Hong Kong Central street view of skyscrapers, traffic signs, and billboards.

Asian Racialization in Media and Beyond

This exhibit is the final project for Brown University’s Fall 2020 course Bad Capital: Race, Technology, and Asian/America. Over the course of this semester, we have used textual analysis to chart a cultural history of Asian racialization in the U.S., with a focus on representations of labor, capital, and national identity. 

This exhibit curates a series of cultural texts to explore the evolution of American ideologies of race, empire, capitalism, and gender. From science fiction representations that rely on the marking of Asian bodies as alien, robotic, or otherwise repellant; to nationalist discourses of race, purity, and assimilation; to youth media representations that perpetuate or challenge the model minority trope, each wing of this exhibit applies the analytical and methodological tools sharpened over the course of this semester to a set of collaboratively curated cultural texts and objects. The aim is to pull back the curtain on hegemonic representations of Asians in America to ask what ideologies and structures such representations work to uphold—such that we might be better equipped to disarm and dismantle them. 

We welcome comments and questions about the exhibit, which can be directed to the instructor’s email: [email protected]

—Mark Tseng-Putterman (Teaching Fellow, PhD student in American Studies) 

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HOW TO NAVIGATE THIS EXHIBIT: You can use the slide navigation tools in the bottom left corner to move between slides. Alternatively, you can click through different rooms by clicking “Next Room” or “Previous Room.” Clicking the title of the exhibition wing will bring you to that wing’s curator’s statement. Clicking specific images in the exhibit will take you to the caption for that media piece. If you are having trouble viewing different wings or images, the images and captions are also included below.

Here are some questions to keep in mind as you examine the media featured in our exhibit:

  • purpose (why was this media made? For profit? For educational purposes? For entertainment? What interests are at stake in this piece? Who decided this piece was worth making/worth commenting on?)
  • gaze (who is this media for? Which audience’s expectations/knowledge base/worldview does this media cater to? It can be helpful to consider specific characters, too: Is this character meant to be looked through or looked at?)
  • personhood (which individuals are given three dimensional personalities? active roles rather than passive ones? Is this character meant to be empathized with or stigmatized? Do these distinctions fall along gendered or racial lines?)
  • story parameters (is ‘humanity’ the axis along which this media assigns “value” to characters? If so, which individuals are assigned ‘humanity’? Does this media prioritize action/agency? If so, who gets agency?)
  • historical context & ideologies (when was this media made? What historical events influenced/led to its creation? How does this media play into/contradict an established “narrative” of a certain group?)
  • cultural impact (do you know how it’s affected audiences/how audiences usually read these stories/media?)

Apply this analytical framework to other media you consume! Share your thoughts on other media & on our exhibit on the Jamboard below:

What other media do you know of that relates to the themes discussed in this exhibit? – Google Jamboard

What other media do you know of that relates to the themes discussed in this exhibit?


WING #1: Race, Gender, Robots, and Aliens, presented by Laila Gamaleldin, Simran Jhooty, Peter Li, and Katherine Xiong

Our exhibit centers on the robot — an ominous half-imagined, half-emergent figure whose impenetrable inhumanness inspires an existential dread about humanity being overtaken and replaced by an unfeeling ‘other.’ Before there were robots, however, there were the “coolies”: Chinese men entering the U.S. throughout the 1800s, whose labor was positioned as a replacement for that of white working family men. Stigmatized as inhumanly efficient and lacking in the humanistic family values represented by the idealized white family (a family configuration Chinese men had no access to due to restrictions on intermarriage and the immigration of Chinese women), Chinese laborers occupied the same position as machines in the romantic anti-capitalist figuration of the personal, concrete, dignified white men’s labor versus the abstract, inhuman, undignified other. Asians were considered unknown, inscrutable perversions of human life; their minds themselves operated on non-human (non-white) logic; they were entirely desexualized, childlike, alien to an impossible degree, incapable of human ingenuity. That language echoes how roboticism and other non-human consciousnesses are stigmatized today. In other words, roboticism and racism both operate on the logic of undermining the subjectivity of the other in contrast to a white patriarchal ‘ideal’ that is positioned as ‘human’ or ‘universal.’ 

