In order to be accepted and celebrated by mainstream audiences, Asian-American men run the double-edged risk of being perceived as "too Asian" and also feeling like an imposter of their own race.
Randall Park is hot like a burned-out high school shop teacher who's nice even when he's hungover.
Randall Park is camp counselor hot. Randall Park is take-home-to-parents hot. Or, as Buzzfeed News described, Park has "crinkly-eyed dad allure." Thanks to American media's "Asian wave" in the late 2010s (particularly the Korean Wave—or hallyu) across music, film, and television), some of today's most recognizable leading men now include the likes of Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim, and Steven Yeun. But historically, Asian men have been erased, emasculated, or outright mocked in mainstream American media as the "least desirable" type of men.
The trajectory of Park's career, from his early struggles to his recent surge of success, is a reflection of the shifting attitudes towards Asian men. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Park was described as having "an instantly recognizable face. That's both because his face is handsome in that classic movie actor way, but also because he's been in like, everything…" Best known as the well-meaning father in Fresh Off the Boat, Park was beloved in his role as the charming chump Marcus Kim, the HVAC technician and aspiring rapper who woos Ali Wong's character in Always Be My Maybe. The rom-com is a triumph in Asian-American representation precisely because it doesn't tokenize Asian ethnicity. Wong told Vulture, "What happens when you populate a movie with a lot of Asian-American people is that they get to be people. They don't have to be the Asian person in the movie."
But the recent rise of Asian men in media begs the questions of how and why they've been excluded from traditional "western" standards of Hollywood attractiveness in the first place. Before Crazy Rich Asians spotlighted Malaysian-British actor Henry Golding and showed America that "Asian men are hot," Asian characters were stereotypically "unattractive, asexual, always the sidekick." In fact, as of 2016, only 1% of Hollywood's leading roles went to Asian actors.
Park experienced firsthand the kind of typecasting and limiting stereotypes about Asian men propagated by the media. He's worked as a writer and actor in Hollywood since 2003. Early in his career, Vulture detailed, "Park was confronted with the moral dilemma actors of color have often faced: Do you refuse the compromising role, or do you take it and live to eat another day? He has his regrets. The first pilot he ever got was a Fox sitcom called Lucky Us in 2004, in which he played the evil neighbor, a gay Mr. Yunioshi caricature named Jimmy."
While it's not surprising for Hollywood to lack diverse representation, the American public seems to agree that Asian men are not as appealing as other races. Statistically, data collected from dating apps like OkCupid repeatedly show that Asian men have the lowest approval ratings from white, black, and Latina women. Ever since Asian-Americans were first heralded as the "model minority" in the 1960s, multiple studies have observed a strange paradox that Asian men were rated as being less desirable than other races despite being the most financially stable as a social group.
But therein lies much of the appeal of Randall Park's character in Always Be in My Maybe: He's just another schlub. He's not rich or successful, and his lifestyle is shaky as a full-time HVAC man and part-time aspiring rapper. BuzzFeed News points out that the film's success is partly due to "The Rise of the Rom-Com Schlub": "It's easy to see how these films could be interpreted as male wish fulfillment fantasies about characters who are inexplicably liked by women even as the men don't seem to have much to offer."
Today, the Asian stereotypes of the stable and hard-working man, who's either intolerably nerdy or cold and emotionally unavailable, can't stand up in the face of the all-American schlub. Characters like Park's burned out Marcus Kim are "stealth smokeshows, and their characters are funny and disarming and entirely plausible as objects of affection." While "rom-coms have tended to abide by conflicted, sometimes regressive ideas about masculinity themselves," the under-achieving, well-meaning, and supportive burnout who's still trying to figure himself out is trying, "however imperfectly, to pry the genre away from that."
Writer Jason Shen at Vox agrees, adding that the film's introduction of an "Asian American underachiever is groundbreaking." He writes, "It might sound strange, but an Asian-American lead character playing a low achiever might just be what our community needs right now…Through its main characters, Always Be My Maybe expands what it means to be Asian American. Marcus may not have a great career, but that's never treated as a fundamental character flaw." Ultimately, he gets the girl in the end "because he overcame his fear of change and grew as a person. And that's something we can all relate to."
So how long can our newfound appreciation for Asian men last? In order to be accepted and celebrated by mainstream audiences, Asian-American men run the double-edged risk of being perceived as "too Asian" and also feeling like an imposter of their own race. Park, for all of his recent success, acknowledges feeling a sense of imposter syndrome. Born to Korean immigrants and raised in Los Angeles, he spoke with BuzzFeed about his poor Korean language skills and feeling like he's "not Asian enough." He commented, "Yeah, of course. Especially Korean impostor syndrome. I didn't have a lot of Korean friends growing up. I had like one Korean friend, who was my closest friend but we were both surrounded by other races. I love the food, I make kimchi because it really connects me, but I'm always trying to find ways to connect to my Koreanness more."
