The media are one of the most ubiquitous and important aspects of American life. Abroad, American media project soft power and bring a positive perception of Americans to other countries. Many countries follow American trends in fashion, filmmaking and music with things like the famous Hollywood blockbuster style of film and the rise of hip-hop and rap worldwide. It also goes without saying that domestically, media such as movies and music have had a profound effect on Americans as well.
One of the most powerful ways in which American media can influence people is with their portrayal of different groups. American films and shows create and cement stereotypes, such as early films about Native Americans, but it can also break them. For example, the “The Cosby Show” has often been hailed for portraying African-Americans as a typical American family, bucking prior trends that displayed African-American families as dysfunctional or crime-ridden.
Although America is becoming increasingly diverse, and more mindful of how far representation goes, Hollywood has been seen to be unmoving in its refusal to represent certain groups.
Lack of significant Asian-American representation
Asian-Americans, in particular, have gone for generations without seeing significant representation on the big screen. Asians in American media are often relegated to caricatures of certain stereotypes. One example is the “Asian store owner.” These characters are often depicted as old, overweight, angry, and hard-to-like people with heavy accents that are difficult to understand. In the 2017 sitcom “Two Broke Girls,” the character Han Lee, a South Korean restaurant owner, is one of these characters. A quick look on Wikipedia shows that he “is constantly a target for jokes (mainly from Max) involving his height, his effeminate mannerisms in spite of his claims of being heterosexual, and his lack of knowledge of American culture.” Effeminate Asian men is another stereotype that plays off Asian men often not hitting Western views of masculinity. Asian men are often portrayed as weak, passive, weird, nerdy, or otherwise undesirable as friends or role models.
Asian women fall prey to stereotypes as well, often portrayed as either cunning gold-diggers, known as “dragon ladies,” or as overly submissive and eager to please a man. Misogyny is often a stereotype of East Asian society in general. Although these stereotypes are hurtful, Asians have a hard time landing in films in the first place. Although “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” featured a prominent Asian character, films like “The Last Airbender” received backlash for having no Asian cast members despite the world of the film and the original show being heavily based off of ancient China. The show “Firefly” has no Asian cast members despite living in a universe where Chinese are half of the population and text is written in Chinese characters.
Feelings of perpetual foreignness
Although the recent movie “Crazy Rich Asians” made waves by trying to buck these trends with an Asian cast, the Asian-American community has long been dealing with problems, such as falling into preconceived roles, increasing apathy to social and political issues due to perceived lack of relevance or pandering to them; “white worship,” a trend where Asians view themselves or other Asians as inferior; and a feeling of not belonging or perpetual foreignness due to perceptions influenced by how they are seen in American media.
Media hold a lot of influence, and their presence can have powerful effects. But when relevant media are absent from those who need it, their lack of presence can have powerful effects as well.
As America moves forward and decides what type of country it wishes to be, let us not forget that each group has contributed to the American identity, and let us remember to not leave a single group behind.
Lyon Leng is a student at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.
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