Dear John, | #FeministJohnCho

July 23, 2016
(Photo Credit: 18MillionRising / Twitter)
From the hashtag, #FeministJohnCho (Photo Credit: 18MillionRising / Twitter)

Dear John,

You don’t know me, but I’ve been with you since the very beginning.

I was organizing on-campus screenings when Justin Lin made Better Luck Tomorrow on nothing more than some shoestrings, a little spit, and a handful of maxed out credit cards. I shelled out my movie ticket money for American Pie and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, and even gritted my teeth through the (many, many, shitty) sequels despite my being the polar opposite of these film franchises’ target demographics. I was there for you in Flashforward and Sleepy Hollow and Selfie. I have supported you for over a decade as an immensely talented actor and one of Asian America’s  break-out stars, and no one was more thrilled than I when you landed the part of Sulu in J. J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise; few actors deserved the opportunity more.

Asian American actors are a special bunch: to a person, you all seem to be thoughtful, reasoned, caring and politically conscious activist-actors who are deeply knowledgeable about mainstream media’s (under/mis)representation when it comes to people of colour. Perhaps it comes from the years during which you are forced to toil in acting obscurity as one of the industry’s few Asian American actors or directors, but when at last you get your “big break”, most of you use your newfound platforms to force a conversation on media diversity and better representation. I experience a moment of joyful anticipation every time I stumble across an interview with an Asian American actor, because — whether BD Wong, or Constance Wu, or Daniel Dae Kim, or Daniel Henney, or Aziz Ansari, or you — you use your respective spotlights to force a necessary conversation about Hollywood’s diversity holes. And, you all always have really great and thought-provoking things to say.

From #FeministJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter / 18MillionRising)
From #FeministJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter / 18MillionRising)

I love and respect each and every one of you not just for your talents in front of the camera, but also how you all seem to have a carefully considered outlook on race, gender, and identity away from it. None of you are content to just say some lines and collect a cheque: instead, each of you willfully and enthusiastically embraces a self-imposed responsibility as an actor to confront and challenge Hollywood’s enduring stereotypes of Asian American men and women. You understand that these stereotypes damage the self-esteem and self-identity of our Asian American youth.

Much has been written about the Asian American “rep sweats” — that nervous angst that leaves every Asian American actor with the monumental, nigh impossible task of representing a whole race with each role. I feel the “rep sweats” when it comes not to Asian American actors’ work in front of the cameras, but when it comes to your work off-screen.

Moreover, among our community’s acting titans, you, John, have always held my respect in particular, because I have heard that in private you are also an incredibly generous, humble, and kind person, and I therefore believe that you specifically deserve your current mainstream success and accolades all that much more. And sure, I’ll confess that I hold all of you to pretty high standards when it comes to identity politics; that’s because you very rarely ever disappoint.

For the most part, John, your feature interview with E. Alex Jung for Vulture this week was no exception. In a fantastic and nuanced conversation, you delved into structures of racism that disadvantage actors of colour. I loved your insight into how even the way that we light non-White actors contributes to their careless dehumanization and on-screen flattening. You are a damned smart man, John.

And so, it was with profound disappointment that I came across this excerpt in that interview:

Particularly Asian men, I feel, we suffer more than Asian women, because we’re told we’re not worth anything in general.

I can’t even begin to say how disappointing this passage was to me.

When you say that you believe that Asian men “suffer more than Asian women,” you disappointingly overlook all the evidence to the contrary — so much so, John, that I don’t even know where to start. Asian American women make less than 80 cents to the dollar an Asian American man makes. In STEM and business, we remain trapped beneath a ceiling made simultaneously of both glass and bamboo. We experience workplace bias and we are more likely than our male counterparts to work in service industries and to live below the poverty line. Asian American and Pacific Islander women comprise the largest segment of trafficked people in the United States, according to a report by NAPAWF. Our sisters, wives, mothers and daughters endure distressingly high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. You suggest that Asian men suffer “more” because you’re told you’re “not worth anything in general.” Faced with the facts of AAPI women’s experiences with various systems of power, I must ask: does it seem as if the world treats us, AAPI women, as if we are worth anything either?