There seems to be staying power to our current "Asian wave." Twitter is clearly supportive of ogling Asian men. And Ali Wong has been gushing about the attractiveness of Asian men since her first hit comedy special Baby Cobra in 2015: "No body odor. None. They just smell like responsibility. Asian men are the sexiest. They have no body hair from the neck down. It's like making love to a dolphin."
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While Hollywood and fashion brands are quick to congratulate themselves for casting people of color, inclusive representation requires diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.
Professional makeup artists can imitate peeling radiation burns in American Horror Story: Apocalypse, make Margot Robbie look like a 53-year-old Queen Elizabeth I, or, even more criminally, transform Christian Bale into Dick Cheney.
But at fashion shoots and film studios, hair stylists and makeup artists are usually there to enhance models' and actors' natural features. While Hollywood and fashion brands are quick to loudly congratulate themselves for casting people of color, inclusive representation requires diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.
Sadly, that is not the norm. This week, model Olivia Anakwe voiced a common complaint that industry hair stylists aren't trained to style black hair. Anakwe ended Paris Fashion Week by posting a condemning message to Instagram about her exclusion from the fashion show's styling. In hopes to "spread awareness," she urged, "No matter how small your team is, make sure you have one person that is competent at doing afro texture hair care OR just hire a black hairstylist! Black hairstylists are required to know how to do everyone's hair, why does the same not apply to others?"
Soon, various black actors took to Twitter to corroborate the oversight, which speaks more to the media's history of erasing people of color than sheer vanity. Malcolm Barrett (Timeless) posted, "Most Black actors get their hair cut or styled outside of set, often at their own expense because Hollywood hairstylists are one size fit[s] all and that 'all' does not include Black hair. This has been my experience for the last 20 years in the business & it hasn't changed at all."
Most Black actors get their hair cut or styled outside of set, often at their own expense because Hollywood hairsty… https://t.co/xPiZmNJDM8— Verbal The Rapper (@Verbal The Rapper)1552240525.0
Yvette Nicole Brown (Community) added that makeup artists almost unanimously overlook dark skin tones. She shared her personal experience of having to bring her own products in order to receive the same treatment non-ethnic actors receive. "Most black actresses come to a new set w/ their hair done (me) or bring their wigs & clip-ins w/them," she posted. "It's either that or take a chance that you will look crazy on screen. Many of us also bring our own foundation. One too many times seeing no shade that matches you will learn ya!"
Most black actresses come to a new set w/ their hair done (me) or bring their wigs & clip-ins w/them. It’s either t… https://t.co/xNBtdh9Aly— yvette nicole brown (@yvette nicole brown)1552274883.0
The Twitter thread quickly gained attention from both men and women who'd been dismissed by stylists who didn't know how to work with non-white faces. From Gabrielle Union to Gabourey Sidibe, black actors created the conversation simply to create awareness. As Brown posted: "Those of us responding to this feed are sharing our unique experiences #ActingWhileBlack. No one is dying. We have all adapted. Life goes on. ❤️ I just always think it's important to pull back the curtain so you guys know what the real is. This mess is the real!"
100% of Black Actor/Actress I've spoken to on this topic face the same thing in film and television. Hair Stylists… https://t.co/OWv1VcTKaC— Yahya Abdul-Mateen 2 (@Yahya Abdul-Mateen 2)1552160812.0
@YNB If they don’t have the budget to hire a black hairstylist for me, or won’t, I just get the director to agree t… https://t.co/uTD6KoA6VX— Gabby Sidibe (@Gabby Sidibe)1552340684.0
Important Thread! 👇🏾 What alot of non-industry folks don't realize is that u can't just use ur normal hairstylists/… https://t.co/prAevmb3uE— Gabrielle Union (@Gabrielle Union)1552325902.0
The pressure to "just be happy they picked you & you got a job, don't ask for the SAME things every other actor/mod… https://t.co/iLzUoaRP34— Gabrielle Union (@Gabrielle Union)1552326499.0
Sadly, this behind-the-scenes exclusion extends to all non-white actors. Half-Chinese, half-white actress Chloe Bennet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) has spoken out against makeup artists who have tried to "open" her almond-shaped eyes. She told Us Weekly, "I really like accentuating my Asian features and the almond eye shape that I have. For a long time, a lot of makeup artists would try to open my eyes really wide and I felt like I didn't look like myself and like it changed the shape of my face,"
Likewise, Olivia Munn noted the same problem in an interview with Byrdie: "I'm Chinese and white, and I actually have more of a Chinese bone structure but more white features, and little things completely transform my face. Like putting shimmer in the corner of my eyes can make me look cross-eyed. There are some people who can wear any makeup style, and they will look beautiful. But for me, I can see drastic changes. Like when I work with other makeup artists, sometimes they'll do the same thing to me that they've done to a lot of white girls, and it doesn't work. They don't understand that rimming my eye in black will just make it smaller."
To repeat Yvette Nicole Brown, no one's dying from not being styled by a professional makeup artist. However, the oversight underlines continuing inequality between white and non-white performers in media. A production casting people of color is nothing more than a hollow gesture if their representation on screen is not given equal consideration.
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