Congratulations Are In Order
First thing’s first, I’d like to extend all the congratulations in the world to Em Liu of Fiction Diversity for having one of her articles hosted on The Hooded Utilitarian. This is thrilling to me for a number of reasons, listed in no particular order: she’s someone I follow and who I’ve had conversations with between our two blogs , The Hooded Utilitarian is one of my go-to places for pop culture critique on the internet, and the topic she wrote on is one that is very near and dear to my own heart, namely: “Hollywood’s (Real) Problem with the Asian Male”.
I very, very strongly recommend that you read it in its entirety, because with the sole exception of one small portion I’ll be addressing I believe it to be the gospel truth. If you still absolutely refuse to for some absurd reason, and I’m going to ask you to check it out again before moving on . . . the post catalogues the portrayal of Asian men in American cinema, specifically in terms of their desirability. It was particularly eye-opening to me in that one of the earliest examples goes back to the late 1950s with The Crimson Kimono [poster on the right, obviously].
After elaborating on how things have mostly been downhill from there, Liu takes care not to shy away from the fact that one of the cultural reactions to this trend has been “a troubling emphasis on the need for the Asian male to simply ‘get the girl‘ onscreen.” Allow me to take a brief, and very relevant segue to discuss how strongly that idea resounds with me, and how badly I once wanted [and oftentimes still do want] this.
The Thirst Is Real [Leonard Nam Should Be In More Stuff]
I very vividly remember being in my early teens and watching a trailer for 2004’s The Perfect Score-
To stop you before you get there, yes, it is funny that Chris Evans [aka Captain America] and Scarlett Johansson [aka Black Widow] appear together years before their stints in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yes, in her dream sequence she does imagine becoming a leatherclad ass-kicker, life is weird, isn’t it? Carrying on-
I was thrilled to see that there was an Asian character, Leonardo Nam as the stoner/genius Roy, and I recall hoping so, so badly that he would end up with one of the two girls in the film instead of being relegated to comic relief like the trailer so strongly hinted at [you can only guess how things actually turned out]. Then two years later came The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and there he was again as Brian McBrian [which I assume was an example of colourblind casting at its finest?]-
Which it’s never explicitly stated that him and Tibby they ended up dating, it was lightly hinted at.
That is, until The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 when they are in fact together.
Now look, I am super comfortable with my sexuality, but I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to explain the still below without making anyone else uncomfortable. In all seriousness, though, Nam’s role in that film was mindblowing to me, not simply because he managed to transform from a somewhat schlubby everyman into a super cut sex symbol but because he was allowed to portray the latter at all.
At that point in time people weren’t really making movies or TV shows with Asian male characters, let alone art that depicted them as being, well, hot. I had a legitimate hunger for that sort of content because there was such a dearth of it, so yes, I fully admit that it exists, especially in the language we use when discussing it-
The “Troubling Emphasis” Is Real
The two links that Em [considering that we’ve chatted a few times I haven’t decided on whether to refer to her formally or informally] linked to up above when discussing the “troubling emphasis” both underscore this fairly well. While “An In-Depth Cultural Analysis of Asian Male TV Characters Getting Some Action” is a fascinating and well-written exploration of the different character types who exercise their sexuality [and which I’ve linked to myself in the past] the focus is, of course, on “getting some action”. At first glance “Five Films Where the Asian Male Lead Gets the Girl” appears to be all about acquisition, even using the word “win” a handful of times to in discussing men and their relationships with women.
It should go without saying that this is a side effect of our male-dominated culture and, consequently, entertainment industry, but it’s worth taking note of because in part it is what many people, both Em Liu and myself included, want. The goal is to see Asian men as individuals who can and are romantically and sexually desirable, but without centring on sex as the end point. If we really wanted to boil it down to that there’s plenty of pornography out there which features such, but I think pretty much anyone would agree that it doesn’t quite scratch that itch.
Em Lays Down What We [and Fast Five] Are Doing Wrong
Now we finally get to the section that I’m not entirely on board with. Before I present it, though, I want to again make it perfectly clear that I agree with Liu’s article as a whole. As mentioned way up above, when I said “gospel truth” I meant it. Here it is, slightly tweaked so as to reference Gisele specifically, cut for the sake of time and space:
“This approach is visible in Hollywood even when a ‘progressive’ role is actually attempted today. The best example is Justin Lin’s Fast Five, a film which succeeds in depicting an Asian male character kissing a woman on screen, but which fails to present the kiss as anything other than misogynistic sexual conquest. The film operates on a superficially-feminist level: [this woman] can handle a gun and drive a racecar. [She’s] badass, ergo, the film is feminist, and men are thus free to objectify. But these characteristics simply add to the qualifications necessary for a woman to be considered desirable. Having demonstrated [herself] appropriately collectible, [she is shown] at the end of the film as safely arrived under the protection of domestic patriarchy: [. . .] fetishized in a upwards tilt as she kisses a man while sitting on his lap as he speeds down the autobahn.”
