In effort to combat negative stereotypes of Asian-Americans portrayed by Western media, Wayne Wang sought to break stereotypes by creating strong Asian-American female characters. However, he noted the inescapable difficulty in providing meaningful and positive Asian roles without relying on current stereotypes and accidentally creating new ones. In current media, more Asian-American actors and directors, like Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari who co-created Netflix series Master of None, are breaking media-driven stereotypes in attempts to convey realistic portrayals of Asian-Americans today. Nevertheless, by analyzing Master of None and its progressive efforts, I uncover the areas where the show and its characters fall short and let Asian-American millennials down and discuss how Master of None impacts young people of color.
Before I begin, I want to point out that I adore Ansari and Yang’s witty creation; it’s a necessary work of art that brought much-needed visibility to Asian-Americans. However, I have problems with some aspects of the critically-acclaimed show, specifically in the way it handles Asian-American family dynamics, interracial relationships and visibility of different identities.
To start, there is an evident lack of meaningful conversations— conversations that are bound to happen with one’s immigrant family— which are ignored or passed on for unclear reasons. Dev Shah is a thirtysomething single Indian-American (for part of the show), so when does he talk with his parents about marriage, sex and romance or mention his family’s opinions on those matters? Does he just ignore them or not care about his family’s opinions? If the show is attempting to convey the individuality and independence an average White American to Dev’s character, then that might not be really bringing visibility to Asians because culture and family are so inherently connected to the identity. For example, in “Mornings”, Rachel moves in with Dev, and they live together for almost a year. Rachel confronts Dev on why he’s never mentioned her to his parents when her mom knows everything about him, and Dev responds saying how it is a “cultural thing.” This idea is completely relatable; it’s true that some Asian-American families, mine included, don’t talk about these matters, but in today’s tech-savvy and connected world, how could his parents not know for an entire year? Also, when they did finally find out, I’m confused as to why Dev’s parents had nothing more to say than “I still can’t believe that you’ve been living with this girl for a whole year and didn’t tell us.” The show skipped over the discussion that would have taken place. As Chou discovers from her respondents, family influence (whether positive or negative) on Asian-Americans and their relationships is evident, so when there is no evidence of this discussion in a predominantly Asian-American TV show, I find it mind-boggling (Chou). Another discussion that is glossed over is how Dev got into acting and how his parents came to terms with his career because most Asian-American actors today, including Aziz Ansari, have had family ridicule at some point in time. Furthermore, I’m curious about how Dev’s parents got to be so understanding and progressive. Clearly, they’ve come a long way, and although the episode “Parents” does extremely well in depicting the immigrant story, there’s still more to uncover from Shah’s parents because it is unlikely they’ve always retained that understanding, unprejudiced attitude. Overall, since the personal is political as a personal of color, I wished to see more of the political work that had to occur to allow for such understanding and mature immigrant parents rather than have it be behind the scenes.
In terms of romance, the spotlight is on Dev’s interracial relationship with thirty-year old Rachel, who is a Caucasian female, and their overall dynamic reinforces the desirability of white women in heteronormative culture. I commend Ansari for depicting the struggles and tensions interracial couples have. However, out of all the hookups his character has, all of them have been with White females. In the episode where Dev is trying to score a date with the White waitress, he is actively trying to find his “hottest”, I mean, “whitest” option. Thus, Dev clearly has a type, like Ben Tanaka in Shortcomings, and fails to acknowledge that. What’s even more bothersome is how Dev makes comments to Rachel like “I like your bumps”, which suggest and support the stereotypical necessity for the female body to be desirable and sexy. With a White female as the main romantic interest, the stereotype of obtaining a White partner is reinforced.
One of the most obvious pitfall of Master of None is how a show, which strives for visibility for people of color and more specifically Asian-Americans, fails to have a developed Asian-American woman character. Seriously, where are the women of color? Besides Caroline, who is an Asian-American woman who uses Dev for free dinner (which in and by itself is a negative portrayal of the only Asian-American female in the show and perpetuates tokenism), I question how Master of None breaks stereotypes of Asian-American females. As an Indian-American female, it’s not relatable because one cannot create so much depth into an Asian-American male character without having similar depth to an Asian-American female character. In attempts to break the idea of an asexual, awkward and feminized Asian-American male, Master of None relies on enforced masculinity in various scenes and fails to bring visibility to the Asian-American female. Making Asian-American women inaccessible, representing the one Asian-American female as an unreliable romantic interest and providing more authority to Dev’s character leads way to more hegemony (Lecture 4).
Another area that bothered me was acknowledgement of multiplicity but lack of depth in discussing queer individuals of color and other minorities. We get a glimpse of same-sex relationships with Denise and there are no relationships between two Asian-Americans or two minority identities. Last, I find it strange how we see a lot of horizontal transmission of culture, but not vertical (Lowe). Apart from “Parents”, there are minimal mentions of community elders or other cultural figures, which suggests that Dev resorts to betrayal to adapt and function as an Asian-American (Bow). Moreover, even though American cinema is often inaccurate in terms of minority culture, I held Master of None to a higher standard, considering its creators are Asian-Americans, but it’s funny how even it fails in accuracy. For instance, Dev Shah has South Indian ancestry and his parents speak Tamil, but his name signifies a North Indian origin. Nonetheless, the show does remarkably well in creating visibility for minorities and depicting realistic interactions with minorities than any other show I’ve watched.
I’m glad that there’s a show like Master of None despite its flaws because visibility is better than no visibility at all, and I appreciate the artists fighting within the system to help fight stereotypes. Overall, stereotypes in the media will continue to exist, but by noticing the sacrifices made, such as the betrayal of parental culture and negotiations of visibilities of different identities, will aid in combating stereotypes. This way, we may enjoy American cinema while appreciating the diversity of minority roles.
Bow, Leslie. Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women’s Literature. Princeton University Press, 2011. Google Scholar. Web. Oct. 2016.
Chou, Rosalind S. 2012. Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Rowman & Littlefield.
Lowe, L. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 1 no. 1, 1991, pp. 24-44. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/dsp.1991.0014.