SNSD celebrating their 10th anniversary as a group earlier this year.
Earlier this month, it was reported that three members of mega-hit girl group Girls’ Generation (SNSD) did not re-sign with their managing company, SM Entertainment. This comes just after the group’s 10-year anniversary, which they had celebrated with a double-single release of “Holiday” and “All Night.” Even though Tiffany, Soohyun and Seohyun did not renew their contracts with the company, there is still the possibility of SNSD continuing and the group has not officially disbanded. However, being one of the most successful groups in K-pop and directly responsible for the Hallyu Wave’s international popularity, it is shocking to see that even SNSD could not survive as a group.
When the 9 original members debuted in August 2007, they started with a seven-year contract, which they all renewed in 2014. The year, group’s exclusive contracts ended on August 16 and the members have continued to be in talks since then. This comes after many second-generation girl groups (groups that debuted during the late 2000s), such as 4Minute, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, T-ara, and SISTAR, have disbanded within the past two years. Disbanding at the end of a contract is so common in the K-pop industry, that the phenomenon has been dubbed “The Seven Year Curse”, named for the typical length of an artist’s contract with their agency. However, the “jinx” seems to affect the future of an idol group in different ways depending on gender.
While male groups are also in danger of disbandment when they have been active for such a long time, they are more likely to lose an individual member and continue to promote as a smaller group. Popular male groups that have renewed their contracts in the past couple of years include INFINITE, Teen Top and B2ST. Each of these groups have lost a member, with the majority of the group agreeing to continue promoting together. This differs from the girl groups that have recently disbanded, where the members go their separate ways: some pursing solo careers, selling their own paraphernalia, or starting anew in acting.
Factors that influence the disbanding of a group include company management, artist’s desires, scandals and profitability. The double standards of the K-pop that place girl groups under a more scrutinizing magnifying lens than their male counterparts are well-known in the industry. The beauty, weight, and the personal character of female idols are more frequently criticized on popular Korean forums such as PANN and Naver. The different expectations between female and male idols have been pointed out as direct factors in whether or not a group disbands or not.
However, internationally successful groups that are credited with leading the Hallyu Wave, such as BIGBANG, Super Junior, TVXQ and Girls’ Generation have been perceived to be immune to the threat of disbandment because of their immense success and the thousands of loyal fans they attract. Not only are the groups still incredibly popular, but they are equally as profitable: In 2016, BIGBANG brought home $44 million and in 2014, Girls’ Generation’s Japanese tour alone brought in $31.6 million in revenue. Unlike SNSD, BIGBANG was expected to re-sign and actually renewed their contracts two months before they ended in 2015. Though both groups have attained incredible success, have had their fair share of scandals, and can still sell out concerts in minutes, SNSD’s contract renewal has been the topic of much more speculation (especially because their contract negotiations are still in process and they already lost a main vocalist and popular member, Jessica, in 2014.) While awaiting news about the group’s future, SNSD fans have even speculated that SM is trying to set the group up for failure and intentionally sabotage their promotions.
I can’t comment on whether these speculations have any validity: contract negotiations between idols and their companies are so ambiguous because both parties are notoriously tight lipped about the nitty-gritty details of their agreements. In addition, not all of the (little) information that is released in Korean is easily accessible to international fans, and the translations may not be accurate. Many English-speaking K-pop fans, like myself, are dependent on sites that translate Korean news into English, such as AllKPop, Soompi, and Koreaboo. Even though these websites do report about Korean celebrity news, they cannot be categorized as journalism: the articles are very short, do not cite their sources, and are interspersed with click-bait lists and quizzes. These websites have been criticized for their lack of fact-checking, invasion of privacy, and inaccurate translations in the past. While I am very aware of the shortcomings and the suspicion, for the international K-pop fan that cannot read Korean, these websites are often the only sources for any information about idols and I was forced to cite these sites myself in this post. Other places where English-speaking fans might get their information from would be from fan-sites or “insiders” who post on Twitter or blogs, which have the same questionable validity.
But aside from how poor Korean-to-English celebrity news coverage is, English-speaking fans agree on the differences in how companies package their idol groups based on gender: girl groups are typically regulated to either innocent/cute or sexy concepts that have succeeded for girl groups in the past (such as A-Pink and AOA, respectively.) In contrast, boy groups seem to have more freedom to change concepts (in terms of dress, make up and music) with each comeback. Most girl groups tend to stick much closer to a central concept throughout their entire careers, and this is for good reason. In 2016, GFriend won the most music show wins for a girl group with their innocent look, fast-paced dances set to powerful pop songs (such as “Glass Bead”, “Me Gustas Tu”, “Rough”) However, during their recent promotions for the single “Fingertip”, the members sported more mature and darker look that did not match their previous white dress and school girl uniforms that conveyed purity and youth. While it could be due to the public’s distaste with the retro synth song (also a change from their characteristic bubblegum pop sound), this comeback did not chart as well as their previous releases. Their most recent song “Summer Rain”, is reminiscent of their successful “powerful innocence” concept: singing about nostalgic love and dressed in matching white dresses.
While boy groups are similarly packaged into a particular concept that they think will succeed (such as hip-hop/R&B or the “flower boy” style), there seems to be more involvement of male idols in their musical and creative direction. There are more male idols who compose songs and/or choreography for their group, such as Block B’s Zico, B1A4’s Jinyoung, SEVENTEEN’s Woozi and Hoshi, and VICTON’s Hui. Female counterparts are hard to find: 2NE1’s CL has partial songwriting and composing credit and rookie group PRISTIN are the only girl group members who seem to have direct involvement in their creative expression. In addition, though there are female composers, the quality of those songs is also up for question. These idol composers seem to be inspired by the “first” self-producing idol, G-Dragon: his composed songs have become hits that have solicited BIGBANG as a national symbol. In contrast, Girls’ Generation doesn’t have the same creative control in their music or their performances. After Jessica left the group and embarked on a solo music career, she commented about how surprising it was to have input in the songwriting process.
