Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Just Acting?

Or Moral Dilemma?

For Asian-Americans the single most highly debated subject - after the inter-racial dating disparity(!) - is possibly the issue of media representation. From outright derogatory and demeaning representation to invisibility and white-washing of Asian characters, the issue is definitely a hot-topic in any discourse on the Asian-American experience.

One aspect of this issue is the phenomenon of Asian-American actors who come under heavy criticism from within the community for accepting demeaning roles. This often leads to questions of the obligations (if any) of individual actors faced with the dilemma of working in an industry that only permits them stereotyped roles, and the part these roles might play in perpetuating negative attitudes towards Asian people in society in general. Most recently the broadcasting of the comedy show earlier in this year- 2 Broke Girls - has generated renewed discussion on this issue of negative stereoypes and how Asian actors willing to fill these roles might be contributing to their promotion in society in general.

On one side of the argument some Asian actors feel that accepting a demeaning role is part of a larger process that incorporates Asian characters (albeit negatively at first) into the mainstream consciousness that they believe and hope will at some point tilt the balance of influence such that they, or future, actors will have more input in how Asian characters are depicted. The general belief is that demeaning roles must lead inexorably to more nuanced and less stereotypical depictions. Some Asian actors suggest that such roles are not actually as damaging as we would believe and offer nuanced arguments defending roles that severely limit the qualities of the Asian character being portrayed, or might argue that the role will be filled regardless. Others, suggest that the entertainment industry is driven by artistic creativity and thus one-dimensional roles that uphold demeaning stereotypes should somehow be exempt from politically or socially based criticism.

Of course, it could be suggested (and has been suggested) that media characterizations do not, or cannot, influence, or shape public attitudes or behaviours. Yet, casual observation of America's news and media suggests quite strongly that the media itself is heavily invested in the notion that the things they broadcast can heavily affect how people vote, shop, believe, and behave. A look at history should also give some clues that promoting bias through the broadcast media can alter the moral compass of individuals within a population and enable attitudes to shift to such a degree that horrific atrocities can seem like good ideas - the Nazis and Stalin's Russia are a testament to this.

There is, therefore, very little reason to believe that ubiquitous negative and demeaning media (or political) depictions of Asian people can have anything other than a negative impact on the behaviours and attitudes of mainstream Americans towards Asians - this is particularly acute because there are very few positive representations of Asians that provide a balanced perspective. What all of this adds up to is that American culture has a dialogue going about Asian people that is almost ideological in character, which is derived from xenophobic hostility and is a discourse from which the perspectives of Asian people themselves are excluded. Stereotyping in the mass media is the way that this hostile dialogue is popularly propagated throughout American culture, and a casual observation of the degree of anti-Asian behaviours amongst mainstream America's children provides us with strong evidence of the success and pervasiveness of this dialogue.

This should (but surprisingly, often does not) present us with a dilemma of conscience such that the decision of an Asian actor to accept a demeaning role becomes almost a moral question. This is because pervasive negative depictions can and do shift the moral compass of mainstream America and thus normalize demeaning attitudes and behaviours towards Asian people that would be deemed unacceptable if enacted towards individuals within their own group. Given that American culture has been through over half-a-century of an ideological shift that promotes the ethic of respect and acceptance of people regardless of colour or creed, and is, therefore, not ignorant of issues regarding social and cultural integration, the fact that anti-Asian attitudes continue to be normalized underlines the unethical nature of the practice and underscores the moral nature of the issue.

The apparent failure of the Asian minority of America to recognize the ethical nature of this issue is fundamental to understanding why the issue of media representation continues to be such a problem for us. Most of the time we tend to concieve of stereotyping as a way to offend or antagonize, when in fact, their purpose is to promote a worldview of exclusion and insurmountable differentness of Asian people. Yet, the result of promoting such hostile attitudes towards Asian people may even, perhaps, have far more potentially devastating effects such as negatively influencing America's foreign policy choices in Asia.

Since there are no serious moral sensibilities - under normal circumstances - that view actions that promote harm to others as being morally acceptable courses of action, it would seem obvious that there should be an obligation on the part of aspiring Asian-American actors (or anyone with a moral conscience) to cease participation in roles that do that very thing. No actor would accept a role in a film that promoted or normalized the idea that child-abuse is a good and normal thing (well, Clint Eastwood and some Asians might). No actor would accept a role in a movie that promoted the idea that slavery was morally acceptable. The reason is that these things might go beyond the simple creative process and propagate beliefs that normalize child-abuse or the brutality of slavery and thus have the potential to cause harm and suffering to others. It is a question of ethics and morality.

And this is one of the most overlooked aspects of the drive to empower Asian-Americans. We ourselves diminish the seriousness of hostile depictions by failing to place the practice into an appropriate moral frame work. What we fail to realize is that the central principle that underlies any practice of dehumanization is the denial of moral agency of individuals in the target group. Thus, if Asians lack moral agency, then they are incapable of making ethical choices that are congruent with that of Americans. This in turn justifies xenophobia and prejudicial thinking because it is only the depraved or the lower animals who lack moral agency. Additionally, because of this lack of moral agency, it follows that one need not apply the same moral considerations towards Asians as one would towards one's own group. Thus, the very act of accepting demeaning roles could itself be seen as an example of deficient moral agency and, thus, reinforces dehumanization.

Asian actors - or any public figures, perhaps - happen to choose professions that place them in the front line of America's cultural denigration of Asian people. Thus, it would seem obvious that it is they who must, more than anybody, challenge this process of dehumanization. I would suggest that actors have a moral obligation to boycott demeaning roles - where writers and producers are unwilling to compromise - because a major aspect of combatting dehumanizing images is simply to exercise moral agency. The outcome of such an action would only be positive. It's not enough to accept a role hoping in blind faith that it must necessarily contribute to overall progress at some unspecified time in the future.

