Asian Men, Pop Culture, and the Politics of Attraction: A History of Desexualization

From Sessue Hayakawa to “Sixteen Candle,” this historical phenomenon is no coincidence.

By Lance Serafica

It’s August of 2018. You are at your local movie theater, ready to watch the movie adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians

The movie’s trailer promises a decadent romp through Singapore featuring Asian representation, a light examination of socio-economic class differences, and a well-told love story between two Asian leads at its center. 

You feel excitement thrum in your chest as the movie previews play. Finally, the actual movie starts playing and in that very first opening scene, you get chills. Anticipation courses through you as well, leaving you so excited it’s impossible to fully sit still. By the end of the movie, you get all that you expected. 

What you don’t expect are several scenes in which the camera intensely lingers upon the fit, shirtless bodies of the male Asian actors starring in it. 

The blatant objectification of Asian actors like Pierre Png and Henry Golding within a Hollywood blockbuster leaves you oddly perplexed. It’s not a bad kind of confusion. It’s just that you’ve never seen anything like it before. 

But then you realize you don’t quite know why that is. 

That surprise at this obvious objectification is the legacy of the desexualization of Asian men in Western media. Just as Western media often fetishizes Asian women and reduces them to sexual objects for the male gaze, Asian men, for lack of better words, become uncool virgins with zero sexual and/or romantic appeal within it. 

Even now, young Asian men feel the ramifications of years of being emasculated and treated as wholly undesirable for years by American and more broadly, Western, media. 

While this historical desexualization of Asian men has roots in American propaganda of Yellow Peril dating back to the middle of the 18th century, this propaganda portrayed Chinese men as threatening, immoral, but above all, undesirable

If this stereotypical image of Asian men was planted by the US government, American Hollywood was the watering can that allowed it to fully take root. 

Decades of movies featured portrayals of Asian men as anything from cruel, dehumanized antagonists to exotified, celibate martial arts masters. They could be anything but an attractive leading heartthrob with whom audiences could fall in love. In fact, within romcoms specifically, Asian men are often relegated to nerds who only wear ill-fitting button-ups and serve to prop up the masculinity of the white male lead. 

While this has changed with the success of movies, such as the aforementioned“Crazy Rich Asians,” the desexualization of Asian-American men has long been propagated by popular Western media. The best example of this is in the story of one old Hollywood Japanese actor you probably have never heard of: Sessue Hayakawa.

Sessue Hayakawa: Early Hollywood

One of the biggest stars of the 1910s and 1920s during early Hollywood’s silent movie era, Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese actor who, in addition to achieving fame on par with old Hollywood icons such as Charlie Chaplin, is notably described as the first major silver screen sex symbol. 

His breakout role was in “The Cheat” (1915), where he plays a Japanese loan shark with a penchant for sadism, who at one point outright brands the white female lead with an iron. 

Hayakawa’s performance gives a purely evil, domineering villain a disarmingly sensual edge. It is because of this performance that Hayakawa not only cemented his sex symbol status but also earned him a rabid fanbase consisting of primarily white women

Using the strange dichotomy between xenophobia and the exotification of Japan at the time to his advantage, he rose to stardom. Eventually, Hayakawa opened his movie studio in 1918, Haworth Pictures, to give him some modicum of freedom over the roles and movies he starred in.

Eventually, Hayakawa left Hollywood and achieved international success in countries like France and Germany: he starred in “Yoshiwara” (1937) and “The Daughter of the Samurai” (1937) respectively.

Lastly, his most famous role and one of his last in Hollywood was as Colonel Saito in the “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957); Hayakawa’s performance garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, making him the very first Asian performer to be nominated for this category. 

With all this in mind, why has Sessue Hayakawa been largely forgotten, and how does that tie into the historical desexualization of Asian men? According to Asian Cinevision, the answer lies in the reception of the movies he starred in by Asian-Americans: Hayakawa faced much criticism from Asian-Americans due to the stereotypical and often racist portrayals of the Japanese characters he played. 

Additionally, Hayakawa left Hollywood amid a rapidly increasing anti-Japanese setting that coincided with the advent of World War II; newer, more acceptable sex symbols of “all-American,” white masculinity came to replace him and the few Asian heroes allowed in Hollywood were portrayed by white actors in yellowface. The final nail in the coffin for the sexy, leading Asian man in Hollywood came with the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Just as Japan was demilitarized, from then onward all of Hollywood’s Asian male characters were effectively left neutered and desexualized. 

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” & “The Way of the Dragon”: The 60s and 70s

What role was left for Asian men in Hollywood then? One of Hollywood’s answers, at least, was for them to be relegated to the role of comedic relief or sidekick to a white lead. 

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) popularized this stereotype: in it, Mickey Rooney in yellowface plays Mr. Yunioshi, a character who can best be described as less of a character and more of a racist caricature. 

He is old, crotchety, and has a penchant for yelling in accented English. But above all, he is a harmless source of amusement for both the white main characters of the film and the assumed majority-white audiences watching it. Mr. Yunioshi was, in many ways, the blueprint for male Asian characters during this time period: stereotypical and often played by white actors in yellowface.

