Earlier this week, a biweekly segment called Watters’ World (part of the Fox News political program The O’Reilly Factor) caused a stir in the Asian-American community. In general, Watters’ World is intended to be a humorous collection of street interviews conducted by political commentator Jesse Watters, with past topics focusing on immigration policy, millennials, and drug use. In this week’s segment, Watters asks Chinese-Americans about the election, interviewing passersby in New York City’s Chinatown. Watters explains that he chose the location because “in the first presidential debate, China was mentioned 12 times” (0:09). However, a more insidious message emerges when you engage with Watters’ World as a primary text. Putting Lisa Lowe’s analytical framework of heterogeneity, multiplicity, and hybridity into conversation with conceptions of the white male gaze, a textual analysis of Watters’ World shows how political media does the dual work of disenfranchising Asian-Americans and bolstering white heteromasculine hegemony.
Through the conflation of several Asian ethnic cultural products during the segment, it becomes clear that Watters, a white man, is not interested in acknowledging the heterogeneity of Asian cultures. At the start of the segment, Watters asks two young Chinese women “Am I supposed to bow to say hello?” and bows without waiting for an answer (0:27). Later in the segment he asks a Chinese man if he knows karate and engages in a mock fight with a man in a Tae Kwon Do studio (2:45, 2:51). As responses to this segment have already pointed out (notably Ronny Cheng’s response on The Daily Show), these cultural products correspond to different Asian ethnicities, none of which are Chinese: bowing between peers is typically seen as a Japanese or Korean custom, karate was developed in Japan, and Tae Kwon Do is Korean. Although the segment that is intended to be about Chinese-American opinions of the first presidential debate, these scenes about bowing and martial arts are not topical of the Chinese-American community. However, using Lowe’s concept of heterogeneity where differences within a social group are named and acknowledged, we can determine the scenes’ social and political functions—by erasing and subsuming many cultures under the label of Chinese or Asian, this segment homogenizes Asians as a group, which allows for a more cohesive effect of oppression (Lowe, 71).
By calling on the products of other Asian ethnicities, Watters widens the reach and scope of hegemonic discourses; homogenizing representations of Asian-Americans as Chinese erases differences in political stances, demands, and histories between Asian ethnic groups. Thus, this works to rob Asian-Americans of agency and politics with respect to their unique ethnic identities. Moreover, perpetuating the monolithic construction of Asian-American identity bolsters whiteness because it reifies racial constructs that whites have created. Racial discourses are strengthened by the erasure of ethnic differences because differences between racial groups are seen to be more substantial than differences within racial groups—thus, white people are able to condemn all Asian-Americans under the guise of addressing Chinese Americans and conversely are able to imply meaningful differences in status between white people and Asian people.
Am I supposed to bow to say hello?
Focusing on hegemonic discourses surrounding gender and sexuality, this segment’s construction of Asian American masculinity and femininity shows how both the multiplicity and hybridity of identities can be used to marginalize individuals. Doing a close textual analysis of the scenes from 2:45 to 3:24, Watters uses a juxtaposition of scenes to reinforce white heterosexual patriarchy. The first two scenes in this section have already been referenced. Watters asks a man if he knows karate; although this man clearly doesn’t, Watters asks the man to punch him to which Watters responds “That was nothing.” Watters’ disappointed statement constructs Asian-American masculinity by suggesting that Asian men should know martial arts (in particular, karate). The next scene is Watters mock-fighting with a Tae Kwon Do expert in a studio, and Watters is losing badly. However, Watters is laughing the whole time and mockingly imitating the sounds that the expert is making. Watters’s lack of effort and and mockery in this scene also reinforces the dominance and hegemony of white masculinity over Asian masculinity. Although this expert meets Watters’s expectations of Asian masculinity, Watters is still positioned as more masculine. Juxtaposed after those scenes, Watters’ turns to constructions of Asian American femininity. Returning to the two young Chinese women, Watters asks “Do you guys like to party?…How do they dance in China?” after which Watters is seen physically touching one of the women and dancing with her. The prior scenes with the two Asian men did not have any mention of romance or sex, which can also be seen as constructing Asian masculinity as asexual; subsequently, this depiction of Watters flirting with these women positions white men as sexually dominant over Asian women. Following this scene, Watters is shown receiving a foot massage from an older Asian woman, who remains silent when he asks her “Can you play this little piggy went to market?” In addition to the sexual overtones of this scene, the woman’s silence and service to a white man constructs Asian American femininity as passive, docile, and domestic—especially in relation to white masculinity. Thus, looking at these constructions of Asian American masculinity and femininity using Lowe’s concepts of multiplicity and hybridity, we can see how Watters chooses to frame gender and sexuality with respect to race: white masculinity is dominant over Asian masculinity, and Asian femininity is seen as submissive to white masculinity (Lowe 67,74). With intersecting axes of oppressive discourses along raced, gendered, and sexualized lines, Watters engages with multiple identities that Asian-Americans hold and uses his positions of privilege (whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality) to marginalize those identities.
Can you play this little piggy went to market?
Watters’s constructions of various aspects of Asian-American identities robs Asians of agency because they reify hegemonic discourses that uphold white supremacy, heteromasculinity, and misogyny. The white male gaze, where white men use images in the media to control images of marginalized groups, allows us to think critically about the producers and consumers of Watters’ World. Fox News is known for being run and financed by wealthy, conservative white men, and Fox News is notorious for having white conservative viewers. Thus, this segment wasn’t necessarily made for consumption by Asian-Americans, which is obvious—most would be upset at the very least by the stereotypes that Watters portrays. Conversely, this segment is made for the consumption of white viewers, who then internalize its message: to reinforce the invisibility and irrelevancy of Asian Americans in American politics. While this was intended to be a survey of Chinese American opinions on the debate, it ended up being deeply racist and misogynist entertainment created by white viewers for white viewers, and suggests that Asian American don’t have political views worth substantially researching and or engaging with in a meaningful way. Furthermore, Watters and O’Reilly’s flippant comments at the end of the segment, anticipating the backlash they will receive suggest that concerns about the segment’s racism are invalid because its intended audience, white viewers, don’t care about meaningful representations of Asian Americans.
Thus, if the portrayal of Asian Americans in mainstream political media is to improve, where Asian Americans aren’t disenfranchised for the sake of bolstering white heteropatriarchy, people (especially white viewers) must move away from normalizing the white male gaze. We must make it difficult for people like Watters and O’Reilly to dismiss complaints about racism, misogyny, and many more. We must demand that news stations cover topics that do not center around white people, and we must ask that they do not frame news stories in a way that bolsters white supremacy.