Jeff Yang and Parry Shen, editors of the recently released book Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology, gave a lecture at the Titan Student Union to discuss their mission to expel Asian American archetypes in pop culture on Monday.
Shen and Yang spoke about past and present stereotypes and the changes that have occurred, for better or worse, in comics and cinema as well as the possible future for Asian characters in popular media.
The event, sponsored by the Asian-American Studies Program, featured a brief Q-and-A and book signing with the editors afterwards.
Yang, who has founded both A Magazine: Inside Asian-America and A Online and authored three books, Eastern Standard Time, I am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action and Once Upon a Time in China, is a major advocate for Asian American culture.
Yang had hoped his two comic anthologies, Secret Identities and Shattered, would help to dispel harmful Asian stereotypes in pop culture.
Shen, who is known for his role in the 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, said a recent harmful stereotype for Asian characters in entertainment is the emasculated man, who is either physically weak or shy in social situations.
At the discussion, Yang wanted characters to step away from past stereotypes and instead focus on character depth.
Yang said early Asian comic book and movie characters mostly centered around the mysterious crime lord, similar to Fu Manchu, and portrayed Asians as sneaky and deceitful.
“We just want them to be complicated and nuanced and interesting,” said Yang. “And not just one notes, screaming banshees that vanish as soon as you turn away from the page because they’re so uninteresting.”
Yang added that although there are distorted images of Asians in comics, the comic book industry does not deliberately exclude any group.
“The entire future of comics was created from the past of comics, and that past of comics was not diverse because America at that time did not think of itself as diverse,” Yang said.
Eliza Noh, Ph.D., an associate Asian-American studies professor, said discussing stereotypes at Cal State Fullerton is important because it teaches students about where stereotypes come from and how the Asian-American community is “talking back.”
She said the anthology addresses stereotypes such as the brain, the temptress and the alien.
Noh said although it may be a “universal human practice” to place groups of people into categories, stereotypes have not always existed.
“Stereotypes can be created, reproduced, changed, or destroyed, but they are not eternal,” said Noh.
However, both Yang and Shen have noticed a positive change in recent years, as Asian-American pop culture characters are moving into mainstream territory.
In the realm of entertainment, Yang specifically noted that Glenn from the popular comic book and TV show The Walking Dead has eschewed typical stereotypes.
“We love the character Glenn,” Yang said. “We were joking about it the other day, it basically took the zombie apocalypse before an Asian-American character could be represented as, not only a heroic lead, but a romantic lead.”
Shen has noticed that his recent choices for TV and movie roles have also opened up and are no longer based around poor, dated Asian caricatures.
“I’m available to read for characters that I normally wouldn’t have been, we have a one pilot that’s going out where my character is a pinkerton, which is a detective back in the wild west,” Shen said. “Someone with my face was kinda just the cook or building a railroad and I would have to have a ponytail as a hairstyle.”
Ultimately, both Yang and Shen noted their intention is not to make entertainment and pop culture roles better for just Asian people, but rather change storytelling to connect on better emotional level.
“We want people to feel empowered to tell richer stories,” Yang said.