I haven’t explicitly blogged about the Asian-American experience in three years, last touching on the topic back in 2019 when I interviewed Bachelor contestant Revian Chang about her experience on the reality dating show. With May being Asian Heritage Month up here in Canada and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month south of the border, I thought it would be appropriate to return to a subject I’ve explored so often since this blog’s inception. What I didn’t expect was the immense weight that would accompany my decision.
Thinking over the interim in which this site lay dormant I’m reminded of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, a horrific incident that struck me so deeply that it wasn’t until an old coworker asked me how I was feeling that I realized I was angry. I think back on a time where it felt like with every passing day was a new story about yet another hate crime being enacted against Asian people, violence born out of xenophobia that studies have shown flourished with the former POTUS’s tweets about the global pandemic.
Even now, during the month when we as Asian people living in North America should be keeping our heads high, acknowledging our past hardships and present triumphs, we’re reminded only four days in that distrust of Asian Americans has been steadily growing over the past year. 33% of Americans believe that Asian Americans are “more loyal to their country of origin than to the United States.” Countries that many have never even stepped foot in.
The increased difficulty surrounding my existence is directly tied into the dehumanization of my race. The man who shot and killed eight people (six of them being Asian women) was able to do so because he viewed them as temptations before he was able to consider them people. Opposite that mindset, the model minority stereotype that surrounds Asian Americans might seem positive, but it still reduces individuals down to qualities they might not even embody. It’s why a range of representation is so crucial, and the reason the Asian himbo is so important.
What is a(n Asian) Himbo?
My original intention was to harken back to our Fame Day posts of old, when my then-co-writer Gordon and I would take the time to bang out a few hundred words on a subject we thought deserved the attention. I had also hoped to publish this within the first few weeks of May. I’m hitting Publish a day shy of the end of the month, and, well, you know what they say about when the perfect time to strike iron is (hint: it’s not when it’s cold).
On May 9th the third episode of Historian’s Take, a new show on PBS Origins, was released on YouTube titled “What Is The Asian Himbo And Why Is This Character So Popular?”
The plan was to keep my own post short and sweet, a pithy description of the character type (a portmanteau of “him” and “bimbo”) and then a quick rundown of my favourite examples. Given its format it’s no surprise that the ten-and-a-half-minute video opens up with clips of three of my go-tos, including one I hadn’t even considered (Reggie Mantle as played by Ross Butler in Riverdale). What did give me pause was USC Assistant Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity Adrian De Leon laying it all out within the very first minute, naming three pillars that the “himbo” rests atop of:
- The himbo is hot
- The himbo is very, very kind
- The himbo is not really academically inclined
It’s the second attribute that got me; in preparing to write this I had been running with the incredibly concise definition of “hot and dumb.” It’s also a trait that Urban Dictionary strongly supports, with that website’s number one entry for the term noting that it’s essential the man be “sweet, respectful, and kind.” While my initial goal was to broadly explain how the archetype was key in overturning deep-rooted impressions of myself and others like me, I realized that the three listed characteristics in tandem with one another make the Asian himbo uniquely suited to addressing a myriad of issues faced by Asian men.
Where the PBS crew generally track the progression of Asian male representation in Western media and explain why Asian himbos have skyrocketed in popularity (POC audiences are profitable; ty capitalism), what they’re not able to do in the scant amount of time given is explore exactly what the Asian himbo being given more runtime means.
The Asian Himbo and the Importance of Being Hot
Historian’s Take points back to the influx of Chinese workers in the 1800s being seen as a threat by white Americans as one of the initial reasons for portraying Asian men as undesirable, often to the point of being outright monstrous, as evidenced by such characters as Fu Manchu. Although this is undoubtedly true, I’m convinced that the actual turning point was Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa and his monumental rise to stardom in the early twentieth century.
Hayakawa’s role in the 1915 silent film The Cheat transformed him into an instant sex symbol overnight. Although he played the villainous Hishuru Tori (Haka Arakau in a 1918 re-release) opposite white female co-star comedienne Fannie Ward, the scene where he brands her had audience members literally swooning in their seats. A very particular subsection of that audience, as an oft-quoted interview with Stephen Gong of the San Francisco’s’ Center for Asian-American Media reveals: “his most rabid fan base was white women.”
With the racism of the time being more overt than it is today, it should be no surprise that while the actor’s intense good looks allowed him to keep finding work (to the point that he even created his own movie studio), often opposite white women, he was rarely permitted to take on the role of romantic lead that so many of his fans desperately longed to see him in. During an interview with Hayakawa, American radio personality Joe Franklin cracked that “there were two things we were sure of in the silent movie era; the Indians never got the best of it, and Sessue Hayakawa never got the girl.”
