The Yellow Peril
This fall, CBS brought something back to television that seemed long gone: pure, unadulterated racism.
“2 Broke Girls,” created by comedian Whitney Cummings and “Sex and the City” creator Michael Patrick King, is a sitcom with a recession-era twist. The show revolves around two white girls who waitress at a small Brooklyn diner.
Max, played by Kat Dennings, and Caroline, played by Beth Behrs, work for the foreign-born Korean owner, Han “Bryce” Lee, played by Matthew Moy.
It is obvious that neither Cummings nor King know a single thing about Asian Americans.
Lee is a goofy, socially ignorant but financially successful man who cannot pronounce his L’s and speaks like a confused fortune cookie.
His accent and speech do not reflect how a foreign-born Korean immigrant would sound, much less how any other Asian-American immigrant would sound.
Lee is not an accurate portrayal of today’s Asian-Americans, but is a throwback to an era where distasteful stereotypes were accepted and encouraged.
According to Allan Aquino, CSUN Asian-American studies professor, Asian stereotypes have existed since the 1850’s when Asian-Americans were cast as immigrants and “forever foreigners”.
“No matter how hard they try to assimilate, they are not American,” Aquino said. “It ignores the long history of Asian-Americans in the U.S. and multi-general Asian-Americans’ contributions.”
Aquino cited the “Six Faces of The Oriental,” defined by Professor Robert G. Lee, author of “Orientals,” a history of Asian Pacific-Islanders in American pop culture.
These six faces include the pollutant, the coolie, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority and the gook.
The yellow peril and model minority most impacted public attitude toward Asian-Americans during 20th century politics, popular culture and media.
The “yellow peril” emerged in the early 1900’s to portray Asian-Americans as a “threat to nation, race and family.” This stereotype was the basis for the television show “Fu Manchu,” which was about an insidious, evil Asian man who wanted nothing but destruction for the white race.
Though not part of the six faces, it is important to recognize another stereotype created around the same time to contrast the yellow peril: the benevolent but culturally ignorant Asian man.
This stereotype is best expressed through the television series “Charlie Chan.” Chan was a detective who traveled the world solving crime mysteries, but spoke broken English and ultimately, did what the white man wanted.
Both Manchu and Chan were at one point played by white actors, made up in “yellow face.” Yellow face continued to surface in American media, in works such as “Madame Butterfly,” “The Good Earth,” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Another popular stereotype is the “martial artist,” the exotic, dangerous Asian who can defy physics and annihilate enemies with his body.
“The paradox of Bruce Lee’s image is that, while Bruce Lee, as a man and living innovator, gave pop culture its first great Asian Pacific Islander hero and forever changed philosophy and pop culture,” Aquino said. “The image cannibalized after his death yielded the stereotype of the one-dimensional martial arts hero and or villain, a more dangerous update of the yellow peril.”
Possibly the most influential in the way Asian-Americans are portrayed today is the stereotype of the “model minority.” According to Dr. Tracy Buenavista, CSUN Asian-American studies professor, the model minority myth developed during the civil rights movement.
It was based on the idea that Asian-Americans are economically and academically more successful than other minorities, despite facing discrimination.
“The civil rights movement was about the government getting rid of racism in the law in American Institutions,” Buenavista said. “The conservative media response was to create the model minority myth.
If Asian-Americans can do it through hard work, it disproves (the) idea that blacks and browns needed civil rights reform.”
The myth is inaccurate because it only focuses on the experiences of a few Asian ethnic groups,” Buenavista said. “What it obscures is the diversity of the Asian-American community. There are over 40 different groups and some of those groups demonstrate low educational attainment rates, lack of access to employment and mental health issues.”
CBS’ Han “Bryce” Lee is a hybrid of stereotypes. He is Chan meets the model minority, and he is forever the foreigner. Lee is not based on any real human being, but is a lie. This portrayal is dehumanizing, unethical and defamatory.
How CBS and the American public is allowing a Long Duc Dong character on television to represent Asian-American immigrant men is a social offense beyond outrage, and presents a huge step back for racial media equality.
It will be truly perilous for CBS’ reputation if they allow the Lee character on “2 Broke Girls” to be the butt of a racist and ignorant white joke.