Asian figures in Western media remained primarily male up until World War II, when the Pacific War turned Americans’ eyes towards Asia and Chinese exclusion was loosened in the wake of American attempts to position the Chinese as valuable allies against Japan, allowing an increase in the number of Asian women in the U.S. itself. This demographic and political shift, particularly after the start of Cold War interventionism in Asia, introduced the positioning of Asian women as desirable sex objects for white men as a parallel to the interventionist political narrative. With two extremes equally void of subjectivity, the dragon lady (the sexually dominant, frigid Asian villainess who challenges male authority on one-dimensional terms) and the Madame Butterfly (the Asian tragic heroine defined by her total love for a white man), these Asian women’s inscrutability and lack of subjectivity reflects the same “roboticism” as the ‘coolie’. This lack of subjectivity outside of that of sexualized victim or dominatrix positioning, however, was configured as receptive to Western exploitation rather than a challenge to Western exceptionalism and was therefore ‘desirable.’ The sexual configuration of white man and Asian woman thus became a primary visual metaphor for interventionism in Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of southeast Asia, once again framing the ‘Orient’ as feminine, submissive, and in need of Western improvement and rescue.

Over time, representations of Asian women transitioned from merely lacking subjectivity to visibly semi-human, becoming “cyborg” or roboticized bodies. In the 1980s, trade anxiety with Japan reinvigorated the previously mentioned tropes of Asian roboticism. The science fiction in the decades that followed played into that fear, and the Asian-woman-as-cyborg is still a prevalent image today. Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) was one of the first films to focus on a “cyborg” Asian woman. The protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, has had her entire body replaced with a “Megatech Body”, or shell. Human memories and identity are stored in one’s “ghost”. The villain of the film, Puppet Master, partakes in the ultimate domination: he “ghost-hacks” people, controlling their actions and implanting false memories. As Chun argues, Oshii uses the Major to make cyberspace erotic, and therefore digestible. Pacific Rim (2013) also features an Asian woman as a (partially) cybernetic protagonist in the form of Mako Mori. While her body is intact, her mechanized suit gives her physical and telepathic power reminiscent of the Major’s connection to cyberspace. Mori, unlike the Major, is not eroticizied, falling more within the bounds of traditional (i.e. White male) action movie protagonists. Her fully human body assures audiences that underneath the suit, she’s just like them.  These examples roughly outline the trope of the non-human Asian woman, whether she takes the form of robot, alien, virtual popstar, or humanoid creature.

Especially in media from the last few decades, asian women have gone from merely embodying certain robotic/non-human/alien characteristics to explicitly being depicted as non-human creatures and objects. However, these femmes’ asian influences are never explicitly mentioned. Through their names, their aesthetic, and their values, they are racially coded as drawing from Asian cultures. This racial coding is deep and functions to help foster the “foreign” and “exotic” environment often desired in the science-fiction and cyberpunk genres. However, this racial coding of humanoid aliens and robots functions to erase these characters’ subjectivity and agencies and, more broadley, the cultural histories that are not being acknowledged, named, or represented in a nuanced and authentic way. Audiences are able to continue to project their own sexual desires, cultural understandings, and gender tropes on to these characters. And, since they are non-human, they are able to do so with relatively few repercussions. Any character development or agency of the femme humanoid is removed and, rather, gives way to the projections of the occidental gaze.

Our collection brings together a variety of items, images, and texts that all touch on the portrayal of Asians as robotic and the ways in which that depiction gets to be gendered. Within the broader theme, we also delved into sub-themes of virtual women, Asians as aliens, consequences of these depictions, as well as counternarratives. 

The increasing prevalence of virtual characters in shows, video games, and movies has seen the rise of virtual female Asian characters, a more modern incarnation of the Asian female robot trope. Among these examples are K/DA, an all-female virtual K-Pop group, and Seraphine, a virtual influencer. These artifacts point to the continued impulse to control and ‘own’ Asian women. These virtual characters also capitalize on Asian cultural signifiers, allowing primarily non-Asian executives to profit off of Asian cultural production. 

