Now trending: Oat milk lattes! Tumeric sheet masks! Eyebrow feathering! Gen-Z yellow! Cloning your dog! And…SEXY ASIAN MEN ON TV! SO IN RIGHT NOW!!!!!
“A trend, wow. Wow.”
“Vinny,” I joked. “You’re like the new cauliflower milk. Congrats!”
To be fair, I didn’t want to write a so-called “trend piece” on the recent spate of genre-defying hunky Asian men on TV. (That was my editor’s idea!) The word trend is tricky and can implicate a passing fad or a flash in the pan. And, these days, “trend” brings to mind the alternative-milk industrial complex sooner than, let’s say, a group of people. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t noticed a long overdue change in how my Asian brothers were represented on the small screen.
And so I offered Vinny (below, on Crazy Ex-G) big-big moneys to stay on the line.
“I think one of the reasons why the word ‘trend’ comes up is because it can feel like a fad,” he finally said, “but when are we going to take a sidestep away from the tall, dark-haired or tall, light-haired leading man and depict something just as authentic, but another ethnicity? Another height or body type? Could we be so bold?”
Yes, we can! There is an undeniable new class of handsome Asian male actors dominating TV right now. There’s Vinny, but also Manny Jacinto from The Good Place, and Ross Butler who plays a studly jock on 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale. These guys are putting to bed the absurd question, Can Asian dudes be sexy? (An axiom that reminds me of a different one from not so long ago: Can women be funny? The simple answer to both being obviously, yes. You idiot.)
But, in both cases, the conversation should really be focused on the entertainment industry’s obligation to flesh out three-dimensional characters. And the fact that, in most cases, it’s basically easier to tell the truth.
Rodriguez remembers when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna first described Josh Chan to him as “an athletic looking Asian bro in his mid-to-late twenties, really friendly, laughable, and very laid back.” The breakdown, he says, was far more relatable than the meek nerds and ninja masters he was used to auditioning for. “I was like, Well, I grew up with Josh Chan. I am Josh Chan. I know a lot of Joshes,” he says. “It was so simple, but it was also very evident to me that we hadn’t seen this depiction quite yet.”
“I was like, Well, I grew up with Josh Chan. I am Josh Chan. It was so simple, but it was also very evident to me that we hadn’t seen this depiction quite yet.”
In its first episode of The Good Place, Michael Schur’s cult-loved comedy about the after-life, we are introduced to a familiar token Asian character: a mute monk named Jianyu. But, in a clever twist, Jianyu turns out to be Jason, an aspiring DJ-dancer from Florida who is more interested in Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Tigers than Buddha. (You just scrolled past his character Jason mindlessly crushing video games. Which me reminds me: some Asians are dumb. And it’s wonderful.)
“It’s a beautiful thing that my show doesn’t play into anything typical,” Jacinto tells me. “It sucks to say, but it’s very rare for an Asian male to be seen kissing on-screen, and I’ve been lucky enough to kiss more than one person on-screen. It’s given people the idea that, ‘Oh, it’s possible that Asian males are actually loving or actually have feelings.'”
Hearing these words should be shocking. So here they are again: A TV show has “given people the idea that, ‘Oh, it’s possible that Asian males are actually loving or actually have feelings.'” We live in a society that has systematically marginalized and reduced Asian men so drastically that it feels nouveau to see them as they exist in real life?! Wow.
Jake Choi, best known for his work in the film Front Cover and guest appearances in shows like Broad City and Hawaii 5-0 was surprised by the reaction to his Best Buy super bowl in which a handsome Asian guy (Choi) is hit on by Amy Poehler. In fact, the response to the spot inspired him to claim his identity as a sexually-fluid Asian American on social media. And to post a bunch of shirtless pics on the ‘gram.
“It was always kind of felt freeing to post pictures where I am showing my body, not because I am vain but because I have issues with my body. If [my Instagrams] empower someone else to kind of accept their body, and showcase it, then my job is done,” Choi says. “And if it’s all the while serving the agenda of, ‘Hey, Asian guys can be fit’. We don’t have to be fit, but we can be sexy and also feel sexual and secure in our sexuality. Asian men are taught and conditioned that we are not sexy, or that we should suppress it. “
“Asian men are taught and conditioned that we are not sexy, or that we should suppress it. “
Given the history of how Asian minorities are represented in the media, Choi is taking back the power on his own terms. He explained that his body-baring selfies are “one of the many ways that we are still trying to claim our identity as human beings.”
Now trending: Asian men as human beings.
Remember William Hung? For most Asian Americans the American Idol contestant who shot to fame after his rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” went viral, is a source of discomfort. Something about America’s full embrace of the civil-engineer-turned-aspiring-singer felt racist. Maybe that it was an all-too-convenient way to supercharge an old stereotype: the asexual, nerdy Asian guy. It’s been a decade, and I still see William Hung memes pop up surprisingly frequently. Like when Blake Shelton was named the 2017 Sexiest Man of the Year and Funny or Die mocked up their own cover with an unflattering photo of William Hung.
It’s just a meme, but when the representation of Asian men is so scarce, it matters. The media and the entertainment industry should be held accountable. And so should its consumers.
I recently rewatched William Hung’s American Idol audition tape and was surprised by what I saw: a totally cute, charming, physically fit young man in a tropical T-shirt who is outspoken about the risk he is taking. “I currently study at UC Berkeley right now. It’s kind of odd, why I even chose to audition in the first place,” he says. “But I really like music. I want to make music my living. I gave it my best. And I have no regrets at all.”
Like I said, totally sexy.
Greta Lee is a writer and actor living in New York City. Follow her here.