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Korean-Americans Represented in the Media Essay

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2021

The media representation of Korean Americans and Asians overall has always been an issue of visibility. The given ethnic minority was a major part of the concept of Model minority, which does not fully demonstrate and illuminate the current situation of Korean Americans in the country. The roots of the problem lie in the historical development of the United States, where Asians had made a great deal of contribution.

Although there are numerous theories and concepts about Asian-Americans ‘ lack of visibility in the media, the problem did not emerge recently. The question of Korean-American representation in the media is significant because it will allow people to recognize the given issue. Therefore, it is important to overview and analyze the historically relevant events and challenges faced by Asians in the US because they are the roots of the issue.

Throughout human history, different nations were forced to somehow contact and cooperate with each other. These contacts did not always go smoothly, and now often, carriers of other cultures become aliens. As history shows, both the people from a specific geographic area and entire races could receive the “status” of an Alien. Therefore, it is important to analyze and overview the historical roots of Asian stereotyping and perception in the media in order to derive a clear argumentative basis and theories.

The Koreans were not the only Asian ethnic group in the United States. Asians began to appear in America from the XVI century, and the first in this regard were Filipinos and Koreans (Ocampo 76). Most of the men came here, who then married Indian women and dissolved in the local population. Hawaii became the most populated territory of the Asians because a significant number of Chinese and Japanese were sent there for work (DuCros et al. 13). It occurred due to the considerable deterioration of the situation on the labor market and the decrease in the number of jobs in the second half of the nineteenth century. The US government came to the idea of ​​limiting the naturalization of the Chinese and Korean populations since they were the most active labor force.

In the 20th century, attitudes towards the Asian population did not improve significantly. In 1905, California passed a law prohibiting marriages between whites and Asians. Later, more laws were passed on racial segregation in education and the code on the exclusion of Asians, which made it impossible for Asians to become citizens (Ocampo 76). During the Second World War, the Japanese were subjected to a special blow, who was now interned. One hundred and twenty thousand Japanese were relocated to special camps, although most of the displaced people had American citizenship. The Vietnam War also influenced the building of a negative Asian image in the mass consciousness, although the Vietnamese people began to appear in the US only after the war itself.

However, already in the 1960s, the stereotype of Model Minority, according to which Asian Americans are the most socially and economically successful minority in the United States, has gained particular popularity. It is partly a fact reflecting reality since a considerable proportion of Americans of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent can indeed be included in the group of the most socially developed population (Laybourn 32). However, it should not be forgotten that the term “Asian” itself is very vague, and not all Asians demonstrate the same level of wealth as the group mentioned above.

This attitude is largely reflected in the mass consciousness and popular culture because they signal certain cultural changes and are a reflection of the overall situation in the country. In American cinema up to the seventies, the few Asian men were assigned second-order roles, often with a very Asian character played by a person who was very far from this race. This practice was called “whitewashing,” and it concerned, of course, not only Asians-Americans.

People of the Caucasian race could play the role of Indians, Asians, and blacks, whereas the inverse situation was impossible (Laybourn 34). Asian characters were positioned mainly as asexual, aggressive, and not very successful. One of the most famous Asian sadists in American cinema is the main character in the film Mr. Wu, who kills his beloved daughter in order to save the honor of his family.

American researcher of Chinese origin J. Chan, analyzing the model of Asian masculinity in American society on the example of the Marvel comic “Master of Kung Fu,” shows that the positive masculinity of an Asian often comes down to the idea of ​​patricide. In this story, the villain Fu Manchu is killed by his son, which, according to the researcher, can be interpreted as a symbolic embodiment of the rejection of Chinese roots and the adoption of a new, American way (Hess). All these historical events are evident examples of Asians’ invisibility.

There were numerous representation challenges, and the negative images were not the only ones. American writer Earl Derr Biggers, inspired by the image of the Hawaiian police officer Chang Apana decided to create a detective story, destroying the established stereotype of the “yellow peril” (DuCros et al. 14). The result of his work was a series of popular detectives about Charlie Chan, who is a heroic character, traveling the world and solving mysterious events. However, the first film adaptation, in which the main role was played by an actor of Asian origin, did not succeed, and in subsequent films, his place was taken by Swede Warner Hollande, who starred in a total of 16 films about Charlie Chan.

The production vision and choices should be focused on changing the current stigma around Korean Americans. A peculiar shift of this concept can be found in the film The Crow, revealing a love story between rock musician Eric Draven and his beloved (Park 384). Although the main role in the movie was played by Brenden Lee, the film does not at all focus on the Asian appearance of the main character and does not carry the established stereotypes (James and Ng).

