Miss Korea 2013 Contestants

I was doing my daily browsing of Reddit, the popular online news, humor, and information aggregation site, and came across this submission that caused me to do a double-take: Korea’s Plastic Surgery Mayhem is Finally Converging on the Same Face: Miss Korea 2013 Contestants. The picture on the right shows the 21 contestants of the Miss Korea 2013 beauty pageant.

Although there are differences in hairstyle and dress, at least when it comes to the contestants’ faces, I have to say that I agree with the page’s consensus that all the women look virtually the same.

Physical Homogeneity and the Yellow Peril

As such, this brings up a few different implications. The first, as mentioned in several of the Reddit comments, is that it seems to reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that all Asians look the same. On the one hand, there tends to be a certain degree of visual conformity and homogeneity in beauty pageants in general, but as many Asian Americans can attest to, this particularly stereotype about all Asians looking the same unfortunately feeds into the image of us as the Yellow Peril — the depiction of Asians as a faceless and almost sub-human mass bent on attacking, taking over, and/or destroying U.S. society, its economy, and culture.

This imagery of Asians as the Yellow Peril can be seen in the graphic below from the 1800s, which is actually a magazine advertisement for soap (that’s what Uncle Same is holding in his left hand). The image’s main focus however, is on him kicking out the Chinese out of the country toward the squinty-eyed sun in the horizon. Just as important is the imagery of physically indistinguishable Chinese scurrying into the background, the Yellow Peril vanquished by American might and superiority. As described elsewhere on this blog, this stereotype that all Asians are the same has also led to many tragic instances of blatant bigotry, discrimination such as racial profiling, and even violence.

Anti-Chinese image from 1800s

Conformity to Western Beauty Standards

Secondly, the image of the Miss Korea 2013 contestants brings up the question of whether Asians and Asian Americans are implicitly or explicitly conforming to dominant western standards of physical beauty. Within the Asian American community, this question has taken the form of the debate about the cultural implications of Asian Americans getting cosmetic surgery and in particular, whether procedures such as double-eyelid surgery, breast augmentation, and using products to whiten one’s skin represent conforming to western standards of beauty. This question is highlighted in a segment from ABC’s NightLine from a couple of years age:

Of course, there are passionate opinions on both sides of this debate about these particular cosmetic procedures represent conforming to western standards of beauty, but more generally, I would venture to say that most people, Asian American and otherwise, would agree that westerns ideals of beauty are still a dominant force in the media and fashion industries in industrialized nations around the world and do indeed exert an influence on how young Asian American women judge themselves and their physical appearance.

The downside to such pressures can often be disastrous for Asian American women and take such forms as eating disorders, depression, and when combined with other pressures to conform to the model minority image, even suicide.

The Ironies of Multiculturalism

The irony in all of this is that, in the context of globalization, multiculturalism, and increased racial/ethnic diversity in U.S. society, our society has generally been more open and likely to recognize and celebrate more diverse forms of cultural representation. But one area in which this does not seem to be the case is standards of physical beauty where western and White images and idealizations still predominate. Even in the ABC NightLine video segment above, while the overall trend is toward greater inclusion of Asian and Asian American models in the fashion industry, the reality of their portrayals have included an underlying profit motive to tap into the burgeoning Asian consumer market and (inadvertently?) homogenizing the models.

Going back to the contestants of the Miss Korea 2013 pageant, like most people, I would certainly concur that the young women are all attractive just based on their physical appearance. Nonetheless, I hope that Korean and western societies in general will eventually acknowledge and appreciate that beauty can take many diverse forms and can wear more than just one face.


I am very pleased to report that this post is the 1,000th post published on the Asian-Nation blog. Thank you for helping to keep Asian-Nation going strong since 2001 and here’s to the next 1,000 posts and beyond!

It’s Halloween time again. Around this time every year, many people — particularly high school and college students — think it’s “all in good fun” to dress up as a member of some racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural minority group as a “costume” for Halloween. As some examples, they might dress up as a geisha, or a Muslim terrorist, or a Mexican border-crosser, or in blackface as a rap star. Unfortunately, in virtually all cases, these kinds of “costumes” end up reinforcing and perpetuating offensive imagery and racist stereotypes against such minority groups.

