It’s Asian-American Heritage Month! So how’s it looking out there for Asians on TV?

Hi, I’m Luce (hi luce!) and I’m an Asian-American. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in America, so it’s a great time to talk about Asians, stereotypes, and representation. Let’s take a look at where Asian characters stand in today’s mainstream television media after the jump.

Hiro Nakamura (Heroes)

Hiro, an office worker from Tokyo, Japan, suddenly discovers that he has the power to manipulate the time-space continuum, gaining the powers of time travel, time manipulations, and teleportation throughout the course of the series. He’s quickly launched on a journey in which he has to save the cheerleader, save the world—oh, and maybe save a girlfriend or two while he’s at it.

Hiro-NakamuraShow creator Tim Kring has said that he only added Hiro to the cast of Heroes after his wife pointed out to him that no one on the show was actually happy they had superpowers. Thus, Hiro is possibly the only character who seems excited about his “hero” position at all. This lends the character to a couple of easy stereotypes, but Hiro’s actor, Masi Oka, has this to say:

“The problem with stereotypes is when they become the butt of the joke. What makes Hiro endearing is his humor comes from his enthusiasm.”

It seems to me that Hiro actually fits two Asian stereotypes—the nerdy, geeky Asian otaku, and the dominating super samurai “Future Hiro”. And a role such as this could be very troubling in a less talented actor’s hands than Oka’s—Hiro’s cuteness and boundless energy place him on just this side of the nice, sexless Asian male stereotype, but Oka, who translated all his Japanese lines himself, has said that he considers himself “very fortunate to be representing the geeks”.

Hikaru Sulu (Star Trek)

Sulu’s a Japanese-American from San Francisco who goes from lowly staff physicist to full commander of the USS Enterprise through the course of the series. As helmsman of the ship, Sulu is third officer behind Kirk and Spock. He’s also quite the talented fencer.

startrek-comparison_suluGene Roddenberry, a man far ahead of his time, envisioned a television show where the people in the show were just as diverse as the people on Earth. Thus, when Gene Roddenberry assembled his cast for the original Star Trek, he was intentionally looking to break stereotypes and portray a brighter, more equal future. In the character of Sulu, Roddenberry wanted a character who represented all of Asia. So, when he saw a sea near the Philippines that touched all the Asian countries near it—the Sulu Sea—he decided on that name for his Asian character.

George Takei, who portrays Sulu in TOS, has said that he was thrilled to play an Asian character that “reversed a pattern in America’s images of Asians”—Sulu had no accent and was part of “the leadership team”. So Sulu, for the most part, gets a pretty good deal in TOS as far as escaping stereotypes and having a well-rounded character are concerned, but he is still second or even third fiddle to Kirk, Spock, and Bones.

London Tipton (Suite Life of Zack and Cody)

London’s a little out of our geek wheelbarrow, but she was my favorite character from this show, and that’s saying something since the show was called The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. London, a clear parody of Paris Hilton, is the heiress to the Tipton hotel chain. She’s ditzy and stupid beyond belief, but she’s acted with such charm and grace that at times it seems she does have some hidden depths.

London TiptonBrenda Song was actually offered this role without even auditioning for it, which seems to me like the producers had an Asian in mind for this role from the start. Since the producers also knew from the start that they wanted the character to be ditzy and self-centered, it was great that they didn’t consider these two things to be inherently exclusive.

Even though London wasn’t the most intelligent of characters, it meant a lot to me that an Asian girl was allowed to be crazy, fashionable, and entertaining on a popular TV show. In my opinion, she was completely unstereotypical and great to watch. With the way that Song expertly portrays London, there’s a true emotionality to her character that prevents her from ever being just the butt of every joke.

Joan Watson (Elementary)

In CBS’s version of a modern-day Sherlock retelling, Joan Watson is an ex-surgeon who is hired by Sherlock’s father to be his sober companion. After her requisite time is up, she’s clearly come to care for Sherlock and remains with him for a while under the pretense that Sherlock’s father has asked her to stay on. Sherlock, who’s obviously long since figured out her ruse, tells her the gig is up, saying:

“I am… better with you, Watson. I’m sharper, more focused. Difficult to say why, exactly. Perhaps in time, I’ll solve that as well.”

tumblr_m5h83pe1lz1r5ykiiWhen Lucy Liu was cast as Watson, there was all sorts of controversy. From my experience, however, it had less to do with her race and more to do with her gender—fans worried that genderbending Watson would be a way to underwrite their constant queer readings of the original Doyleian duo. (That’s the charitable way to put it.)

Either way, those people can stuff it. Liu’s Joan Watson character, whose relationship with Sherlock remains steadfastly platonic, is a refreshing portrayal of an Asian-American woman on network TV: she is never sexualized, she has agency to make her own decisions, and she’s never boxed into a generic Asian stereotype. Liu herself has remarked on how nice it is to be able to play a part that doesn’t require a hokey accent or martial arts training.