Though SNSD has become extremely popular, if the group is going to continue promoting, they are still wholly reliant on SM to create the concepts, music and performances that they will release. Compared to BIGBANG, SNSD seems to have less bargaining power with SM because of how much more responsible the company seemed to be in the groups success rather than the individual efforts of the members. This is also why fans often speculate whether or not all of the members are still invested in the idol life: it was reported that the 3 members leaving SM were more focused on activities outside of SNSD, such as acting. However, based on the company’s statement that the members do not want to disband, it seems that these members were unable to negotiate a contract that allowed them to balance their idol activities with other interests. Jessica, was previously ousted from the group for her interest in her own fashion business, which the SM did not think would be possible to focus on while simultaneously being a member of Girls’ Generation. Though the members do participate in many individual activities, it seems that their direction is also controlled by SM Entertainment, just like in SNSD’s musical promotions.
This refusal to let all of the members have their own agency in their decisions stifles the members from fully developing their identities outside of the group and in that way, forces them into a situation in which they can only succeed within SNSD. In fact, while Jessica is composing her own music as a solo artist, her releases do not see popularity close to anything like she was used to in the past.
Because the K-pop fan community is so heavily composed of women, I wonder why there isn’t more discussion about the power of very popular, female idols. Despite the amount of fan support that Girls’ Generation has worked all these years to obtain, that influence doesn’t seem to translate to power and respect in the hierarchy of K-pop. As female fans, is it right for us to support an industry that doesn’t give women that freedom and are there ways that we as fans can help change that?
Until earlier this year, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” had held the position of most viewed video on YouTube for almost five years.Today, it has 2.96 billion views. It was the first Asian song to successfully cross-over to the American market, making it to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and even being featured on numerous talk shows and even the NFL. However, without the polished glamour and sex appeal of other pop songs, PSY’s success begs to answer the question: Why did so many Americans watch “Gangnam Style”?
While most people would attribute the song’s success to its comedic absurdity, others believe that there are more negative and nuanced reasons for an Asian entertainer to skyrocket to the top of the charts. Michael K. Park suggests that one reason for PSY’s popularity is rooted in how his performance reinforces the emasculated Asian male discourse in American media. In “Gangnam Style”, the men are unattractive and clownish (PSY, Yoo Jae Suk, and Noh Hong-chul are all professional comedians) while the women are hyper sexualized (e.g. 4Minute’s Hyuna, the women doing yoga, and female dancers in tight outfits.) According to Park, this juxtaposition emphasizes how Asian men are not only sexless but how that lack of masculinity is supposed to be funny. In addition, when PSY was featured on mainstream American television (The Ellen Show, SNL, and the Today Show), he was often not given the opportunity to introduce himself as an entertainer, and usually delegated to performing his comical horse dance repeatedly. Like how minstrel shows would entertain at the expense of African Americans in the early 19th century, Park argues that PSY joins William Hung, The Green Hornet’s Kato, and The Hangover’s Mr. Chow as Asian characters that are laughed at for who they are more than anything else.
Despite Park’s scathing analysis of America’s perception of Asian male entertainers, there are two Asian male musical acts that are gaining traction in the American music market: K-pop boy group BTS and even more recently, the teenage rapper Rich Chigga.
A hip-hop/R&B idol group originally marketed to Korean teen girls, BTS has exceeded expectations by becoming popular internationally and breaking numerous records for a K-pop group in Asia and the Western music market. Some of their greatest accomplishments have been: the Mnet’s Asian Music Awards (MAMA) 2016 Artist of the Year, Korean Consumer Forum’s Brand of the Year Award’s Artist of the Year and most recently, having 1 million copies of their new album “Her” pre-ordered. In the American music market, they won Billboard’s 2017 Top Social Artist award and sold-out their five-stop US tour earlier this year. The New York Times even published an infographic based on Youtube views from January 2016 to April 2017, that places BTS as the 44th largest music fandom in America. The fact that BTS sold tens of thousands of tickets from New York to Chicago in a matter of minutes shows that the group is certainly popular—but for a different reason than their Asian-American predecessors and PSY.
As a fan of BTS myself, I attest their popularity in America to the same reasons that K-pop idol groups flourish in South Korea. People enjoy listening to their music, admire their performances and learn more about their personalities through variety show and livestream appearances. In an industry saturated with company produced love songs, BTS distinguished themselves by being able to pull off the norm, but by also championing their self-composed songs about more controversial topics that affect young adults. The song “No More Dream” encourages their young audience to follow their true dreams, rather than those of their parents and society. Member Suga’s self-produced mixtape “AgustD” addresses his own experiences with depression and social anxiety. Their music video for “I Need U” depicts the members dealing with mental illness, violence and loneliness, as well as the joys of being in the moment, reckless behavior and friendship. Another music video, “Dope“, brags about how hard the boys have worked to get to their position as top artists and has reached 221 million views as of today.
Apart from the topics they sing and rap about, BTS have also differentiated themselves from the electronic pop songs that dominated the late 2000s (e.g. SHINee’s “Replay”, BIGBANG’s “Lollipop”, Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry”, etc.) with their musical style by debuting as a hip-hop/R&B group. Hip-hop originated from minority-dominated American neighborhoods in the South Bronx rife with poverty. Since the 1980s-1990s, rap music has been associated with gangsters, crime, and violence–– qualities that are also associated with black masculinity. By crafting rap as their own, BTS highlights their own manliness and rough qualities in a similar fashion. Though their lyrics do not focus on the same topics, some of the imagery associated with American hip-hop has been adopted by the group: The chorus of “We are Bulletproof part.2” features the members singing “click click/bang bang” while they perform choreography that mimics pointing guns at the audience. BTS’s musical style is not only reflected in their music but also in their stage outfits. In their first performances, the group wore black shirts with gold chains, bandanas underneath snapbacks and basketball shoes (though still wearing eyeliner and stage makeup.) A performance trailer shows the members marching in formation, wearing military uniforms and dancing to heavy metal music with gunshots in the background. Even their marketing includes masculine imagery: “BTS” stands for the romanization of their Korean name, which translates to “Bulletproof boy scouts”, their official fan club name is A.R.M.Y., and their light stick is in the form of a bomb.
