I was an awkward and impressionable pre-pubescent Asian American boy when America’s imagination was captured by a certain William Hung and his off-key 2004 rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” on American Idol. That the most visible Asian male mainstream representation of the moment (other than, perhaps, the cartoonified Jackie Chan of the beloved Jackie Chan Adventures) was the butt of a crude national joke, and heir to a long history of Asian male pop culture buffoonery, is indicative of the messages that I and other Asian American young men received, and continue to receive, about our own sexuality and desirability. In the context of romance and sex, we exist for comic relief alone.
Even as Asian American actors like Steven Yuen and John Cho begin to break down barriers for Asian American men as romantic leads, characters such as Han in CBS’ 2 Broke Girls continue the portrayal of Asian men as sexually inept punchlines.
The racial emasculation of Asian men in the American imagination is real, it is pervasive, and it is historically-rooted (dating back at least to the 19th century when Chinese migrant men took on “feminized” labor roles in the laundry industry). From pop culture to playground taunts, I doubt that any Asian American man can fully escape the psychological implications of this socialization in undesirability. For me, it remains a personal trope that requires constant unlearning, lest creeping doubts begin to resurface to cloud the way I see myself and my role in romantic and sexual relationships. I speak from personal experience when I say that it has real material and psychological impacts.
Cut to: the rise of celebrity chef and memoirist Eddie Huang, whose swagger, wit, and taste for controversy has made him one of Asian America’s most visible figures. The unofficial leader and visionary of the “movement of big dick Asians,” Huang’s persona has resonated with Asian Americans tired of being an “invisible” minority, and especially with Asian American men seeking to reclaim and reassert their own masculinity. But when reclaimed masculinity comes in such normative, ultra-hetero packaging, are we doing more harm than help?
For many, Huang’s snarl and swagger have been a refreshing break from mainstream model minority representations.
Last year, Jenn Fang of Reappropriate.co coined the term “misogynlinity” (masculinity plus misogyny) to explain how, in working to counter their racial emasculation, some Asian American men may seek to reaffirm their own masculinity in problematic ways – namely, by conflating masculinity with misogyny, and practicing “manhood” through the objectification, violation, and conquest of women. Fang points to the popularity of pickup artist/dating coaches amongst Asian American men and the unfortunate tendency for some Asian American men to shame Asian American women who choose to date non-Asian partners as examples of how attempts to counter Asian emasculation can become oppressive forces themselves.
Thus, the trouble with Huang’s “big dick Asian movement,” or with any concerted attempt to address the widespread emasculation of Asian men in American pop culture, is in the framing. Are we critically redefining masculinity? Or are we simply seeking to claim a patriarchal and heterosexist version of American manhood for ourselves?
I have long feared that Eddie Huang falls into the latter camp. His Big Dick Asian Movement is legitimately grounded in the frustration of Asian men in America who have been emasculated, ridiculed, and mocked on movie screens, in classrooms, and on dating sites. But its framing and points of action are centered on a fundamentally misogynist notion of sexual entitlement, encapsulated in Huang’s oft-repeated statement of purpose that “Jet Li gets no pussy” in Romeo Must Die. That Huang grounds his project of Asian American manhood in the attempted subversion of stereotypes of Black male hyper-masculinity and the adoption of hip hop culture cements his project as one that reinscribes, rather than challenges, systems of racial and gendered oppression.
Even Hudson Yang’s lovable portrayal of a young Huang on Fresh Off the Boat at times veers towards misogyny.
Which is why Huang’s recent and bizarre Twitter tirade against queer Black feminist blogger Mia McKenzie (creator of the blog Black Girl Dangerous) was upsetting, but not particularly surprising. McKenzie asked Huang to clarify a recent statement he had made on Bill Maher’s Real Time that “Asian men have been emasculated so much in America that we’re basically treated like Black women,” with Huang going on to reference OkCupid ratings, in which Asian men and Black women consistently score the lowest.
See @NakedArtichokes’ Storify to see the exchange in full.
Though the statistics are well-documented, Huang’s phrasing was poor, and he could easily have been interpreted as using Black women as some sort of inanimate barometer for social oppression. Yet when McKenzie and other Twitter users (primarily women of color) asked Huang to admit that his comments could have been damagingly misinterpreted by his audience, Huang reacted aggressively, calling McKenzie an “idiot,” “wildin,” and, in a telling display of male privilege, attempted to silence McKenzie by calling her “boo” and mockingly asking her out on a date.
Like McKenzie, I would have liked to give Huang the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the Maher segment was simply a matter of poor phrasing and the pressure of appearing on live television (rather than another instance of using Black oppression to render the experiences of non-black communities of color more visible). But Huang’s response is indicative of the fact that his philosophy of manhood is grounded in sexism, and leverages anti-blackness as a tool for subverting anti-Asian stereotypes. The fact that the success of ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, based on Huang’s memoir of the same name, has rendered Huang one of Asian America’s most visible figures, only compounds my disgust at this recent Twitter exchange.
I understand the pain and frustration that stems from America’s racist emasculation of Asian men. But if, as in Huang’s practice, reclaiming Asian American masculinity means claiming all the ills of white American manhood – it’s patriarchy, entitlement, heterosexism, and racism – I want nothing to do with it.
To my fellow Asian American men: can we re-envision Asian American masculinity to be anti-racist, womanist, queer, and liberational beyond our own identities? Can we make space for the criticisms of our women of color peers, and confront the certain privileges and powers that come with being Asian men in America, rather than attempting to use those same privileges to silence and shame those who raise critical questions? Huang’s violent exchange with McKenzie is a reminder that if a movement towards reclaiming Asian masculinity has any place in radical – rather than reactionary – political spaces, we can and must do better.