Isn’t He Lovely: The Curious Case of Community’s Ken Jeong
(This is part two of a two-post series.)
In 2007, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, Asian American pop culture commentator Jeff Yang, and Yul Kwon (winner of Survivor: Cook Islands) hosted a roundtable discussion of the portrayal of Asian American men in mainstream culture. During their conversation, the trio discussed their perspectives on and personal experiences with the desexualization of Asian American men and/or their positioning as foreigners, regardless of where they were born. As quoted on Racialicious, Kwon told the audience:
When I was growing up, I was very much influenced by what I saw, and more importantly what I didn’t see, on television. Whenever I saw an Asian American man on television, he was inevitably a kung-fu master who could kick ass but he couldn’t speak English, or a computer geek who could figure out algorithms but couldn’t figure out how to get a date. And for myself, I really think I internalized a lot of these images.
Later, Kwon also laments that the two primary Asian male characters on primetime television at the time were Daniel Dae Kim on Lost and Masi Oka on Heroes—two prominent characters who struggle with language barriers. Consequently, Kwon saw the roles as only a half-victory of sorts, pleased for the visibility but disheartened at the stock Asian-as-Other attributes.
Amy Sueyoshi at San Francisco State University senses a shift toward more masculine—or at the very least, humanizing—depictions of Asian American males in mainstream American culture. She cites Kim, now on Hawaii Five-0, as partial proof of that.
I do think now, it’s changing. America’s Best Dance Crew, the first season, the JabbaWockeez won. And Asian American critics said that they were seen as technical, not sexual, but I actually think that they were seen as quite sexual.
There’s also an increased number of Asian American men in mainstream media, and sometimes they’re doctors and whatnot, but you are having more topless scenes, like with Daniel Dae Kim in Lost. He’s portrayed as the oppressive Asian husband, but he evolves as a character and he becomes kind of sexy. So I do think that times are changing.
And almost four years after that roundtable, with Lost and Heroes off the air, we now have the curious case of Ken Jeong, best known as Mr. Chow in The Hangover and Spanish teacher and disgruntled roustabout Chang in Community. These days, Jeong is one of the best-known Asian American stars, and while he’s clearly out to attract laughs rather than swoons (as opposed to the Jon Cho and Kal Penn duo that handily juggles both) I wonder whether he’s really changing the script for Asian Americans in Hollywood.
I wish that The Hangover had hit theaters in 2007 to get that roundtable’s perspective on Mr. Chow, because my immediate reaction to the role in the context of Asian American stereotyping was that it represented more of the same. Don’t get me wrong: Ken Jeong is a hilarious scene-stealer. And I get the fact that the comedy intentionally flaunted stereotypes to elevate the oh-no-they-didn’t factor, but I still give Mr. Chow a meh.
(Oddly, Disagrasian was back on board with the comedian after hearing him talk at length about his apparently small penis, which left me scratching my head since if there’s one totally unfounded stereotype that needs to go away yesterday, it’s the myth of the racially correlated penis length, but that’s for a pending post…)
But what about Chang on Community? Is his surly party-crasher any better? Well, Jeong seemed to appreciate his character’s job as a Spanish teacher, as opposed to “something a little more race-appropriate like mathematics, some sort of camera-making business.”
I’ve only seen a handful of Community episodes, so I’m not well-versed in Chang, but over at Slate, Jessica Grose isn’t a fan. Granted, it largely has more to do with the grating personality assigned to him than how his role conforms to stereotypes. Nevertheless:
The show tries to pump laughs out of how sexually repellent Chang is, and also what a horrible and unfit father he would make because he's so nutbar. On the first count, it's a bummer that Community—which usually handles race issues so deftly—falls back on the stereotype of Asian men as unattractive.
And that’s definitely something Mr. Chow and Chang have in common: sexual undesirability. Any feigning of sex appeal gets a laugh because he’s a kooky Asian guy with anger-management issues.
Conversely, Emil Guerillermo, blogging at IamKorean, says Jeong is the best thing to happen to Asian American men on screen in a long time. He sees Jeong’s “running amok” as a definitive trope dissolvent. For instance, on The Hangover:
… he is a combination anti-Jackie Chan and a modern day send-up of a Fu-Manchu-less villain. Oh, and did I mention? He’s NAKED.
So does hilarious, yet repugnant, add up to progress? Does the mainstream visibility that Kwon emphasized in the roundtable outweigh some of the persistent sexual stereotyping against Asian American men?
I'm curious to know what others think, and in the meantime, Yul Kwon offered this astute prescription at the roundtable:
I think if we fundamentally want to change stereotypes of Asian Americans and redefine Asian American men as being men, you have to… show there are Asian American men that meet that Westernized definition and also change that definition (of masculinity) itself.
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