However, BTS (like many K-pop groups) usually changes their concept for every comeback; in terms of message, musical genre, styling–– and because it’s the topic of this post, even their masculinity. They appeal to multiple audiences for not only embracing their tough hip-hop image, but by also fitting typical beauty standards and boyish qualities expected of idols. Their fan club name A.R.M.Y. actually stands for “Adorable Representative M.C for Youth”. They partake in what some would categorize as effeminate: they wear makeup, sport brightly colored contacts and hair, and have performed in choker necklaces and scarves. And despite how this may clash with their rough, hip-hop image, their looks matter. This is because idols’ appearances and their objective attractiveness to their fans is an intrinsic part of K-pop: it is typical for a group to a have a designated member(s) who are “in charge of visuals”– the conventionally good-looking members of the group. It is expected of idol groups to perform cute actions called aegyo, sexy dances or even have their shoulders measured for broadness to appeal to fans. Commenters on YouTube videos of K-pop performances and online forums such as Reddit and NAVER mention the song quality and dancing just as frequently as they do on how idols look. In fact, when BTS attended the May 2017 American Billboard music awards, one of their “visual” members, Jin, grabbed attention for his good looks: viewers unfamiliar with the group labeled him as “the third member from the left”, which became a trending topic on Twitter. The group’s ability to straddle the lines of gender norms is a shift from the strict views that Americans have towards masculinity, mainly because in the K-pop industry these expectations are absent. What’s more is that fans from all around the world are loving it: Amazon and a Sony subsidiary have allowed pre-ordered or stocked BTS’s new album, their most recent single “DNA” has reached the #67 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week of Oct. 14. as well as other success on the World Album and World Digital Song Sales charts.
BTS’s rise to popularity in America, while record-breaking for a K-pop act, was based on grueling pratice and promotion since the members were teenage trainees. This is completely different from another Asian male musician to recently break into the mainstream market: an eighteen-year-old Indonesian rapper named “Rich Chigga.” His song “Dat Stick” has 69 million views on YouTube since its debut in early February 2016, went on to sell at least 500,000 units and lead to a nation-wide tour.
Though “Dat Stick” is a legitimate rap song, the track was originally only “half-serious.” Brian Imanuel, Rich Chigga’s real name, had been posting comedic videos on Vine and Twitter starting from age eleven and still wants to purse comedy as his long-term goal. In the music video, Imanuel wears a pink polo shirt and a fanny pack and is surrounded by three friends as they drive around, show off alcohol and hang out. In a reaction video that helped “Dat Stick” become viral, rappers (including popular artists such as Desiigner and Ghostface Killah) comment on the juxtaposition between the tough rap song and the fanny pack; presumably because a fanny pack is more often associated with someone’s middle-aged father, rather than an up-and-coming hip-hop artist. One reactor, 21Savage, comments “[The song]’s aight. Yeah. The music don’t match him, though.” Another rapper named Cam’ron says “This kid’s like 16. His voice is mad deep, he don’t look nothing like he sounds. It was dope though.” Despite Imanuel’s appearance, the rappers unanimously end up positively reviewing the song.
As it became a viral hit through Facebook newsfeeds and YouTube, “Dat Stick” gave Rich Chigga the achievement of being the first good Asian rapper to break into mainstream American music market. And though Rich Chigga was “verified” by other rappers, it can’t be said that the popularity of “Dat Stick” is solely due to his rapping abilities. First off, his name “Rich Chigga” immediately brings attention to race: not only his Asian heritage (even though he is Indonesian) and but also because it references the n-word. Many of the YouTube comments on “Dat Stick” are racist jokes that poke fun at how Rich Chigga differs from the Asian stereotype.
A big factor in “Dat Stick”’s appeal is the irony that Imanuel doesn’t look or act like the typical American rapper: but to determine whether or not his popularity is due to his race being used as a spectacle or his skills as a rapper are taken seriously is difficult to say. Could audiences enjoy “Dat Stick” because they think it’s funny to see what they perceive to be an emasculated Asian man spit hyper-masculinized rap? It’s possible. But it certainly isn’t as strong of a case for neo-minstrelsy like PSY in “Gangnam Style.” While Rich Chigga’s deep voice and lyrics are hyper masculine, this masculinity isn’t emphasized visually. But he isn’t emasculated either (unless you count wearing a pink shirt): there are no over-sexualized women and none of the boys do anything outwardly funny. Rich Chigga’s subsequent releases have followed this trend, with “Glow Like Dat” and very recently, “Chaos” having 25 and 5 million views respectively. It will be the success of these and future songs that will give more insight about what Rich Chigga symbolizes to his audience.
Unlike other Asian performers in the American entertainment industry, such as JabbaWockeeZ and Far East Movement, who have distanced themselves from their Asian identities by using sunglasses or masks, neither BTS and Rich Chigga attempt such precautions. Perhaps this is since they are from different countries where Asians make up most the population and did not grow up with the nuances of racism understood by Asian-Americans.
Neither Rich Chigga or BTS have reached the astronomical success of PSY, but they also do not match the emasculated Asian male stereotype as much as he does. BTS frequently highlights their masculinity in their performances, while Rich Chigga’s raps continues to attract millions of views. The popularity of both musicians could imply a changing American perspective about Asian masculinity for the better. “Gangnam Style” was released only five years ago, and these younger male artists’ entire careers have been made in even less time—if times are changing because of a new generation that challenges stereotypes, it could happen sooner than we think.
