By Minjeong Kim
In a 2016 New York Times article, Asian American actors spoke out against persistent racism in Hollywood. Although television viewers have seen more Asian American characters in shows Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, and Master of None, a string of films were charged with “whitewashing”—having white actors fill Asian roles or tell Asian stories (e.g., Aloha, Doctor Strange, Ghost in Shell). This trend prompted not only a number of online petitions demanding Hollywood producers to stop whitewashing but also twitter hashtag #StarringJohnCho, where people post famous film posters with John Cho, Asian American actor of the Harold & Kumar fame, as the lead, to call for more Asian American representations in Hollywood films. The New York Times article also discusses the lack of meaningful portrayals of Asian characters. While the diversity scale in Hollywood has increased, actors of racial minorities are still relegated to supporting roles and Asian American roles are further marginalized. The hit Netflix show, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is no exception to this insidious trend.
In 2013, OITNB was debuted with critical and popular success for its unprecedented racial and sexual diversity in characters. Since then, the show has galvanized critical debates among feminist scholars regarding its depictions of race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, privilege, and the criminal justice system, and the contributors of Feminist Perspectives on Orange is the New Black: Thirteen Critical Essays (eds. April Kalogeropoulos Householder and Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, McFarland Publishers, 2016), analyze these various issues from intersectional feminist perspectives.
My chapter in the volume, “ ‘You Don’t Look Full … Asia’: The Invisible and Ambiguous Bodies of Chang and Soso,” closely examines the two Asian American characters—Mei Chang and Brooke Soso—in the first three seasons, and argues how this “feminist show” fails to push the boundary for Asian American representations. Chang’s androgyny and Soso’s feminist outlook appear to separate them from the typical Asian woman stereotypes—Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady. But the chapter demonstrates how (1) Chang’s invisibility both before and during her time in the prison and (2) Soso’s racial and sexual ambiguity perpetuate orientalist theme of Asian inassimilability—Asian Americans are viewed too different to be incorporated into the mainstream society.
In the first season, Chang appears less than five minutes altogether. On one hand, she plays a role of comic relief. She sometimes acts silly, and other times appears impudent, especially with sexually explicit talk. On the other hand, she is characterized as distant from others, and stands on her own. Chang’s flashback episode, with a not-so-subtle theme of invisibility, shows how she overcomes gender hierarchy but feels lonely as unable to realize the norm of heterosexual pairing. I had to wonder: Does this add another layer to this character? Or does this reinforce the trope of Asian American inability to connect with other people?
Soso’s character is introduced in Season 2. Though she is friendly, she is quickly perceived as too perky and too naïve. Her racial ambiguity (biracial) and sexual ambiguity (“gay for the stay”) leads to her isolation from other inmates. In Season 3 her struggles with depression were appreciated by viewers because mental illness is considered a taboo subject among Asian American communities. However, Soso’s character was only accepted by other inmates through her romantic, interracial relationship with Poussey, which I call “assimilable epiphany” where Asian characters become assimilable only through interracial pairing (traditionally usually with white men), leaving the Orientalist notion of Asian inassimilability unchallenged.
Chang and Soso are included in the racialized landscape of the Litchfield Penitentiary, upping the diversity scale of the show as Asian Americans. However, it stops there. The two characters were forced to become bunkmates because of Asian identity, but they cannot get along. Unlike other groups in the show, who come together around their collective racial identity and deal with internal conflicts, the show fails to portray a sense of solidarity that Chang and Soso could have felt, thus missing an opportunity to portray Asian American racial politics.
The marginalization of Asian American characters in OITNB continues in Season 4. Soso and Chang are still not included in promotional posters. With a wave of new characters, the viewers are introduced to Stephanie Hapakuka, Hawaiian American, representing Pacific Islander. However, Chang disappears only after three episodes. Soso has her own flashback story with a dramatic storyline, but she has yet to be the center of the story. It is difficult to imagine if any of them would ever be in this series.
OITNB’s representational diversity and its impact on popular culture and American public has been significant. Finding a first-generation Asian immigrant, biracial Asian American, and a Pacific Island American altogether in one show can be a rare treat for viewers. But watching Asian American characters in marginalized roles feels incongruous when some new shows tell Asian American stories in unique voice with depth and nuances. These new shows attest that one of the ways to increase the representational diversity of Asian American stories is to have Asian American producers. TV show Fresh off the Boat, inspired by chef Eddie Huang’s book, was created by Iranian American producer Nahnatchka Khan. Indian American Aziz Ansari (who was a panelist at a 2015 ASA Plenary) and Taiwanese American Alan Yang created Master of None. Further, we need viewers to want to see Asian characters. Not just more faces but better stories with depth and range. To do so, we all need to be critical viewers.
Minjeong Kim is an assistant professor of Sociology at San Diego State University. She is interested in studying gender, race and sexuality in popular culture. She also studies gender, family and the politics of belonging in the context of international migration. Minjeong is an editorial board member for Gender & Society.