Asian Americans in American Cinema

Abstract With a recent surge of Asian Americans in American cinema, we are noticing that the stereotypes that we have used in the past are actually being used by their culture to break into American culture. Days of portraying Asian Americans as unintelligible and subservient are gone and are being replaced with a whole new outlook. The introduction of Martial Arts into American film has evolved the way Asians are viewed in American cinema. Quentin Tarantino introduced a whole new outlook to Asian culture with his feature films Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 and created a pop culture phenomenon.

Most recently we have seen an influx of Asian influence in American cinema. This has not always been the case, as in previous years we have seen very little positive characterizations of the Asian American culture represented in the media. As the political and cultural merging of Americans with Asian Americans was happening, the evolution of Asian portrayal in American cinema began a very gradual climb to where we are now. Asians in film have become a staple to American culture. Stereotyping in movies is generally looked upon as negative, however, the Asian Americans have managed to use it to their cultural advantage.

As an American culture minorities in cinema have statistically been more likely to be portrayed in an unfavorable light. For example, in film Asian Americans can be seen in a few different characters, that of the funny sidekick, or the guru of wisdom, but of all the stereotypical characters the martial artist has become their gateway into American cinema and eventually American culture. Discrimination against Asian Americans has gone on for many years. Prejudice against Asian Americans was first seen around the time of the anti-Chinese movement in the 19th century.

The Chinese were believed to be racially inferior, docile, and subservient, but also cruel and crafty, despotic, and threatening (Healey, 2011) The Chinese and Japanese were seen as threats to American culture for fear that they would hurt the working class, and therefore were not widely accepted on their assimilation into American culture. Aside from having distinctive physical characteristics, the difficulty with assimilation pushed them towards staying within their close social unit. American cinema is definitely to blame for many of the stereotypes we have given to the Asians.

However, stereotypes are needed for people to play different social roles and to have power status, but also function as particular social identities (Xie, 2007). It is possible that Asians within our society felt the weight of these stereotypes. In early television and in film Asians were portrayed as the help or other subservient positions to show their inferiority. Asians were also illustrated as not very intelligent usually being demonstrated by using broken English. In some films Asians are also wearing clothing associated with their Asian culture to further make them stand out.

Stereotypes are needed for people to play different social roles and to have power status, but also function as particular social identities (Xie, 2007). Taking a look back in American cinema it is impossible not to mention one of the most famous Asian American actors pre World War II, Charlie Chan. Chan, a Chinese-American, and one of the only Asians portrayed in any film at that time, was cast in a very favorable light and was highly regarded in American cinema. And then came Pearl Harbor, and after the attack the resentment for the Japanese and the hatred for the Asian culture did all but extinguish any Asians in film.

It wouldn’t be for another twenty years that American cinema would be willing to accept and support Asians within the film industry, going so far as to cast Americans to play Asians Americans. Most notably would be Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as the obnoxious neighbor. Rooney was painted to look like someone of Asian decent with buckteeth and poor English. He was also portrayed as unintelligible. Enter the Dragon. In the 1960’s America was blessed with a television show called the Green Hornet. A man named Bruce Lee played one of the show’s main characters.

This would be one of the first major roles that America would see an Asian American play since the beginning of World War II. What made Bruce Lee stand out was is exceptional skill of the Asian practice of Martial Arts, particularly Kung Fu. Martial Arts is a disciplined exercise of many forms practiced for a variety of reasons, originally developed for use in combat. America received Martial Arts as one of the most unique aspects of the Asian culture and instantly it became a phenomenon. Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu boom would change Asians in American cinema forever. Martial Arts has been a platform for Asian stars to enter Hollywood and go global.

While Hollywood martial arts roles have been used to stereotype and racialize the yellow body, Asian Kung Fu stars have capitalized on their skills for the benefit of their careers (Shin, 2008), as seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2. Tarantino cultivated all Asian stereotypes that we have been subjected to and also the same format that Asian American films are presented and turned them into an American pop culture phenomenon. This movie is a Kung Fu movie based in America where a white woman, Uma Thurman, is seeking revenge against people who tried to kill her.

The majority of the characters, who she is after in the first volume, as well as one of the main characters in the second volume, are all Asians. A closer look at both movies shows that Tarantino used many, if not all Asian stereotypes in these movies and was successful in bringing them into American pop culture. At the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1 we find the heroine in battle with an Asian woman O-Ren Ishii played by Lucy Liu. The story told to introduce O-Ren, the villain, is done in Anime, a Japanese style cartoon, where she is seen as a sex object and then shown as a violent killer.

Traditionally anime is sexually suggestive, showing women as objects, and also very violent. This type of portrayal followed a much thought stereotype about the Asian culture. Traditionally Asian cultures were male dominated, and women were consigned to subordinate roles. (Healey, 2011) A battle ensues between the heroine and the villain where the villain deploys an army of trained martial artist and a Kung Fu battle ensues. This particular scene is very similar to those found in old Japanese Kung Fu movies, however, Tarantino put his own spin casting females as leaders.

As the battle continues, the men are shown using traditional Asian weaponry, such as samurai swords, Chinese stars, and nun chucks. Towards the beginning of Kill Bill Vol. 2 the heroine recounts her training, which is very similar to the training that Asian Americans use in their films. The instructor, Paimie, does not speak any English and is subtitled in the movie. Again, another take of an Asian Kung Fu movie. Consequently, Chia Hui Liu, or Paimie, is an actor well known in the Asian culture for his work in Kung Fu films.

This is also a prime example of Tarantino intermixing the two cultures. It is in this part of the movie, where we see a lot of Asian influence, from the exaggerated gestures to the traditional clothing. With Tarantino’s emulation of Asian culture in both volumes of Kill Bill, we as an American culture can see that the evolution of Asians in American film has been progressively beneficial for them as a society rather than harmful. American cinema has come a long way with Asian stereotypes, whereas before we looked upon them in a negative light we now embrace many of their traditions.

Unexpectedly, it was the Asians who used our own stereotypes against them to catapult themselves into American culture. References Healey, J. F. (2011) Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. United Kingdom. Sage Publications Asian Stereotypes in the mass media: A content analysis of Asian minority portrayals in U. S. films by Tianshi Xie. University of Michigan. 2007 UMI 1451603 Yellow Hollywood: Asian martial arts in U. S. global cinema By Shin, Mina. University of Southern California, 2008. UMI 3325019.