Disney’s 2016 release Moana is remarkable for many reasons. It shattered box office sales this past Thanksgiving weekend with sales of 81.1 million dollars. It features the first Disney princess to be Polynesian, falling within the Asian American Pacific Island cultural and political identity. The film’s title character is also a steadfast and brave girl who breaks the typical epic male hero storyline that has dominated Hollywood from decades. And though Moana is not Asian American, she is relevant to Asian American media because she is an Asian character created by an American studio and released to an American audience. Moana has made history as a blockbuster film with a heartwarming message and stunning animation. In addition, as the movie’s directors are two white men, Ron Clements and John Musker, the Walt Disney studio took great lengths to try to not commit any social injustices by casting a largely Pacific Islander voice cast and even traveling to multiple Polynesian islands for research. However, despite a progressive and culturally aware production, Disney’s Moana still falls short of satisfying the main criticisms of Asian characters in American media.
Moana’s introductory scene is an old woman telling a mythological story of the Polynesian god Maui to a group of wide-eyed toddlers. Polynesia is a triangular area of the central and southern Pacific Ocean that contains more than a thousand different islands that share a mythology (with minor differences between each nation’s folklore.) The film takes place in an island paradise, rich with white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue waters and bright pink flowers and shells. However, the distinct nationality of the village is difficult to discern because there are many aspects of different cultures within it. As Moana grows up and learns about her people’s way of life, we see that the main cultural influence is Samoan through the styling of the characters. The black, geometric tattoos that the male characters sport on the sides of their midriffs and thighs are unique to Samoan culture and are called pe’a.
Demigod Maui’s Samoan Pe’a covers his entire chest and legs.
Moana’s Samoan headdress.
Moana’s grandmother dancing Hawaiian hula.
However, this is not the only culture present in the film. In one scene, Moana wears a Samoan tuiga (a headdress that features coconut threads and red feathers), and a Hawaiian haku (a flower crown worn for special occasions) in the next. Writer Izzie Martinez notes that “The soundtrack features the Tokelauan language. But there’s Hawaiian hula dancing in one scene and a Melanesian myth in the next. It would have just been better to pick one island and portray its culture faithfully.”
Per Lisa Lowe, the homogenization of different nationalities is problematic because the dominant representation of the larger group disregards and incorrectly defines the minority groups. In the case of Moana, cultural aspects of all of islands are amalgamated under the umbrella term of “Polynesian” completely disregarding the individuality of each of these nations. In addition, the perception of Polynesian culture is mainly defined by Samoan practices even though the term describes a plethora of different nations and cultural customs. By including aspects of Samoan, Hawaiian and Tongan culture in the same village, Moana incorrectly portrays Polynesian culture as homogenous.
Another critique of Asian characters in American media is the tendency for their cultural identity to be presented as fixed rather than dynamic. Although “Moana” deviates from the typical male hero epic, the plot of the movie still follows a cliché heritage-identity crisis and represents her Polynesian identity as fixed, rather than dynamic. Like other Disney princesses, such as Cinderella and the Little Mermaid, Moana’s identity struggle is a main plot focus of the film. As the next chiefess, Moana’s father the advises her to focus on learning about village customs, instead of what she truly desires, which is to explore the ocean. When Moana defies her father and sails to return a magical stone to a goddess named Tefiti and initially fails, she almost gives up on her quest. In this pivotal scene, Moana’s grandmother directly addresses this identity crisis by asking her “do you know who you are?” Moana’s response to this question manifests into a song titled “I am Moana”, the lyrics of which are below:
I am girl who loves who my island
And a girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I have delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I have learned and more
Instead of picking either her duties as a chiefess or her love of the ocean as her passion, Moana decides that both are a part of her identity by singing about these qualities in list form. However, departing from a typical identity crisis because these two identities do not oppose each other (though they initially seem to): the song states that her ancestors were originally ocean “voyagers” and therefore, the deep connection that Moana feels with the water is something that uniquely tied to her cultural identity as a Polynesian, and therefore her racial identity as an Asian. After this declaration, Moana saves her island from destruction with her sailing expertise and succeed her father as chiefess. The critique of this identity arch is that it depicts Moana’s racial and cultural identity as fixed: once she has accepted both parts of her identity, one that is cultural and the other that is not (the latter eventually becoming cultural as well), she is content and all of her problems are solved. Moana’s character is an inaccurate representation of racial identity because it is always subject to change depending on the circumstances.
While it is difficult to suggest what the filmmakers could have specifically changed to reflect the ever-changing quality of cultural identity, it is possible to pin-point the reason why it was so easy to ignore this issue. Scholar Stuart Hall describes cultural identity as a “matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power.” Though Polynesian culture is rich with history, the movie reduces it to a vague past of maritime island colonization. In addition, Moana’s village and her people may be based on the real-life Polynesia, but they are relegated to a fantasy bubble of islands that has no connection to any other continents or other part of the globe. The “play of history, culture and power” that Hall speaks about does not exist in the movie because the characters are either Polynesian or inhuman (an animated chicken, piglet and giant crab god to name a few.) Moana’s cultural identity is not “subject” to a historical power hierarchy because Disney essentially erases it.
And even though the beautiful visuals of the animated Polynesia are similar to the real geography of the islands, the film romanticizes that one group of people happily live on each island as autonomous communities. Just as the film simplified Moana’s cultural identity, the film does the same to the islands and the peoples of Polynesia. When her community is threatened by a destructive black force that burns the trees and kills the fish, Moana is forced to quell the god Tefiti through a quest, which she eventually succeeds. This subsequently erases the pollution that has destroyed her village and restores the proliferation of lush vegetation that covers the island.
The natural environment of the Pacific Islands restored.
However, the reality of the socioeconomic status of those who live on the Pacific Islands is that there is high unemployment and their un-diversified economy is highly vulnerable because it depends so much on natural resources, especially fish. Though urbanization and global warming, there has been a negative impact on the environment of Polynesia as well as the rest of the world, but unlike in the movie these issues cannot be instantaneously erased. For example, experts have estimated that the economy of American Samoa is 80% dependent on the tuna cannery business. Moana’s Polynesia glazes over these fragile aspects about the real Pacific Islands and incorrectly represents Polynesia as a tropical paradise destination for American audiences.
