In the wake of white-washing scandals in Hollywood, such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Emma Stone in Aloha, the Asian American community decided to fight back with the social media campaign, #StarringJohnCho. By posing Asian American actor John Cho in the place of white male protagonists in films, the Photoshopped posters shed light on the lack of Asian male leads in the film industry at large. However, too often activism within the Asian American community has a singular focus that does not adequately address the nuances of the issues they are attempting to dismantle, and #StarringJohnCho is no exception. Although #StarringJohnCho provides an empowering outlet for Asian Americans frustrated with a lack of representation on the big screen, the campaign also perpetuates dangerous concepts of Asian heteromasculinity at the cost of agency for Asian women.
By superimposing John 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.
Specifically, this perspective on heterosexual romantic validation of Asian masculinity places the burden on Asian women. As Asian women also participated in the movement and created their own posters, this indicates their approval of John Cho as a desirable figure. However, when Asian women do not actively work to validate Asian masculinity (for instance, by dating men of other ethnicities), they are perceived as betraying their race. This simplistic view ignores the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality that Asian women embody; their sexuality is used to reinforce masculinity (Asian, white, or otherwise) and thus any relationships that threaten this masculinity is perceived as a betrayal. When Asian women hail John Cho as an ideal Asian man because he is attractive and sexually viable, they are complicit in maintaining a system that takes away their own autonomy. Asian women do not have the ability to choose their partners in a political vacuum, but when Asian masculinity relies on sexual validation from Asian women, when they choose outside of the Asian community they are often condemned.
The #StarringJohnCho campaign began with the best of intentions, and it surely accomplished its goal of shedding light on white-washing in the film industry. Unfortunately, #StarringJohnCho continues to operate within white heterosexual ideals of masculinity through violence, power, and sexual and romantic appeal, rather than challenging these restrictive notions. As we consider the forms our own activism takes, it is imperative we remain cognizant of the systems the operate around us as well.