When you think of an Asian American character in a modern media context such as film or television, you typically assume that they will be depicted as a geek, an extremely smart scientist or doctor, an outcast, or some side kick to the main character. Unfortunately, our culture lacks in the department of Asian American main characters or heroes. To try to analyze just how terribly Asian Americans are represented in current entertainment media, I selected three television shows, Friends, Glee, and Community. I then reflected on how the characters are represented, what patterns I noticed, and if I thought that these characters were reasonable representations of Asian Americans or if they were the stereotypical characters that see so much in today’s media culture.
The first show I watched was Friends. In one particular string of episodes, Ross (one of the main characters) has just returned home from China. When he arrives home he brings with him a new girlfriend he had met there. Ross’s new girlfriend Julie is asian and is portrayed as a very smart and educated woman. She is very fashionable, and kind to everyone. She is the only Asian character in the episode and she is in it quite a bit which is in my opinion a great thing for popular culture. Ross and Julie are both paleontologists and are able to bond over a lot of different things. Julie appears on the show often throughout the second season. The character of Julie is a simple one, and in a way relates to the way that most Asian American characters are displayed in entertainment media, however she is more popular, good looking and lovable than most Asian Americans that are depicted in our culture’s media. Over the course of her appearances on the show, Julie’s character doesn’t really show much range, she sticks to her sweet and smart personality. I started binge watching Friends on Netflix, and got through the first and second season in a matter of days. In all of the episodes that I watched, I did notice how Julie is the first Asian American character featured on the show who actually speaks and is a part of the plot. This is interesting because there are often many extras on the show in the backgrounds of scenes and I rarely even noticed Asian Americans represented in the extras. I think that the character of Julie is a positive and different in ways that Asian Americans are typically represented, but I do think it is sad that she is the only one in the series.
The second show I analyzed was a show that I was obsessed with in high school called Glee. Glee is a good show to use as an example for how Asian Americans are represented in entertainment media because it is in a high school and it has a very diverse cast. The main characters in Glee are a group of high school kids in a glee club. In this club, there are two asian students Tina and Mike. Tina is portrayed as an outcast goth kid who is over dramatic and fakes a stutter in order to gain attention from her peers. Mike is a talented dancer who wants to turn his passion into a career but it stopped by his Asian American parents who want him to be the smartest kid in his class and have a real career when he grows up. The show is set over a number of years and as the years go on, Mike and Tina grow up and their personalities develop more and more. We begin to learn more about their personal lives and what they struggle with as high school student. This helps the audience see them as more of a complex character with multiple sides to them. Tina and Mike are two completely different types of characters with totally different personalities. Mikes parents are sometimes guest stars on the show, and they are represented as the “typical” Asian American parents: they are very strict with their children and their schoolwork and they are very successful with their careers. The characters represented in the show display a wide range of characters, however Mike’s parents are display the typical stereotype of the super smart and strict Asian Americans, which I believe is a huge step backwards in terms of progress for the Asian American characters on the show. I do think that Mike and Tina are excellent examples of diverse representations of Asian Americans and I think that other shows should attempt to create characters like these to open up opportunities for Asian American actors.
The final show that I analyzed was a comedy called Community, which focuses on a group of college students and the crazy situations they get themselves into. The main characters of the show are very racially diverse, but there are no Asian Americans who are featured in every episode. There is however a recurring character named Chang, a former teacher who was fired and is now a student at the community college he once worked at. The main characters are in a study group and are also close friends. In the majority of the episodes that Chang is featured in, he is depicted as a crazy grown man running around a community college trying to become part of his fellow students study group, but is constantly denied entry due to his wild antics. Chang is always pulling pranks and plotting schemes in an attempt to impress his classmates. To me Chang’s character is much more complex than just a goofy older Asian guy. The fact that he was let go from his job, and is not allowed in his classmates study group shows a lot of sadness and an inability to fit in. Often times in Entertainment media, Asian American people are not depicted as popular people but rather as “losers” or people who don’t fit in. I think that the character Chang would definitely fit into this stereotypical mold. One thing I noticed over the course of the series is that when Chang is featured in many episodes he is depicted as the bad guy or the antagonist that the study group has to “overcome” to solve their problem or accomplish their mission. I think that this pattern is dangerous because we never get to see an Asian American as a hero or lead role. One positive thing about Chang is that he is often one of the funniest characters on the show. It is really refreshing to see an Asian American character who makes people laugh rather than just stating intelligent facts or talking about serious things.
After analyzing all three shows, I have come to some conclusions. First, I do think that there are more Asian Americans featured in popular television shows that we first notice. However, most of the time they are not featured as main characters. In Glee, Mike and Tina are main characters, but there are also 10 main characters in the glee club who are not Asian. It is sad that there are no shows that are 100% focused on the lives of Asian American characters. The characters are both simple and complex, with a range of different personalities and backgrounds. However, although there are a wide range of ways that the characters are represented, the shows all made a point to make it known that the Asian American characters were smart, like the typical stereotype we often see. I think that there is much that can be done to overcome these stereotypical characters and it will be interesting to see how Asian Americans are represented in entertainment media in years to come.