Unfortunately, this is rather an exception to the rule, and even nowadays, many films somehow inherit stereotypical scenes and contain elements of “whitewashing,” for example, Aloha (2015), Doctor Strange (2015), and Master of Elements (2010). Even in biographical tapes that reveal real events, the role of an Asian can be given to an actor of a non-Asian type, or the fact that the main character is Asian can be hidden. However, in some films, there is a reverse trend and shift. For example, in the film adaptation of the novel Cloud Atlas, the South Korean actress plays several roles at once, including the part of a European appearance character, which, however, can be explained by the specifics of the plot reincarnation.

With regard to female roles in the movie, the situation here is both similar and unlike what men face. Asian actresses are often presented as extremely sexy women (the so-called stereotype of “china doll”), seductress, capable of killing any man (the stereotype of “dragon ladies”), and these patterns are not the privilege of the United States cinema alone. Both “lady dragons” and “Chinese dolls” are portrayed sexually, and their sexuality is easily accessible (DuCros et al. 16).

Perhaps the reason for the existence of such an image lies in some romantic touch with which Asia is associated with representatives of Western culture, and not least, the aura of the mysteriousness of the East is related to sexual taboos. Here we should mention the sensational film Memoirs of a Geisha, which was not accepted by either the Chinese or the Japanese community but was a huge success in the United States and Europe (Park 376). In European and, as a result, American imagination, Asia is inextricably linked with sexual freedom and the violation of cultural prohibitions, such as geishas, ​​Chinese brothels, and Thai transgender individuals.

Following the image of a hypersexual geisha, there is a stereotype of “Madame Butterfly” – the heroine who chose a Western man as opposed to an Asian and ready to wait for her lover, in spite of everything (DuCros et al. 15). It is often possible to meet an aggressive Asian man next to her who oppresses an unhappy woman. Thus, any of her alliances with a man from the West acquires a tinge of “liberation,” in other words, symbolic victory over the Asian oppressor.

Paradoxically, the over-sexualization of Asians and the leveling of Asian sexuality can also be traced beyond cinema. One of the largest dating sites in the US, Firstmet, where the user base is 70 million people, conducted a survey in order to determine the most desired and undesirable partner in building romantic relationships (Park 371). Therefore, most non-Asian male respondents consider Asian women to be sexually attractive partners, while Asian men prefer Latinos.

The group of Asian men became the least popular among female respondents (Laybourn 34). It demonstrates the classic attitude towards the Alien, in which the Alien woman becomes the most desirable object, and the Alien man is perceived as an aggressor or as passive and unworthy of attention (Donnella). It is interesting that, as all the studies show, the majority of respondents would prefer the partners of their ethnic group for long-term relationships. All these examples serve as a possibility of future challenges and evidence of systematic Asian misrepresentation.

Furthermore, there are several challenges in making a video. The main issue lies in selecting the right images and footage. In addition, the narration requires a unique set of skills for storytelling, which is entirely different from video editing (ASAM332-DIGITAL STORYTELLING PROJECT). The given subject of Korean-American invisibility makes the narration even more important due to the delicacy of the issue. Many Asians get background roles in the movies; therefore, video creators with a demand for lead roles for Asians should be extra careful.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that, despite the fact that the US has been in contact with Asians for quite a long time, the latter is still perceived as Aliens, and this applies even to Asian-American citizens. Events of the twentieth century showed that in the case of hostilities, it is this population that comes under the blow as not enough of “their own.” The analysis of cinema, however, reflects only minor shifts in the perception of the Asian, who is still associated with martial arts and ninjas, and other behavioral patterns appear quite rarely. Therefore, the given project will expand the given problem and allow to improve the current production vision.

Works Cited

YouTube, uploaded by sonia wu, 2019. Web.

Donnella, Leah. “NPR, 2017. Web.

DuCros, Faustina M., et al. “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on TV.” Contexts, vol. 17, no. 4, 2018, pp. 12–17.

Hess, Amanda. “Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored.” The New York Times, 2016. Web.

James, Meg, and David Ng. “Los Angeles Times, 2017. Web.

Laybourn, Wendy M. “Being a Transnational Korean Adoptee, Becoming Asian American.” Contexts, vol. 17, no. 4, 2018, pp. 30–35.

Ocampo, Anthony C. “Stop Forgetting Asian Americans.” Contexts, vol. 17, no. 4, 2018, p. 76.

Park, Michael K. “Race, Hegemonic Masculinity, and the ‘Linpossible!’: An Analysis of Media Representations of Jeremy Lin.” Communication & Sport, vol. 3, no. 4, 2015, pp. 367–389.

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