From #FeministJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter / 18MillionRising)
From #FeministJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter / 18MillionRising)

Okay, I get that you’re talking about Hollywood and its stereotypes of Asian American men and women. Yet, even in Hollywood, it’s clear that a (muted) privilege stemming from patriarchy exists for men (including men of colour) while it disadvantages women (including Asian American women). Hollywood remains a male-dominated industry, and male actors, directors, producers and screen-writers remain far more prevalent and prominent than female ones (even while male actors of colour continue to be underrepresented and misrepresented). This (by no means comprehensive) list of Asian American actors and filmmakers includes 1.5 times as many men as women, which dismantles the myth that Asian American female actors have an easier time creating fame in this industry than do men. (Update: this holds true if you exclude off-camera filmmakers from the list, and include only actors.) 3.5 times as many Asian and Asian American men have been nominated for (or won) an Academy Award in acting, directing, or screenwriting than Asian or Asian American women. In this year’s unprecedentedly diverse new Academy class, only approximately 2% of invited members are Asian or Asian American women, compared to easily two times as many Asian or Asian American men.

In qualifying your statement for Vulture with the detail that Asian American men are not viewed as “worth anything in general [by mainstream media],” you dogwhistle that you subscribe to the belief that Asian American women experience a form of privilege because we are stereotyped as sexually desirable. This is a common refrain among Asian America’s most vehement pick-up artists and  men’s rights activists, who deny the existence of systemic patriarchy by insisting that the trappings of male privilege are inaccessible to Asian American men. But, how is there power for Asian American women in being stereotyped as a consumable object of sexual desire? In this, we are not humanized. We have no voice. Our characters are granted no agency. We are portrayed as valuable only for heterosexual male gratification, to be used and disposed of once consumed.

You speak, John, as if Asian American women should be grateful to be valued as a sexual caricature. You speak as if we should be happy to be deemed “worthy” of playing the role of someone else’s silent sex object — even when it is a role that we didn’t ask for, and which has been historically used to rationalize the real-world subjugation of Asian and Asian American women. You speak as if the unwanted sexual attention of men is privilege, forgetting that in the off-screen world, this kind of attention doesn’t grant women power; instead it is used to legitimize sexismrape, assault, and occasionally murder.

The irony, of course, is that you positioned yourself as an Asian American man with less power than Asian American women while you were on a publicity tour for a movie and film franchise where you (and George Takei before you) play a highly visible and beloved Asian American male character, as one of two major supporting characters in the franchise’s many ensemble casts. Meanwhile, the Star Trek franchise has featured only one recurring Asian American female character — Linda Park’s Hoshi Sato in Enterprise — where she appeared in a series routinely criticized for relegating all its characters of colour to the place of forgettable human scenery. Even in Star Trek: Beyond — directed by one of Asian America’s best directors and co-starring one of its shining actors — you share center-stage with the show’s lead cast while the incredible Oscar-nominated Shoreh Aghdashloo is relegated to a cameo role. Heck, peruse Aghdashloo’s filmography and ask yourself this: has the film industry treated this immensely talented actor kindly? Can we really conclude that she has enjoyed some kind of privilege in this industry by virtue of her gender?

From #FeministJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter / 18MillionRising)
From #FeministJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter / 18MillionRising)

Later in that same interview with Vulture, you note the controversy over [spoiler] Star Trek: Beyond‘s casual reveal that their universe’s Sulu is a gay married man with a young daughter, which has been marketed as a nod to George Takei’s real-world activism for gay rights. You note in this interview, however, your concern that this would potentially contribute to Hollywood’s long-time “feminization” — your word — of Asian men. Really, though?

