It’s May again! That means it’s Asian-American Heritage Month, and like last year, I want to take a look at how Asians and Asian-Americans are doing in my favorite medium of TV. Some of the following are from last year’s list because their shows have advanced and they are still on said shows; it’s always good to catch up with old friends!
Joan Watson (Elementary)
The indomitable Joan Watson continues her run on this list from last year. Watson, for those of you who don’t recall, started out as Sherlock Holmes’s sober companion and gradually grew into a formidable detective as well. In my humble opinion, she’s not just a role model for Asians or for women: she’s a role model for all Watsons everywhere. One just has to look at how she never takes any of Sherlock’s shit in any given episode to see that. She sets proper boundaries for him and encourages him to grow as a person; similarly, when anyone tries to refer to her only as Sherlock’s assistant, she shuts them down. She knows her own value and she owns it. Joan Watson 2016!
Kevin and Linda Tran (Supernatural)
The second of our return-ees from last year, Kevin Tran was known for being the dorky yet kickass prophet on Supernatural who, throughout his tenure, saved the Winchesters from monsters and from themselves before sadly getting killed by Metatron’s minion, Gadreel. His mom, Linda, was equally as kickass, despite being shelved for most of her time on the show and finally ignominiously put into a random Crowley torture chamber for Sam to free.
We’ve made no secret of our displeasure at Kevin’s death, but in terms of racial representation, it’s worth bringing up again. For most of his time in Season 9, Kevin was stuck in the bunker doing research for the Winchesters. Crowley tried to manipulate him into leaving to find his mom (and it turns out Crowley was telling the truth about her being alive, who knew) and then Dean manipulated him into staying and deciphering the angel tablet. In the end, Kevin was never allowed to do anything of his own accord. Because Dean never filled him in on any important details, Kevin didn’t know that Sam was possessed by Gadreel, and he had no reason to think Sam was dangerous. The ensuing episode where Sam and Dean fought about who should feel guiltier over Kevin’s death was one of Supernatural’s worst instances of a white lead appropriating the real pain of a racial minority—and this is a show that once had a black woman in a collar, calling a white man “master”.
Andy Brooks (Sleepy Hollow)
And now onto our new people! Andy Brooks was just one of many amazing characters in FOX’s racially diverse supernatural drama, and, like many of the other characters, he did not turn out to be a stereotype. Brooks is a Sleepy Hollow cop who’s killed in the first episode, but fortunately or unfortunately, he’d previously sold his soul to the devil, and for that he’s resurrected and given new powers so that he can be a better minion. He’s in love with protagonist Abbie Mills, and this gets him into a fair amount of trouble, as he may or may not be dead at the end of Season 1.
I actually think Brooks is a pretty good character, all told. He’s not a main character, so he doesn’t get as much character development as I’d like, but he’s not a stereotypical Asian male. He’s not tech support, he’s not into science or math, and he’s not a kung-fu ninja master. Sure, he’s a whiny, sassy underling, but although other people may disagree with me, I very much enjoyed seeing an Asian actor in this role. He’s not a one-note villain: he brought humor and snark to a show that is sometimes a touch overdramatic, and he’s not a sexless Asian male: his concern for Abbie is one of the most human aspects about him. I hope they expand on his history (and that he’s alive) in the next season.
Melinda May (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Agent Melinda May is one of the most badass characters to grace the Marvel universe: she’s known as The Cavalry from the time she supposedly took out a hundred enemies single-handedly. She’s since retired and gotten a desk job, but Coulson pulls her back into the field just in time for the show to begin. Or so he thinks; it turns out that Melinda had designated the parameters for Coulson’s team herself and had thus ensured her own spot on it.
Agent May is definitely the most interesting character out of the S.H.I.E.L.D. bunch, not that that’s saying much considering the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. bunch. The writers also managed to sneak in an organic reference to her ethnic background by having her speak Cantonese to a suspect while in Hong Kong, and I love that when we get to see her family for a second, we meet her mother and not her father. Older Asian ladies can be intelligence agents too! Sometimes May does come off as a bit wooden and unemotional, but that’s a far cry from the usual demure China doll or Asian femme fatale. Most importantly, May is in a position of power over all the team save Coulson, and it’s great to finally see an Asian in that position. However, her actions are a little too guided by love of Coulson for my part, especially when Coulson’s been a dick as he has been in the past couple eps, so I hope I don’t have to drastically revise everything I’ve written here come next year.