Related to virtual female characters are the depictions of Asian women as aliens. This ties into the trope of Asian Americans as permanent foreigners who are neither fully here nor in their country of origin. Examples of this in the exhibit include Star Wars jedi. These characters borrow heavily from Asian culture. Their portrayal is also typically heavily exoticized and sexualized. They tend to not have much complexity to their characters, serving as a visual representation of the ‘exotic’ other. This links to Edward Said’s idea of the Orient existing only in the Western imagination, in that these characters represent the Western gaze’s perception of Asian females, rather than some concrete reality.

These harmful depictions wind up having consequences on real women. For example, there are articles on the internet with titles like ‘10 Hottest Asian Women in Sci-Fi’ which only exacerbate the objectification and exoticiziation of Asian women. Characters like Kiyoko from Ex-Machina (2014), an Asian humanoid created by a wealthy white man, also point to the pervasiveness of these images. In response to these problematic portrayals, a wide range of Asian artists, writers, and filmmakers have produced works that co-opt the Asian female robot trope and use it for the purposes of counternarrative. Examples of this include ‘Good Hunting’ by Ken Liu and ‘Rachel’ by Larissa Lai. Both of these works spin the trope on its head: by explicitly racializing their ‘robotic’ characters, they root the robotic ‘abstraction’ in a material, historical past — one largely shaped by colonialism. In pointing out that colonial past, these works highlight the paternalistic origins of imagining Asian women as robots. Beyond acknowledging the past of the trope, these works also project different visions of how technological advancement might rework existing understandings of what it means to be a ‘person’, robot or not. The figure of the ‘robot’ changes from a stigmatized entity to a means of recognizing the many subjectivities not afforded the respect of being ‘human’ by suggesting ‘human’ — positioned as the ‘standard’ white male point of view — need not be the basis of one’s self. 

Image Sources:

  • Seraphine: https://data.ibtimes.sg/en/full/43830/seraphine.jpg
  • K/DA: https://axisstudiosgroup.com/site/assets/files/14108/axisstudios_kda_more_012.jpg
  • Kyoko: https://64.media.tumblr.com/6a5b5a527c62bce2f5ed6084ffa0d23d/tumblr_pjrldqZ7jg1vt10pl_500.jpg
  • Aayla Secura: https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Aayla_Secura?file=Aayla_Secura_SWE.png
  • Good Hunting: https://www.whats-on-netflix.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Good-Hunting-Love-Death-and-Robots-Ending-Explained-1.jpg
  • Rachel: https://imgix.bustle.com/uploads/image/2017/10/3/8a839cd4-58bf-4a28-aefb-93dc2373f598-rachael_2.jpg?w=1200&h=630&fit=crop&crop=faces&fm=jpg

WING #2: Nationalism and Purification, presented by Annorjan Naguleswaran, Julie Rojas, and Neil Sehgal

Huge strides have been made in fighting anti-Asian discrimination. Three Asian Americans ran historic campaigns for president in the most recent election. Asian Americans now comprise the highest income and highest educated racial group in America. Actors like Kumail Nanjiani, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina are Hollywood royalty. And, the most recent election saw Kamala Harris ascend to the vice presidency, a historic first for Asia America. Yet, throughout her campaign Harris faced racial vitriol from the press and from everyday Americans. Moreover, COVID-driven xenophobia has made clear that the model minority myth is not an adequate protector of Asian communities—beneath that facade is the same underlying anti-Asian sentiment that has persisted throughout US history. In short, there are still shortcomings within how Asians are treated in U.S. politics today; many of which are tied to the notions of “American purity” and Nationalism. We will break down these notions into three themes: Asian American Pollutants, Anti-Brown sentiments, and Whitewashing and Assimilation. 