Despite Disney’s choice to bring Polynesians to worldwide recognition and headline an Asian female as a title character in a blockbuster movie, the studio romanticizes the islands and ignores the reality of their poor socioeconomic situation, which could arguably be caused by the white colonialism that pioneered the society in which Disney has been flourishing for the past hundred years. So while Polynesians are faced with few opportunities for employment, poor infrastructure and possible natural disaster, Disney makes hundreds of millions of dollars from a film that would not have been able to exist without the Polynesian culture to begin with. Though Disney tries to ignore the intersection of Western culture with that of the Pacific Islands by failing to address any issues of racism or historical power structures, they must recognize that the intersection between the cultures is relevant because of the deep Pacific Islander influence in the movie and the mainstream American audience that is consuming it. To ignore this relationship and to continue the same errors in the media’s portrayal of Asian characters is a mistake for Moana despite its triumphs.
 Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 225
The texts we’ve read in Asian American Media, have obviously focused on the works involving the American perception of Asians in media. It seems like we went across the continent from Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean perspectives and perceptions. Within these ethnicities and how they intersect with media, we’ve also looked how these identities relate to gender, religion, the technology market, and the government. We’ve looked at multiple media categories such as movies, magazines, comics, anime, video games, and even porn. However, over the course of the semester I have been hyperaware of how the “Asian” focus seems too stifling, even suffocating because it seems like we hardly discuss how the issues and injustices that Asian Americans suffer in media are also relevant to basically all marginalized groups (especially in the show business.) How often have the statistics shown that female leads do not attract as high a salary as male actors? Was the world really that shocked to discover that Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood was significantly paid less than her male counterparts? Why is it that Leslie Jones, a comedy writer and actress, was regulated to practically the same loud black woman stereotype on her Saturday Night Live career? How many times have we seen token characters on television sitcoms emanate the same offensive racist or sexist stereotypes?
When people cite their example that they feel is relevant to the text they are writing the blog post about, they usually write about an example from class (has to do with Asian American Media) and if it is taken from outside of class, it still has to do with specifically Asian American Media. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when I think about the long-lasting longevity of the course, I feel like that the most important take-away of this class is to spark a belief in the historical/media study of marginalized groups. So when I see that most of the related examples have to do with Asian American media works, I question whether people really see the struggles of Asians in American media as similar struggles to other marginalized groups as well, such as women, environmentalists, humanity majors in an increasingly industrialized world (haha), Native Americans, agender people, etc. For example, a classmate Allyson Sweeney wrote that the protagonist, Jin Wang, of “American Born Chinese” seemed to have a similar struggle to Beast of “Beauty and the Beast” because people judged him based on his looks rather than his personality. This simple parallel is exactly what I feel should be made at the end of this course, and how the essays and techniques we learned about in Asian American media are the same way you might tackle learned about other marginalized groups (intersectionality, people!)
I think this especially important because of one of the quotes I pulled from the Ono & Pham article: media is the “basic by which ideas are formed and knowledge is produced, and, ultimately, for how people related to other people and how societies are formed and structured.” Through media, “certain privileged externalizations are disseminated widely… ad may ultimately become part of public memory.” I interpreted this quote as the argument that people’s perceptions of others and other societies is influenced by media. Making media extremely important! I mainly agree with this statement because of my personal experiences. I feel, as a someone who watched an excessive amount of television as a child, that I perceived real people as reflections of characters who I felt resembled them in media—which was a bit detrimental. But never mind me, the real issue or arguably, the evidence of this was felt through the 2016 Presidential Election. Apparently (though the faith of polling in this country is broken after the previously mentioned event), the main reasons that people voted for Donald Trump was because of racial resentment. Many of these people, who I presume to live in the rural areas (but this is not based on a real statistic so I will tread lightly) where Donald Trump overwhelming won the electoral vote, probably have never had a normal relationship with the minority groups that they resent.
So where could their opinion of these people come from? The media. And that is why this study of work is so important and why it does not only apply to Asian American media. It’s not like the people who are so upset about “immigrants stealing their jobs”, “blacks killing police officers” and “ISIS coming to take over America” favor one minority group over the other. They are resentful of all people who are non-white and deviate from the norm, and if we fail to understand the plights of marginalized groups other than ourselves and leave only the media to educate us about them, we jeopardize that our perceptions might run the same way.
The chapter of “Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video” by Peter Feng, titled “Becoming Asian American” is an analysis of the 1982 film Chan is Missing, arguing that it is a pioneer in showcasing the multiplicities of Asian American identities in American cinema and therefore challenges the idea of a fixed Asian American identity. Instead of trying to spread awareness of the presence of a Asian American identity, the movie focuses on “the process of becoming.” (155) This quote means that the characters are not defining or becoming any definition for the Asian American presence in film, but are simply an example of guys who happen to be Asian in American trying to figure out their racial identity. Obviously, the movie does this through its multiple Asian American characters: Steve, Jo, etc. who all have their own personalities and the main characters of the film rather than villains, sex symbols, or comic relief. Like Rae said already, this is very similar to Flower Drum Song in this sense and is notable for this aspect in a period of film that was very much lacking this representation (let’s not debate the present fact of the matter…)
But in this chapter, Feng also articulates certain thematic elements of the film of symbolism that tackle other aspects of the Asian American identity (crisis.) Feng argues that the entire plot of the film, which is to find Steve and Jo’s friend Chan Hung. By looking for Chan, they must face the prevailing stereotypes of Asians in American media, such as Charlie Chan. “The video cassette’s “self-mocking” label seems appropriate; the characters themselves seem aware that they are trapped in a pop culture stereotype–trapped, not in the sense that they have been placed there by the dominant, but in the sense… of sense of strange kind of critique, purveying, and challenging their position.” (158)
I thought that this reading of the movie illuminates the craft of the movie in a clever light– trying to find the true meaning of “Charlie Chan” or the percieved Asian American idenity, but instead (depending on whose perspective, whether it be Steve, Chan Hung’s wife or the police officer.) seeing what they themselves percieve in him/it (and because some of these characters are Chinese American themselves, they see what they do not want to see in themselves.) So Feng is also highlighting that heterogeniety in the Asian American identity can be defined through the perspective of other Asian Americans (and this a different perspective.)
