Opinion: It’s Time to Confront the Model Minority Myth in Film and Television — It Will Get Us Killed

Poster from online series House of Ho (HBO Max)

For more than a year, and especially in recent months, images of Asian Americans being harassed verbally and physically, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have become the forefront of national attention. These racially-motivated attacks have, on the record, affected at least 3,795 people as of writing this — and has culminated into our most recent tragedy in Atlanta last week.

Immediately after these events, media companies suddenly took to the internet to post that they supposedly stand with the Asian American community, such as the example below from HBO Max.

Post made in the aftermath of the Atlanta murders. (FB: HBO Max)

Media companies do not care about the Asian American community. In fact, if they actually cared, they would have condemned anti-Asian violence due to COVID-19 as early as February 2020 when reports of violence started to come in. They only show perceived care because of virtue signaling. By providing the supposed idea that corporations care about certain causes/groups of people it provides this sense to consumers that these corporations are morally sound. Media companies are not morally sound in every way, shape, or form.

Now you may think, “Oh, companies such as HBO Max, Netflix, and Warner Brothers must care about social justice. In addition to this nice message they posted on social media, they also care about Asian Americans because they have shows that center around them.” That’s a hard no.

If media companies cared about Asian Americans they wouldn’t water down the complexity of the Asian American experience into the monolith of the model minority myth — this idea that individuals in the community are inherently extremely high achievers, hard-working, and high-income earners. This supposed idea that maybe if Black and Latino communities pulled themselves up by their bootstraps they’ll be just as good as Asians. That’s bullshit. The Asian American community has devastatingly large gaps in income, major divides in higher education attainment, and has high household incomes because a large percentage of households are multigenerational therefore have more streams of income. It was literally developed as a tool to divide racial groups during the late-1960’s (made possible by the 1965 Immigration Act) and yet corporate media relies on it as a narrative crutch — I’m speaking directly about several media pieces that have come out in recent years including Crazy Rich Asians, House of Ho, and Bling Empire specifically, which simply covers the lavish lives of Asian Americans or Asian cosmopolitans.

Now the issue of the subject matter is not that the model minority representation in mass media is extremely inaccurate — there’s already a lot of academic literature that discusses that. The issue I worry about is the fact that if mass media maintains this model minority status quo as the dominant image, it poses a literal physical threat to Asian Americans.

Asian Americans have always been seen as perpetual foreigners within the United States (due to more than a century of US immigration law that classified Asians as “unassimilable” therefore not worthy of US citizenship, yet has been present within this country for centuries) and in a time of increasing hostility towards Asian Americans from scapegoating for both the virus and increasing tensions with China, Asian Americans are already primed to be targets of hate-based assaults and murders — as we have especially seen over the past year. Couple that with the fact that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States and more importantly dominant media specifically giving Asian Americans a false light that we are the sole accumulators of wealth in this country in a time of economic uncertainty that is expected to last for years to come, long after the virus is over. This idea strokes racial tensions — providing this idea that Asians are essentially colonizing the United States.

We can come to this conclusion of the risk of increased violence by looking back at history. Economic anxieties have been a constant in leading to the death of Asian Americans.

Portrait of Vincent Chin (Detroit Free Press)

First, we look back to 1982 with the death of Vincent Chin. 1982 was the year the US’s car manufacturing industry crashed leading to mass unemployment — especially in Detroit, Michigan. At the time, oil prices were high and consumers looked more towards fuel-efficient vehicles manufactured in Japan and Germany. American car manufacturers refused to innovate in accordance with the market and when the Detroit auto industry crashed — American car manufacturers, the media, and politicians only blamed the Japanese auto manufacturing industry — painting them as invaders that caused unemployment in Detroit to rise to nearly 20%. Running into Vincent Chin — a Chinese American engineer — Ronald Ebens and his laid-off stepson Michael Nitz assumed he was Japanese and blamed him solely for the fall of the Detroit auto industry. Together, they cracked open his skull with a baseball bat. Chin died four days later; Ebens and Nitz were charged with second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to a $3,000 fine and three years probation.

Sign from Watsonville Riots (AsAm News)

The latter half of January 1930 was the Watsonville Riots where hundreds of White and Hispanic men went around Watsonville, California in militia groups to brutalize Filipinos and murder at least one. Leading up to the Watsonville Riots, Filipinos were allowed to conduct agricultural work in the United States as a result of the Philippines being a US territory — all Filipinos were deemed as US nationals. Filipinos were desirable agricultural workers because of the extent capitalists were able to exploit them. The influx of Filipino migrant workers lead to heightened economic anxieties (on top of the fact that it was The Great Depression), seeing Filipinos as invaders, and boiled over into the Watsonville Riots. The violence eventually spread to other cities throughout California.

Drawing Depicting the 1871 Los Angeles Chinese Massacre (PBS)

Finally, we can reach back to the late-1800’s where the Burlingame Treaty. Supported by capitalists partially looking to exploit a low-wage workforce, this brought in an influx of Chinese workers to the United States. Being another recession, this flow of immigrants led to economic anxiety. This event conceived the concept of yellow peril, boiled into the 1871 Los Angeles Chinese Massacre which killed 19 Chinese immigrants and led to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Going back to the current representations of Asian Americans in film and media, here is my solution to the problem. We need to demand that if Hollywood can’t get it right, don’t do it at all. Now, this doesn’t mean shut out Asian Americans from mainstream media altogether. There are major film festivals throughout the United States that draw in large crowds every year including the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival in San Francisco, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and the Asian American Film Festival in New York City. There is demand. There are countless rich films that premiere every year at these festivals and yet Hollywood chooses to be lazy and rely on the shallow model minority myth. The idea that there’s not much out there other than what’s in the mainstream right now is a lie, it’s right there and it’s waiting. All I request is that you demand the content that exists in these spaces be out there widely in the world — show that the community is just as humanly complex (fucking even more complex) than the Atlanta police paint out the murderer to be.

Some really good films to come out of these spaces includes Yellow Rose, a film about a Filipina who dreams to be a country singer while caught within the distressing debacle that is the US immigration system; Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a documentary about a small Chinese American-owned bank — which was the only bank to be charged for the 2008 financial crisis; and Punching at the Sun a narrative film that delves into racial tensions against South Asians after 9/11.

Do it not only because these films are more tasteful to visualizing real Asian American experiences, but also because lives count on it. Now for the Asian American community specifically, I know that the Asian American community lives in a hostage situation by which if we do not purchase tickets to films that show us, then there won’t be any further films in the future. Stop that. Asian Americans are a rapidly growing demographic in the United States and we’re more powerful than you think both socially and politically. Stand up, demand more. If Hollywood can’t get it right, don’t let them do it at all.

About the Author

Jacob Lacuesta is an MA candidate of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University studying Asian American relationships with film and digital technologies. You can follow him on Twitter.

MA candidate of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University researching Asian American relationships with film and new media.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store