In the past couple of years, there has been increasing conflict over the lack of Asian-American representation in film and television. Specifically, the whitewashing of existing roles – such as Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell – have prompted more visible activism from the Asian-American community. The #StarringJohnCho movement originally began as a way to shed light on whitewashing in Hollywood by posing the question: Why not John Cho? Although at the surface, these Photoshopped posters merely posit an Asian leading man, they also feed into troubling notions of masculinity for the Asian-American community.
William Yu, the creator of the #StarringJohnCho original posters and website, told the New York Times that the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in particular inspired the project, alongside a childhood that lacked Asian role models in the media. John Cho was chosen as the face of this meme because despite the fact that he has not taken on many stereotypical roles and never done an accent for a project, Cho has managed a significant amount of visibility and success in the film industry. Indeed, the website Yu created cites various testimonials of Cho’s acting ability and defiance of Asian male archetypes.
By superimposing Cho’s face onto the white leads in movies like Spectre and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the movement ends up validating hypermasculinity in the form of violence and power to contrast the feminized nature of Asian-American men. In this way, Asian-American men are reaching for the “infinite” as defined by “The Marvelous Plenty of Asian American Men” – a comparison that is particularly poignant as John Cho stars in one of the films analysed Better Luck Tomorrow. The intent is to show that Asian-American men are not just emasculated nerds, but rather, to show the infinite possibilities for Asian-American masculinity. However, in attempting to attain the infinite, their efforts become a totality because they are following the white heteronormative script for masculinity.
Yet perhaps less noticeable but more concerning is the obsession with Asian-American men as the love interest in films. Discussion about Asian-American representation in film often centers around the fact that Asian men are never considered viable options as a romantic partner for the female lead, in particular when the female lead is a white woman. Some of the posters show Cho in romance films like Me Before You, Mother’s Day, and (500) Days of Summer. Due to the racial castration of Asian-American men, Asian men are rarely considered as love interests in movies or television shows.
As Brandzel and Desai note in their paper, women play an important role in validating masculinity. Their “heterosexual and reproductive labor” (71) are what prevent boys from becoming violent. In examining Seung-hui Cho, Brandzel and Desai state that he “fit the pattern of campus killers, in which the rejection by women is one of the primary elements” (71). In this schema that assumes that campus shooters turn to violence due to their inability to access white masculinity, the attention of women is one of the vital factors to prove masculinity. The focus on ensuring that Asian men are viewed as viable love interests in media only serves to fuel this assumption. Asian men cannot be considered masculine unless they are able to be the object of the lead female character’s affection. Only once women view Asian men as attractive and masculine can they be considered as such.
Though the #StarringJohnCho movement intends to shed light on the lack of Asian leads in Hollywood, it also falls into dangerous ideals of masculinity. Rather than expanding the notions of Asian-American masculinity, these posters serve to perpetuate the ideal of masculinity defined by violence, strength, and heteronormative attractiveness.