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Superhero Shang-Chi sparks US debate on Asian male stereotypes

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-10-21 10:14

A poster for the new Marvel movie featuring superhero Shang-chi. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The new Marvel film featuring its first Asian superhero Shang-Chi has been welcomed by Asian activists in the United States as a sign of improving the image of Asian men on the big screen, while some said there's a long way to go to change stereotypes about this demographic in mainstream US media.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tells the story of martial arts superhero Shang-Chi and displays cultural images related to Chinese mythology and culture. It has become the top-grossing release of the pandemic era in North America.

The movie has "a golden opportunity to rewrite the narrative around Asian masculinity" and "a chance to stand up, be noticed and change the game", said The 1990 Institute, a San Francisco-based organization, in a video it recently launched to explore the film's role in challenging Hollywood's stereotypes about Asian men.

"The idea of putting in an Asian face as the hero in a Marvel story is definitely going to open people's eyes," said Brian Yang, actor and co-founder of Giant Leap Media, in the video. "Traditional stereotypes of Asian men have been docile, meek, the perpetual foreigner," he continued.

People perceive or learn about other cultures and people from media, film and television and this is where stereotypes are formed, whether good or bad, said Yang.

Asian men have been emasculated since their arrival in America in the 1850s, according to The 1990 Institute's video. When movies were introduced, one of the first stars, Sessue Hayakawa, was Asian. However, it went downhill fast after that. "Hollywood was complicit in the embarrassing whitewashing and allowing a cultural icon to be the butt of the joke," said the video.

Yang said the auditions and parts that he ever got were roles like a Chinese delivery boy. "I did a bunch of Jay Leno sketch comedy pieces where I was always the butt of a joke as an Asian person," he said.

"What the lens of Hollywood has traditionally done has just been very narrow. It doesn't pull back and show you the wider picture of how vibrant and how different our community is," he said.

A new study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which assessed the Asian leads and speaking characters in 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, found that Asians were erased, silenced and stereotyped in popular films.

Among the 1,300 movies, only 44, or 3.4 percent, had an Asian/Pacific Islander lead or co-lead. This percentage did not meaningfully differ by year and falls short of the 7.1 percent of the US population that identifies as Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the study.

Most portrayals of the Asian community fall into the categories of silenced, stereotyped, tokenized, isolated, sidekicks or villains. The stereotypes still present in top films include the persistent emasculation of Asian/Pacific Islander men-58 percent were shown with no romantic partners, said the report.

Shang-Chi, unlike other Marvel superheroes, doesn't get to kiss the girl.

The dating company OKCupid in a 2014 study on race and attraction found African American women and Asian American men were the least desirable in online dating preferences.

A report published in November 2018 by Sage Journals, a global academic publisher, shared similar findings that the popular image of Asian American men was that they were "geeky and undesirable as potential mates", despite their higher education and income.

Such gender-based stereotypes were formed on cultural and psychological levels, according to a study by researchers at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The researchers examined photos in six popular American magazines and found that Asian men were underrepresented in the media, potentially due to stereotypes that associate femininity with Asian people.

The stereotypes have roots in centuries-old power struggles, and were a way to keep marginalized groups marginalized by depicting Asian men as not as masculine as other races, said the researchers.

The 1990 Institute's video also pointed out that the film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was actually not the first Asian hero movie, which was the 1994 movie The Crow starring Bruce Lee's son Brandon Lee. It's a marketing strategy to brand it as the first Asian superhero movie, said the organization, just like Black Panther, which was promoted as the first black superhero, while the distinction should go to the 1998 film Blade.

It explains why other films with Asian leads haven't received the same level of attention, because outside of the mainstream, those films do not have the same type of marketing hype, said the video.

"Despite the shortcomings, Marvel's Shang-Chi is part of pop culture, and has created a platform for conversation," it said.

"There's been a lot of improvement from a lot of different elements. There is still a lot of room to grow," said Sean Niu, producer of the Bund to Brooklyn Podcast.

He said that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings "is an opportunity to showcase Asian American men in a different life".

"I'm encouraged to say that it's not only changing because of the film but also because of culture in general. I think people are more open about understanding what sexuality means or what masculinity means."

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