The Asian Hero: Objectification or Equality?

Let me begin this post with a shout out to my current favorite Asian hero:

Glenn from The Walking Dead. *little floaty hearts* He’s smart, thoughtful, cool-headed and conscientious. His heroism is understated, but he always takes care of business. The other alpha males go stomping around puffing their chests out, but Glenn is a badass without all that bluster.

Most importantly, he gets to have sex with girls!

Yeah, I said it. Glenn is depicted as not just a useful guy to have around. Not just a sidekick. (Though he does dress similar to Short Round in Temple of Doom) No, Glenn gets to be a desirable and attractive man. A romantic hero.

It’s about time.

I remember when Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat were first breaking into mainstream American cinema. As a fan of their Hong Kong films, I went to see their American movies avidly. The two that come to mind are Kiss of the Dragon with Jet Li and The Replacement Killers with Chow Yun-Fat. In both of these films, the two Asian actors played opposite two pretty leading ladies: Bridget Fonda in Kiss and Mira Sorvino in Killers. But unlike any other action film where the leading man and woman are thrown together, there is absolutely no chemistry between the “couples”. I put couples in quotes because the pairs were never written to have any sexual tension or chemistry. Not a single kiss between them.

The lack of any romantic or sexual tension stood out for me. I started trying to take note of this in mainstream American film and it seemed only one Asian actor ever got to kiss a girl and that was Jackie Chan. I wondered why. Was Jackie viewed as non-threatening because of his comic roles? And though he occasionally gets to kiss a lady, he never plays the romantic hero.

At the same time, Caucasian heroes who adopt Asian skills and philosophies always get the girl. Let me ramble off a bit here — I’m not saying these are all quality movies, just examples — Bloodsport, Big Trouble in Little China, The Bodyguard (Kevin Kostner was all into samurai culture and katanas), The Last Samurai…I’m sure I can dig out a whole bunch more in the white ninja/white samurai category.

These references are old ones, but I don’t believe they are outdated. You still don’t often see Asian men in leading roles and when they are, they are allowed to be kung-fu masters, technical wizards or comic relief, but rarely are they sexy, romantic heroes.

The latest whitewashing debacle – the casting for the upcoming Akira movie without a single Asian male lead – seems to continue this trend. Asian males are being denied their hero status.

One of my secret fears when Butterfly Swords was published was that I was playing into this de-sexing of the Asian male by pairing my Chinese heroine with a Caucasian hero. I honestly expected backlash from that–and any that was received was deserved, for I made that choice fully aware of the implications. At the same time, I didn’t want to cast the only strong Chinese man as a villain while the white guy got the girl. For this reason, the depictions of Ai Li’s father and brothers as honorable people, not just flat, small-minded characters intent on marrying her off, were important to me. It was also edifying that many readers recognized that the “villain”, Li Tao, was truly not meant to be despised.

This was one of my issues with Captive Bride by Bonnie Dee, which featured an otherwise believable interracial romance. There were no depictions of good Chinese men, or women for that matter, to counter the pimps and smugglers. This seemed to fall into the generic Fu Manchu villain versus the good Caucasian hero stereotype for me — but I have hero issues, as you can see.

Now this leads into some thoughts I’ve been having about my covers. Three of my covers have featured Asian heroes. Part of me sees that as a triumph…but the other part also has doubts.

In the world of mass market romance, there aren’t many Asian heroes let alone Asian men depicted on the covers. The exceptions being Jade Lee’s The Concubine whose cover models got a replay on cover for The Taming of Mei Lin.

Then Li Tao in The Dragon and the Pearl:

Who gets more of a face in the UK version:

And the latest My Fair Concubine cover showing nobleman Chang Fei Long in armor…complete with Fabio-esque long hair:

The sexuality of my covers has been, for the most part, understated. There are no oil-slicked man-titties. The Taming of Mei Lin has the classic clinch pose with some man chest exposed, but even so it’s done tastefully. The release of The Dragon and the Pearl did prompt a so-called “man candy” post that featured Asian hotties at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

It’s easy to say this is a celebration of Asian masculinity and sexuality. It’s about time.

But then I also wondered, is this a desired outcome? Would Asian men feel they are getting some equal treatment in mainstream media now that they’re starting to be depicted as attractive romantic heroes who actually get the girl?

So my quandary is this: since the Asian male has been repeatedly de-sexed and unmanned in mainstream media, is it considered a favorable representation to be presented as a sex object?

The Dragon and the Pearl: Cover Kibitz

I have been waiting on pins and needles for the cover to THE DRAGON AND THE PEARL and it’s here! It’s finally here!

Pretty cool, huh? On first glance, it doesn’t look as shiny as the BUTTERFLY SWORDS cover, but I kind of like the more classic painted look. It definitely looks more like a romance cover.

Now let the cover kibitz begin:

Tang Dynasty clothing – Suyin’s robe is stunning and I approve of her styling with the string of pearls and the off the shoulder look. The hanfu is also a lot prettier than the one from Butterfly Swords, so thumbs up there!

Li Tao’s jacket — Okay, minor point: I know it’s not Tang. The jacket is more Qing in style. Does anyone care? Actually…given that the cover of Butterfly Swords made it on to random Han clothing manufacturers’ blogs in China, people might care. But he’s not the star of the cover anyway.

Background – Does that background look familiar to you? I think it’s the same one used for the previous book, but it’s still very nice.

The headless warlord – Well, he does have a head. I’m actually glad they didn’t show Li Tao’s full face. It’s better to leave a little to the imagination. And Li Tao has grown so big in my head, it’s so hard to measure up. Plus then there’s the question of hair which can be tricky. I would have to object if they depicted him with a Qing-era queue…though I don’t think I actually get to object.

So half-face is a good compromise. 🙂

My favorite part – This is so silly, but I love the building on the back of the cover nestled among the cliffs. It looks just like pictures I’ve seen of parts of the Bamboo Sea in Sichuan. And now there are two books labeled Tang Dynasty. Tee hee. Tee hee hee…

Hero Hotness – The model is handsome enough, but if I had to judge from the bottom part of his face which of the Five Tigers he most resembles, I’d have to go for Kent rather than an Andy or a Michael. (Okay, I just lost about 80% of my audience there, didn’t I? Quick explanation: As a child of the 80s, these five actors were huge in the Hong Kong market so I pretty much cast them (young versions) as characters in my head. One of the tigers is my oft mentioned Tony Leung. Another is Andy Lau.) Kent is not my favorite tiger, but I really shouldn’t complain.

Okay, enough from the picky author. What do you think, really?