything to achieve their goal. This is a common fear of White America and is the theme in films like Rising Sun. As the film opens they are blockading the small planet Naboo in an attempt to take control of the planets trade and shipping rights. The Viceroy and his cohorts have caricatured Asian features and speak with thick imitation Asian accents. These characters caused great deal of controversy, for the first time the Asian extra-terrestrial is being called into question. In one article Andrew Gumbel states The noseless leaders of the Galactic Trade Federation are clearly a throwback to the Yellow Peril characters popular in Flash Gordon and other series, but risk being interpreted as a racial slur[5].

While it is refreshing to see Lucas and his extra-terrestrial Asians called to the mat the press made little or no mention of another, more subtle Asian stereotype present in Phantom. Queen Amidala of the embattled Naboo people is depicted as a strong yet inexperienced leader. While holding court she is dressed in elaborate Kabuki like garments, a sort of Space Geisha. Conversely, when she is out adventuring through space she loses the kabuki make up dresses more like a soldier. In this swashbuckling persona she looks more White and can go around shooting bad guys and climbing up buildings. It is also while in her more western looking garb that she shows the most leadership and makes the best decisions. Interestingly her mind seems to follow her image; while in her Space Geisha gear she is passive, indecisive weak, all traits associated with the geisha stereotype. While in this state she follows the advice of her mentor Senator Palpatine, who the audience knows, is the real man behind her peoples predicament. Senator Palpatine is a privileged white man, so, it is no surprise that he is able to dominate Amidala when she adopts her Asian persona.

The final repercussion associated with these Asian extra-terrestrials is the issue of homogenization. Already Asians and Asian Americans are faced with racist ideals that see all Asians as the same. Many people cannot tell the difference between different Asian ethnicities, or cultures. Fong acknowledges this problem when discussing Asian Americans working in the news media, he says, This notion assumes that Asian Americans are just one homogenous entity, which they are not. (Fong, 198). It this general ignorance about the differences between different Asian groups that lead to incidents ranging from the Vincent Chin killing, to the casting of Japanese American actor Gedde Watanabe as a Chinese exchange student. This problem is compounded by the Asians as extra-terrestrials paradigm. By taking Asian stereotypes and assigning them to ambiguous Asian extra-terrestrials the lines between ethnicities are further blurred.

By taking a closer look at not just overt Asian characters but at characters that are given Asian characteristics it is clear that the problem of racial stereotyping is deeper and more subtle than previously reported. Even as America becomes more and more Politically Correct covert stereotypes continue, largly unchallenged. The same fears and hatreds that were seen in the past persist today. There are bad Asians and good model minority Asians. The difference between good and bad Asian aliens is the same as between good and bad Asian characters in other films. In her analysis of Year of the Dragon Marchetti says, Only the rich are villainous among the Chinese. The Chinese workers may be ignorant, passive, and impotent, but...decidedly not villainous (Marchetti, 295). The same idea of powerful or rich Asians is evident in the films Rising Sun, and Gung Ho. On the other side , good Asians are the quiet hard workers in The Good Earth, and Go For Broke who take their abuse without complaint. Gross Asian stereotypes are fading in favor of more indirect ones. Film makers who continue to use Asian extra-terrestrials can always claim that critics are reading too much into a simple character. By hiding behind the veil of Science Fiction Hollywood will continue to be able to set an anti-Asian agenda. It has been a long road from Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless to the Viceroy Gunray and Queen Amidala but the attitudes behind the stereotypes have yet to change. Asians are still seen as a threat to Americas economy, there is still a desire to strip Asian men and women of their humanity in order to justify their domination by white male western society. White America sees these Asian extra-terrestrials the same way they see other Asian villains; as Marchetti says they feel they have the moral right to eradicate the villain because the foreign represents a threat to the racial and ethnic status quo (Marchetti, 287).


[1] Fong, 11
[2] As cited in Gina Marchettis Ethnicity and Cultural Studies.
[3] From Martin, Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass, The University of North Carolina Press: 1984


[4] From Reel.com review.
[5] from The Independant June 4 1999



Sources

Books
Fong, Timothy P. The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beuond the Model Minority, Prentice Hall Inc.: 1998

Friedman, Lester D. (Ed.) Unspeakable Images, University of Illinois Press: 1991

Martin, Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass, The University of North Carolina Press: 1984

On Line
(http://)

members.theglobe.com/treknut

stinsv.com /TOS/640char

thumb-1.image.altavista.com/image

www.amazon.com

www.english.wayne.edu/ ~calice/oh/images

www.freep.com/fun/ starwars/nstar4.htm

www.geocities.com/Area51/3253/regular

www.iac.net/~twisty

www.reel.com

www.scifi.com/startrek/cast/images

www.starwars.com/characters


Films
Howard, Ron Gung Ho, 1985

Hughes, John Sixteen Candles, 1984

Lucas, George Star Wars: Episode 1, 1999

Lucas, George The Empire Strikes Back

McG Charlies Angels, 2000

Okazaki, Steve Living On Tokyo Time, 1987

Ping, Chu Yin Shanghai Noon, 1999

Tasun, Frank The Geisha Boy, 1958

Wang, Wayne Dim Sum, 1984

Television
Star Trek, Amok Time 1967

Star Trek, The Trouble With Tribbles, 1967

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