Pictured Above: Selections from Netflix’s ‘Asian Action Film’ Genre
When Asian roles in American media aren’t whitewashed, they are often heavily stereotyped. Particularly in American action films, main Asian roles fall in to one of few categories: kung fu masters, samurais, or other fist-fighting warriors that carry some incarnation of the ‘Asian Experience’. With this ‘Asian Experience’ comes the association of animals, with such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Monkey King, The Tiger, and so on. This allows for a very vicious and bestial association with Asian bodies, only further subjecting Asian bodies to scrutiny and stereotyping.
While stereotyped Asian roles can be divided in to multiple categories, most roles can be sorted in to one of two overarching groups: sexy and seductive, or deeply threatening (Fuller 2010). In the case of kung fu masters and samurai warriors, they fall under the heading of deeply threatening. However, this category is almost exclusively reserved for Asian actors, rather than Asian actresses, with the exception of the occasional ‘tiger lady’ trope (though, this particular trope tends to straddle both the sexual and threatening categories).
Beginning with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, the phenomenon of the karate master spread to American films from Hong Kong action films. However, this began the stereotyping of not only Asian roles, but of Asian bodies themselves.
“Yeah, but see, that’s the thing, I bet you every single person in America thinks that Asian people are good at like, what? Math… Piano… Martial Arts… that’s about it, actually.” –Freddie Wong
Historically, the concept of the threatening Asian warrior was conceived by Western societies in the wake of World War II (Fuller 2010). With America consistently identifying the Japanese as the enemy, this hatred spread quickly to anyone of Asian heritage. Though there is a significant difference between the pre- and post-war representation of Asian characters in American media (Feng 2002), the underlying stereotypes remain: Asian men have the potential to be physically threatening figures, and Asian women are highly sexual.
While some films and television shows make a point of addressing stereotyping like this, often through satire and parody (consider George Takei’s cameo on the Star Trek episode of Futurama), martial arts stereotypes are still incredibly prevalent in American media. And, although not all American kung fu films are set in the 1700s, the stereotype of the Asian martial arts master still – unfortunately – thrives.
Printed Works Referenced:
Feng, P. X. (2002). Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video. London: Duke University Press.
Fuller, K. R. (2010). Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.