5 Asian American Stereotypes in TV and Film That Need to Die

Geishas and geeks make this list

Man doing Kung Fu
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Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, but in Hollywood, they're often invisible or subject to old, tired stereotypes.

Stereotypes in the media are especially harmful given that the Asian American community is woefully underrepresented on the large and small screen alike.

“Only 3.8 percent of all television and theatrical roles were portrayed by Asian Pacific Islander actors in 2008, compared to 6.4 percent portrayed by Latino actors, 13.3 percent portrayed by African Americans and 72.5 percent portrayed by Caucasian actors,” according to the Screen Actors Guild.

Because of this imbalance, Asian American actors have few opportunities to counteract sweeping generalizations about their racial group. In reality, Asian Americans are far more than the geeks and geishas Hollywood would have you believe.

Dragon Ladies

Since the days of early Hollywood, Asian American women have played “dragon ladies.” These female characters tend to be physically attractive but domineering and underhanded. Ultimately, they can’t be trusted. Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong played a series of these roles in the 1920s and contemporary actress Lucy Liu has more recently been accused of popularizing the stereotype.

Wong temporarily left the United States to act in European films where she could escape being typecast as a dragon lady in Hollywood films.

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” Wong explained in a 1933 interview quoted by the Los Angeles Times. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that. … We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill?”

Kung Fu Fighters

When Bruce Lee became a superstar in the U.S. after the success of his 1973 film “Enter the Dragon,” the Asian American community largely took pride in his fame. In the film, Lee wasn’t portrayed as a buck-toothed imbecile, as Asian Americans had been portrayed in films such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Instead, he was strong and dignified. But before long, Hollywood began to portray all Asian Americans as martial arts experts.

“So now the flipside of stereotyping is that every Asian American actor is expected to know some form of martial arts,” Tisa Chang, director of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York, told ABC News. “Any casting person will say, ‘Well, do you do some martial arts?’”

Since Bruce Lee’s death, Asian performers such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li have become stars in the U.S. due to their martial arts backgrounds.

Geeks

Asian Americans are often portrayed as geeks and technical whizzes. Not only does this stereotype surface in television shows and films but also in commercials. The Washington Post has pointed out that Asian Americans are often portrayed as technologically savvy people in ads for corporations such as Verizon, Staples, and IBM.

“When Asian Americans appear in advertising, they typically are presented as the technological experts—knowledgeable, savvy, perhaps mathematically adept or intellectually gifted,” the Post reported. “They’re most often shown in ads for business-oriented or technical products—smartphones, computers, pharmaceuticals, electronic gear of all kinds.”

These commercials play on existing stereotypes about Asians being intellectually and technologically superior to Westerners.

Foreigners

Although people of Asian descent have lived in the United States since the 1800s, Asian Americans are often portrayed as perpetual foreigners. Like Latinos, Asians in television and film often speak accented English, suggesting that they’re recent immigrants to the country.

These portrayals ignore that the United States is home to generation after generation of Asian Americans. They also set up Asian Americans to be stereotyped in real life. Asian Americans often complain about how often they get asked, “Where are you from—originally?” or complimented for speaking good English when they’ve spent their entire lives in the United States.

Prostitutes

Asian women have routinely been featured as prostitutes and sex workers in Hollywood. The line “Me love you long time,” spoken by a Vietnamese sex worker to U.S. soldiers in the 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket,” is arguably the most famous cinematic example of an Asian woman willing to sexually debase herself for white men.

“There we have the promiscuous API woman stereotype: The one in which the Asian woman wants to have sex, willing to do anything, with the white man,” wrote Tony Le in Pacific Ties magazine. “The stereotype has taken many forms, from Lotus Blossom to Miss Saigon.” Le said that 25 years of “me love you long time” jokes endure.

According to the TV Tropes website, the Asian prostitute stereotype dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, when U.S. military involvement in Asia heightened. In addition to “Full Metal Jacket,” films such as “The World of Suzie Wong” notoriously featured an Asian prostitute whose love for a white man is unrequited. “Law & Order: SVU” also routinely depicts Asian women as prostitutes and mail-order brides.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Asian American Stereotypes in TV and Film That Need to Die." ThoughtCo, Jun. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/asian-american-stereotypes-in-t-film-2834652. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2018, June 13). 5 Asian American Stereotypes in TV and Film That Need to Die. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/asian-american-stereotypes-in-t-film-2834652 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Asian American Stereotypes in TV and Film That Need to Die." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/asian-american-stereotypes-in-t-film-2834652 (accessed June 18, 2018).