Toshiko Sato (Torchwood)

Tosh is a bit of a cop-out because Torchwood is a British TV program, not an American one, but a lot of Americans do watch Torchwood so I think she should get a fair shake. Tosh first appears in the Doctor Who episode “Aliens of London”, where she examines an “alien” body and meets the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler; when Torchwood starts, Tosh is Torchwood’s resident computer/technology expert.

tumblr_lct5ucXfS01qz9nowo1_500When Tosh’s actress, Naoko Mori, was asked if she was at all worried about Tosh being described as an “Asian child prodigy tech genius”, she said that she wasn’t concerned because she trusted Russell T. Davies’s writing instincts. And yet Tosh is, I think, a victim of her show’s writing. She could have been a fascinating character, but she’s always shown as meek, eager for approval, and hopelessly crushing on Owen without ever getting up the nerve to say it. She’s arguably a queer character as well, judging from her brief fling with a female alien, but this relationship is glossed over entirely within the show.

The writers do manage to bring in her heritage without it being too hackneyed—when Tosh interacts with her mother, she speaks to her in Japanese, which makes sense for her character, but the rest of Tosh’s personality is a big ol’ swing and a miss, depending on tropes of meek women, quiet geniuses, computer experts, and second-string love interests. When she is eventually fridged at the end of the second season, her character is unresentful and forgiving to the people who got her involved in Torchwood, even though they were basically the ones who got her killed.

Kevin Tran (Supernatural)

Kevin was the best thing to come out of Supernatural’s seventh season, other than maybe Charlie Bradbury. An AP student who had dreams of applying to Princeton, Kevin’s life was turned upside down when he found out he was a Prophet of the Lord, destined to learn God’s Word and help the Winchesters close the gates of hell forever.

The great thing about the conception of Kevin as a character is that there was open casting for a K. Tran, which meant that the producers didn’t care what race or gender the character was, even though being a prophet is a very important role in Supernatural. As all the other important characters on Supernatural (Sam, Dean, Castiel) are white, finding this out was a pleasant surprise.

As far as representation goes, Kevin’s character takes the same arc we’ve been seeing in a lot of these characters. In his first episode, he starts out as the most extreme Asian stereotype—he schedules every second of his day down to a T, he plays the cello, he’s an AP student, he frantically checks the acceptance statistics for Princeton, and oh wait, he’s applying to Princeton. But as the show goes on, Kevin gets to apply all of that dedication and perseverance towards a new, more important, goal, and he grows beyond his stereotypes as a result.

from the "Angry Asian Man" blog

from the “Angry Asian Man” blog

I think it certainly says something about the medium of television that sans London, who is a character on a kids’ sitcom, all of these characters start from a very, very similar starting point. I understand that especially in television, writers take shortcuts when they don’t have enough time to fully describe a character to the audience in the first few minutes of a show, but do producers think we won’t recognize these characters as “Asian” if they aren’t nerdy and good at math and computers? For example, Dean in Supernatural is given a few character traits in the pilot episode to help viewers form an idea about his character, but those traits are “likes muscle cars” and “listens to classical rock”—they’re nothing to do with his race. Why does every Asian character have to start out as a stereotype before they can become cool?

Furthermore, it seems that while the writers and producers of media may or may not be the most sensitive to these topics, the actors and actresses themselves are. Brenda Song has said that she never saw Asian-Americans on TV when growing up, and Naoko Mori says that while she’s “very cautious” about stereotyping, Torchwood does it right because “they make an occasional reference to my heritage, but it’s not a conscious thing. That’s how it should be—people are people, we’re all the same.” In some cases, such as Masi Oka’s, it seemed the onus of making the character more than the stereotype was on the actor, not on the writer. That’s beyond unfair. But at least the idea of making Asians more than the stereotype is growing—Osric Chau, Kevin Tran’s actor, has said that he wants to start writing and producing in the next few years, with the following goal:

“I want to show the Asian American/Canadians as they are in the society, not needing to point out the fact that they are Asian, they just are.”

As for me, I’d like to see more of Asians in television. Representation has certainly improved in the past ten years, but it was difficult to come up with the characters for this post, and I think having a plethora of Asian characters, good or bad, would help any meaningful discussion of representation in media. (By the way, kudos to Saika for her contributions to the Tosh and Joan Watson parts of this article. Thanks, Saika!)

So what do you think of Asian characters in media? Which characters would you have liked to see discussed on this list? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “It’s Asian-American Heritage Month! So how’s it looking out there for Asians on TV?

  1. This is a great list. It would have been nice to see South and Southeast Asians to be more inclusive. I haven’t seen too much of The Mindy Project or Community, but I think it’s awesome that Asians (Mindy Kaling and Ken Jeong) are doing comedy and subverting some of the stereotypes in their portrayals.

    Even though the leads are white, Hawaii Five-0 probably does the best job of showcasing Asians as they are. You still get stereotypes with villains being in the tong and yakuza, but you have characters like Kono and Dr. Max Bergman who are more than just smart and nerdy (Kono is a surfer and is sexy without being fetishized while Max is sarcastic and plays an important role in solving cases beyond examining the bodies). I also like how not all the Asian characters have obviously Asian last names.

    • Yeah, I dropped the ball there–when I was making this list, I at first tried to include Asians from every Asian demographic, but in the end it was a matter of time, since I hadn’t seen much of The Mindy Project or Community either, and I didn’t want to guess at how the relevant characters had been portrayed in those shows. So good call and I’ll work on that for next time!

  2. Pingback: It’s Asian-American Heritage Month! So how is TV looking? | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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