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These references are old ones, but I don’t believe they are outdated.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?


  1. Marco Polo is my new drug | Jeannie Lin
    Dec 19, 2014 @ 19:04:29

    […] And they get to kiss the girls, big time. I like that. Move over Glenn. (The Asian Hero: Objectification or Equality?) […]