This direct confrontation of the stereotype reminded me of the Das Racist music video “Who’s that Brown” we watched in class on Tuesday. That music video featured so many stereotypes, such as the game that the rappers played which involved dodging arranged marriages, a Grand Central station filled with “yuppies (young professionals) who are gentrifying the neighborhood” and the black guy that one of the rappers has a dance battle with. This is also an example of an interaction: definitely a satire, but also a critique of not only stereotypes about South East Asians, but of other races too.
The whole plot of the movie, especially the conclusion of the movie, which is that they never find Chan Hung and the fragments/pieces of evidence that they find out about him paint an even more confusing picture of him is beautiful because it’s such a truism. The problem with defining anything in general is that you, often times, are never wholly correct and are therefore wrong; it’s the perpetual problem with history, isn’t it? You always leave something out because it would be impossible to tell the entire story/experience (but as Lowe/Feng argue, they are not asking that the ENTIRE story be told, but the important parts.) Whenever you’re writing about a group of people– theres’ a pretty good chance that you will be unable to accurately generalize them. This idea is the essence of a quote from the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, which relates this idea we have read in an example of Asian American media, but is applicable to pretty much all media and life as well.
What’s especially interesting is that Feng (and Wang too, since it is our media for this article), draws the conclusion that these attempts to analyze/define (and therefore, understand) are more indicative of the person who is trying to do it rather than the actual subject of study. Not only is the analyzer human, but the act of analyzing opens a void in which we can view them, rather than who is being analyzed. Which is really quite ~meta~ if you think about this blog post in the context of this class.
Ono & Pham‘s chapter “The Persistence of Yellow Peril Discourse” details the definition, history and media portrayal of the yellow peril stereotype. They write that media discourse “serves as the basis by which ideas are formed and knowledge is produced and, ultimately, for how people relate to other people and how societies are formed and structured.” Just saying, I think that this is true for the most part, but especially when people do not actually interact with the ethnic groups that media depicts in real life. I went to a conference this summer and Reza Aslan said that the number one factor in changing people’s prejudices against Muslims was if they actually knew a Muslim.
Ono & Pham go on to write about how media is so important because it allows the “certain privileged externalizations [to be] disseminated widely… and may become part of public memory.”
Then they delve in the history of yellow peril, which was thought to have originated from the fear of mongoloid Genghis Khan, general xenophobic from the Western world, and the fear of Anglo Saxon race suicide, to name a few. Offensive stereotypes such as “wearing pigtails, speaking with exaggerated dialects” and “seeking white women for physical and sexual labor.” I was horrified to see that current periodicals such Harper’s Weekly (and from what we saw in class, though not as harshly or vulgar, Time and The Atlantic) purported these horrific images to their audiences. Who even reads Harper’s Weekly anyway?
These stereotypes (some of which are incorrect, all of which in association with each other are incorrect and offensive) get scary when they influence United States policies, such as The Angell Treaty of 1880 (which limited the immigration of Chinese workers who hoped to come to America) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This is completely offensive when my great-grandfather and many other Cantonese people came to America to help build the First Transcontinental Railroad.
And getting to the main idea of the essay, it gets even MORE dangerous when yellow peril translates into cinema through the movies of the 18th century. The movie that we watched in class “The Cheat” (1915) was exemplary of the typical storyline of movies that focused on Yellow Peril: an unrequited Asian man steals a white woman from a white man for his own illicit/evil/sexual desires. More movies guilty of this moral injustice is “Broken Blossoms” (1919) and the Fu Manchu franchise. Though I had known that the typical name for a Chinese style mustache was named after this character, I didn’t realize until now how damning that really is. A Chinese mustache should NOT have an inherently evil connotation, though that really might be the perception that people may have of Chinese men with mustaches on their upper lips.
Something that I found fascinating about the article is that highlighted the relationship between yellow peril media works and the historical context of Chinese American relations at the time. Darrell Hamamoto wrote an entire paper about how Asian American media representation is directly linked to US foreign policy: for example when there was anti-Chinese resentment during 1800-1950s, which explains the offensive Chinese stereotypes detailed in the beginning of their chapter. However, this changed in the 1940’s when Americans began to direct their hatred towards the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor and caricatures of Japanese began to crop up, portraying them as rodent-like, barbaric and evil. World War II caricatures of the Japanese followed suit, but after the war ended, Chinese directed yellow period began to rise again. Could another form of yellow peril start with the negative portrayal of middle easterns/south east asians in the media because of the current fear of Islamic terrorist group ISIS with movies such as “American Sniper” (definitely not as bad as the previous examples)?
The introduction of Ono & Pham’s essay describes that “contrary to the popular media story that well all live in a post-racist society, yellow peril has not faded away into the depths of history.” This totally reminded me of an Onion article called “I Don’t See Race; I Only See Grayish-Brown, Vaguely Humanoid Shapes“. This humor article ALSO satirizes this claim made by people who think that racism (and probably global warming) are myths of the past (“Wasn’t slavery like a billion years ago?”)
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner questions the power difference between man and his creation by chronicling the hunt of terminal manufactured “replicants” who yearn for the longer length of a human lifespan. Because the replicants are commodified as slaves for humans, they enter a world of social inequality on the lowest rung and a short expiration date. While the humanity of the replicants is the movie’s focus, it also makes a statement about the other outcast in the social hierarchy: minorities. Certainly not a theme exclusive to the 1992 film, the relationship between society and the “other”, also dominates Stephen Crane’s “The Monster” and H.G. Well’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. “The Monster” involves a young black man who is horribly disfigured after a good deed, and then subsequently ostracized from his town’s community. “The Island of Doctor Moreau” experiments with the possibility than an obsessive scientist can speed up evolution to create man from animal. In this essay, these two texts are used as a lens to view Blade Runner: “The Monster”, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” and Blade Runner, which feature white male “creator” characters and inferior people of color, are allegories to historical events of racial discrimination: American slavery, British imperialism and American immigration, respectively.