Inevitably, when members of that minority group protest and criticize them, the costume-wearers reply that it’s just a joke, that they don’t mean to offend people, or even that the costumes are meant to “celebrate” that particular personality or culture that they’re portraying. The problem of course, is that it may just be a joke to them, but to the minority group being portrayed in such a stereotypical manner, it is deeply offensive and does nothing more than promote the naive and misguided idea of colorblindness — that since we now have an African American president, that we’re all equal now and as such, it’s perfectly fine to make fun of minorities and not suffer any consequences from it.

Fortunately, many young Americans around the country are fighting back. Specifically, a student group at Ohio University named Students Teaching About Racism in Society has put together an awesome campaign to encourage everyone to think twice about Halloween costumes (thanks to AngryAsianMan for first mentioning it). Some of their posters are below.

Please help to circulate their message as widely as possible.

We're a Culture, Not a Costume - Students Teaching About Racism in Society
We're a Culture, Not a Costume - Students Teaching About Racism in Society
We're a Culture, Not a Costume - Students Teaching About Racism in Society
We're a Culture, Not a Costume - Students Teaching About Racism in Society
We're a Culture, Not a Costume - Students Teaching About Racism in Society

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

In recent years, it has become more common to see Asian American actors in mainstream U.S. advertisements and commercials. This trend is notable for a two reasons. First, it represents a significant change from decades past, in which Asian American faces were almost completely absent from such advertising campaigns. Alternatively, when they were included, more often than not, Asian Americans were depicted in racially offensive and stereotypical caricatures, many of which were based on Orientalist perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, dangerous, inferior, and/or hypersexual.

Second, this increased visibility of Asian Americans in mainstream advertising seems to reflect the growing political, economic, and cultural influence of Asian countries and of Asian Americans within the U.S. Within the current climate of increased globalization, economic instability, and demographic changes, Asian Americans, other racial/ethnic minorities, and immigrants are in a unique position to leverage their individual and community resources to make important contributions to help move the U.S. forward into the 21st century.

With this in mind, and with the recognition that the Asian American population has an estimated $452 billion in purchasing power, advertisers and their corporate clients are increasingly including Asian American actors in their ads and commercials. As summarized on Asian American-focused sites like 8Asians.com, recent examples of television commercials that feature Asian Americans include eSurance, Target, Verizon, Staples, Hewlett Packard, Subaru, and McDonalds, to name just a few.

Orientalist ad for Motorola Razr

However, even though the level of blatant Orientalist stereotypes has declined, there are still numerous examples in which perceptions of Asian culture and Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, and slightly dangerous are used in the advertising industry. For example, to the right is a relatively recent advertisement for the Motorola Razr cellphone that appeared in mainstream U.S. magazines such as Newsweek. Unfortunately, its Orientalist depictions are clear, particularly as applied to Asian women in clearly sexualized terms.

Specifically, the ad uses a woman of Asian descent dressed in an outfit that suggests a ninja-like image and striking a subtly menacing pose in which, rather than a sword, she wields a “Sharper Than Ever” Razr cellphone in her right hand, implying that the user of it can become a dangerous weapon in the figurative sense. Further, the woman’s curvaceous figure, Cleopatra-like eye makeup, skin-tight outfit, and long flowing hair again builds on the Orientalist image of Asian woman as seductive and sexually alluring. The result of these historical and ongoing Orientalist images of Asian Americans is that they are seen only within a narrowly-confined box of popular images and racially-tinged caricatures, rather than as normal citizens or even as Americans.

Opportunities and Dangers Ahead

In more recent years, portrayals of Asian Americans in mainstream ads and commercials has generally been less prone to such Orientalist images. Nonetheless, even as more advertisers incorporate more Asian Americans into their marketing campaigns, there is still the danger of promoting stereotypes, as the above-discussed Motorola Razr advertisement exemplifies. Further, a recent article by journalist Paul Farhi in the Washington Post describes a recent television commercial in which a White customer learns about a few multipurpose cellphone from an Asian American Staples sales clerk:

When Asian Americans appear in advertising, they typically are presented as the technological experts — knowledgeable, savvy, perhaps mathematically adept or intellectually gifted. They’re most often shown in ads for business-oriented or technical products — smartphones, computers, pharmaceuticals, electronic gear of all kinds.

