Represent! Race and Media

Today, I found myself revisiting some of the issues I worked on in my dissertation, as I came across to very curious YouTube videos. In a nutshell, my diss looked at the popularization of Asian-themed aesthetics (in food, in fashion, in media) and the material effects of that popularization on Asian Americans. I argued that the contemporary desire for “true” representations of Asian otherness (e.g., Memoirs of a Geisha) eclipsed the evidence of American qualities in Asian Americans. [Any Asian American can tell you a story about being asked “where are you really from” or how he/she might say something in his/her “native language” etc.]. Finally, I looked at contemporary works by Asian American authors, filmmakers, performance artists and the like who took up this prioritization of their supposed “otherness” and used aesthetic means to insist upon their place within the nation.


The point of this background information is that a few days ago, my friend Neil sent me a clip to a YouTube video of Margaret Cho. Surfing the blogosphere this morning, I came across a recent George Takei faux-PSA, courtesy of belledame at fetch me my axe. Two prominent Asian Americans in their own videos come across my screen in the same week?! Hot diggety! Even more surprising, however, was the thematic and structural similarity in the two videos. Takei filmed the “PSA” in response to the now-infamous Tim Hardaway comments about hating gay people. Cho’s rap video is, on the surface, a paean to her vagina. Wait, what do these two have in common?!!

It will come as no surprise to anyone with access to the internet that Asian sexuality is a fetishized commodity. Historically, American immigration law and imperialism have worked to solidify ideas about Asian women as both hypersexualized and passive. Likewise, those same historical contexts explain the ways in which Asian men are often portrayed as weak or effeminate. Without providing an entire bibliography here, let me just say that there is an impressive body of scholarly work that takes on the problem of manifesting an Asian (and by extension) Asian American sexuality that is not constrained by the above assumptions. A number of scholars have noted that alternate representations have to circulate to compete with, and hopefully expose the constructed nature of, dominant portrayals of Asian sexuality.

This is where Cho and Takei come in. In their respective videos, both take up a parodic form that reveals the ridiculous nature of dominant constructs. For Takei, who has only recently come out, he quite obviously “performs” the stereotype of the gay man: consistently on the hunt for straight, hypermasculine men. [In truth, this short video has much more to unpack: what’s at stake in the “joke” about the Asian American gay man lying in wait for the African American straight man?] Cho too mocks the representation of women in rap videos as she assembles a number of women to testify to the positive attibutes of their genitalia, as opposed to the negative ones of an unnamed woman. Here, she appropriates the trash-talking and fronting that are part and parcel of the genre while she moves it into a woman-centered context. As a media product that focuses on Asian American female sexuality, she establishes herself as a subject speaking about her sex organs without offering them up for consumption. [I’ve included links to the two at the bottom of the page for your viewing pleasure.]

There’s a good deal to say and to analyze in both videos, but in the end, they stand as media products that enter the market to compete with dominant representations of Asian sexuality. In so doing, both Cho and Takei have contributed to an ongoing discursive practice of defining sexuality in their own terms, and troubling an easy assumption that the performances in fetish representations are natural.

George Takei “PSA” here.

Margaret Cho video here. CAVEAT: If you are the least bit squeamish about frank discussions of sexuality, this video is not for you.

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