In comparison to the white, male protagonists who dominate the plots, minorities are portrayed as inhuman and grouped together as unimportant. While Crane’s protagonist, Henry Johnson is introduced as a likeable black man, he quickly loses his colorful personality after his disfigurement. After the fire occurs at the end of Chapter 7, Johnson suffers grotesque chemical lesions and possible brain damage. After this early incident, Johnson is labeled as “a monster” by Judge Hagenthorpe and is avoided by the majority of the town. In this way, Johnson is stripped of his humanity because he is no longer able to express himself, rarely speaking during the rest of the novel. While Johnson is tragically unable to be respected, despite his brave act of saving Jimmy’s life, he does not remain the protagonist. Because the disfigurement occurs so early on in the text, the majority of the story’s focuses on the Dr. Trescott and the townspeople’s opinion of Johnson as a villain: Trescott, who maintains that he must protect Johnson for saving his son, slowly loses his business, social circle and his family because of his persistent association with Johnson. Wilson Jordan notes in “Teaching a Dangerous Story: Darwinism and Race in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster’”, that the burned Johnson is also dehumanized through the language that Crane uses to describe him: choosing to refer to Johnson as the ambiguous “dark figure” or “it” instead of his name (34). This change in Johnson’s pronouns after the fire exemplifies how the townspeople do not see him to be a man after the fire.
The objectification of Johnson, a black man, is also representative of the lack of individuality and racial profiling of all of the black characters in the story. Despite his best efforts (sacrificing his own body, and ultimately life, for the son of a white man, Jimmy), society refuses to respect Johnson as a human, and shun him. Cleman suggests that Crane’s depiction of blacks in the novel are racist stereotypes: the blacks live on a street called “Watermelon Avenue” and likens the Farraguts to “three monkeys”, details that are reminiscent of Jim Crow minstrel shows (16). Not only is this degrading, but it labels the racial group of blacks instead of the individual man, Henry Johnson. While the white townspeople are diverse in their characters, such as Doctor Trescott, Martha Goodwin, Judge Hagenthorpe, Jake Winter and more, there are only three individual black characters: Johnson, Alek Williams and Bella Ferragut (and briefly, Mrs. Farragut, her mother). These characters, though they have names and personalities, are minor characters whose lines pale in comparison to the influence of the Judge or Goodwin on the plot: the Judge repeatedly tries to convince Trescott to send Johnson away, while Martha’s character description details her family history and personality as a stubborn woman with an unwavering opinion. Johnson loses his personality and individuality after the disfigurement, while Williams is portrayed as an uneducated fool as he tries to increase his salary for housing Johnson. Farragut is Johnson’s fiancé who loses all interest after his disfigurement, violently rejecting his advances after he tries to court her again. Additionally, as stated before, the story focuses the “monster’s” effect on Dr. Trescott and his family, pushing the minorities out of the spotlight.
Johnson is symbolic of the blacks in the novel, but also black Americans in history as well. While not a slave himself, Johnson, a black man, is the stablehand of Trescott, a white doctor. Not surprisingly, in “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s “the Monster””, Clemen identifies that the relationship between Trescott and Johnson in “The Monster” illustrates slavery during the 1890s. This also is supported by the slavery-reminiscent language to describe Henry’s actions during multiple parts of the story, such as “slavery” and “submission” (24). Society’s rejection of the black Henry Johnson, and symbolically of blacks as a whole, highlights that the correlated traits of being a minority and an outcast manifests into beings who are lesser than human.
Wilson Jordan’s examination of the pronouns used to describe people of color in “The Monster” can also be applied to the dehumanization of the Kanakas in “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. The Moreau’s treatment of minorities and beast people implies that not only are people of color inferior to white Europeans, but that this stratification is justified by Social Darwinism. Among the human characters in the novel, the only minorities mentioned are the six Kanakas, Pacific Islanders who Moreau initially brings to the island. In his description of their beginnings on the Island, none of the Kanakas have an individual name and are referred to by only their ethnicity or as immature “boys”. Moreau, like Crane’s treatment of Johnson, doesn’t see the Kanakas as humans because of his use of the pronoun “it”, as he tells Prendick “It was killed”, when Prendick asks about their fates: all of the Kanakas have either deserted or have been killed on the island and have been replaced.
This contrasts with Moreau’s references to Montgomery, a white, European man like himself– even the name Montgomery, and Moreau’s use of it, is an acknowledgement of Montgomery’s individuality and allows Montgomery to be defined by his character, rather than by his race. This makes it even more apparent that Moreau views the Kanakas as a racial group that is inferior, disposable and weak. In fact, when describing his earlier experiments, Moreau refers to the beasts and the Kanakas in a similar fashion: the pronoun “it”, its speciation (such as “the puma”, “Thing”, “the beast people”, etc.) and with a lack of respect afforded to Prendick and Montgomery, who are white European men.
This correlation between minorities and the beast people implies that Moreau considers the Kanakas and his creations to be similar, and inferior to man. Through this relationship, H.G. Wells suggests that the Social Darwinism that Moreau uses to justify the possibility of evolution from beast to man can also be applied to the Kanakas, or anyone of non-European descent. In his explanation to Prendick, Doctor Moreau observes that the more animalistic the creature is, the less intelligent it is. Moreau says,
“The intelligence is often oddly low, with unaccountable blank ends, unexpected gaps. And least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch, somewhere—I cannot determine where—in the seat of the emotions.” (76)
The beast people, who are derived from animals, ultimately fail to develop the same level of intelligence and emotional capacity as natural born humans do. Whereas Crane’s story served as an allegory to the racial inequality caused by the American slave trade, critics have likened H.G. Wells’s novel to British imperialism. Hendershot parallels the animals of the Island of Doctor Moreau to the natives of British colonies, such as India and Africa. She notes that Moreau’s role as a religious figure for the Beast People is uncannily similar to how white imperialists assumed their control over a native population. The conquest of both animals and people through fiction and history are justified through Social Darwinism. Though the Kanakas are not native to the island, Moreau’s similar treatment of minorities and Beast People in comparison to European men suggests that Social Darwinism is a justification for such racial discrimination.
