Open the April issue of Details magazine to page 52, and you’ll find a parody titled “Gay or Asian?” A young Asian guy strikes a pose in his white V-neck T-shirt, Dolce & Gabbana suede jacket, $400 Evisu jeans, and metallic sneakers. He has strapped a Louis Vuitton bag across his shoulder and set a pair of Dior sunglasses atop his spiky hair. (Here’s the page in question, from AsianMediaWatchdog.com.)
The writer, Whitney McNally, proposes how to tell the difference between gays and Asians – though, since the guy is clearly Asian, the question really is: “Gay Asian or Straight Asian?”
What follows is for mature audiences only:
“One cruises for chicken; the other takes it General Tso-style,” McNally writes. “Whether you’re into shrimp balls, or shaved balls, entering the dragon requires imperial tastes. So choke up on your chopsticks, and make sure your labels are showing. Study hard, Grasshopper: A sharp eye will always take home the plumpest eel.”
In a letter to the magazine’s editor, the Asian American Journalists Association condemned the article for “its reduction of two minority groups to grab bags of demeaning stereotypes.” The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said: “As Details gets to know the diversity of both LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] and API [Asian Pacific Islander] people, this piece loses its truth – and thereby its humor value.”
Now, I could say that “Gay or Asian?” is a racist and homophobic piece of garbage in a lame men’s magazine, and leave it at that.
But no matter how offensive the article is, it’s also a useful study in stereotypes. It sheds light on why we as journalists need to be vigilant not only in eliminating stereotypes from our coverage, but also in pointing them out when they arise in popular culture.
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The “Gay or Asian?” piece is one in a series. The magazine has also compared and contrasted gays with Brits, Democratic frontrunners, Jesus, preppies, and magicians.
The April parody lists stereotypical attributes of the Asian male: sunglasses that amplify “inscrutable affect,” “delicate features refreshed by a cup of hot tea,” a jacket that “keeps the last samurai warm,” a T-shirt that “showcases sashimi-smooth chest,” and “lady-boy fingers … perfect for both waxing on and waxing off.” At the same time, the piece barrages us with sexual innuendo that pokes fun at gays.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Details’ editors are not unenlightened Neanderthals. I have a couple of theories about why they would find the stereotypes in “Gay or Asian?” acceptable.
- The Cool Minority Theory. It’s cool to be gay — consider the popularity of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Will and Grace,” and all those metrosexuals in your office. It’s cool to be Asian — Chow-Yun Fat, Jet Li, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Margaret Cho, and Yao Ming are fast becoming pop culture icons. So if these minority groups are hip, beautiful, and popular, why can’t Details, which seeks to be the arbiter of cool, make fun of their quirks?
- The Model Minority Theory. Gays and Asians are perceived as doing well in American society. By and large, they’re well-educated. They work hard. They make money. It’s not like Details is kicking people when they’re down, right?
- The Trophy Asian Boyfriend Theory. A few years ago, Esther Pan of Newsweek wrote a story suggesting that Asian men had become a hot commodity on the dating scene. Asian men, after all, are smart, genuine, respectful, studious, and hardworking, the article posited. “It’s almost like Asian boyfriends are the fashion accessory of the moment,” one woman joked. Well, if we embrace those “positive” stereotypes, Details’ editors could argue, what’s the harm in pointing out Asian men’s delicate features and smooth chests?
- The William Hung Theory. America has embraced William Hung, a college student who went on “American Idol” and mangled Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” We love Hung because he’s a sweet kid who took his best shot at stardom. But I think many of us were also laughing at him, because of the negative Asian stereotypes he represented: a nerd with buck teeth who speaks in accented English. Certainly, there’s a whiff of “let’s make fun of the foreigner” here. What kind of message does that send would-be parodists? Perhaps that Asians are fair game for ridicule. (For more insight, read Jimi Izrael.)
- The Social Commentary Theory. The usual defense of parodies such as “Gay or Asian?” is that they are so over the top, it should be clear that the writer and editors don’t buy into the stereotypes, but instead are producing social commentary. It’s a stretch, but maybe the editors are showing the interplay between racial and sexual stereotypes. Or maybe they’re showing how a homophobic society constantly looks for clues, no matter how absurd, of gayness in a person. But that’s assuming way too much intelligence on their part.
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What should we as journalists take away from all of this?
- Applying a “cool minority” or “model minority” label to a group is not doing that group any favors. In fact, it makes that group exotic and unknowable, and pits it against other minority groups. And it certainly doesn’t give others the license to publish offensive stereotypes about that group.
- Be aware that even positive stereotypes (“Asians are hard working, gays are creative”) can be harmful, because they allow us to think of and treat minority groups as cardboard characters rather than complicated human beings.
- Watch out for the xenophobia underlying the clichés we sometimes use when covering Asians and Hispanics. The Details piece refers to “General Tso,” “grasshopper,” “chopsticks,” “samurai,” “sashimi,” “koto,” “Kendo stick,” “bonsai,” “Pink Lady.” These terms make the Asian dude a foreign Other, even though he’s probably all-American.
- Social commentary about racial and sexual stereotypes is important. We need to talk about these ideas and not be afraid of them. But that commentary – serious or funny – needs to come from experience, knowledge, and pain. All of which were sorely lacking in the Details piece.