Sunday, January 01, 2006

Asian-American Men and Looks

Sooner or later every Asian-American male blogger makes a post about race and gender and the American mass media. (This post defines "Asian-American" as Americans from East Asia, of course, because Asian-Americans from South Asia have a similar though separate set of concerns and issues.) Obviously, I've touched upon it over and over in a series of posts, but I don't know if I've ever dealt with it directly, perhaps because I've been focusing on poetry as opposed to television or film.

I've been thinking. I'm going to use American Idol's William Hung as an example for this post, since I've talked about him before, and there's a better than average chance that readers of this blog will know who he is. Most Asian-Americans don't like William Hung. But why? What's bad about William Hung?

One response may relate to the fact that he's basically one of the few Asian-American male figures in popular entertainment out there. He serves as a symbol for all Asian-American men in the United States, because there are so few represented in mass media. I like this answer. Under-representation is bad, and Asian-American men are underrepresented in all forms of media -- be it television, film, magazines, or even poetry, though the poetry world has been changing rapidly in poetry over the past two decades. As discussed before, I predict the continued rise of Asian-American poetry.

More questionable, to me, is the answer that William Hung embodies negative stereotypes. I mean, what does that mean? My concern is that Asian-Americans are bashing the "William Hungs" of the world at least partly for being physically ugly. That is, "ugly" by the superficial standards of mass media. But lots of Asian-Americans look like William Hung. Many of us are not all that good-looking by the standards that many corporations have defined beauty. On average, Asian-Americans tend to have rounder faces, smaller eyes, less facial hair than Americans of other races. Asian-Americans also tend to be shorter and have a different complexion than Americans of other races.

Equally questionable, to me, is the answer that the William Hungs of the world are bad because of the way they "act" -- as if the way someone acts can ever be completely separated from the way someone looks. On American Idol and afterwards, Hung acted polite, naive, straightforward, reserved, and calm. His attire was acceptable but could be improved upon. His English was ok but not perfect. In short, he acted the way that a lot of Asian-Americans, and a lot of people, act in general. Very common and not decked out with bling.

My fear is that Asian-Americans' critique of William Hung also reflects a self-hating desire to look and act more like Gap, Abercombie and Fitch, Old Navy models, etc. That's not going to happen. William Hung will never look that way, no matter how many stylists or voice coaches the entertainment world gives him before they abandon him to oblivion once the fad wears off, if it hasn't already. Nor should it happen, one could argue. We should be happy with the way we look and accept ourselves for who we are. Asian-Americans should not try to simply imitate the look, attire, and behavior of any other race -- some imitation can be good, but it should be an adaptation into what may become ours, not a refutation of what is there.

Lots of Asian-Americans are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. For some Asian-American men, I think that the William Hung issue may reflect an anxiety to separate ourselves from the identities of our parents and grandparents. If an Asian-American man happens to be an immigrant himself, he may want to break away from the whole identity of the Asian past as well. There's a tension there, which the mass media (especially television and film) worsens by not presenting enough possibilities as to what and who an "Asian-American man" can be.


Blogger Gar said...

Interesting post... I read in on the APIA blogs site.

Though I'm not fervent William Hung hater, I can't lie by saying that it doesn't bother me that a guy like him is more in the media versus someone like Harlem Lee, who won 'Fame' and is both obviously more talented / good looking than Hung. It makes one really wonder about the validity of some people's excuses that the small number of Asian American men in the media is due to a dearth of talent when it seems more like the preference of Westerners for Asian Americans who fit their pre-conceived stereotypes.

As for William Hung being a representative of immigrants, I'm not so sure that's accurate either, but then again, being 4th generation Chinese myself, I don't feel is much a representative of Asian American men who've grown up in America and possess more fluency in "American culture".

8:30 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

my personal favorite asian male media personality is BOB STOKES from the weather channel!

8:09 AM  
Blogger Onigiriman said...

this is a very difficult situation. Whatyou say rings true--representation in public is very necessary for all AAs, and William Hung in the public eye may at last suggest the "presence" of Asian Americans. You also criticize those that suggest that he embodies negative stereotypes. While it is true that he may actuall represent many of us, you should also consider that these stereotypes are being perpetuated by the mainstream media, and this is where I take issue. Can we allow the media determine who represents us? He is the Asian vesion of Amos and Andy--a minority that is present in the US media for their enjoyment, and this is what bugs the shit out of me... Just my opinion...

10:08 AM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

It was a selective and crafty decision by network executives and record company producers to exploit (in my opinion) young William Hung, who (I hope it is safe to say) is not selling CDs becase of his incredible voice. It is, as a previous commenter notes, reminiscent of Amos and Andy---derivative of other Asians created by Caucasian authors and filmmakers. It bothers me equally that he was the one thrust into "stardom" and that so many people bought the CD.

I never disliked him or criticized him because of any physical attributes or the implications his popularity might have on other Asian Americans. My regret is simply that he seems to really believe in his musical talent, while the whole world laughs at him (not with him). Of course he might be having the last (million dollar) laugh, but the cost of it is real (and substantial).

I don't know what constitutes a good looking person, but he seems like a nice person. That should count for something.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

hmmm...let's see if I can comment on all the comments thus far in one large comment.

gar, thanks for the post. Yes, if I remember correctly, a while back, I blogged about Fame and Harlem Lee. Fame was one of those shows that tried to build off on the popularity of Survivor. I thought it was an interesting concept and caught a few episodes myself, but unfortunately, the show never took off.

I's say that Hung is not representative of post-first generation Asian Americans. But I'm not so sure about newer immigrants. I've come across many Asians and Asian-Americans who look and act like him to a certain extent. Of course, a related question is how to define "Asian-American" -- given that many Asians in America have different legal statuses and are at different stages in the road towards American citizenship.

Nick, cool, just visited the Weather Channel website. Apparently, Bob Stokes is Taiwanese. I don't know if I would call him "a native of Taipei, Taiwan" at this point, though, considering he's been in the US for so long.

onigiriman, thanks for visiting and posting. I think that William Hung's not that bad. For some reason, I have more of an issue with Sagwa, the Siamese Cat, which depicts all the human Chinese characters as unrealistically ugly and buffonish, IMHO, in the form of children's entertainment. Maybe it's because Hung is a real person, for better or worse, and the reality of it intrigues me.

Lee, wow, this has been a really long comment thus far! Yes, I agree with you that it's hard to tell whether Hung really believes in his musical talent or whether he knows that network execs and music producers are out to make a quick point.

Anyway, to touch upon previous points concerning William Hung's looks, I don't think that we should rule out the fact that the Hungs of this world are physically unattractive. Looks are all about perspective. If things were different, perhaps more Asian-Americans would judge looks not according to what an idealized Euro-Asian would look like and look more towards the common and everyday.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

I'll have to find it, but Bao Phi has an insightful poem about the love-hate relationship we have with William Hung. It's a great piece.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, yeah, that would be interesting if you could dig that up.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Jade Beauty said...

After reading all relevant news and opinion of my friends around, I learned that most people in Asia had no idea how William Hung got such flame in US. To be honest, he is definitely not good-looking guy. In Aisa, he probably would not had been given a chance to be on stage. Later, it was proved that his movie in Asia got terribly low sale. Only one reason to explain the scheme happening in US is probably that William Hung's western attitude and politness sort of provided a linkage for people to get closer to Asian culture. By the way, he also satisfied some people's curiosity of Asians.

8:56 AM  

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