One text that encompasses the anti-Asian themes mentioned above is Orientals: Asian Americans In Popular Culture by Robert Lee. Specifically, Lee delves into the so-called “six faces” of the Oriental: the pollutant, the coolie, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority, and the gook. The first “face” seen in our themes is the pollutant—a threat to racial purity which is categorized as “other” and excluded through removal or segregation. This can be seen in our theme through the disdain of Chinese people which was—and is—heightened during times of disease; the de facto segregated Chinatowns, which continue to exist well into the 21st century and further entrenched the notion of Asians as some unassimilable “other” category; and the ruling in Thind v U.S. that naturalization to the US is based on the ability to assimilate into the white race, as Europeans do, rather than on the scientific basis of being Aryan. Our second theme, Anti-Brown sentiment, can be characterized by the coolie face. Coolie is a term that is used to describe low-wage, unskilled, and often immigrant laborers. Throughout history, however, coolie has been a dog whistle for White people to discuss all immigrants. This has led to anti-asian and anti-brown sentiment by those who feel that Asians and Brown people, respectively, are taking over White jobs. As we will show in our exhibits, too, this coolie term has manifested itself in several ways in the U.S. through both brutality and harassment. The final face of Lee’s is the model minority, seen in our theme of Whitewashing and Assimilation. Rather than advocate for structural changes, Bhagat Singh Thind and Bobby Jindal, two Indian American men born 79 years apart, have attempted to adapt to the dominant system both through legal and symbolic means.

Another text that does a great job of encapsulating the many issues facing Asians in U.S. politics today is “The Yellow Plague and Romantic Anticapitalism”  by Iyko Day. Within the article, Day mentions an important theme in her analysis of “romantic anticapitalism”: the idea that Asian racialization is tied to labor. This ties deeply into our theme of anti-brown sentiment. As our exhibit will show, the idea that capitalism is driving racism and anti-brown sentiment is a common one and one that needs to be addressed. Day even notes that “…The racial signifiers of inscrutability, perpetual foreignness, transnational mobility, and flexibility similarly register the abstract features of Asian racialization.” In other words, themes like labor and capitalism are simply the core on which Asian racialization in U.S. politics has formed—further discrimination can only come from this now. Another theme mentioned by Day is the use of racism as a distraction of capitalist ineptitude. Day points out the concerted “[e]fforts to use an Asian scapegoat to shift attention away from the failures of neoliberal capitalism,” exemplified by Trump’s sinophobic remarks which attempt to veer national attention away from his dangerously one track mind which places economic growth ahead of national welfare. This same prioritization on capital can be seen during the third plague when the government of California took it upon themselves to cover up the existence of the plague out of fear that other states would halt trade and damage their economy. It is simply easier to claim an outsider or pollutant is the cause of all problems rather than dealing with the truth of structural greed, inequality, and incompetence. Lastly, Lee’s model minority dovetails nicely as a counterreaction to what Day calls the “expressions of an endangered whiteness”. Thind and Jindal, present two attempts to sterilize the threat, not through some moral suasion, but through an embrace of Whiteness itself.

In this wing, each theme paired a historic 20th century text to a contemporary text. Such a juxtaposition can be useful to show how far Asian Americans have come, but also to indicate how much further we must go. The simple act of comparison between situations over a hundred years apart leaves much to be desired when it comes to social progress, but the rhyming nature of history can only naturally endure so long as the structures that undergird these narratives continue to exist unchallenged. Hopefully by presenting these historical snapshots side by side, it is possible to contextualize the social and political pressures which produced this unfortunate environment of anti-Asian sentiments on which this nation was founded—and continues to harbor beneath the surface. So long as we critique narratives and structures which stem from ignorance and undermine the humanity of people, these persistent perspectives will not maintain permanence. 

