I’m not sure if the creators of Disney’s Mulan knew quite how difficult a task they were setting with the song Be A Man. Even before we get to the strict enforcement of gender binaries and gender roles, for an Asian kid identifying as male, the call to ‘be a man’ isn’t a particularly easy one to answer. While Captain Shang might be telling me that it means being swift and forceful and mysterious, by far the most dominant message I was receiving was that being an Asian man means being weak, passive, quiet, which, as I grew up, also meant being sexually and romantically invisible, lacking in desire or desirability. This image, often described as an ‘emasculation’ of Asian men, pairs with the objectification and fetishization of Asian women into a one-two punch of anti-Asian racism, poisoning the self-perceptions and relationships of Asian folks and carrying with them long-lasting, life-threatening consequences.
Fortunately, there is a growing recognition that these toxic narratives are just that, insidious ways that anti-Asian racism works to marginalize and dehumanize. There have also been growing calls for new narratives of what it means to be an Asian person in a White-dominated society, and what it means to be an Asian person in romantic and sexual relationships. For Asian men, there is a general move towards combatting ‘emasculation’ by asserting that Asian men can be physically attractive and sexually successful: essentially, that Asian men can be ‘men’. The spread of ‘pick-up’ strategies among straight Asian men as a tool for developing romantic and sexual relationships, as well as the growing popularity of men such as chef Eddie Huang who advocate for a physically tough, sexually successful depiction of Asian men are both framed as forms of resistance against racist depictions of Asian masculinity, and examples of the sort of responses that have emerged to existing racist narratives.
I see where the motivation for these responses are coming from, having felt the effect of these stereotypes, and the sense of invisibility that many Asian men name as defining their experiences in White spaces. In the wake of everyday assaults on self-image and personal relationships that Asian men face, I feel the need to push back, to create new understandings of Asian masculinity. At the same time, I wonder if the masculinity that we want to reclaim, the masculinity we feel has been taken from us, is even one worth fighting for.
There is, first of all, nothing inherently negative about being aromantic, asexual, or ‘effeminate’ (whatever that means). When we equate being identified as those things with ‘emasculation’, we are asserting a particular view of what it means to be masculine, a view that is rooted in physical dominance and sexual prowess, in desiring and being desired. It’s a view that Jenn Fang, who runs the Asian-American feminist blog, Reappropriate, calls ‘misogylinity’, a term she coined in a piece linking this image of masculinity to the UC Santa Barbara campus shooting earlier this year. In her piece, she writes “masculinity defined by sexual conquest - or what the seduction community calls the ‘game’– is fundamentally misogynist; it is also heterosexist and racist.” As Fang points out, in its focus on sexual prowess specifically with women, it is a masculinity that is built on heteronormative assumptions, erasing queer identities and rooting itself in the notion that the value of a man is measured by the number of women he can claim. In its focus on physical dominance, size, and image, it is also built on notions of the ideal male form that conforms to a strict gender binary. And it is a masculinity that has real, life-threatening consequences; it is part of what shaped Elliot Rodger’s motivation for committing the UC Santa Barbara campus shooting earlier this year, an ideology that caused his own sense of masculinity and self-worth to be linked to sexual conquest, and that ultimately fueled a violent hatred towards women and ‘full Asian men’. It’s a masculinity that is restrictive, exclusive, and dangerous, and yet there is a very real push among certain Asian American men to call this masculinity our own.
An argument that’s often made is that asserting Asian men as ‘masculine’ – by conventional standards of masculinity – works against racist stereotypes of Asian men, and in so doing fights the good anti-racist fight. While I’m all for subverting stereotypes, it seems that too often this is done by buying into existing structures that constrain and harm other groups, furthering the very definition of masculinity and the very power structure that we claim to reject. The adoption of Black aesthetics and culture, specifically hip-hop culture, to perform masculinity is a particularly glaring example (and while I understand that identifying with hip-hop could come from any number of places, gender presentation seems to me a big and often intentional piece of it). Taking on what are seen as conventionally masculine roles, mannerisms, and appearances might seem to be a subversion of the way Asian men are usually understood and depicted, but we also need to be questioning why it is that Black culture and aesthetics are coded as hyper-masculine and hypersexual to begin with. We need to see how participating in that imagery means buying into a characterization of Black men as aggressive, hypersexual threats, a characterization that has long been used as a justification for violence against Black people. Let’s not forget that the stated motivation for the shooting in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church earlier this year, for instance, was linked to a belief that Black men are threats to White women. More than that, drawing on those same tropes doesn’t do anything towards truly challenging the terms by which masculinity is defined, which are ultimately terms that allow for varied expressions of White masculinity but label men of colour as either ‘too masculine’ or ‘not masculine enough’.
An uncritical reclamation of masculinity doesn’t just affect the way we reinforce views of other men of colour. Dating environments in which ‘pick-up games’ and similar strategies are popular – environments that many straight Asian men are engaging in ostensibly as a way to subvert the idea that Asian men are sexually undesirable – often place greater value on White women than women of colour. Engaging in those spaces then means supporting a culture that equates Whiteness with beauty and desirability, the exact thing that we are supposedly railing against.
It might be true that as Asian men adopt behaviours and appearances that are seen as ‘masculine’, stereotypes about us will change. But there is no point in pursuing a strategy that works for us if it does so by perpetuating the oppression of everyone else. For Asian men to claim this definition of masculinity, all we are doing is propping up this same system that has so hurt us and other people of colour. This is us saying that it’s okay for White, heteronormative masculinity to continue lumbering its way through society, as long as we get to ride along with it. This isn’t resistance. This is cooptation.
Actually reclaiming masculinity, then, means thinking critically about what it means to be an Asian man. It means addressing the ideas that constrain us in ways beyond the physical and sexual, so that we resist dominant narratives of Asian men as emotionally unavailable or restrained, resist expectations of our intelligence and our interests, resist doubts of our abilities to be invested, loving fathers and family members. It means constructing a masculinity that is inclusive of the myriad of ways through which a person can choose to express that masculinity, in their own bodies and in their relationships with others. And crucially, it means pushing back not only on the tropes of Asian men that we find personally hurtful or constraining – those surrounding our sexuality and physicality being most obvious – but also critiquing those images that grant us a certain conditional privilege at the expense of others. As a medical student, I am training in a field in which my identity will rarely cause my credentials or authority to be called into question, something that could not so easily be said for my Black and Latina/o classmates, and for my classmates who are women of colour. As Asian men, we need to use the privilege we have to support work being done by people of other genders and colour, and to know how to listen to and make room for those voices in spaces that are exclusive to them, but that we may have access to.
As Asian men, we should combat the way our sexual identities are erased and distorted. We should fight against stereotypes and assumptions that attempt to tell us who we can be and be with. But that needs to happen in a way that is actually critical of how we understand masculinity, and supports the struggles of Asian women and other people of colour, rather than undermining them. It’s not enough to fight for inclusion in a definition of masculinity if that definition itself is toxic and oppresses our own communities and other communities of colour. We don’t need acceptance into a White definition of masculinity. We need to build our own.
Writing: Marc Shi
Illustration: Ensley Chau