The stereotypical portrayal reinforces a marketing concept known as the “match up” theory, which states that consumers respond more favorably to products advertised by an actor or spokesperson who “fits” the product. Just as consumers expect cosmetics to be sold by a supermodel or athletic equipment by a professional athlete, in the minds of the U.S. public, Asian Americans are strongly associated with technical know-how. . . . Variations on the theme have appeared in numerous TV commercials in recent months:

  • Staples advertises its computer-repair service with images of laptops flying like gulls into one of its stores. When one of the laptops crash-lands, the fix-it technician who comes to its “rescue” is an Asian American.
  • CVS’s TV ads feature a lab-coated pharmacist of Asian descent dispensing advice about medication to a baffled Caucasian lady.
  • A mother and her teenage son shopping at Best Buy learn that the store offers “Geek Squad” techies, who are packaged and displayed like life-size action figures on the store’s shelves. One of the tech guys is an Asian American.
  • IBM’s commercials feature brainy IT consultants, including a young Asian American woman who talks up the company’s efforts to create “a smarter planet.”
  • The article goes on to note that recent advertisements (such as this one from Staples) that feature Asian American actors can be a double-edged sword. That is, on the one hand, it is encouraging to see more Asian American faces in the mainstream media and in positions of authority or knowledge, rather than in the kind of blatantly demeaning and offensive roles that Asian American are used to seeing about themselves. On the other hand, the predominance of such roles that cast Asian Americans as tech experts has the danger of creating another narrowly-defined, one-dimensional stereotype – of Asian Americans as technically proficient, but nothing more.

    In other words, to market to Asian Americans, advertisers and their corporate clients should remember that the history, culture, and socioeconomic characteristics of the Asian American population is complex, three-dimensional, and intricate. Like all other racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious groups, the Asian American experience cannot be reduced into a limited set of media and popular culture images, no matter how seemingly “positive” such portrayals may appear to be. Similar to model minority perceptions of Asian Americans, we need to both recognize the successes as well as the ongoing challenges and multiple levels of diversity within the Asian American community.

    Indeed, when it comes to this trend of incorporating more Asian Americans into mainstream ads and commercials, there needs to be a diversity and wide range of images and marketing approaches that highlight both the unique characteristics and contributions that are specific to the Asian American population but that no not rely on Orientalist stereotypes, in addition to “race-neutral” ones that illustrate that Asian Americans are just regular, normal citizens and reflect their identity and position in society – just another part of the American mainstream.

    Toward this goal, Asian Americans can have also a direct impact in facilitating positive change. Some time ago, I had with a student in which she mentioned that, as an advertising major, she also has a strong commitment to use her experiences and training to work toward greater racial equality and justice for Asian Americans and people of color. But she also expressed reservations about entering the advertising industry with its history of portraying people of color in very narrow and even stereotypical ways.

    One of the things that I told her was that if students like her self-select out of these kinds of industries, everything will just be perpetual status quo and no positive change would ever occur. Instead, I encouraged her to bring her determination toward activism and passion for social change with her into the advertising industry, build a critical mass with others who share similar goals, and to fight for the change that she wants to see happen.

    Hopefully, that time is now.

    This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

    Many of you have probably seen The Hangover Part 2, the sequel to the surprise hit of 2009. I recently watched the first Hangover film and mostly enjoyed it, although it was not quite as uproariously hilarious as many of my friends hyped it up to be. I have yet to see Hangover 2 and now my motivation has declined even further, after reading my friend Jeff Yang’s recent article about it in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some excerpts:

    Ken Jeong in Hangover 2 © Warner Brothers

    “H2″ made an absurd $103 million over the three-day weekend — an all-time record for a live-action comedy, despite near-universal excoriation by critics, who called it “uninspired and unoriginal,” “unclean and mostly unfunny,” and “rancid and predictable.” What few pointed out was that, in seeking to top the already over-the-top comic sensibilities of the original, the filmmakers chose the sleaziest, easiest possible solution, unleashing a relentless bastinado of abuse at the expense of Asians, a group that they presumably felt could be targeted with minimal concern about potential backlash.

