Realistic Asian-Americans Have Finally Arrived on TV
Aziz Ansari's new Netflix series <i>Master of None</i> confirms we're in the golden age of Asian-American representation in Hollywood.
The first 20 seconds of Master of None, Aziz Ansari's critically-acclaimed new Netflix original series, is groundbreaking. The show cold-opens with the comic's character having sex with a white girl he met a few hours earlier and they experience something most people have dealt with at least once in at some point: a broken condom.
Ansari's character Dev Shah, a struggling, 30-year-old actor, and Rachel (played by the charming Noël Wells) google whether pre-cum actually contains sperm. An UberX is called, Plan B is purchased, and the couple have one of the most painful "we should hang again sometime" conversations imaginable.
But more importantly, this first scene of the addictive, ten-episode season flips the script on stereotypical Hollywood portrayals of Indian-American males on screen. Not one is a convenience-store owner, cab driver, or IT nerd, nor are they sexless pushovers or robotic sidekicks. In Master of None, Dev navigates his career, romantic entanglements, and family obligations—things that Indian guys, and pretty much every guy and gal on Earth, deals with in real life. He's a quick-witted food lover who stresses over finding the city's best taco, but also goes at length to talk about real-life stuff like the pros and cons of having a child in the city, or how it's fucked up that he's got an advantage over his female friends due to his gender. Dev is a modern breath of fresh air.
Ansari, fresh off a bestselling book and sold-out Madison Square Garden performances, created the show with Parks and Recreation writer and co-executive producer Alan Yang, who is Taiwanese-American. In addition to being open to casting a range of ethnicities, Ansari and Yang made a concerted effort to find an Asian actor to play the protagonist's best friend Brian (the affable Kelvin Yu, who's also Taiwanese American, eventually landed the role).
It's not the first time two Asian guys were paired together on a hot topic entertainment project (shout-out to Harold and Kumar), but in Master of None it feels like a breakthrough. Ansari's creative presence and execution is felt throughout the series and it's almost a landmark to finally see characters on screen that actually mimic the populations of diverse urban cities. The show regularly features more than one person of color at a time on screen, and there's smart cultural criticism doled out alongside the comedy—as well as what may be the best television soundtrack in a long time. Dev and Brian have conversations about their parents' immigration stories and experiences with racism in between rating ramen shops and sharing strategies for asking women out. Episode four, "Indians on TV," is a master class in the cringeworthy history of Indian portrayals in the media, from The Simpsons' Apu to Ashton Kutcher's brownface Popchips ad.
"Master of None is funny, thoughtful, and sharp, and best of all, its depiction of diverse characters is effortless," said Phil Yu, a cultural watchdog who runs the popular Angry Asian Man blog, in an email to VICE. "It seems weird to praise a show for just showing contemporary Asian-American men as regular guys, but that's what Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have created, and it's downright revolutionary."
Yu added that on top of Master of None, ABC shows Fresh off the Boat and Dr. Ken are also comedies with different takes on Asian-American experiences. "That's real, and that's how it should be," he said.
Welcome to the golden age of Asian-American male representation. Whether it's Steven Yuen on The Walking Dead, Daniel Dae Kim on Hawaii Five-0, or Daniel Wu on the new AMC series Into the Badlands, the fall 2015 television season has ushered in a new era of Asian characters that feel three-dimensional, normal, and authentic.
After an embarrassing history of racist portrayals (Long Duk Dong, anyone?), white actors in yellow and brownface, or no representation at all, things are truly changing. Hell, we even have straight Asian-American male porn stars—something unfathomable even a generation ago.
For the last century, Asian-American women have been hyper-sexualized and desired, while Asian-American guys were relegated to the sidelines and shown as one-dimensional caricatures. This unbalanced and unfair phenomenon has had lasting effects for Asians and non-Asians alike.
But now, Asian guys onscreen are getting the girl. On the CW's primetime sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the white female lead pines for Josh Chan, her handsome first love played by Filipino-American actor Vincent Rodriguez III. Similarly, in Netflix's 2015 series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Ki Hong Lee's unfortunately-named character Dong is seen as a viable love interest. Both examples are additional proof that many people (even studio executives) are seeing Asian guys in a new light.
The CW show's star and co-creator Rachel Bloom said at the PaleyFestFall TV Previews, "We always wanted the male lead to be Asian because I grew up with Asian bros, and I hadn't seen that represented on TV." It would shock few people to learn that many audience members feel the same way, and it's actual progress to see Asian men of various nationalities playing romantic leads.
The film world has a bit of a ways to go in comparison to television. Of the top 100 films of 2014, there were over 40 with no Asian actors, part of what USC Annenberg School for Communications Professor Stacy L. Smith calls "an epidemic of invisibility" in her study "Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, and LGBT Status from 2007 to 2004."
For people who have seen versions of themselves on screen for their entire lives, visibility—on a sitcom of all things—may not seem like a big deal, but it has a psychological effect for marginalized and underrepresented groups.
Darrell Hamamoto, a Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis and the author of "Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation," told VICE by phone, "Representations have vastly improved in the sheer number and also the quality. It gives young Asian-American men a really heightened sense of possibility."
But Hamamoto doesn't give all the credit to forward-thinking execs that want to foster diversity. "My hypothesis is that YouTube has driven the networks and streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix to play catch up because Asian-Americans rule YouTube," he explains.
"Users like KevJumba and Nigahiga get huge numbers and we could infer that it wasn't just Asian Americans tuning into these channels." To make sure Asians on screen isn't just a trend, Hamamoto suggests that the community needs more writers, producers, and owners, like Ansari and Yang.
While things are certainly better than the shameful days of Mickey Rooney playing the Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Fisher Stevens playing an Indian character in Short Circuit 2 (Ansari has talked to Stevens about his performance in brownface), it's going to take a bit more time to fully shift the paradigm, although networks like ABC are helping change the game when it comes to casting.
As Ansari recently wrote in the New York Times : "Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an 'everyman,' what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The 'everyman' is everybody." These days, everybody else is finally getting their due.
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