Image Sources:

  • 1899 Bubonic Plague: https://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/resizer/UXGr7bfeDXDsFwF_3wJiP67mI-c=/1400×0/arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-raycom.s3.amazonaws.com/public/JUWVCFUDMFF4ZNTKQRX3KTI2J4.jpg
  • COVID-19: http://d279m997dpfwgl.cloudfront.net/wp/2020/04/AP_20072608559332-1000×667.jpg
  • 1907 Bellingham Riots: https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTN98BRJzKXD6QvtBzC1a2a8bU8tVWxCZ2ZNA&usqp=CAU
  • Anti-Sikh Scapegoating Post-9/11: https://www.sikhpa.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Sikh-Hate-Crime.jpg
  • U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind: https://asianamericanmusic.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Citizenship_Slide2-999×1024.png
  • Bobby Jindal: https://media3.s-nbcnews.com/j/newscms/2015_06/876131/jindalportrait_792a92b2b7a36c63a908a38c7c582444.nbcnews-fp-1200-630.jpg

WING #3: Asian Representation in Children’s and Young Adult Media, presented by Asia Chung, Asia Cofield, and Georgia Liu

In this wing, we’ve highlighted the Asian stereotypes and tropes perpetuated in children’s and young adult (YA) media. We chose to focus on media targeted towards a younger demographic to show how early these stereotypes and tropes are introduced to western audiences. Asian representation often interacts with the model minority myth, or the belief Asian and Asian-American people are able to succeed in American society because their assimilation was “a result of stoic patience, political obedience, and self-improvement” (Lee, “The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority”). The model minority myth came about during the Cold War as a response to the three “menaces” to American society at the time: communism, racial desegregation, and homosexuality. The message that the model minority myth sent was so long as you were compliant in American society (i.e. not openly communist, not fighting for desegregation, and not gay), you would be allowed to advance and thrive in America. As Cold War tensions and western anxieties grew, the American desire to get ahead technologically led to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This replaced previous exclusionary immigration rules and favored highly educated and skilled laborers, especially in the fields of science, medicine, and technology. The influx of Asian immigrants during this time spearheaded the stereotype of Asian Americans’ high intelligence, and further reinforced the model minority myth.

How does the model minority myth appear in youth media? In more recent youth media, from novels to television to movies, we have seen an increase in Asian representation, including Asians as main characters. Yet, these characters still tend to fall into the same tropes.

We’ve chosen to highlight the Nerds, the Airheads, and the Edgy Asians. The Nerd trope works to reinforce the model minority myth, feeding into the idea that all Asian people are hardworking and studious. While the Airheads and Edgy Asians push against the model minority myth, how have these tropes perpetuated the othering of Asians and Asian Americans? How do they play into the continued stereotyping of Asian folks?

We also explore the way western media fetishizes and generalizes Asian people. Sometimes these characters are mixed-race, perhaps with one white parent, but actors casted to represent them may be fully Asian. On the flip side, characters described as fully Asian are sometimes portrayed by half-Asian actors in film adaptations. In addition, actors’ ethnic backgrounds are often overlooked, being cast as a different ethnicity, or even just as a generalized “Asian.” How do these forms of representation work with or against previous Orientalist notions and depictions in media targeted towards older audiences such as Fu Manchu and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)?

In this wing, you’ll find analyses of characters such as Hiro Hamada (Big Hero 6), London Tipton (Suite Life), Psylocke (X-Men), Lara Jean Covey (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), and Park Sheridan (Eleanor & Park). We hope this selection is able to shed light on the origins and implications of the tropes and stereotypes these characters exhibit.

Image Sources:

  • A Streak of Color: https://64.media.tumblr.com/4c2a8f1123fd3f2909cf15299c05de30/tumblr_ndb2e7u1va1tfj13io1_500.png
  • Love Interests:
    • Cho Chang: https://static.wikia.nocookie.net/harrypotter/images/1/1e/Cho_Chang.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20180322164130
    • Lara Jean Covey: https://bookstacked.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/To-All-the-Boys-Ive-Loved-Before-Netflix.png
  • Eleanor and Park: https://bookstacked.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Eleanor-and-Park-by-Rainbow-Rowell.jpg

Led by instructor Mark Tseng-Putterman, Bad Capital: Race, Technology, and Asian-America is a Fall 2020 Ethnic Studies seminar focusing on the racialization and mechanization of Asian-Americans and Asia as the “Orient” through their representations in historical media.

Feature Image: https://images.pexels.com/photos/1083807/pexels-photo-1083807.jpeg?auto=compress&cs=tinysrgb&dpr=2&h=750&w=1260

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