Media Portrayals: Stereotypes

Entertainment Media & Stereotypes

It is valuable to consider the ways in which media influence our thoughts and opinions about salient societal themes like gender, economic status, race, sexuality, and cultural ideology, to name just a few.

The focus of this post is on stereotypes in entertainment media, namely, preconceptions about Asian culture in popular film and TV programs. It is important to consider the images and patterns of different cultures portrayed in media because it sets a tone for common belief and cultural ideology; and, sometimes those beliefs and ideologies deviate by varying degrees from the reality of these cultures.

Examples of Stereotypes in Media

I was interested to find out what kinds of stereotypes are portrayed in popular media as it concerns Asian culture. In this instance, “Asian culture” is a broad phrase I am using to describe the patterns, themes, practices, and salient aspects of various cultures throughout the Asian continent.

I chose to look at three entertainment media sources to identify the stereotypes portrayed in these shows/films. I look at each of them in turn and find aspects of Asian culture, whether representative of reality or not, to comment on and question.

Degrassi: The Next Generation

The first program I looked at is the Canadian television program Degrassi. Stemming from a long running show originally aired in the 1980s, Degrassi: TNG follows several students living in Toronto as they navigate the struggles of high school and self-discovery. Degrassi: TNG spans 12 seasons, during which characters evolve and new students come into the picture.

The first instance of an Asian American in the show is not until season 7. The audience is introduced to Sav Bhandari, a grade 10 student from a rival school who is forced to attend Degrassi Community School along with his classmates after their school burns down. Sav is of Indian descent and at first doesn’t get a whole lot of attention in the show. As the season progresses, we learn only fragments of his life, tidbits surrounding his love interest, Anya.

Otherwise, we don’t really delve into Sav’s cultural heritage until season 8 when it is revealed that he will someday have an arranged marriage. This is the point where the audience starts to see Sav as a more complex character, with more speaking parts, as he tries to balance dating Anya, a white, non-Muslim, with the inevitability of his “someday.” Here we see an aspect of Muslim culture – arranged marriage – that is sometimes generalized to all Muslims.

The only other character in the entire 12 season span of Degrassi: TNG is Leia Chang, a ballet school transfer student. Leia is a fairly simple character who does not have many speaking lines. She is a sort of supplemental character who acts as the voice of reason for her friend Mia who gets mixed up in the highly sexualized climate of the modeling industry. We don’t learn much about Leia throughout the series and she is portrayed as a typical Canadian teenager with minimal references to her parent culture.

It is interesting to compare these two characters to the many others in the show whose lives are complex and compelling. It seems that Sav and Leia are somehow “washed over,” their cultural heritage being masked by the challenges of coming of age.

A Home of Our Own

I also looked at a film called A Home of Our Owna story about a widow, Frances Lacey, of six children moving from the city to build a new life in the wilderness of Idaho. The Laceys seem like a typical white, lower-class, American family struggling to get by in the dynamic culture of the 1960s.

When Frances finds a broken down, unfinished house in a picturesque valley between the shoulders of the Rocky Mountains, she has a feeling that this is where they will make a home for themselves. The owner of the house and the land is a man by the name of Mr. Munimura (aka Mr. Moon), a Japanese-American immigrant.

Mr. Moon owns a nursery and keeps up with it diligently. At first encounter, Mr. Moon seems to be a very simple yet callous man. Frances, although completely broke, tries to convince Mr. Moon to sell her the house. Mr. Moon is skeptical and seems hard pressed to get everything out of the Laceys that he can. Frances promises free labor in his greenhouse in exchange for the property to which Mr. Moon reluctantly agrees.

As the film progresses, Mr. Moon’s character becomes more complex as we begin to understand how he came to Hankston, Idaho. In a heart wrenching story, Mr. Moon confides in Frances the death of his son in an unspecified war and the death of his wife shortly after.

Mr. Moon is portrayed in a very American framework. He owns a business, has a great work ethic, and has suffered familial deterioration. In a way, he becomes part of the Lacey family as he helps them to build and fix up the house. His Japanese heritage is barely hinted at throughout the entire movie and again we get a sense of assimilation to American culture and a fading of his cultural heritage.

Lost

Finally, I looked at the prime-time television program Lost. The show follows the stories, both present and past, of airline passengers who have crash landed on a desert island in the south Pacific.

Two of the passengers, Jin-Soo Kwan and Sun-Hwa Kwan, are married Korean natives. In the beginning of the series, they speak only Korean, making it difficult for them to communicate with the other survivors (we learn later that Sun has secretly learned English and kept it from Jin in fear of retaliation stemming from his deeply held cultural beliefs). Both are complex characters, as evidenced by their history shown in flashbacks and their interpersonal conflicts on the island.

In all three of my sources, Jin and Sun are the best examples of Asian cultural stereotypes. Jin is militant about Sun’s modesty, frequently becoming angry and even violent when she unbuttons her sweater at the base of her neck or wears something revealing. We also see Jin removing both himself and Sun from the daily goings-on around camp, indicating exclusivity and isolation from the people he views as different.

Putting It All Together

There is a severe lack of Asian Americans across all these media texts I surveyed. These characters I have described merely scratch the surface of representative Asian culture. Because Asia is comprised of many different cultures, it seems the creators of these programs have pinpointed the most familiar Asian stereotypes to represent this set of characters.

This familiarity coincides with common beliefs about Asian culture, like forced modesty, exclusivity, arranged marriage, diligent work ethics, and resistance to outsiders. It is disheartening to see the scant representation of Asian Americans in entertainment media, and even those who are included reflect a Western ideology of Asian culture.

Why is this important to note? Well, because as media consumers we should be aware of what we are consuming, what images and messages are being conveyed, and what we ultimately take away. When we only see stereotypical representations of any cultural group, we may begin to imagine and believe that it is the norm, when in reality it may be very different from the dominant cultural patterns of that society. When we have preconceived notions about a culture, we tend to generalize. When we generalize, we do not see individuals and different cultures for what they are but rather see what we believe them to be.

Finally, it is important to understand how our ideas about a culture different than our own culminate to form a rhetoric or discourse about that culture. We need to be smart about the way we think and speak about different cultures, making sure not to generalize or assume when we really have very little idea of how these cultures actually function.

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