So when I started writing this post it was one, short, post on Asian masculinity. As I started my research though it became unwieldy and meandering so I have instead decided to publish a mini series on Asian Masculinity in the west and all of the posts will start with this same Preface: I am a white female living in the united kingdom I can be sympathetic (understand the feelings) but I am unable to be truly empathetic (feel the true feelings). Also, while I have engaged in a reasonable amount of personal research to write this series, it is an OPINION series and therefore is tinged with my experiences and opinions. If the topic interests you I strongly suggests reading around the subject and also looking at black masculinity in the west which is a separate but equally interesting gender issue!
Today I want to talk about the history of Asian masculinity in the west. The way Asian men, and Asian maleness, has been viewed in the ‘western’ world has not always been the way it is today. Today the issues revolve around a lowered desirability of Asian men and the marketing of men in media as somehow less manly. In the past, however, the portrayal of Asian men has been very different.
The history of the perception of Asian masculinity in the west has almost always been linked to fear of the threat East Asians pose to western society. Perhaps most famously this presented as the ‘Yellow Terror’ or ‘Yellow Peril’. This was basically the result of an amalgamation of the western perception of the east as this land of the occult, exotic and dark forces and western cultural and sexual concerns of the time. Every new account of an eastern society causing harm to a western society (despite the fact many of these were wartime acts and similar barbarity happened the other way) increased this fear that those from the east were a risk.
Essentially this is just a hyper specific form of fear of the unknown and a key fear was that of Asian sexuality. Yup, those men we see emasculated in media all the time now were a cause of sexual quaking in the white mans boots. Yellow peril actually applied to both genders but we will focus on the men in this post. Essentially, Asian men were seen as educated, wealthy, cultured… made for seduction. This fear of the seductive oriental manifested in media that presented Asian men as a sexual threat, sadistic predators – particularly to white women. This threat needed to be protected again by heroic, white, guys who protect the white women from these sexual deviants therefore, symbolically, protecting white Christian culture. HOORAY!!
Masculinity itself in the west has undergone many changes historically, but the driving cultural factors for western masculinity are different to those in the east and historically even more so. The Internet, general shrinking of the world and increasing cultural homogeneity haven’t erased the differences in defining masculinity which stands as a testament to how deep the divide has always been. The one thing that masculinity has in common the world over is how entwined it is with sexual norms, logically as masculinity is what ties to the attraction of a mate to procreate and the need to procreate is strong. In the world generally defined as ‘the west’ this has meant masculinity driven by core Christian values pretty consistently for as long as the debate has been relevant. Not so the case in the east where Christianity was not the prevailing religion and even where it has managed to build modern day strong holds in the east there remains a division of culture and religion, many Catholic Thai people for example are religiously catholic but culturally Buddhist and in Korea Christian values are tempered by Confucian societal norms. Many social issues in the west stem from conservative Christian influence at key development points early in the cultures establishment and once established, like all cultures anything ‘other’ to this introduced later is resisted as alien. Otherness is also inherently sexy and this perpetuates the problem. Mean threatened by this seductive ‘other’ see women falling for the same traits and rationalise this as due to the threat. The women involved must be enthralled, tricked or forced to engage with these men and thus is is the duty of the masculine man to protect her from this.
Immigration policies and government emasculation
Immigration from the east, particularly to America, allowed people to encounter those whose worlds were shaped by cultures perhaps more ‘other’ than those they had otherwise encountered. In African cultures this manifested in a slavery and servitude culture but Asian cultures faced different issues and a fear of oriental otherness led to many attempts to emasculate Asians with policies that meant Asian immigrants were restricted heavily in what they could do as work, how and if they could gain citizenship and what services they could access. This took away their image of being the exotic other and provided a cultural platform to reduce them to a ‘joke’ rather than a villain, therefore further downgrading their masculinity and presenting Asian men as a comedic example of what a man should not be instead. Nowadays how Asian men are viewed is much more likely to be as a ‘model minority’- something that has been shaped by these government policies and immigrants response to them – rather than ‘yellow peril’. As a ‘Model minority’ Asian men are ‘safe’, at best ignorable and at worst a joke.
From this point forward the scene was set and even as legislation became less discriminatory the media archetype was set, what had begun as the sadistic sexual torturer was now the impotent comic character. A non-threatening figure of no risk to your country or homeland with his small, and often not functioning, penis and his inability to charm women. In fact despite the huge movement in Hollywood to improve representation south east and east Asian men still rarely get to be lead roles and where they do have a leading role it is as a comic figure, A high flying product of tiger parenting with low emotional literacy or a socially inept nerd. None of these figures are a ‘threat’ to western women as they lack the physical appearance to attract the woman and have no social skill set to seduce her via other means. One major step forward in many peoples eyes was the film ‘crazy rich Asians’ and while an amazing step for Asian representation that allowed young Asian men and women to see a wide variety of people who looked like them in a typical Hollywood concept it still allowed Asian masculinity only in a way that was non-threatening to western culture. The vast majority of the cast was Asian, the relationships were between Asians, there was no risk to white culture from the Asian man at any point.
Interestingly a number of Asian men have begun to appear in more ‘standard’ masculine type roles in science fiction films, a fact I as a Sci-fi fan am very appreciative of, and that itself is another example of the ‘othering’ of Asian masculinity. Asians can be masculine, the film says, in a sci-fi world of many unusual and not currently earthly possibilities.
I am going to leave this post here, as the portrayal of current Asian masculinity in media is another post in this series and I can only repeat myself so much.