Stereotypes on TV: Can’t Win Even When We Do

Recently the NYTimes ran a piece celebrating a significant milestone in North American Western Hollywood TV; two of the strongest and most interesting female leads are being played by Asian-American actresses; Maggie Q as Nikita and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson on Elementary.

*throws confetti*

However celebratory this milestone may be, the following quote almost strips it away:

“… the truth is that they resonate with two of the most common sets of images — or clichés — about Asian women: the high-achieving, socially awkward Dr. Joan Watson is a refined example of the sexy nerd, and the lethal, sometimes icy Nikita, able to dispense violence while wearing tight, microscopic outfits, evokes a long line of dragon ladies and ninja killers.”

It’s like we can’t win.

Despite the complex fleshed out characters of Nikita and Watson, they still seem to fall in some sort of spectrum of stereotypes … or as I’d like to look at it, HUMAN CHARACTERISTICS.

I suppose I should give kudos to Kale, while enjoying the programs, still managed to catch that regardless of ethnicity, these two characters managed to reach for an Asian stereotype. He goes on to mention other Asian-American/Canadian actresses, who are not particularly playing front and centre characters, but seem to find themselves plotted on some weird Venn Diagram of Smarts (re: Nerds) over Sassy Dragon Lady antics.

Screen shot 2013-11-23 at 5.57.29 PM

To be fair, I’ve only watched a handful of the shows mentioned, so I’ll only plot those I’ve watched.

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson on Elementary
I LOVE her and Love the show. It took me a couple of episodes to get into it, but that heavily relied on Sherlock’s childish douchery which changed around the fifth episode. The show is fashioned very differently than BBC’s Sherlock, where they follow the Conan Doyle stories fairly closely. Elementary’s reimagining of the characters including Watson give the show a deeper complexity nuanced by the diversity of its cast.

Liu as Watson is just one of many high points of the series success. Oddly mentioned was her wardrobe in where she looks good and decent enough, but clearly hasn’t put in a great deal of effort. From my perspective, she dresses like a typical New Yorker, fashionable yet practical, not dripping with pretentiousness. There is a quirky element I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s not a wardrobe I would readily dive into. It’s subdued and it suits Watson.

Venn Diagram plotting: Smart Eye Candy with a touch of Sass

Kristen Kreuk as Catherine Chandler on Beauty and the Beast
This was a nice grown up role for Kreuk to graduate to from her Smallville days. Here, she’s a strong, independent woman taking care of her flaky younger sister while cleaning up the streets with her equally badass female partner. And it was the relationship between them that I actually liked, until the Beast and his secrets put a wedge between all of them. It was around episode 15 where I could watch no more as the leading couple of had much too much in common with a toxic/ abusive relationship. He would get in rage mode and become uncontrollably violent and she would just love him, helping him to find a cure. Romantic, I guess, but … I shouldn’t expect much from CW.

It’s worth to note that the series gives a nod to Kreuk’s mixed Asian ancestry by casting her parents accordingly while placing her murdered mom as a key figure in the Beast’s rage fits.

Unsurprisingly, Kreuk’s wardrobe on the show is fabulous. A selection of fitted leather jackets with an array of soft blouses and shirts matched with skinny pants and boots give her cop character a charismatic strength. I would raid her closet any day.

Venn Diagram Plotting: Socially Awkward Ass Kicking Eye Candy but not incredibly bright.

Ming Na Wen as Melinda “The Calvalry” May on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

As popular as Wen is in on the other shows she’s done, this is the only TV series I’ve actually watched her on. She’s basically the muscle swooping in to rescue the team when they find themselves in a bind. She’s stoic and silent throughout most of the episode but holds a certain presence when she does appear in a scene.

At first glance one can categorically slot her under Dragon Lady but typical of most Joss Whedon’s series, it takes awhile to pick up. As we know, there is more to May as nuanced throughout the series where in episode 8, May and series hunk Ward may have just become bedfellows.

It is unfortunate May choses to dress in S.H.I.E.L.D’s uniform of kevlar and leather keeping her muscles and otherwise hard rocking body hidden. I can only hope when I’m 50 that I look as great as she does.

Venn Diagram Plotting: Ass Kicking Intelligence

Chloe Bennet as Skye on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Sassy, outspoken and very much the leading female archetype in a Joss Whedon series, Skye is a tech expert/ computer hacker activist recruited for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s special ops team. We discover she is also looking for her real parents whom she does not know who they are or what they look like. For those wondering why she’s on this list, Bennet was born Chloe Wang and was a popstar briefly in China.

It will be interesting if they do chose to use her real-life mixed Chinese heritage as a plot point – does her character then fall onto the Venn diagram? And more importantly, she she encapsulate the Asian stereotype of a computer nerd simply because she’s found out to be half-Asian?

Possible Venn Diagram Plotting: Socially Awkward and clever and uses her “assets” to her advantage when necessary.

Grace Park as Kono Kalakaua on Hawaii Five-O
While I’ve not seen a single episode of Hawaii Five-O, the clips I’ve seen of her are all fighting scenes where she dons a very normal wardrobe sometimes accented with a kevlar vest. Kale mentions her favouring of bikinis and tight jeans implying this places her in a stereotype.

What’s wrong with wearing a bikini when you’re on the beach and tight jeans?

Possible Venn Diagram plotting: Ass Kicking Eye Candy … as I’ve not yet seen her in a clip where she has conversation.

Here is the plotted Venn Diagram of the above characters:
Screen shot 2013-11-24 at 5.12.00 PM

Here is another one I did of 6 female characters on TV played by Non-Asian actresses, just to compare.
Screen shot 2013-11-24 at 4.59.01 PM

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About Xxxtine

The main Canuck here I (sometimes) give a different perspective. I used to be 'read only' but you can actually hear me via POP 88 on 8Asians podcasting sister site Always trying to find that right balance between fluff and substance, I tend to focus my interests in discovering different perspectives. Look forward to hearing (and perhaps seeing) things you wouldn't anywhere else. Current vice and embarrassingly obsessed with: Kpop group AFTER SCHOOL
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