Film makers might resort to using "yellow-face" to depict Asian characters in which case at least the racism would be undeniable, or they might write the Asian character out of the script altogether, in which case what has been lost except for a few bucks? These types of demeaning roles for Asians are the entertainment industry's equivalent of the dead-end Macdonalds job that purveys a vile junk food that clogs the arteries of Asian creativity and fosters an obese irrelevance. So why do so many people scramble to do it?


  1. 'accepting racist roles warrants dehumanisation'

    you hit the nail on the head again.the thing is, the whole system is set up to disempower asians where youtube becomes the only place for self expression and even then, the asians eager to be partners dont want to accept white dominance and just play the nice guy role. so its hardly a step forward is it?

    the problem with a racist system in place is its damned if you do, damned if you dont. in this case damned if we have actors damned if we dont.

    as everything nowadays is looked at as a job, then thats the only practical way. asian american representation in the age of digital consumption means nothing. asians should have screamed racism ages ago. but we have been so diluted by the whitewashing that the next gen - hapas and the like are screaming multiculturalist mandarin speaking asians that the movement has fizzled out before its even begun.

    with such a screwed hand of cards its been dealt, asian american representation can best only do 2 things - rely on the influx of immigration from china to increase its volume and give confidence in numbers, ( not that has done much for the heavily asian parts like vancouver or wherever) and even then overseas chinese dont care much about asian american culture because they just want western glorification. no sorry ben, the practical thing is to forget about asian american representation, everything is just a job and employment, and its just too late to have a western identity. all we can do is just duck our heads down and remain invisible until our sheer numbers give us a voice. or china has a stronger media soft power once communist control has given it more freedom of expression

    theres a reason why asian america has remained stagnant for 10 years. and it will only get better when the western elites let up on their globalist dreams. and god knows when that will happen. its all political ben.

  2. Anon...

    Yes YouTube is definitely offering an outlet for Asian-Americans to express their creativity without having to compromise on content.

    I'm not so sure that it has to be a numbers game though. A handful of people who have something valuable to say can accomplish more than a million people who have nothing to say.

  3. Actually what i meant to say re youtube is that they tend to play to the commercial market - which means staying non offensive to whites.

    i agree a handful of people need to speak up, but again its that area of nonconfrontation that asians dont like. i just wonder whether colonisation has had this adverse affect on asians in that we are generally apologetic by nature towards whites and that because we are kept at the level of distance ie never truly being accepted - that we dont want to rock the boat.

    unfortunately we are too happy to mock and criticize each other, which is to do with simultaneously wanting to save face but being scared of offending whites.

    white arrogance has a lot to pay for.

  4. Anon

    That's a good point - alot of Asians won't step up because they are trying so hard to not seem threatening as a reaction to demonization.

    What is important is the manner by which you go about speaking up - there is a tendency to be emotional and try to appeal to people's heart strings which can only get you so far because it automatically and implicitly places you in a disadvantaged position. We just don't seem to foster reasoned and compelling argument.

  5. Asians are just kowtowing sellouts. you look at the media organizations (CAPE, EWP) and they're mostly run by apologists who bend over for studio money.

    anytime you bring up the media racism with hop sing sellouts like KKKen Jeong, they shut you down real quick.

    do your own media and get it out there on youtube. anybody with a camera can shoot videos these days.

  6. Wow. Great post Ben. I was going to write about not knowing what being "American" means for Chinese new year but this totally blows my idea out of the water. Although I am kind of disappointed by the commenter's negativity...

  7. Tommy...

    Welcome and thanks for posting!

    Thanks for the kind words man. I don't know though, your idea sounds interesting to me.

  8. on a certain website (you know it) we are called the angry militant virgin losers.

    however, why do Asians and whites get surprised that there's seething anger in the APA community? why should it be shocking that the few of us who "gets it" and sees the truth would be angry and "negativity" towards racism?

  9. Ben: Hopefully when I have more time. Right now I'm pretty tied down with work and school and other things atm.

    MMer: I don't know the website and I don't care. But the fact that you so easily label yourself as that shows how you see yourself, not others. I am disappointed because you let your negativity seep into the way you see the world. Yes, there's a lot shit going on in the media, but you know what? It's still a lot better than it used to be years ago. It's not perfect, nor will it ever be, but hey, at least there are people out that are actually doing something about it besides complaining on the interwebz.

  10. and what have you done besides your website?

    yeah, call me negative and all that other sellout BS apologists like you do, but the fact is I tell the truth when you bend over for YTs

  11. Ben i agree asians dont foster reasoned argument, i agree with that, thats the critical thinking that asians seem to lack. 'Emotional and try to appeal to people's heart strings which can only get you so far because it automatically and implicitly places you in a disadvantaged position'

    not sure what you mean by this - are you talking about 'overreacting to racism'. i actually believe a combination of emotion and reason is best. asians actually need to express emotion because we are seen as being too inscrutable or cold and emotion helps conveying the information, and our apparent coldness and lack of speaking out only makes it seem easier to make fun of.

    combined with a reasonable argument, yes thats the way forward.

  12. Anon

    I think that passion is a vital ingredient for any endeavour, but once people cross the line into being overly emotional the edge is lost.

    I would argue that Asian-America's most highly sold cultural figures have often crossed this line and presented a "voice for the Asian minority that promotes emotionalism without passion.

    So, yes, be passionate all day long and be rational, but not emotional.

  13. Overly emotional? Really? Like who