An all Asian-American team of producers, artists, and actors have been working to create It’s Asian Men!, a Magic Mike reinterpretation with, as the title suggests, hot Asian male dancers in the leading roles. Although the short film is still in the production process, the project’s creators have been very transparent about what this film will entail. Through a discourse analysis of the project’s Indiegogo crowdsourcing page (looking at the promotional videos, pictures, and descriptions as texts) and putting these texts in conversation with Slaying the Dragon and conceptions of the white male gaze, it becomes clear that these kinds of projects challenge the gendered politics of Asian American representations. However, using David L. Eng’s framework of the intersections between compulsory heterosexuality and the invisibility of whiteness, we can see that It’s Asian Men! (IAM) may simultaneously challenge and reify aspects of white heteromasculinity.
IAM’s production processes stands starkly in contrast with the early films depicted in the documentary Slaying the Dragon. The crowdsourced project is completely run by a team of ethnically-diverse Asian American women— Korean American NaRhe Ahn, Japanese American Junko Goda, and Chinese American Dorothy Xiao—which is empowering in and of itself. First, the crowdsourcing platform directly challenges assumptions about the political economy of film representations; Slaying the Dragon illustrates the belief that only certain types of Asian American representations (e.g. Lotus Blossoms, Dragon Ladies) would be popular with audiences and generate profits, but IAM shows that folks are willing to support projects with Asians in leading roles (1:25). Additionally, the fact that young women of color are the decision-makers and leaders of the project is incredibly empowering from a proportional perspective when compared to the general whiteness and maleness of mainstream production teams, such as that of Magic Mike.
But also equally important about having women of color as writers, directors, and producers is that they will likely avoid the problematic pitfalls of the white male gaze— when the intended audience of an art piece centers on white, cisgender, heterosexual men. The text on the crowdsourcing page asserts that the filmmakers are “Asian women who love [their] Asian men.” A textual analysis of the promotional video clearly shows this “love”—the closing of the promotional video focuses on the bodies of shirtless, muscular, Asian male dancers, with close-up shots of six-pack abs, broad shoulders, and in the very last shot, a man grabbing his crotch (1:40-1:50). This promotional video does the dual work of challenging the white male gaze and also the hegemonic Asian American masculinities and femininities which Rosalind Chou outlines in Asian American Sexual Politics. First, the white male gaze is subverted because instead of women of color’s bodies being disciplined by media images controlled by white men, this video is instead an open realization of women’s of color’s desires and sexuality, curated by the women filmmakers (Chou 77). Empowering agency is shown through the visibility of female desire on Asian women’s own terms and with Asian women as an intended audience. In so doing, the women filmmakers also challenge hegemonic Asian American masculinity, where Asian men are constructed as more feminine and excluded from male status (Chou 107). By depicting these Asian men as sexually desirable, notably by emphasizing their torsos and crotches, the promotional video provides a challenge to racial castration which positions Asian men as unattractive and hyposexual.
All that being said, there are ways in which this film has a reverse, reifying effect on white heteromasculinity.
Additionally, David L. Eng states that heterosexuality and whiteness collude to become compulsory; heteronormativity relies on an occlusion of whiteness as a racial category (Eng 142). Using Eng’s framework of heterosexuality, we can then also see that IAM challenges white heteromasculine norms by this depiction of Asian men with sexual agency. Ahn outlines the plot in the promotional video (1:26-1:40). The film starts off with a young, heterosexual Asian couple who watch Magic Mike right before bed and who are angered at the lack of Asian American men in the movie. The young woman then has a fantasy dream where the Magic Mike cast has been replaced by all Asian men. Thus, by substituting the Asian American men for the white cast of Magic Mike, IAM makes whiteness emphatically visible. By exclusively casting Asian-Americans, IAM exposes the collusion of heterosexuality and whiteness illustrated in Magic Mike‘s racially homogenous casting, which suggests that only white men can be heteromasculine (and attractive) enough to play male dancers. Putting Eng into conversation with Chou, IAM thus challenges hegemonic Asian-American sexualities and heteronormativity as a whole. Since Asian-American men are often excluded from heteromasculinity (e.g. being ridiculed by white men as being effeminate or queer), IAM directly questions that notion by showing heterosexual and masculine Asian men, thus doing the ideological work of redefining or expanding heteromasculinity to include Asian Americans (Chou 108).
Looking at the actors starring in IAM, they are certainly worthy of fantasy—as ethnically diverse as the women filmmakers, the male actors have pictures on the Indiegogo site which show off their muscular bodies and handsome facial features. While these depictions do challenge hegemonic Asian American masculinity, they may not do enough in terms of challenging masculine norms of desirability. The aspect of racial substitution in IAM’s summarized plot states that Asian men can be as desirable as white men (or alternatively that Asian men can perform masculinity as well as white men), but this does not challenge the masculine desirability norms themselves which are generally ableist and fatphobic. The cast that the filmmakers chose reflects this as well—at least from the pictures, it seems that they are all able-bodied, fit and muscular, with their hair cut short (or shaved) and in characteristically masculine poses. Additionally, there has been a rise in the popularity of other racialized body types such as the “dad bod”—a trope which glorifies and congratulates white men who aren’t muscular or defined (read: white men with more typical body types). While acceptance of a range of body types is generally a positive trend, it does become an issue when Asians and other people of color are excluded. In leaving the masculine norms unchallenged, IAM runs the risk of reifying that Asian men need to have chiseled cheekbones and abs in order to be considered sexually attractive, while white men are hot with “dad bods”—a model minoritization of the application of desirability norms.