The Black Tribbles invited Angie Hilem and Albert Lee to the “Tribble Nation” podcast to discuss Asian-American representation in geek media. Hilem has this commentary.
As an Asian American who has struggled with her own identity, I excitedly accepted the opportunity to discuss Asian presence in geek culture on the “Tribble Nation” podcast. Though there wasn’t much time for me to prepare for the show, I was confident in participating, because Asian representation in media affects me, and I’ve contributed to similar dialogue many times in the past.
Aside from the very short-lived sitcom ”All-American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho, there aren’t many examples of Asians in television from my youth. Hikaru Sulu, the character portrayed by George Takei in the original “Star Trek” series, is the only other Asian actor that comes to mind as a prominent mainstay.
In the early days of film, yellow face was common. Buzzfeed asked individuals of East Asian descent to view some examples, and the discussion that followed resonated with me deeply.
While overt racism was the cause of casting white actors to portray Asian characters in the past, and one may argue a dearth of professional actors of color from which to choose, it’s still happening. During the ’80s and ’90s, more East Asians appeared as supportive characters in movies and television shows, but those roles typically, and strongly, reinforced preconceived notions of the Asian American as overtly studious, struggling with strict cultural differences, and never the object of affection.
During the taping of the podcast, it became apparent that there exist several great East Asian-American actors in shows that are very popular and current. Upon discussing Steve Yeun‘s character, Glen Rhee, from “The Walking Dead,” Len remarked, “It slipped my mind that one of the No. 1 shows of television has a very prominent Asian character.”
There we were, racking our brains and struggling to think of examples for our talk, when all we needed to do was wait. Our collective input organically guided us.
Albert Lee, another friend of the Tribbles who appeared on the podcast with me, mentioned “The Walking Dead,” and he’s not an avid viewer. This is a testament to the reach of that series. In the show, Glen takes up space and proves to be a critical member of the group of survivors who struggle to thrive in a zombie apocalypse. His previous role in society was that of a pizza delivery man. He wasn’t a doctor, accountant, or student. How cool is that? Glen’s station in life subverts the typical, model minority expectation which many attribute to “successful” Asian-American men.
His ethnicity is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and the value he brings to the group is obvious. Glen knows his way around Atlanta and navigates routes to safety and the procurement of supplies. He has a meaningful courtship with Maggie, a white character, who reciprocates his love. What other Asian guy in a series can you think of who gets the girl?
Is it because he’s a well-developed character, no different from the others, that he doesn’t jump to the top of the list of Asian-American actors in our minds? Were we all thinking of the offensive portrayals and the need to talk about them? Or is it because everyone at the table grew up during a time of type-cast Asian actors?
Another great example is Hoon Lee‘s character, Job, from the Showtime series “Banshee.” Job is an incredibly important character who is strong and direct, who and saves the lives of the main characters more than once. His ethnicity is never an issue, or even brought up, except when racism is directed at him from transient actors who serve solely to cause contention and invoke violence.
Further, Job’s character is not heteronormative. His preferred attire is tight, designer and flamboyant. Many times, he wears a full face of very funky, masterfully applied makeup. It’s unclear whether he likes men or women, and that doesn’t matter at all. Job is a friend, a badass hacker, and a serial business owner — who happens to be Asian and queer.
Job is a pioneer, not defined by his ethnicity or sexuality. While other aspects of the show may be a stretch from reality, his character is more true to life because of how human he is in his complexity. His role is not that of an exotic outsider, but someone very much on the inside. It makes one wonder if this is only possible because Showtime is a premium channel, without as much viewership as something a show on cable.
Daisy ‘Skye’ Johnson
A great example from a more accessible show is “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, in which Chloe Bennet is Daisy “Skye” Johnson. Skye is another complex character whose Asianness is not otherness. Her supernatural powers and her personal development through conflict are integral to the show. She does not present any tropes or perpetuate prejudiced ideas. Yes, she’s tech savvy, but she’s not a nerd. She’s attractive, but that’s not what’s most important.
Her father is Caucasian and her mother is Chinese. This is the first time I can recall an ethnic family makeup that is similar to my own, on prime-time television. They have their own issues, but navigating cultural differences is never one of them.
While there remain feelings of inadequate representation of Asians in genre media, participating in this discussion made me realize that a lot has changed in the past few years. We celebrated the presence of incredible characters, portrayed by actors who are able to focus on their written roles and not any prescribed role as an Asian body.
We were all surprised to realize and acknowledge that Skye, Glen, and Job are all well-known and fairly represented characters in shows that we enjoy. Though yellowface still happens, like in an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” just last year, a lot of progress has been made.
Angie Hilem is a content marketing strategist and self-described social media evangelist who lives in South Philly.