White femininity and its importance to Asian American masculinity in “Master of None”

A lot of our conversation in class this week revolved around defining Asian American masculinity through comparisons with white masculinity, violence and queerness. However, in my blog, I argue that access to white femininity is crucial for Asian American men to avoid racial castration because white women are the most “purely feminine” by white hegemonic standards.

Asian American comedian Aziz Ansari debuted his Netflix series, Master of None, in 2015 to great acclaim. Ansari created, wrote and starred in the comedy as Dev, an aspiring Indian American actor who lives in New York City. Critics praised Master of None for featuring a noticeably diverse cast, breaking molds of how Asian American men are presented in Hollywood, and its lack of hesitation to talk about some of more “taboo” topics in TV shows, like race and sexuality.

However, the ways which Ansari uses to validate Dev as an man in the show are deeply problematic because they are rooted in white heteronormative standards of masculinity. The most glaring way he does this is by giving Dev white women as love interests. This is perhaps most obvious in the first scene of the pilot episode, “Plan B,” when Dev is in the middle of having sex with Rachel, a white woman. Through their conversation, one can glean that he picked her up at a bar during a night out. The placement of this scene at the beginning of the series is to throw the stereotype of Asian American men being nerdy and not sexually desirable out the window immediately, but Ansari had to cast a white woman in the sex scene to make it effective.

The idea that Dev is sexually desirable as an Asian American man to white women continues throughout the series in order to keep his masculinity intact. Later on in the pilot episode, Dev runs into a white ex-girlfriend who now has a child at a toy store. In this case, motherhood is even used to legitimize his ex-girlfriend as perfectly feminine by white heteronormative standards. Even Dev’s Taiwanese American friend, Brian, has a white ex-girlfriend who is briefly mentioned in the second episode.

In the third episode of Master of None, Dev spends most of his time trying to find a date for a secret concert he has tickets to — predictably settling on his “hottest” option, Alice, a white waitress. Even though he has other options, Dev waits three days for her to respond even though it agitates him. Eventually he decides to ask another girl, but when Alice’s plans change and she agrees to go to the concert with him, Dev bails on the date he already arranged. At the concert, Alice acts very strangely and Dev is not attracted to her anymore because of her erratic behavior, but at the end of the episode, Rachel reappears as a legitimate love interest for him, reaffirming white women as ideal love interests even though he just spent two hours with one he didn’t click with.

Upon first watch, Master of None’s repeated casting of white women as love interests for the Asian American men in the show may not seem problematic, mostly because whiteness is invisible (Eng, 138). Television audiences have been socialized to recognize white as normal, so it’s much harder to see it with a different lens. But once that is recognized, it becomes clear that the “burden of whiteness” is cast on Dev in Master of None because he is Asian American (Eng, 141). The sex scene in the pilot episode is striking not because Rachel is white, but because Dev is not.

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly also uses white women as a way to measure masculinity. In the play, Rene Gallimard is married to a white woman but fails to father children. He also enjoys looking at pin-ups of white women but cannot “get it up,” another way Hwang reflects failures in Gallimard’s masculinity through his negative experiences with white women (Eng, 153-155).

The use of white femininity as a measurement for masculinity is problematic because it has been defined as the “ideal” by white hegemony. When Asian American men try to overturn stereotypes of their asexuality or undesirability by obtaining access to white femininity, they are playing directly into the hands of the system that has racially castrated them in the first place.

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