Identifying representations of Asian American sexualities in mass media: a curatorial statement

By Bethany Ao

In my blog posts, I focused on examining romantic relationships, both within the Asian American community and interracial ones, through analyzing depictions of them in popular culture in scripted and reality television shows, literature and movies. I explored the power dynamics within those relationships and why they existed, how those relationships were perceived by the greater Asian American community, and how most depictions of those relationships are problematic in media.

I started out by looking at how Asian American women betray their racial identities in different ways on the Bachelor franchise before moving to examine how white femininity is used to legitimize Asian American masculinity, specifically through sexual relationships, in comedian Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None. Continuing with a close reading of sex scenes on screens, I analyzed Asian lesbianism in “The Handmaiden,” a Korean movie that perversified the sexual desires of men. For my last blog post, I chose to revisit a book I liked in high school that prominently featured a unequal interracial Asian American relationship, written by a white author.

One thing I tried to focus on in this class was linking academic concepts we covered during lectures to things that I recognized as controversial in pop culture. Before taking this class, I was pretty good at recognizing when a portrayal of Asian American sexuality was questionable in books and on TV screens, but I wasn’t as good about vocalizing why. It was really enlightening for me to begin to learn how to vocalize exactly why something vaguely problematic was that way through connecting sexuality with things like politics, race and capitalistic interests.

Central questions I identified through this process were: why are most portrayals of interracial relationships in popular media problematic? When certain portrayals are problematic, whose interests are they defending? How can portrayals of queer relationships deconstruct dominant hegemonic structures? How do the racial and gender identities of the creator of a piece of art affect the portrayal of race and sexuality in the work?

Given more time in the class, I would have continued to examine when things labeled as pop culture are problematic with Asian American sexualities. I think the issue of allowing something to get away with being problematic because it is a piece of art is very interesting — at what point do you draw the line and call it for what it is? Throughout our class, we’ve looked at pieces of art that confront dominant structures that are also problematic. Those pieces of art show that there are people who are trying to work against hegemonic structures. Does that mean we can’t excuse artists who aren’t trying to do that?

After writing my blog posts, I’ve decided that creative liberty is simply not good enough of a reason to excuse problematic movies, television shows or books. A creative has to take responsibility for the impact of their art, and to use creative liberty as a reason not to address issues within artistic realms is lazy, especially when these issues often involve the lives of real people. When Asian Americans are portrayed stereotypically on our television screens, the possibility of one of our neighbors saying something casually racist to us increases. When creatives choose not to challenge themselves to find less problematic ways of expressing their artistic vision, it hurts marginalized communities.

Romantic relationships and sexualities are often huge parts of pieces of work within pop culture. However, because they’re so widely spread and accepted, we don’t stop and consider those pieces of work as art in the same way we consider something hanging in an art gallery art. But perhaps it is because of the seemingly fleeting nature of pop culture that makes it so good at perpetuating hegemony. For example, producers ask viewers to think about The Bachelor through individual seasons. Each lead is a different person with various individuals to date. That kind of psychological separation makes it harder for most people to see the lack of diversity on that particular show. When things that make us uncomfortable because of our race and gender come up in books or on our television screens, pop culture asks us to write them off as individual occurrences, not something systematic.

It’s even harder to confront Asian American sexualities in the context of pop culture because there’s not much of it shown in the first place. Only recently have Asian Americans begun to see themselves more in the media, but the temporary nature of pop culture makes it extremely difficult for Asian American sexualities to be represented with nuance. The impact that the shallow understanding of Asian American sexualities on consumers of media should not be discounted either — mass media is more easily consumed than anything that requires a deeper level of thought. Because of that, mass media also often influences and shapes our thoughts more rapidly than other mediums.

I focused on connecting pop culture and mass media to theories we learned in this class because I want to be able to explain why certain things that come up in everyday conversations are problematic through more theoretical lenses. For me, the best part of Asian American studies classes has always been applying larger, more challenging academic concepts to things we see again and again in our everyday lives, whether it be through pop culture or our personal narratives. Making those connections in the real world is the only way we can push back against harmful hegemonic structures.

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