Straitjacket Sex Screens: Mapping Asian/American Men in the Movies
Celine Parreñas Shimizu / UCSB

Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa, early Hollywood hunk

Touring my first book, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women On Screen and Scene for the last two years, a persistent question popped up coast-to-coast: If Asian/ American women are pathologically hypersexual on screen and scene, what do you have to say about Asian/ American men being represented as asexual? There is a lot of pain surrounding this question, but in answering it, we must be careful not to inflict even more harm. Too often, the perception of racial effeminacy and asexuality is met with an assertion of dominant heteronormative sexuality and patriarchy and subsequently, the demonization of both asexuality and queerness. These gender wars marked the birth of Asian American Studies in the Maxine Hong Kingston / Frank Chin debates wherein the Asian American cowboy is valorized as heroic and the female broadcaster of the dirty laundry of racialized gender subjugation is labeled a traitor to the race. However, my response to this old gender binary that persists in this question is to historicize the representation of Asian/ American men in order to dispel the easy and inaccurate assessment of asexuality and effeminacy. Do current Asian/ American male filmmakers and actors see the Asian/American male body as a site of racial wounding, gender grief and sexual problems? And what’s wrong with asexuality and effeminacy?

Asian/ American men in Hollywood moved from having a rapacious and insatiable libido to being yellowface villains; from martial arts action heroes who epitomized gender power to erotic objects of desire; from suffering with the pathology of asexuality to being the asocial and largely absent figures we do or don’t see today. By paying attention to the surprising shifts in these images over time, we can complicate the definition of sex—one that privileges heteronormativity and the exertion of gender power over women—that strongly set the scene for discussions of Asian American male representations. Why fear effeminacy, queerness and asexuality as if the straitjacket of heterosexual patriarchy equals progress anyway? The understanding of Asian/ American sexualities and genders in representation is clouded by the excessive focus on a certain type of normative sexuality. Rather than accept this diagnosis, I am interested in evaluating films by Asian/ American men and the work of Asian/ American male actors to see if access to normative gender and sexual power is what they do or hope to achieve.

In my new book Straitjacket Sex Screens, I cut through the sexual fog in which the current debate has stalled in its attempt to access normative gender and sexual power. The questions that interest me are: What stories are told about Asian/ American men in Hollywood movies? How does one establish oneself as a man when racially cast as unable to compete within the sexual and gender order? Do Asian/ Americans then define their/our own masculinity? How? By attending to the sexual and gender order within screen worlds, I examine the creative ways in which Asian/ American male filmmakers and actors attempt to formulate their masculinities in, through and beyond sexuality.

The best way to start is with the documentary Slanted Screen (2005): does it offer a new take on representations of Asian/American men and how to create viable masculinities through representation? Similar to the widely taught and female-focused documentary Slaying the Dragon (1989) by Asian Women United of California, Jeff Adachi’s Slanted Screen addresses the misrepresentations of Asian American men as gendered and racialized subjects. These films invite viewers to understand the power of representation for the creation and maintenance of stereotypes or the oversimplification of racial and gender identities. Through the use of extensive examples from Hollywood films, they argue that such misrepresentations shape perceptions and thus, affect real lives very painfully. Representations inflict racial wounds, pathologize gender, and construct an abnormal sexuality that’s either brutal, unavailable, or absent. Especially harmful, according to the film, is the curbing of Asian American aspirations, since, as Ethnic Studies media studies tells us, representations validate citizens and subjects whose histories and presences are worth storytelling. These films emphasize the importance of working within and against the industry and using the craft and industry of media well in order to change misconceptions and thus improve Asian American lives. A dynamic contribution, both films attend to the situation of actors and filmmakers who must work within an industry so drenched in whiteness and while the films don’t say it, heterosexuality as well.

Romeo Must Die poster

Jet Li in Romeo Must Die

Slanted Screen begins with what now seems like an incredulous event: the existence of an immensely popular Asian/ American male matinee idol, Sessue Hayakawa, the early Hollywood star who enjoyed his status as a fashionable party maven, a film director, and producer with his own production company. In early Hollywood, an Asian/ American man was one of the most highly paid and recognizable stars. He eventually starred in over 90 films and, as Slanted Screen mentions, even with white female leads. The contemporary working actors interviewed in the film relate to Hayakawa’s legacy. Unlike Hayakawa, who “overpowered” white women, Asian American actors, even those who demonstrate masculine gender prowess (such as Jet Li, in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s 2000 film Romeo Must Die), experience illegibility as sex symbols according to the film. In Slanted Screen, the actor Jason Scott Lee describes the pain he expresses in his face when performing the role of Bruce Lee viewing Mickey Rooney’s derogatory yellowface character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Here, representation wounds even powerful icons of the screen so that we understand even more why Bruce Lee is lauded by so many actors interviewed in the documentary. In Slanted Screen, to see Bruce Lee is to “hold your head high” and to access a powerful and fearsome masculinity within the gender order. Within the logic of this film, Bruce Lee compensates for effeminacy offered in Hollywood such as in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Reflections In A Golden Eye (1957) or even the oversimplified evil yellowface men listed in the film, whose characteristics include “Satanic” qualities, “preternatural preference for white women,” “Oriental mind tricks” and other devious desires for world domination. Ultimately, Slanted Screen argues the problem with racial representation is gendered, that is racial wounding is masculine wounding—or the racism we see on screen is emasculation.