The second paragraph continues on to reiterate some of what I mentioned in the last section, that if the essence of what we want is people getting down then we’re stopping short of the ideal. That section ends with the line: “A film like Fast Five in which an Asian male is sexually successful is not progressive unless the relationship itself can be portrayed believably.”
The Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For [Yes, This Was Appropriately Titled]
I am legitimately concerned that those among you, fans of the Fast and Furious franchise in particular, will throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is the last time I’ll say it, but Em is spot on with this. We really do need to aim for well-rounded convincing relationships instead of just accepting anything that happens to fulfill our fantasies. In this case, however, I think that she writes off Han and Gisele’s relationship a little too easily, particularly the latter’s character and portrayal.
1) Giselle As a Prize to Be Won
Now I realize that Em never laid down this stipulation, but given the way she used the word “conquest” in addition to “win” and other such vocabulary as found elsewhere, I went into watching Fast Five trying see if Gisele was portrayed as a prize or trophy in any way. In the minutes preceding the gif above Roman meets her for the first time, and makes some pretty straightforward sexual comments. The second time both Roman and Tej crack any jokes about Gisele it’s not as a come-on, though somewhat at her expense. More on that in a bit.
As opposed to a myriad of other films she isn’t pursued by various men. Roman’s interest is more of a passing, albeit extremely crude, fancy, and for the entirety of the movie no one really makes any attempts to woo her. It’s not that she doesn’t appear desirable due to the male gaze [that’ll come up again], but as far as the vast majority of characters are concerned there’s no real competition surrounding her character.
2) Gisele as Competent and Collectible
To begin with, it goes without saying that Gisele is, as Liu mentioned, a “badass”. She can “handle a gun and drive a racecar”, and that’s encapsulated perfectly in the following clip:
Within the context of the Fast and Furious franchise, however, these attributes are not oustanding so much as they’re a given. For the most part every member of the cast is extremely capable when put behind the wheel of a vehicle, and would in most circumstance be able to wear the mantle of “badass” just as easily. For Gisele not to have any of these skills or attributes would cause her to stick out like a sore thumb.
If we’re to take Han admitting his attraction to her based on this performance at absolute face value, instead of an offhand comment made in admiration, then at the very least it should be considered that the words were uttered here in light of her abilities and not proceeding the scene below, in light of her assets. When viewed in context, however, it should be kept in mind that this also isn’t a franchise that allows for the greatest demonstrations of emotional or relational strength. With such an enormous cast it’s difficult for the players besides Dom and Brian to have time to parse their feelings, which leads me to my last point-
3) Gisele and Han’s Relationship Being Without Foundation
So before you watch this next scene, yes, there’s a good amount of male gaze, but there’s also much more to it than that.
As just mentioned in the last section, the size of the cast doesn’t allow for too many character moments for most, yet this not-quite-three-minute clip reveals about the two of them. For one, it’s obvious that they’ve been paying close attention to each other due to his observation that she’s ex-military, and hers that he used to be a smoker. Secondly there’s his reaction to her getting the handprint.
It could be argued that there’s at least a little bit of leering coming from Han, but Sung Kang’s performance also gives us curiousity, amusement, and admiration. He’s not so much ogling her as he is watching what she’s doing, and it’s one of the very few building blocks seeded throughout that make up their relationship.
Now I used a gif of the two of them kissing in my post about John Cho which also delved into Asian men, their depiction as desirable individuals, and my own personal journey realizing how it impacted me, and while many would refer to it as a moment which counts as a “win” there’s a lot more there when you read in between the lines.
I want to give huge props to director Justin Lin for doing some very obvious work with Gal Gadot and Sung Kang when it comes to depicting how their characters interact even when the focus isn’t specifically on them. There’s a wonderful gifset I found on tumblr which captures these moments, and I’ve pulled a few of them for you below-
By all means, sure, you could refer directly back to the two of them making out as they speed down the autobahn, but when reading between the lines there’s really a lot there. No, it’s never explicitly stated, but having it presented as such doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand and offers a sense of pride to those watching more closely than others.
Any actual interactions that took place in Fast Six have been purposefully omitted, as Em Liu was specifically referring to the preceding film.
Fast Five Was Fine, But the Problem Remains
I sincerely hope my argument was enough to convince you [and I use that term generally] that Han and Gisele’s relationship as presented in the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise was not merely an Asian man’s conquest of a woman, but was instead one of the better pairings to be found in the film series as a whole. That being said, we should be discerning in how we engage with culture.
We need to change the language that we use,
even especially when it comes to discussing topics like diversity and representation. Being a crusader for race doesn’t preclude you from being sexist, and ultimately we all need to work towards considering one another in all things. I’ve been guilty of such things in the past, and there’s a chance you have as well.
The line from the YouTube video below is very funny [especially within the context of the entire series, I strongly suggest you watch them all, or at least that one from the start], but it’s a great example of our goals not being lofty enough.
Stephen Yeun’s character getting together with a white woman on The Walking Dead is great, but that’s because their relationship is, not merely because of their respective skin tones. The point is getting better in all things.