To date, there has never been another Sessue Hayakawa.
Sure, we’ve had a handful of Asian male actors who have found success in Hollywood, but even at the height of his popularity Jet Li, starring in unambiguous-retelling-of-globally-recognized-Shakespeare-romance Romeo Must Die (2000), was only ever allowed to embrace his co-star Aaliyah. It’s impossible to watch the movie’s final scene without noticing how obviously they were setting up a big romantic moment between the two: Aaliyah’s hand on Li’s face, the squad car lights softly illuminating the two of them, Timbaland rapping over the catchy synths and sampled drumbeats feeling like the millennial version of Sebastian’s boatside crooning in The Little Mermaid. It’s like it was created in an alternate universe where the Bard penned the words:
My arms, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender hug.
I don’t think there’s a greater example of Western media seeking to desexualize Asian men than that. Go back even a decade from today and it felt like audiences were eager to wrap their heads around Jackie Chan’s safe, wholesome goofiness but were wholly unable to entertain the possibility that a Chinese man could be hot.
It’s hard to overstate the inherent value in being seen as desirable. Not even to directly be a person who can get it, but to merely exist and know that someone could be into you. Over the past century there are precious few mainstream roles that have worked to promote the idea that Asian men can be attractive, let alone sexual beings at all. From Sixteen Candles‘ Long Duk Dong to Han Lee of 2 Broke Girls, the message has long been that we are simply not an option, whether due to the uncomfortable otherness of being from a racialized group or being portrayed as bumbling comic relief (or, tragically, both at the same time).
In PBS’s video De Leon creates a graph to help visualize the ways in which Asian men have been portrayed, tracking (academic) competence along the x-axis and using the y-axis for desirability. For the latter, he specifically frames the bottom of the graph as (emphasis added) “romantically and sexually undesirable.” With that in mind it’s actually very helpful to decouple desirability from a killer smile and six-pack abs, and to view it holistically as being worth wanting. Yes, it is deeply important that Asian men are able to be viewed as aesthetically beautiful, but it’s even more important for them to be seen as not just objects of desire but individuals worthy of romantic affection; to be a love interest in addition to being a lust interest.
Having rated Asian himbos on their get F-ability (high), the second pillar I’d like to pivot to is their capacity to get A’s (very, very low).
Asian Himbos: Young, Dumb, and Full of Complexity
We’re all familiar with character tropes as they fall along racial lines. In the children’s cartoons of my youth the Black best friend was athletic, the Middle Eastern character didn’t exist, and the Asian kid was a colossal nerd. Although many racial stereotypes are gross exaggerations of commonly observed traits, when it comes to the scholastic accomplishments of Asians this is art imitating life.
Take this five-second Family Guy clip:
Airing on March 8, 2009, the eighth episode of the animated sitcom’s seventh season included an exchange that left an indelible mark on our collective psyches. While I could spend hundreds of words breaking down the often toxic relationship between overbearing Asian parents’ expectations and their children, there’s just something so pithy and all-encapsulating about the hacky “You doctor yet? / You talk to me when you doctor!” Skimming over the comments and it becomes evident that the cutaway gag was a hit not just with casually racist college bros, but that it also deeply resonated with Asian audiences.
Among the dozens of cheap parroted jokes are dozens and dozens of Asian commenters revealing that these five seconds are absolutely reflective of reality. “My sister just became a doctor today, and this the first time I’ve seen my mum hug her proudly and cry whilst doing so,” says one. “As a Korean, this is pretty much how all of my conversations with my dad goes,” shares another.
The creation and popularity of the High Expectations Asian Father image macro the following year further cements the fact that Asians of every gender are not so much naturally studious and intelligent as they are pushed to be that way. It’s a case where it’s nurture over nature, and “nurture” can seem like far too generous a word.
There’s a lot to be said about the cultural reasons for why Asian parents demand so much of their offspring, but due to the representation we’ve received in the media the expectation that we excel in school goes beyond our folks. It’s why the microaggression “I thought you’d be good at math” is so painfully familiar. It’s why that YouTube comments section included so many people who weren’t personally in on the joke, riffing on a topic they’ve never personally experienced.
For me, the Asian himbo’s dumbness has always felt a lot like freedom.
Seeing Asian men who aren’t valedictorian material spits in the face of the model minority myth, and not in a hot way. The existence of Asian himbos not only says that it’s possible to succeed in life without a report card that looks like a shopping list for batteries, it helps to unshackle Asian men from a mindset that has pushed some to thoughts of suicide. The best examples, like Miggy in Single Parents (as seen above), find humour in them not being the sharpest tools in the shed without making them the butt of the joke.