People reading this may feel the need to stop by and tell me that Skye’s actress is half-Chinese and Raina is possibly Indian, so let me explain why I’m not including them here with May. It’s pretty simple; until we get some canonical proof of their ethnicity, I don’t think the show should be lauded for it. Just putting a person of color on the screen, especially a person who, like Skye, is very white-passing, and Raina, whose actress is half-Ethiopian and not at all Indian, is no reason why the show should rest on its laurels. I also think that thinking of Skye as Asian without some in-show backup is a bit problematic. She may turn out to be, but for now, we only know that Skye was found in China as a baby and that an entire village died protecting her. We know nothing else about her background as of yet. To think of her as “exotic” or “foreign” just because she was found in China (and really to think of any Asian woman that way) speaks to an age-old Othering of non-white women.
Beverly Katz (Hannibal)
In bringing Hannibal to the TV, Bryan Fuller has changed the gender and races of many of the main cast. One such change was Beverly Katz, who is Asian in Fuller’s incarnation (although Hettienne Park, the actress, cheekily takes all the credit here). Beverly is the most fleshed-out of Jack Crawford’s science team, and she gets lines and scenes far beyond her two co-workers in the lab.
I’m of mixed feelings about Beverly. I don’t personally consider her death racist, and I think Park addressed the accusations of racism very well in her own blog post on the topic. That’s not to say that other Asians are wrong to feel that it was racist—everyone has their own relationship with their own ethnicity. However, it’s clear that Beverly was accorded a level of respect that characters like Kevin Tran were not. Although she worked for Jack and took suggestions from Will, it’s never implied that Beverly should just do what they say because they know better. Beverly even says to Hannibal that “I have an arrangement with Will.” Having said that, I wish Beverly had gotten more development in the short time she was on Hannibal. Will and Hannibal are the main characters, but Jack gets several episodes devoted to his family and his career—Beverly ought to have gotten the same. A Jewish Asian woman would have been a great character—we shouldn’t have to guess at her religion from her last name.
This is by no means an exhaustive list; unfortunately I don’t have time to watch every TV show currently on air (although I wish I did)! If you know of others, feel free to tell me in the comments! I’m always looking for shows with more Asian characters. (Working for this site, I of course know I’m missing Kira Yukimura, of Japanese and Korean descent, from Teen Wolf.) However, looking just at the characters here, it’s clear that Hollywood has a very clear idea of what “Asian” is: by “Asian”, they seem to just read “East Asian”. There are no Asian characters who are Southeast Asian (Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore); instead, writers and producers focus on China, Japan, and South Korea as if those are the only Asian countries which exist.
Additionally, all of these characters fit the model minority: that is to say, they have achieved success in their respective fields (or were going to, as Kevin was applying for Princeton). But the myth of the model minority is problematic for a couple of reasons, the most important of which are that 1) it promotes the false stereotype that all Asians are intelligent and hardworking and 2) that all other minorities are not as intelligent and hardworking, which is the sort of incorrect rhetoric that leads to building a fence along Texas. (More on the myth of the model minority at these links, if you’re interested.) For producers who are looking to be original, why not have an Asian character who doesn’t fit the narrow parameters of the model minority? What about an Asian character who does drugs, or hasn’t ever thought about going to college, or works a blue-collar job? I assure you that those people exist in real life, so why not in fiction as well?
I’m beyond glad that these characters exist for me to talk about, and I certainly think this year of TV was better to Asians than last year, but I wonder if perhaps, in attempting to make race a non-factor, the producers haven’t over-corrected themselves. All of these characters have very Western, WASP-y first names and last names, and that dismissal of race seems to show that producers will put Asian faces on our screen, but they won’t engage with race to a deeper extent. This doesn’t mean I want all episodes of Elementary to be Very Special Teaching Moments, but I do think that more inclusion of racial issues can give any show more depth. There’s one blogger who refuses to spell Melinda May’s last name as M-A-Y, instead preferring the more probable M-E-I. So what about stories about the Asians with unpronounceable names (to Western ears, of course)? Stories about Asians who are uncomfortable with Asian identities and thus change their names, or stories about Asians who can’t speak their parents’ language and thus feel excluded from their own heritage? Asians who are adopted? Asians who are new to the country? There’s a great wealth of stories to be told if producers are willing to put in the research.
For now, at least, I’m glad that Asian representation has advanced and I’m thrilled that characters exist for me to have these culture-specific conversations about. Sure, things could be better, and there’s even more to be said about Asian characters as victims of violence, but I’ll save that for another post.
I live in hope that Brooklyn Nine-Nine will one day add an Asian character to their already excellent cast. Until next year!