However, the film concludes with not so much a gendered solution for a gendered problem. The power of the media to racialize groups negatively is most privileged in the solutions offered by Slanted Screen. Kids are sensitive to media, a childhood expert testifies. Not seeing diversity on screen communicates a certain lack of social worth according to the film. It argues for the need for role models to instill one’s value in society, to alleviate racial self-hate and to unleash the imagination so Asian Americans may aspire for roles other than the limited ones we see. To continually engage the media in whatever form whether to work with stereotypes or refuse them, the best strategy is yet to be identified. The film demands for new heroes as well as attending to excellent filmmaking and performance so as to make the general public accustomed to seeing Asian Americans on screen and off. The future should be open for various representations of Asian Americans.

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

While Slanted Screen offers an open-ended inquiry at its conclusion: What are the strategies to overcome the harms of stereotypes?, what actually needs to be addressed is the gendered problem identification: What do we want to gain through representation beyond the lack of access to gender normalcy? Simultaneously, what can representation do for us in forging viable genders where racial identity is not gender and sexual abnormalcy? I hope that in the last hundred years, Asian American male engagements and entanglements with Hollywood films go beyond a critique of the lack of access to patriarchy and heteronormativity to richer dramas of masculinity, sexuality and race. Diagnoses of effeminacy and asexuality subscribe to limited ideas of gender and sexuality and disserve our understanding of Asian American masculinities and manhoods. Our critical interventions need to better capture the gender of race for Asian Americans on screen, specifically, their wrestling with the ethics of masculinity, engaging questions about friendship, romance, violence, and other dilemmas of love, sex, and race through the power of the moving image. 

Image Credits:
1. Sessue Hayakawa, early Hollywood hunk.
2. Jet Li in Romeo Must Die.
3. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Please feel free to comment.


  • Jesse Klein - Flow Columnist

    Shimizu’s article ‘Straitjacket Sex Scenes’ deftly examines the limited representation of Asian/American men in mainstream film, in conjunction with her earlier study on Asian/American women ‘The Hypersexuality of Race’. It is no doubt the case that both genders are compartmentalized in denigrating ways, thus perpetuating mindless role-play fantasies.

    However, it is a given – yesterday, today and tomorrow – that there are films in every culture that do not artfully portray gender relations, or even the lack thereof. What is also worth recognizing are the works that straddle these norms, question and expand on them through story and character. Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy are three films which contain horror and bloodshed but all emanating from the terrors of human connection; the real villains in these works are vices like pride and envy. The characters in these works are not mere stereotypes, but rather like us are motivated, complete people who yearn and search for peace, albeit in extreme ways. These films are but one example of Asian Cinema’s attempt to expand on gender norms through deep characterization and strong storytelling.

    Shimizu is no doubt correct in her assessment of the limited depiction so often employed in Asian/American Cinema. However, it is nonetheless fair to put forth the claim that these arguments would be better deployed in juxtaposition with films that substantiate her claims.

  • Madhavi Mallapragada

    Really appreciate Shimizu’s call for disengaging discussions of Asian men on screen within the binary framework of normative masculinity and aberrant effiminacy/queerness. Reading it just after coming back from a class discussion of Broken Blossoms and The Cheat in my undergraduate class makes her post all the more illuminative. It also reminds me of a former student who as an Asian American actor is often asked to audition or play “gay” characters. There is a lot yet to be uncovered in the overlapping discourses of race, gender and sexuality.

  • Thanks so much, Jesse Klein and Madhavi Mallapragada for posting these comments on the freshly published column and for the opportunity to mention my revisiting of the works of early Asian American actors in Hollywood–the analyses of which I had to cut for the short article. One example is James Shigeta, the rather dapper dan with heartthrob good looks and a great, deep masculine voice, who was cast as a romantic lead in Crimson Kimono (1959) and Bridge to the Sun (1961), for which he won Best Newcomer at the Golden Globe Awards. In Crimson Kimono, James Shigeta plays the leading role of Joe, a Japanese American police detective and the center of a racialized love triangle. His best friend and police detective partner, a white man named Charlie with whom he has bonded since their wartime brotherhood, loves a “pretty blonde,” Chris, who actually loves Joe. The address the meaning of loving across racial difference. When asked, Chris reassures Joe to expect everything from her because of love. In a following scene, we see Joe flummoxed by Chris’ declaration of devotion and the meaning of this to his friendship with Charlie. In Crimson Kimono, the racialized male other gets the girl, thus occupying the position of dominant male gender privilege. Nevertheless, he experiences this racially gendered success with melancholy or a kind of racialized grief and mourning from the loss and gains of love. The film’s portrayal of racial melancholy, a term theorized by Anne Anlin Cheng and David Eng, exceeds the examples of effeminate and emasculated manhoods vilified in popular representations. It is a melancholy that describes a complicated manhood that is not simply abnormal or emasculating.

    One lesson here is to break out of the binary of positive versus negative image analysis of emasculation and macho to better understand how Asian American actors and filmmakers are contributing to strategies for using representation to forge viable masculinities. Rather than heroizing Bruce Lee into a positive image stereotype, as many of the actors do in Slanted Screen, or demonizing him as a negative image stereotype as Frank Chin asserts in the documentary, the more productive question to explore here and in revisiting the numerous representations of Asian American men in the last hundred years to the numerous new productions by Greg Pak, Stuart Gaffney, Justin Lin, Quentin Lee, Chris Chan Lee, Ernesto Foronda, John Manal Castro and others today is to see what map of masculinity are these men charting and how do they navigate the way in and out of a gender and sexual order that precedes them? Thanks again for the comments as I embark on my sabbatical to complete this new book.

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