Part 5: Emergence of East Asian Identity In Television

This article is the sixth and final part in the “East Asian Representation in Mainstream American Cinema & Television from 1970-2013” series. 

In mainstream television shows, East Asian and Asian-American identities are allowed to develop and grow more than in mainstream films, especially in the last decade. George Takei as Sulu in the Star Trek film and subsequent television show is one of the first positive portrayals of an Asian on American television. After the year 2000, shows emerged with characters like Hiro Nakamura (played by Masi Oka) in the superhero-themed Heroes (2006)Glenn Rhee (played by Steven Yeun) in The Walking Dead (2010)Detective Andy Brooks (played by John Cho) in Sleepy Hollow (2013)Doctor Cristina Yang (played by Sandra Oh) in Grey’s Anatomy (2005)and the Korean married couple Jin and Sun Kwon (played by Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim) in JJ Abram’s Lost (2004)Unlike in most mainstream American films, all these Asian characters are given backgrounds and character arcs.  They are “shown in variety of settings”, they are “involved in intimate relationships” with other characters, and their emotional depths are explored in order to make them well-rounded and fully fledged characters. In an unconventional move, characters like Jin and Sun even communicate in their native tongue and subtitles are provided for the English-speaking audience. While all these Asian characters are supported by other lead – mostly white – characters, their development far surpass their Asian counterparts on the cinema screen.

An in-depth exploration of the character Joan Watson (played by Lucy Liu) on the CBS’ Sherlock Holmes adaptation Elementary (2012)is proof of this, especially since the role is so well known and originally written and commonly portrayed as male and caucasian. Set in modern day New York, the audience finds Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) as a recovering heroine addict working as a consultant for the NYPD and Joan as his newly hired sober companion with her own traumatic past as a surgeon. Since the beginning of the process, Liu has discussed her intention of making Watson a “human being”, commenting that the character is “not a frat brother” or merely a sidekick but an equal to Holmes and a necessary presence in his life. The show’s desire for Watson to grow is not only represented through her journey from sober companion to consulting detective, but also through her own life outside of Holmes’ cases. The audience gets Watson’s perspective through meetings with her therapists while her own past and character-dimensions are explored through her relationships with past colleagues, acquaintances, and sometimes members of her Asian American family. Her mother is not portrayed as a stereotypically strict Chinese mother, but instead she is shown to be caring and supportive. Joan’s mother is essential in encouraging her to recognise her passion for Holmes’ work and to begin her own training as a consulting detective.

Since the beginning of its run, Elementary has been critically praised for its portrayal of Holmes’ relationship with other characters. Rather than portraying Holmes as “a super genius accompanied by an admiring everyman and surrounded by dunces”, he is never the only capable person in the room. Liu’s Watson runs cases of her own and contributes greatly in Holmes’ investigations. Holmes remarks that he is “better” with her and that – in some cases – she can “succeed where [he] could not”. Unlike many other Holmes adaptations, this Holmes’ shortcomings are shown to have repercussions. Rather than brushing them off as the whims of a genius, Watson calls him out on them since the first time they meet. After Holmes embarrasses and upsets her by deducing her situation in the Pilot episode, Watson turns the tables on him and makes her own observation: “I notice you don’t have any mirrors in your house. I think you know a lost cause when you see one”. As the show progresses, Watson continues to say no to Holmes when situations get out of hand and, instead of reducing the integrity of the relationship by turning her into a romantic love interest for Sherlock, the writers make Watson continue to be Holmes’ “support system”, partner, and friend.

One of Watson’s most significant storyline is her confrontation with the villain, Moriarty. Elementary takes the bold step of revealing Irene Adler (canonically Holmes’ love interest and Moriarty’s subordinate) to be the Napoleon of crime Moriarty herself. Watson’s interaction with Moriarty never shows her to be frightened, in awe, or fascinated by Moriarty.  In their confrontation scene, Moriarty terms Watson with the racially-implied insult of the “mascot”. However, Watson uses that confrontation to identify Moriarty’s weakness and is instrumental in her arrest. Therefore, unlike other adaptations, Moriarty’s downfall is not brought about by Holmes’ genius but rather by Watson’s. Thus, Elementary ‘s treatment of Joan Watson is a testament to the existence of some well-rounded Asian American characters on television. Together with the aforementioned Asian characters in other shows, it can be said that there is a space in television for these characters to occupy. The development of these Asian television characters provide stark contrast to Asian stereotypes previously seen in films, therefore breaking ground in exploration of Asian cultural purity, Asian American identity and ideas of the modern America.

Representation of East Asians in American mainstream television and film has been consistently plagued by white-washing, insignificant background characters, and stereotypes. With the emergence of iconic figures like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, new East Asian identities have been made possible in Hollywood.  However, there are still new stereotypes to overcome, new forms of orientalism to counter, and new Asian identities to explore and portray. The rapid rise of technology and globalisation have raised questions regarding the fine line between Westernisation and progress whilst presenting new possibilities and alternatives to what it means to be Asian, particularly on the screen. It is undeniable that it is now time for old Asian character tropes to be discarded and it is absolutely vital that there should be an emergence of new kinds of Asian identities, especially ones which reflect the more globalised nature of the present age. In a mostly white-dominated cinematic landscape, such an emergence would be progress for American film and television and, most ultimately, reaffirms what the great Bruce Lee has said to the people of colour when he first started out in the West: “You’re just as good as they are”.

Previously: Part Four – The Dragon Lady, The Warrior Woman and Asian Femininity 


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