How it to be a man on screen? How is it to be an Asian-American man on screen?
Shimizu’s Straightjacket Sexualities uncovers the complexities surrounding the Asian American male identity. From highlighting individuals such as Bruce Lee, we see the monumental effect that their roles have done for increasing visibility and destigmatizing the API male identity with regard to masculinity. However, we must also honor the successes of other API men who have paved his path. The movie The Slanted Screen seeks to address the rise in popularity of API men such as Sessue Hayakawa who challenged the culture of the time and sought to redefine the standard of masculinity in the process.
But as we discuss this, we notice a recurring catalyst that belittles the Asian American male identity and perpetuate its stereotypes: the subordination of API men in dominant culture relative to the white hero narrative.
Diving into the male identity, we see it through media history how tv sitcoms and films cast API males as the sidekick, character foils of hunky, white men. As far back as The Green Hornet (1966), the sidekick to Green Hornet, Kato, is played by Bruce Lee. Driving the action vehicle for the hero and acting solely at Green Hornet’s convenience, the sidekick is essentially the second-best option. Certainly not the superior, the trusty Asian sidekick is often narrated as a form of inferiority and comic relief. Commanded by the white man, there is an apparent relationship that places APIs in a subservient, inferior role. In 16 Candles (1984), the only API-identified character is easily the laughing stock of the crowd. In a scene where Jake Ryan (played by Michael Schoeffling) confronts Long Duck Dong (played by Gedde Watanabe), Dong immediately cowers in fear and intimidation. Treated like a pet by his mentors, he too is dehumanized and animalized in comparison to the dark-haired, blue eyed school jock that everyone swooned over. At the end, Jake Ryan wins his love and affection for Samantha and the two drive off. The usual happy ending. Pathetic.
Shimizu provides a deeper sociological understanding to this superior-inferior complex. She emphasizes how traditional Amerikkkan culture easily conflates masculinity and manhood. This is problematic, however, because social constructs pressure the male identity to look and act manly, and that anything less needs to be fulfilled immediately. Shimizu understands that the reason why API males have historically labeled as a feminine, emasculate being is to “sidekick” the manliness of a white male, focal to the image of the dominant culture. Once again, the API male body is objectified and exploited to highlight the heteronormativity of the “man” in dominant culture.
And although many examples can be brought to this discussion, let alone segway into a conversation about the hypersexuality of API womxn, it is evident that the male identity is not valued within the dominant society. To be treated as “other” not only perpetuates the stereotypes about API men, but also serves to exhibit the idea that we are cast not because of our acting, but because we’d make a great Robin to your Batman, nothing else.