There Are More Asian Roles in Teen Dramas But They Still Make Us Seem Weird
I’m not ready to celebrate until there are as many distinct, complicated, and different personalities for young East Asians as there are for white jocks.
In many ways I am very similar to an East Asian character in a teen drama. I am—brag—barely out of my teens, I am Korean, I have an Anglo-Eurocentric first name, my parents will not leave me alone, and I am highly suspicious of everyone around me. When I turn on the television (my laptop) and I flip the channels (type in "watch [tv show] free online" to Google) to find the glamourous, teen (adult actors with good skin) versions of myself, the ones I find are highly confusing.
Sure, it's a good thing that there are East Asian characters being seen on white-dominated television shows at all! I have been trying so hard to project myself onto the television that I thought Gilbert Gottfried was full East Asian until, like, last year. But if art holds up a mirror to the world, today's East Asian "teens" like me are pretty much just less obvious versions of long-known stereotypes. The East Asians on everyone's favourite teen dramas are thinly veiled behind immaterial characteristics but they aren't fooling me, an intellectual. We still never get to partake in steamy love scenes with teachers, we're not included in major love triangles, we never get to be the top-dog in the friend group, and often our storylines altogether don't make any damn sense! The 2017 versions of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles are certainly more reasonable, but East Asians can still only be understood through a few lazy characteristics. And just because they're less recognizable than the babbling nerd, the rude girl, or the creepy shy guy doesn't mean they're not just as harmful.
Today's East Asian teens still descend from a recent heritage of weird background characters. In Pretty Little Liars, Mona is an impressive straight-A student who knows how to speak French and hack computers. Her plot becomes dizzying and inexplicable when she dies, is thrown a Hawaiian-themed funeral, and ultimately comes back to life so that she can be admitted into all of the Ivy League schools. Glee's female East Asian is named Tina Cohen-Chang (an interracial last name for a South Korean-born actor), she speaks with a stutter and she is initially very shy. Her storyline becomes very confusing very quickly when, oh no: her stutter is fake! Since she is so shy, she had forced herself to stutter so that she can push people away, obviously! A white character moralizes the situation, Tina drops the stutter, and the narrative is never mentioned again. She also, by the way, ends up dating the aforementioned white character and then dumping him for the other East Asian guy in the show with whom she says she bonded at "Asian camp". I can only assume that "Asian camp" is coded language for "both our parents are immigrants and we met at church." I have literally never watched Teen Wolf and I don't understand the premise but my friend Mac Chapin does and he told me over text message that there is an East Asian girl in it who "literally carries a sword and gets inhabited by a Japanese cat spirit thing." My personal favourites as a teen were 90210, which didn't even try, and Gossip Girl, which came close to representing me with one (white) character named Celeste. But she disappeared from the show without any explanation. I have learned to make my expectations for representation on teen dramas very low, and they are still not being met.
Most recently, I have binged full seasons of the Netflix shows Thirteen Reasons Why and Riverdale. (It's been a hard month.) In Thirteen Reasons Why, a girl has committed suicide and each episode examines one of the people she blames. The show is so progressive that she blames two whole East Asian characters! The choice to create them within such bizarre iterations of the Smart Asian Stereotype is particularly uncreative since the characters are based on a book (written by a white man). In the novel, the characters are not distinctly racialized so surely the distinctly academic ones did not have to be East Asian—but they are anyways!
The first, Courtney Crimson played by Michele Selene Ang, is a straight-A student who is overly nice to everyone. Don't worry, that's not her only characteristic, she is also slightly complicated because she's gay! And she really doesn't want anyone to find out that she made out with the girl who died. Her shame is oddly heightened by the fact that she has two adopted fathers who are, shockingly, also gay. Queerness is certainly complex and everyone's experiences with shame are different, but the hasty description of her character's logic, in which she attributes her embarrassment to the fact that her parents will be angry, is never really elaborated upon. It seems as though she might be scared that her parents will be prone to further homophobic assumptions? I don't know, but after her episode the show moves on without clarifying and her parents never get mad at her.
The other East Asian at the school in Thirteen Reasons Why is Zach Dempsey played by Singaporean-born Ross Butler, who seems to shirk singularity by being a hot, jock, star basketball player. But psych! He is actually secretly a brilliant student who is willing to give up his basketball scholarships to be a marine biologist. His mother, who is also Asian, is thrilled at the latter prospect. I'm not sure why this aspect of his identity is included. Other than preventing him from shirking a stereotype altogether (so close!!!), it also has no bearing on his personality or character arc whatsoever. If anything, it provides a slightly higher incentive to not want to be culpable for a girl's death (convicts make bad marine biologists?) but there are otherwise no apparent effects. The only time Zach even mentions this sidestory himself is when he turns down his bros' requests to skip class with them saying, "I can't miss bio." Maybe the writers worried that the jock stereotype alone would be simply implausible on a face as Asian as Zach's. In any case, I'm as confused about his passionate affinity for biology as I am about homosexual parents being Courtney's entire personality.
Luckily we get another shot at complexity for Ross Butler, the literal same actor from Thirteen Reasons Why, when he plays Reggie in Riverdale, the other Netflix teen show people are talking about. In the Archie-comic-turned-teen-murder-mystery, Butler plays an equally useless hot jock star-football player. Maybe the Netflix shows are like the Marvel universe but instead of having super powers and origin stories, they are just East Asians with intangible personalities. Football is different than basketball, OK, but I truly cannot confirm whether or not Butler wears a different letter jacket in the two shows. His main storyline on Riverdale exists to threaten Archie, the beautiful white-passing protagonist, who is rivalling him for captain of the football team. As soon as Reggie's story begins, it becomes extraneous when other, boring, music-related things happen in Archie's life which cause him to reject the captain position. With no agency of his own, his story wraps up in one episode. Zach, the Riverdale version of Zach, and Courtney are puzzling, which carelessly dissipates their chances at being anything but inconsequential fodder for the stage behind the action. When they are refused logical narratives, they become less human. When East Asian characters are unnatural and singular, we seem less human. We're easy to make assumptions about, call names, and beat up in Zara and on United Airplanes.
It's great that East Asians faces are on young peoples' television (computer) screens, but the ones I have had as role models are unsatisfying and riddled with inconsistency. At time of publication, I feel pretty sure that as a teen I was supposed to threaten my white peers' academic and/or athletic ventures, receive a million scholarships, reveal an unlikely aspect of my life, and then disappear forever. I'm not ready to celebrate my representation until there are as many distinct, complicated, and different personalities for young East Asians as there are for young white jocks. I guess Gilbert Gottfried will have to do for now.
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