Hollywood Is Finally Waking Up To Asian Hunks, And It’s About Time

"Things are changing in Hollywood, and hopefully we will soon see Australia follow suit."

Crazy Rich Asians Asian Masculinity

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Is it too difficult for Hollywood, Australian and other Western film and television industries to stop perpetuating negative stereotypes of Asian men?

Would it be so revolutionary to watch a film or television show where the lead actor is an Asian male who gets to be the romantic interest? Or saves the world, but at the same time gets to be portrayed as an “everyday person”?

Asian male characters in Western film and television are historically portrayed as diabolical villains or goofy sidekicks.

One of the first mainstream Asian male characters introduced to the Western world was Dr Fu Manchu, a sinister “oriental villain” who graced the screens in the first half of the twentieth century, aimed at scaring women into thinking an Asian man is out to kidnap them. Or in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we get a goofy, buck tooth Asian male character played by Mickey Rooney ( yes a white man) named I.Y. Yunioshi. Or remember the weirdly sexless Asian character of “Long Duk Dong” introduced in Sixteen Candles, who comes across as a horny joke.

To their credit though, Hollywood has recently taken some progressive strides when it comes to representation.

With the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians, Asian male leads are now FINALLY seen as heartthrobs, and are even subject to thirsty, shirtless articles in the global mainstream media.

The image of Asian Australian actor Chris Pang and Malaysian Henry Golding shirtless is imprinted in my mind as thirst galore — but also epitomises the idea that Asian males are no longer seen as just goofy and awkward sidekicks. As objectifying as it all might sound, it has taken a generation to even reach the point where Asian men are viewed as hunks.

Even though this can be considered as a crass perspective, it has really empowered the current generation of Asian male actors from Hollywood, Australia and beyond to model their own standards of attractiveness, moving away from the white saviour/Western male standard.

Defining Asian Male Media Representations In Hollywood, Australia And Sex Appeal

In contrast to the changes in Hollywood, Australia has not made as many significant strides in terms of how it portrays Asian men in the media.

In essence it is still following the trends of early twentieth century Hollywood, where Asian men are not represented as heroes, heartthrobs or the everyday person. It is not too difficult to switch on network television to see that Asian men on Australian television are not represented as sexy, heartthrobs who save the world. We almost never see Asian male leads in Australia,  sticking with sidekicks and side characters.

Here are what some of these Asian Australian actors said about this topic and how they plan to be part of the change.

ARKA DAS (Lion, Mulan):

For me adequate representations of Asian men really just means a diverse range of Asian/South-Asian men of all types being seen and being visible. However, I understand that it has certain stereotypical connotations from a Western media perspective.

I think for years the mainstream media’s perception of Asian/South-Asian men has been nerdy, quirky, funny and asexual. However, I do feel the perception has changed in recent years and is shifting rapidly as mainstream media starts to catch up, but I think there is still a way to go.

I am mindful of this and of the roles I take that we do not fall behind Hollywood and everywhere else.

GEORGE ZHAO (The Family Law):

Asian men have not been portrayed as anything but the sidekick, the bad guy, the best friend, and the comedic relief. You find ways to deal with it, some hide, some overcompensate, and some try to be white. I plan to change this stereotype, but not only look at portraying Asian men as heartthrobs who get into a steamy relationship, but one which embodies how Asian men are like day to day.

CHRIS PANG (Crazy Rich Asians):

As an Asian male growing up in Australia, it was hard for me to find role models.

Looking back, in Hollywood we did have Asian leads kicking ass, but the leads never got the girl, no matter how badass their character was. Seeing these portrayals does impact on you growing up as a Asian male and you feel disempowered for not measuring up as you do not see these role models laid out before you.

Since Crazy Rich Asians, media outlets have used my “shirtless” image as something, which embodies how attractive Asian men are. Things are changing in Hollywood, and hopefully we will soon see Australia follow suit.

DESMOND CHIAM ( The Shannara Chronicles, Reef Break):

We have an opportunity to excise toxicity as we create the image of the ‘Asian male’ in media.

There is a weird idea that if we are not comically nerdy, then we surely are emotionally inscrutable. In the case of the former — I doubly object because neither being Asian nor nerdy should means you are something to laugh at.

In the latter — it really hamstrings us with the acting career.

We have to be doubly as good at it to overcome the idea that we do not wear emotions well. Looking back over the credits I have had — elf, magician, dumb Aussie, and now a slightly lothario-ish detective — I think we are starting to deconstruct that myth.

Dismantling The Western Standard Of Sexiness And Attractiveness

The new wave of Asian male actors have really started to form their own model of what it means to be sexy and attractive.

The rise of Asian produced media, Asian men have constructed their own standards of sexiness and attractiveness, which isn’t defined by western standards — it’s not just about looking like Brad Pitt anymore.

This is what the new wave of Asian male actors are doing and this is what will create a ripple effect in this movement.

MAX BROWN (Neighbours, Secret City):

I believe more variety in the types of characters we have access to playing is the key.

For us to model our own versions of attractiveness, we need to be diverse in the characters we play and portray. All I can do is bring my own life experiences to these new opportunities: I grew up working class, in a semi-rural area and I was always in trouble at school that does not slot neatly into the “model minority” stereotype. It is a perspective I still have not seen a lot of on screen for our community.

TAKAYA HONDA ( The Family Law, Neighbours, Playschool):

More representation in positions of strength that have been typically anything but Asian.

For me, I feel my role is to stay on course and keep doing what I am doing and make myself available for things like this, and things that can celebrate our masculinity. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be physically fit or confident in your appearance. That is how we should be modelling ourselves towards rather than being all about appearances only.

CHRIS LAM (USA — BuzzFeed producer):

We need to create our own definitions of what it means to be an Asian man and how our behaviours, words and actions influences the community as a whole.

In terms of modelling against “Western standards”, as a gay man, I do not think it is about the modelling itself, but it is more about who upholds that modelling — and we know that to be white men and white systems.

I am not denying that I love men like that, but really, it is about the diversity in looks and valuing men of different shapes, sizes, mannerisms and looks. When we have conversations about western standards, we need to look at the implications of having this perceptions/modelling.

SIMU LIU (Canadian — Kim’s Convenience):

For me, I am not so much concerned with trying to scream at the world, ‘Look at me! I am sexy!’: there is something inherently un-sexy about that!

If anything, I want to show the world, that I am comfortable and confident with body, that I am immensely proud of my cultural identity and that I refuse to be reduced to a stereotype. For far too long Asian men in the west were constantly being told that we weren’t sexy, we weren’t desirable, we couldn’t be masculine to the point where I think we started to internalise it.

I believe changing the narrative around this begins with Asian men standing up and collectively flipping a middle finger to a system that desexualized them.

Be your best self, whatever that means for you, be confident, and be kind to others; there is no need to make it any more complicated.

Redefining and dismantling negative stereotypes of Asian men in the media is something, which will take time, grit, determination and creativity.

The Asian males interviewed in this piece reflects the growing number of Asian male actors, television presenters and filmmakers doing their thing in entertainment to transform these negative perceptions to something positive and to create their own versions of representation and their own version of what self-confidence means.

Whether they work in Hollywood, Australia or anywhere else around the world, the stigma of negative stereotypes will always be there, but it is about what they do with these negative stereotypes, which will set the course for significant future change.

Erin Wen Ai Chew is a social activist and founder of the Asian Australian Alliance. She is also a freelance writer specialising in issues around whitewashing, media representation and racism. Erin was a former co- editor of YOMYOMF ( You Offend Me, You Offend My Family) and runs a podcast called Offended AF (Asian Feminists).