You are certainly correct that Hollywood lacks an abundance of heterosexual Asian American male characters, which contributes profoundly to the legitimate angst of straight Asian American men who continue to feel underrepresented by our media. Asian American masculinity has been historically constructed in the Western imagination as merely relational to White masculinity — defined entirely by the false stereotypes of Asian American men as lacking in markers of conventional male identity. Our men remain largely invisible as straight romantic leads and as heterosexual desirables, and that certainly must change. Hollywood’s ongoing blind-spot when it comes to a significant portion of the AAPI community cannot continue. You are correct to point out that the rebooted Star Trek universe missed an opportunity to help right that wrong.

Yet, your phrasing in this interview with regard to this issue is clumsy and unhelpful. It is yet another example of how the words we use to talk about this issue can themselves be marginalizing. Although you draw attention to an important issue with regard to Hollywood’s portrait of straight Asian American men, your choice of “feminization” also offers the damning suggestion that to be a gay man is to be some kind of a lesser man; as if masculinity must be defined primarily by the performance of male heterosexuality, and that gay men will therefore always come up short (and that, to come up short is to be deemed “feminine”). In suggesting that your Sulu has been “feminized”, you single-handedly dismiss the many gay, straight, bisexual, and trans Asian American men who legitimately define their masculinity through a progressive and non-hetero-normative framework. You marginalize the many feminists who see nothing wrong or inferior with femininity. You also assert a rigid gender binary that dismisses our community’s non-binary or genderfluid members.

Let’s be clear: there’s so much in this interview that resonates positively with me. You talk favourably about the themes of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. You talk about your commendable insistence that a gay Sulu be depicted as married to an Asian person, so that the rebooted Star Trek universe positively portray a healthy gay Asian couple. I love 98% of your interview — it was the other 2% that gave me serious pause.

In the end, this isn’t — and can’t be — about playing Oppression Olympics. So long as the oppressed busy ourselves with fighting over the crown of “most oppressed”, no one but the oppressor wins. I will be the first to agree: Asian American men experience serious marginalization by Hollywood, and you are victims of inexcusable racism thanks to toxic White masculinity’s highly racialized framing. As men of colour, it is not easy to navigate this highly racist world, which would devalue you both sexually and racially. I get that. What you face as an Asian American man angers me deeply, John, and things quite simply must change.

However, the racial justice you seek, John, will not be found by turning your attention against the women and feminists in our community. We cannot dismantle the racism you face by invalidating the very real oppression and dehumanization experienced by Asian American women. It is entirely possible to lift up Asian American men without having to tear down Asian American women, gays, and non-binary people.

You have an immense platform, John, and I am so glad that you are using it to highlight the inequities you face as an Asian American male actor trying to make his way in a White supremacist industry. We need to hear from you. We want to hear from you. Please, keep talking and acting and doing all the wonderful things that you do. But, please, also, consider the many of us who are paying attention to your words. Think about the impact of what you have to say on the whole of the community, and not just their impact on those of us who most resemble you. We, Asian American women and feminists, have been there for you since the very beginning, supporting you and your work; all we ask is that you do the same — or, at the very least, to not step upon us as you climb.

I’m not angry at you, John. In fact, I believe that what you said was not intentionally hurtful or damaging. I sincerely believe you would describe yourself as a feminist. I guess the best word to describe how I feel right now is this: heart-broken.

Your voice is so important for us, John. With all the incredible things you said in your Vulture interview this week as you were critically uplifting straight Asian American men, I wish you hadn’t also used that time to also do the patriarchy’s work of invalidating feminism and gay masculinity. It’s true: we haven’t seen everything you can do, John; and when it comes to using your fame to support Asian American feminists and LGBT activists, I can’t wait to see you do something more and something better.

With love and deep respect,

Jenn

PS – You were incredible and stole the show in Star Trek: Beyond.

PPS – All memes in this post are courtesy of the hashtag #FeministJohnCho, which I had nothing to do with the creation of.

