|How America Unsexes the Asian Male|
By David Mura
The New York Times
August 22, 1996
The Japanese-American actor Marc Hayashi once said to me: “Every culture needs its eunuchs. And we’re it. Asian-American men are the eunuchs of America.” I felt an instant shock of recognition.
To my chagrin, I came close to being one such eunuch on screen in the Coen brothers’ movie “Fargo.”
The call for the role seemed perfect: a Japanese-American man, in his late 30’s, a bit portly, who speaks with a Minnesota accent.
I am a sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American. I’ve lived in Minnesota for 20 years. Though not portly, I’m not thin. A writer and a performance artist, I had done one small film for PBS.
After I passed the first two readings, my wife and I talked about what other parts might follow and even joked about moving to Hollywood. But in the end, the Coens found another Asian-American actor.
But when I saw the much acclaimed “Fargo”, I said to myself, “Thank God I didn’t get the part”. The character I would have played is Mike Yanagita, a Japanese-American who speaks with a thick Minnesota accent and awkwardly attempts a pass at old high school friend, Marge Gunderson, a rural police chief who is visibly pregnant.
He then tells of marrying a mutual acquaintance from high school and of her recent death from cancer. A few scenes later, Marge learns that this marriage was fiction: the acquaintance is now only alive, but has also complained to the police that Mike has been harassing her.
The Japanese-American character has no relevance to Marge’s investigation. He is there mainly for humor. The humor is based on his derangement that Marge or their acquaintance would ever find him attractive.
I recognized this character as only the latest in a long line of Asian and Asian-American male nerds. Often, as in “Fargo” such a character will pant after white women, ridiculous in his desires. In the movies, as in the culture as a whole, Asian-American men seem to have no sexual clout. Or sexual presence.
Americans rarely talk about race and sex together. It’s still taboo. Yet, I often wonder what people make of me and my wife, who is three quarters WASP and one-quarter Hungarian Jew. Recently we went shopping with my sister Linda and our children. Several people, all white, mistook Linda for the wife, the mother. Was that because many whites find it difficult to picture an Asian-American man with a white woman?
In fiction, when East meets West, it is almost always a Western man meeting an Asian woman. There is constant reinforcement for the image of the East as feminine and the stereotype of Asian women as exotic, submissive and sensual. From “Madame Butterfly” to the “The Karate Kid”, Part II” and “Miss Saigon,” the white man who falls in love with an Asian woman has been used to proffer the view that racial barriers cannot block the heart’s affections.
But such pairings simply place white men at the screen’s center and reinforce a hierarchy of power and sexual attractiveness. They play on the stereotype of the East as feminine. And where does that leave Asian men?
A salient feature of the play “M. Butterfly” is that it affirms this feminine view of Asian men. In it, a French diplomat conducts a lengthy love affair with someone he believes is a woman but is actually a Chinese transvestite. The affair proves that Asian manhood is indeed difficult to find, at least for white Westerners. And when the “mistress” strips to a highly buffed and masculine body, it is not just the diplomat who gasps, but the audience as well.
And the stereotypes continue. In the sitcom “All-American Girl,” Margaret Cho played a hip Korean-American who dated white boys in defiance of her mother’s wishes. The brother was a studious, obsequious geek who dated no one.
Asian and Asian-American men are simply not seen as attractive or sexual beings by the mainstream culture. What could be attractive about the horny, thick-glassed, nerdy Asian guy, ridiculous in his desires for white women?
How little things change. As a boy I watched Mickey Rooney as the Japanese buffoon neighbour in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and knew I never wanted to be associated with this snarling, bucktoothed creature who shouted at Audrey Hepburn, “Miss Gorrightry, Miss Gorrightry,” and panted when she offered to let him photograph her; I identified with a John Wayne against the Japs; in “Have Gun Will Travel”, I was a cowboy like Paladin, not the Chinese messenger who ran into the hotel lobbying shouting, “Terragram for Mr. Paradin.”
To me as a child, Asian features, Asian accents---these were all undesirable. They weren’t part of my image of a real all-American boy.
For a while this seemed to work. My parents, interned during World War II, wanted to distance themselves from their ethnic roots. We lived in all-white suburb, where I generally felt like one of the crowd. Then came adolescence, and my first boy-girl party. As usual, I was the only Asian-American and person of color in the room. But when we began to play spin the bottle, I felt a new sense of difference from the others. And then the bottle I’d spun pointed to a girl I had a crush on, and she refused to kiss me.
Did that have to do with race? I had no language to express how race factored into the way the others perceived me, nor did they. But if the culture had told me Asian men were nerds or goofy houseboys, the white kids at the party must have received the same message.
In college, in the early 1970’s, my reaction to the sexual place assigned to me took the form of compulsive sexuality: rampant promiscuity with white women and an obsession with pornography. There was definitely a racial component to it: my desires focused specifically on white women. I thought if I was with a white women, then I would be as “good” as a white guy.
It took me years to figure out what was going on. It helped to read Frantz Fanon, the great Caribbean author and psychiatrist. In “Black Skin, White Masks,” he writes of how the black man who constantly sleeps with white women has the illusion that his feelings of inferiority will somehow be erased by this act.
Gradually, I began to ask questions about how I learned what was sexually attractive and what images the culture gave me of myself.
How, for instance, does race factor in attraction? A popular way around such questions is to say that love sees no color.
I don’t believe that. We are taught to see and process race early on. Race may not be the sole determinant in interracial relationships, but it is a factor. When I look at my wife, for example, I’m aware my desires for her cannot be separated from the ways the culture has inculcated me with standards of white beauty.
And when I told Alexs Pate, an African-American novelist, about Marc Hayashi’s comments about the eunuchization of Asian-American men, he replied, “And black men are the sexual demons.”
One is undersexed, the other, oversexed. Everyone knows who possesses a normal, healthy sense of sexuality.
Recently, after a panel discussion on “identity art,” an elderly white man came up and complimented me on a performance I’d appeared in with my friend Alexs. Then he asked, “Weren’t you in Fargo, too?”
“No,” I replied. “That wasn’t me.”
David Mura is the author of “Turning Japanese” (Anchor, 1991) and “Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and identity” (Anchor, 1996). Quote this article on your site