Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Masi Oka and the androgenous Asian male stereotype

So it seems like I'm waiting forever for the new Heroes season to start, and I came across some good clips from the actors who appeared at a Q & A at Comicon, including this choice one of a male audience member asking Masi Oka about why he and Ando never seem to get any loving and are portrayed as less masculine (begins at 9:27 - clock ticks backwards.)

Also, the Kevin Smith joke (of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, etc fame) refers to him guest directing a Heroes: Origins episode, and a wisecrack he made about getting a call from Tim Kring, who asked him to jump onto Heroes.

Smith's first words were: Oh, I would love to write and direct and episode about the two gay heroes." [Audience laughter.] "And he said, 'Well, what are you talking about?' And I said, 'Well, the Japanese dudes, they're gay, right?'" [More audience laughter, everyone onstage from Milo to Greg Grunberg (who is laughing really hard) seems to be laughing except for Masi and Nathan Pasdar. Masi kinda gives a shrug and spreads his palms out as if to say, "who cares?"]

Smith continues: And he said, 'I don't think you understand the show *or* my work at all.' And then he explained what it was, and I said, 'Oh I'll do that too.' So did you explain about it, or should I?

Kring: Yeah, kinda. I didn't explain about the gay part.

Smith: The gay stuff? yeah. It's about time, high time. If you can do an autopsy on a cheerleader, you can show a couple of heroes making out.

Uhm, hello?!? Do you realize your audience at Comicon includes loads of Asian Americans?!? I actually like Smith's works except for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was a huge waste of time, but what the hell?!? Anyway, now onto the Q&A about Asian male sexuality.

Audience Member (AM): So I guess my question is for Masi Oka and for anyone else who wants to pitch in, but uhm. So Hiro's a great character, he's heroic, he's full of the Peter Parker ethos that's been mentioned again and again. At the same time, he and Ando are arguably the least traditionally masculine of the male characters. [Masi looks a little wary at this point, as audience laughs, someone goes, "Wow, wow!"]

I think it's relevant, given Kevin Smith's joke when he came in here. I mean, I don't want to be "that guy," but uh, I can't help but feel that . . .

Male cast member: Are you asking Masi out?


Ali Larter (blonde bombshell who plays Jessica/Nikki Sanders): I think Masi is daaaaaay-mn sexy. [Audience laughs, claps, Masi gives a thumbs up.] From a female perspective anyway.


AM: I just feel like there are certain situations where the two Asian characters are put in, such as getting knocked up by a stripper, or being the only male characters shown on-screen not completing a kiss with a girl, I feel like that's cultural relevance, and I just want to hear some thoughts about that.


Masi: I see, wait until season two. [Audience laughter.]


James Kyson Lee (plays Ando): [chuckles] Well, Ando got some action with Hope, right?

Dania Rodriguez (plays new character Maya): *I* will give you some play, Hiro.


So what are my thoughts? I don't know if the questioner is Asian American or not, and that doesn't really matter -- it's a very relevant question. I don't think the questioner means to call Masi out or to degrade him, but rather to point out what does seem like a culturally (in)competent way that the two East Asian American males are written. That said, Masi Oka has done so much to increase the profile of Asian American actors, even if he and James Kyson Lee play office workers. But, as Tim Kring, creator of Heroes, states at 3:38 in response to a question about whether the show is going to get any strong female characters who are not strippers or cheerleaders or some other diminuitive: "This is the cheerleader and the stripper, this is where we started with these characters, but Heroes has become a show about defying expectations. And so when you meet these characters, you may dismiss them as one thing, you learn through the arc of the show that they become something more, they find the hero within them."

So yeah, Masi plays an office worker and a manga geek. But he also gets to go on the hero journey, and he gets to save the world. Plus he totally gets and breaks down the stereotypes, as I wrote about before. And he works behind the scenes to make sure that the show and the script is more culturally relevant, like how the writers originally wanted him to scream "bansai!" when he appears in New York. Instead, he chose to say "yatta!" which is more appropriate (bansai has war connotations.)

Future Hiro also challenges the traditional depiction of the "asexualized" Asian-American male, he says. "Daniel Dae Kim is doing an amazing job of breaking that stereotype on Lost," Oka says. "I'm going more the cute route."

Still, some interviewers have told Oka that Hiro, who is getting a love interest, is a sex symbol. "And I'm like, 'What?' I'm absolutely surprised," says Oka, who is single.

Oka has made good use of his heritage on the show. He translates dialogue into Japanese and, with the writers' blessing, has made suggestions to depict the character's background as accurately as possible. When writers had Hiro shouting "Banzai!" after face-clenching trips through time, Oka told them it had a wartime connotation.

"I suggested 'Yatta!' which means 'I did it!' " For Oka and Hiro, the parallels keep on coming.

And btw, his South Asian castmate Sendhil who plays Mohinder has mad screaming legions of female fans at Comicon. And his castmates keep joking that he's gorgeous.

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