Critics have briefly analyzed the relationship between race and social stratification in Blade Runner in the context of larger arguments. In “Metahuman ‘Kipple’: Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream Of Electric Women?’ Speciesism And Sexism In Blade Runner”, Barr contends that contemporary racism has been replaced by speciesism against the replicants. Desser contrasts this argument by identifying that race and class actually are conflated, where minorities and replicants share the same class. Contrary to Barr, this implies that both racism and speciesism are present in the society of futuristic Los Angeles.
In Blade Runner, there is clear racial stratification between Earth and the off-world colonies. Most of Earth’s population has left for a different planet, lured by the change for a fresh start at life. Though we never see the off-world colony, the dirty, overcrowded, dark atmosphere of Los Angeles is perceived to be inferior to whatever environment the off-world colonies offer. Through J.F. Sebastian’s explanation that he was not eligible to leave Earth because of a genetic disease, it is suggested that this society is trying to “improve” the human population by only allowing the “ideal” humans to colonize. From the racial demographics of the city, mostly composed of East Asian and Hispanic people, it is inferred that these races are considered to be inferior to the white population (the majority of which have already left Earth.) Just as in “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, Social Darwinism is used to justify the colonization of the superior whites on the off-world colonies and the exclusion of minorities.
While the the eye designer shown at the beginning of the movie is of East Asian descent, he is never named and is presumed to be murdered by replicant Roy Batty, the latest replicant on the market. Instead, in his only scene, the eye designer functions as a weakling at the mercy of the white man. This contrasts greatly with the depiction of S.F. Sebastian, who is seduced by Pris and Roy Batty in multiple scenes, where the audience also learns about his individual characteristics, such as his genetic disease, his creations and his home. These racial groups lack individual personality afforded to the multiple white characters in the film, and are wholly unimportant to the main plot of the film.
White supremacy is also exhibited through the design of the replicants, who also live on the off shore colonies. As a commodity, the replicants are marketed as the perfect human: the five replicants we meet over the course of the movie are intelligent, incredibly strong, conventionally attractive, and are all white. The replicants exemplify how the ideal human is one that is of white, and that those who are not of European descent are inferior. The non-Europeans may be human, but the film does not afford any humanity to the East Asians and Hispanic characters, instead treating them as background scenery, indistinguishable and unimportant.
All three of these works suggest that society propagates a white supremacist hierarchy that alienates the non-European through dehumanization and generalization. This racist argument is only redeemed by that another product of this society is white fallibility: Crane depicts the mob of townspeople as cruel and unforgiving, who ultimately shun Johnson, Dr. Trescott and his family from the community because of their racial prejudice. H.G. Wells’s white scientists suffer a worse fate: the insensitive and power hungry Moreau is killed by his own creation and his assistant Montgomery commits suicide. In Blade Runner, most of the replicants and their creators (the eye designer, J.F. Sebastian and Tyrell) are dead. The characters who survive, such as Dr. Trescott, Prendick and Deckard, are unable to continue living in these white supremacist societies. The unhappy fates of these characters suggest the authors’ criticism of these white supremacist views in society, especially because they mirror the historical events of American slavery and British imperialism.
By examining Blade Runner through the lens of “The Monster” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, the historical racial discrimination that the movie could be critiquing is the exploitation of immigrant workers by white-led corporations. Hispanic immigration started in the 1960s, while one of the biggest waves of Chinese immigrants started in 1965. The desperation of immigrants for jobs make them especially vulnerable to exploitation by companies. Many immigrants flock to the cities in hopes of better jobs, such as a city like Los Angeles, which overflows with people. This criticism seems to becoming true in reality: a newspaper article published last year reported the “sweatshop-like conditions” of the garment industry.
“The majority of garment workers in Los Angeles, one of the world’s fashion centers, are Latinos and most are undocumented. About 20 percent are Asian, mostly Chinese immigrants, Martinez said. None are unionized.”
Because the movie was released in 1982, the statement that Scott is criticizing the Los Angeles garment industry specifically is unlikely, but the racial makeup of Los Angeles 2019 was an intentional choice. The future society of Blade Runner is allegorical to the historical influx of immigrants during the 1960s. Scott suggests that society views immigrants in America are viewed as inferiors to whites, exemplified by the blatant racial prejudice against non-Europeans of “The Monster” and the Social Darwinism used to justify it in “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”
Cleman, John. “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s “the Monster””. American Literary Realism 34.2 (2002): 119–134. Web. 12 May 2016.
Crane, Stephen. The Monster. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963. Print.
Desser, David. “Race, Space And Class: The Politics Of The SF Film From Metropolis To Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 110-123. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.
Barr, Marleen. “Metahuman ‘Kipple’: Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream Of Electric Women?’ Speciesism And Sexism In Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 25-31. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.
Hendershot, Cyndy. “The Animal Within.” (1998): n. pag. Web.
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Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Ridley Scott and Hampton Francher. By Hampton Francher and David Webb Peoples. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. Warner Bros., 1992. DVD.
Taneja, Payal. “The Tropical Empire: Exotic Animals And Beastly Men In The Island Of Doctor Moreau.” English Studies In Canada 39.2-3 (2013): 139-159. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.
“The History of Chinese Immigration to the U.S.” The History of Chinese Immigration to the U.S. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.
United States. National Park Service. “An Historic Overview of Latino Immigration and the Demographic Transformation of the United States.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.
Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Modern Library, 1996. Print.
Wilson-Jordan, Jacqueline. “Teaching A Dangerous Story: Darwinism And Race In Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster’.” Eureka Studies In Teaching Short Fiction 8.1 (2007): 48-61. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.