Where Asian himbos being hot allows Asian men to be what they historically haven’t, Asian himbos being dumb opens up a spectrum of possibility and insists that self-worth can be found outside of one’s GPA. Yes, you can go on to become a SEAL-doctor-astronaut, but you could also opt to become a “pre-successful” amateur DJ, or work retail at a Pacific-Island-themed electronics store, or even run an underground casino out of your girlfriend’s luxury apartment building (I don’t know what the hell is happening in Riverdale and frankly I do not care). If my last point was about acknowledging the value and worth in being wanted, this one is about doing the exact opposite with intelligence.
As established, merely being hot and dumb do not a himbo make. The third ingredient is what prevents the character in question from ending up as meathead eye candy.
The Asian Himbo, For When Your Kind of Guy is a Kind Guy
Decades and decades of being seen as bookish virgins were bound to do a number on the Asian male psyche, and I’m very sorry to say that it has helped cause many to easily adopt the philosophy of inceldom. It seems obvious that being portrayed as sexless creatures might in turn lead to the strengthened belief that a person’s celibacy might be completely out of their control, that feelings of undesirability might manifest as gross misogyny.
This is not me defending the online subculture. In 2019 I lived just a few blocks down from a shooting on Danforth Avenue where the gunman went out of his way to specifically target women; it was later revealed that he had spent time reading the manifesto of a man who killed six people to “punish women for rejecting him.” Three months earlier another man who self-identified as an incel drove a rented van into crowds around Yonge and Finch and murdered eleven people. This hits far too close to home for me to even begin justifying the ideology.
Although the North American conception of “Asian” typically encompasses the part of the world south of Russia and east of India, the murderers being Persian and Pakistani, respectively, have them falling under the broader definition of the word. When focusing on that narrower geographic view, however, misogyny from East Asian men has taken a very specific form.
Award-winning novelist (and fan of this blog!) Celeste Ng has a white husband, and as such has become a target of hate from Asian men who consider her relationship a betrayal of her race.
In August 2018 she Tweeted a screenshot of an email she received where a “fan” lambasted her for, to read between the lines, not choosing to be with an Asian man. Having signed their message as “Brandon Ho” it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the background of the person writing in. The following day activist Erin Wen Ai Chew pulled back the curtain on the strategy that an MRAsian (a play on the acronym for Mens Rights Activist) subreddit, /r/aznidentity, has been utilizing on social media to promote their misogynist viewpoints. Scrolling down through the responses to her thread makes it starkly apparent just how right she is. One reply even claims “Actually, it’s the other way around. Toxic asian women have been harassing asian men for decades through public platforms like Twitter, books, movies, comedy specials and more.”
Again, it stands to reason why Asian men are so quick to embrace doctrine that is built on the foundation that they are oppressed and beleaguered. The tragedy is in the decision to direct the negative resulting emotions at women (especially those of their own race). This attitude is a great many things, but it is on the opposite side of the spectrum from kindness.
The inherent decency of the Asian himbo helps to frame him as the anti-incel, as the person who knows the value in treating people well and doesn’t expect romance or sex in return. He has the awareness that having amazing bone structure and the body of a Greek god are qualities that will draw attention, but the goodness to never use that knowledge for self-serving purposes. The Asian himbo may have a protein shake in one hand but they’re double-fisting with a big glass of Respect Women Juice in the other.
When I initially reduced the himbo to “hot and dumb” I ran the risk of idolizing any high-school-dropout-slash-runway-model regardless of whether or not they were cruel or selfish. In his entirety the Asian himbo is truly laudable because he is Asian masculinity at its absolute healthiest.
The Asian himbo feels like a one-dimensional joke at first glance, a simple inversion of tropes; where in years past Asian men were scrawny nerds now they’re unintelligent adonises. A closer look reveals so much more. It is undeniably crucial that people of every race and gender be seen as attractive, and the archetype certainly serves that purpose. Moving beyond that, however, the awareness that our worth is more than a career in STEM is so freeing it practically feels like indulgence. Rounding out the character is the conscious decision to respond to years of poor and harmful representation not with vitriol and bitterness but with kindness.
It is not possible for all Asian men to be himbos, and we shouldn’t be. While not wholly aspirational, the Asian himbo stands as a reminder that all of us, even those who aren’t Asian or male, can always be more. More than the myopic picture of us pushed by the media, more than our parents’ expectations, and more kind and loving than we may already be.