    If you’re an Asian who swallowed hard upon hearing that the sequel would be set in Bangkok, you’ll need to swallow harder just to keep down your gorge at what they’ve produced. The film’s depiction of Thailand transforms the “Land of Smiles” into a bizarro realm of brute violence, grim depravity and unfettered libido, populated entirely by broad racial stereotypes: Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads. . . .

    As an Asian American who enjoyed the first film, I found the sequel bluntly and inexplicably offensive — with the fact that the movie opened in the waning days of May [Asian Pacific American Heritage Month] being soy sauce in the wound.

    Jeff Yang could have ranted on about the various ways in which he found Hangover 2 offensive but most of his article actually focuses on what Asian Americans can actually do about this ongoing problem of Asians and Asian Americans consistently being portrayed using racist stereotypes in mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically, he offers some thoughts about the possibility of not only creating an alternative set of filmmakers who would portray Asian Americans more accurately, but also creating an alternative audience that would be able to sustain such independent efforts. But along the way, Jeff raises some important challenges that still need to be addressed:

    For an indie filmmaker, you simply can’t make money with theatrical distribution. But if you’re talking a target not of theatrical distribution but direct-to-DVD, a film with a guerrilla $250,000 budget can make back its costs and return a healthy profit if it sells 20,000 units at $20 a pop. . . .

    Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.

    This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.

    Send these creators on a collective national barnstorming tour of the college campuses with the biggest Asian American student representation — reading, performing, speaking, and showing their work and their potential. The costs of the tour would be covered by student organization funds and corporate sponsors.

    Here’s the kicker: Although attendance at these events would be free, every attendee would have to purchase one of the five products these artists are promoting on the spot, while enrolling in an online community that gives the artists long-term engagement with their consumers. The goal? Constructing an independent audience. Reinventing the Asian American brand. And creating recorded proof that Asian American artists are marketable and that a market exists to sustain them.

    Jeff’s idea sounds plausible to me, especially if Asian Americans, young and old, keep railing against movies rife with racial stereotypes like Hangover 2. Jeff’s idea doesn’t even take into consideration the growing numbers of Asian American professionals who are making good money and actually have the financial means to support such independent efforts even more than college students. If there is a plan that can incorporate them into this movement, it would certainly produce positive results.

    Either way, I applaud Jeff Yang, Oliver Wang, and others who are doing more than just complaining about injustices against Asian Americans — they’re proposing potential plans of action and solutions to the problem. Their specific ideas may or may not bear fruit immediately but at the least, they get the conversation started, get ideas rolling, and will hopefully lead to some innovative thinking and action to get something done.

    Even if it’s a small step, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

    This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

    My fellow sociologist blogger Joe Feagin at Racism Review mentions that David Segal over at Slate has a very interesting and informative slideshow of racist commercial caricatures over the years. For those who are too young to remember, blatantly derogatory and stereotypical images of Blacks, Latinos, Native American Indians, and Asians were routinely used to sell products not too long ago. Below is just one example:

    Racist caricature of Chinese as rat eaters (image courtesy of Chinese Historical Society

    Nasty stereotypes have helped move the merchandise for more than a century, and the history of their use and abuse offers a weird and telling glimpse of race relations in this country. Not surprisingly, the earliest instances were the most egregious.

    This circa-1900 ad for a rodent-control product called “Rough on Rats” doesn’t just exploit the then-popular urban legend that Chinese people eat rats. It also underscores the intensity of American xenophobia of the day. There were anti-Chinese riots at the time, as well as legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal ban on immigration passed in 1882. (It was on the books until 1943.) In the ad, “They must go” refers both to the rodents and the Chinese.

    For those interested in the sociology of media and cultural images, my colleagues at Contexts magazine host a very interesting blog titled “Sociological Images” that you should definitely check out.

    Unfortunately, as the Slate slideshow and captions point out, there are a few racist caricatures that are still with us today and you may be surprised at what they are.