Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Inventing the Oriental: The Twist

Artificial constructs of the Asian male stereotype arose from the historical, male-oriented perspective of Western societies.  White males, as the dominating force behind the creation of an emasculated Asian male image, attempted to invent specific attributes which would superficially define the Asian man in the West.  Many factors led to such a creation as we have discussed in class, ranging from the protection of White womanhood to the exaggerated crisis of White masculinity in the face of an ever-changing world.   The shifting of once rigid gender roles in society and disruption in the continuity of preexisting social norms were countered in the creation of stereotypes such as the aforementioned Asian male figure.  The "Yellow Man" Cheng Huan in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms is a model visualization and portrayal of such an Asian or "Oriental" male stereotype.  Through cinema, as a new medium of communication, art and entertainment, directors and writers were able to evolve fiction into reality, or at least what appeared to resemble reality on screen.

Surprisingly, Asian males living in Western societies did not always attempt to dispel the foreign and meek stereotype.  Some Asians twisted a perceived negative characterization into a helpful facade.  Cheng Huan appeared defenseless and hopeless against Battling Burrows, but was able to defeat the brutish father/boxer towards the end of the movie.  The weapon of choice (the concealed pistol) may elicit a negative connotation (perhaps cowardice against a man using an axe) towards the audience's perception of Cheng Huan. Nevertheless, the end result was the death of Battling Burrows at the hands of a "Yellow Man". Other Asian males have similarly used negative stereotypes for their own benefit.  The Chinese cook in Chan is Missing and even Chan himself provide a somewhat more modern example of hiding the unique, true personalities of Asian male individuals.  Some interpreters, modern day AAPI activists and film critics may argue that hiding behind this type of "mask" is cowardice, but there is a possibility that using the stereotype as a type of shield is an alternative method in "maneuvering around" societal restraints without directly challenging such norms.  

Peter Feng touches upon the notion of excessive sensationalism and how Chinese males residing in New York City's Chinatown were able to play into a cultural farce of Oriental vice (think of the opium dens).  The 1908 film The Deceived Slumming Party (26) showed that Asian males were playing into an artificial stereotype purely for economic benefit from slumming tours.  The concept of putting on a show for tourists calls into question what each individual perceives in daily life, particularly on excursions (mainly tours and vacations) to foreign lands.  How can someone determine what is culturally authentic and what is purely a deceptive show?  Even amongst our everyday lives in the United States, individuals continue to choose to hide behind a stereotype for personal benefit.  Asian males are no exception.

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