The Depiction of “Asia” in Pop Culture

So I was in Boston for a week on a business trip. While I was there, I stopped by the Boston Museum of Fine Art. To my surprise, upon leaving I was rather disappointed. I think that was largely due to the museum’s presentation of “Asia” as one solid unit as opposed to allowing for diversity of cultures by depicting it as a series of diverse countries. The sad thing is, this is frequently done by pop culture as well.

asia1First off, we have that Sherlock episode, “The Blind Banker”, where Sherlock and Watson track down some Chinese mafia bad guys working for Moriarty. At least I think they were Chinese. I’m not exactly sure because Moffat wasn’t straight-forward on that one. When I first saw this episode, I’m fairly certain I watched it with Luce and Saika, who spent the majority of the time yelling “This actress is Chinese but her name is Korean; the teapots are Japanese and so are the lucky cats! This makes no sense! Couldn’t anyone do their homework?!” at the TV. So needless to say, it was a very Asian episode, but there was no fact-checking. If something was considered stereotypically Asian, be it teapots, ninjas, acrobatic circuses, etc., chances are it was in this episode and just attributed to China for the sake of simplicity. That’s a no-no. Attributing every Asian thing to China is like making every South American thing Brazilian; it’s just not correct.

asia2Sherlock is the most obvious case of this happening in a plot that I know of, excluding every parody movie along the lines of Scary Movie and Not Another Teen Movie where everyone and everything gets stereotyped like it’s nobody’s business. It also happens frequently in more episodic TV series. In almost every crime show, at some point they have an “Asia” episode, where chances are the crime takes place in Chinatown, the Yakuza are involved, or something along those lines. Blue Bloods just did an episode like this a couple of months ago and it was a hot mess. That’s the opportunity to throw in every stereotype about Asia you can possibly can, almost like getting Asia out of the show’s system.

More frequently, however, this done through casting. How many shows exist in the world where it seems that the casting director said, “Okay, we have one Asian, that means we’re good on that score”? So many shows. Even looking at Elementary, which we practically tout as a gold standard for portrayal of racial diversity on broadcast television, only has one Asian character. To be fair, it’s Watson, who is one of the two protagonists, but even as minor characters go, there are very few other Asians in the show. There is more than one Asian in New York City, and Elementary is only portraying one. Granted, Watson’s ethnicity is never made an issue: she’s just a normal person that happens to be Chinese and happens to be a woman. And Watson has characteristics that show her relationship to her ethnicity, such as her preference for natural remedies and her “tiger” mom. But she is so much more than her race, and that’s what Elementary does so well: making characters more than the stereotypes that surround them. However, just doing a better job than everyone else doesn’t mean it is the end-all, be-all.

To be honest, I’d be interested to see Elementary try and tackle a Chinatown episode just to see how they treat it. It could make for really interesting TV viewing, namely because they are so good at creating characters who are more than stereotypes. Hopefully, other television shows can look at Elementary, see how they treat different groups, and apply that to their own writing. And take it further.

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.

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