It would only be four years after “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” when yet another shift regarding the portrayal of Asian men would occur.  Congress passed The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act): in it, the US immigration system shifted from being quota-based to putting an emphasis on recruiting skilled immigrant labor to the US. 

Accompanying this change was the rise in popularity of so-called “martial arts” films and television during the 1970s: Asian icon Bruce Lee rose to prominence during this time, starring in movies such as “Fists of Fury” (1971, “Enter the Dragon” (1973), and “The Game of Death “ (1978). 

For the first time since the time of Sessue Hayakawa, Asian men in Hollywood were allowed to be strong. Bruce Lee is often credited with being one of the first to dismantle Hollywood’s well-loved stereotype of the weak, docile, and entirely secondary Asian male character. While this shift as a whole treats Asian men in cinema with much more respect than in previous eras, it unintentionally created yet another pitfall in terms of what roles Hollywood allowed Asian men to play. 

While Asian men were no longer restricted to being unimportant sidekicks, their only other option was to play the role of the stoic, exotic martial artist. Western audiences were fascinated by these “foreign” and “cool” aspects of Asian culture. 

They were so fascinated in fact, that they did not care if these characters or stories had any layers to them apart from what foreign fighting style they employed. This can best be observed in another one of Bruce Lee’s films, “Way of the Dragon” (1972):  Lee plays Tang Lung, a man from Hong Kong who is tasked with protecting a Chinese family’s restaurant in Italy from gangsters. Notably, Tang Lung does have a semi-love interest in the form of Chen Ching-Hua, played by actress Nora Miao; however, he notably does not end up with her by the end of the movie and instead returns to Hong Kong. In fact, Quen, another character in the movie, states that Tang will always walk his path alone. The message is clear: Asian men can be on-screen heroes but cannot be both strong and be fully-fleshed-out romantic and/or sexual beings at the same time.

“Sixteen Candles,” “The Karate Kid,” & “Short Circuit II”: The 80s

Looking past the 70s, the portrayal of Asian men in Hollywood seems to be split, ironically enough, between two different but equally racist stereotypes. 

Asian men are either depicted as the perpetually emasculated secondary character made to prop up the white male lead or the “mystical” combat master who is either a young stoic Asian man or an old mentor type of character meant to train a white protagonist in the “exotic” ways of Eastern martial arts. 

Unsurprisingly, both of these stereotypes have one thing in common: they treat Asian men as non-sexual beings with no capacity for love, sex, or even baseline attraction. 

One only has to look at two of the most iconic movies of the 80s to see this dichotomy in action. Both “Sixteen Candles” and “Karate Kid” (both released in 1984) are the perfect illustrations of the respective stereotypes in action. The former features Long Duk Dong, described best by NPR writer Kat Chow as “a lecherous but sexually inept loser” whose accented English is often accompanied by the sound effect of a gong.

The latter features Mr. Miyagi, one of the first of many wise, Asian mentor characters whose primary purpose is to contribute to the character development of a white boy, complete by teaching him how to catch flies in between his chopsticks.

While Mr. Miyagi is given more grace and importance in the film than Long Duk Dong, both characters are products of years of Hollywood and Western pop culture desexualizing Asian men.

This of course brings us to what is probably the most frequent and general stereotype employed by Hollywood for the roles of Asian men: the non-threatening, frequently feminized, celibate nerd.

There is a whole cache’s worth of films that include this one-dimensional portrayal of Asian men, including “Short Circuit II” (1988), a comedy that not only is about an Indian scientist but also has a white actor in brownface portraying that scientist. Where does this stereotype come from? Remember The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965?

The emphasis on allowing only skilled immigrants into America, combined with images such as this Time magazine cover, created the perfect foundation on which Hollywood created this stereotype for Asian men.

Conclusion

The desexualization of Asian men within pop culture has a long and storied history. What’s of particular interest is the fact that the Hollywood portrayal of them is frequently tied to major political events within America’s history. This proves that for Asian men and other marginalized groups, the attraction has always been political.

Not only that, but attraction itself has its own politics shaped primarily by popular depictions of various different groups. 

Historically, Hollywood has done a great disservice to Asian men. 

For years on end, movies depicted them as stereotypical, celibate, and anything but leading man material. In the 21st century, popular media has treated Asian men with more grace: in addition to “Crazy Rich Asians,” the rising popularity of K-pop, particularly the rise in fame of boy groups such as BTS, challenges the perceived unattractiveness of Asian men. 

But as with anything, change doesn’t happen overnight. It will take years upon years to undo Hollywood’s century’s worth of racism and stereotyping of Asian men. Eventually, there will come a day where seeing an attractive, crush-worthy Asian man on the silver screen will be the norm. 

But until then, the best way to continue making progress is to support Asian actors, stories, and creators as they change the narrative, one step at a time.

Lance Robin Serafica

is a writing intern for Quade Media who can be found with his nose buried in a book or obsessively listening to Taylor Swift’s extensive discography. He is currently pursuing a BA in English, a minor in Creative Writing, and a minor in Strategic Communications at Rowan University. You can find more of his opinions on books on his Goodreads page.