  • Skeet Duran

    Men should get out of the way of women, and women should get out of the way of men. I think through they years we’ve been unnaturally trying to be each others’ advocates. The least we can do is to get out of one another’s way, then maybe…maybe…we can watch each other rise.

    Byron:

    Advocating for separate teams is separatists mindset for divisions and anti-social behaviors toward the opposite gender. I think you define “LEADERS” and “TEAMS” way too small, it makes our forces weaker that way. Right now the most dominant force is the White establishment at 62% strong. Asian men’s force is at 3%, if we don’t ally with other forces, what have AsAm men accomplished being an isolated small team?

    Byron wrote:

    People on this blog rarely agree on everything–you can see in the last 24 hours that Aardvark and I disagreed on something.

    So how do you guys at BigWowo able to work together through your disagreements? Sounds like your differences with AF activists, often disagreements. Do the guys in your blogs just follow your orders as their leader?

    They’ve got more friends in high places. Their husbands and boyfriends often run things. It would be great to work with them. But not if it means denying reality and simply following orders. Life is too short to do that.

    You don’t have to see them as leaders, compromise with a written formal pact agreement that both sides work together as partnerships in collaboration for better APIA community, not as superiors and the other team as subordinates.

    Put this way, a leader is simply someone that people follow. If you think about it this way, those feminists we’re discussing already have committees and groups. They are already leaders. You become a leader just by putting yourself out there and having a fan who listens to you. You’re a leader too, as am I.

    That’s true, but two teams with two leaders can still work together as partnerships with common goal collaborations for the APIA community.

    There’s plenty of Asian youtubers with millions of fans following, they are leaders according to you, still these Asian youtubers have been able to work as partnerships in many collaborations together with other Asian youtubers. The ISATV channel is an example of this. When two big Asian youtubers collab they act as equal partners and showcased their combined talents.

    Look at this picture over here:

    http://www.bigwowo.com/2012/07/asian-american-writers-workshop-launch-party/

    That was created by leaders. You’ll note that a certain Asian gender is all but left out of this fine “Asian American” event, but it was still created by leaders–local, 21st century-style committee leaders. That’s what we need to work on. We’re not waiting for a big leader; we need to work with our local leaders.

    They’re just leaders of their own small WMAF groups, I certainly have never heard of them and don’t know what their group’s philosophy stood for.

    Byron, don’t you know there are many AMWF and AMBW groups out there including their own leaders too?

    So why were you able to trust Karen Ma who has a white mate, as I quoted down here, contradiction?

    Byron wrote:

    I’ve never been against political AF’s who married White people, which is why I expressed my admiration for Karen Ma in the OP above. I’m only against bad ideas,

    that leadership is all about trust, and one’s choice of spouse can affect whether people trust you, especially if you’re attempting to lead a group of people who have been damaged by racial trends in dating. When people demand trust from their leaders,

    2. You’re talking about the U.S. working with Vietnam, or members of the Mavs and Heat working together. In other words, you see us as two teams. Ironically, your advice is exactly what I proposed in my last foray onto Reappropriate. We cheer each other on, get out of each others way when we need to, and share when appropriate.

    Nope, you’re talking about two separate teams that don’t work together, just support each other.
    I’m talking about two teams working together as PARTNERS, even having one member from the other team working inside our team. Lebron James traded to the Heat and played together with Heat’s teammates to win 2 championships. Kevin Durant is playing with the Warriors now, that’s 1 team. Peyton Manning won a championship for his new team the Broncos, that’s 1 team. These players were from the enemy teams, they came together for the common goals of championships.

    It isn’t working because…well, one team isn’t cooperating…and it’s not us.

    Yes, it’s you guys.

    After Constance tweeted a pro-AM comment about the Great Wall movie, many Asian guys including you guys did not support her. I’ve read on youtube comments and on certain articles, many Asian guys even insulted her claiming “she talked Asians and bed whites”.

    When Nicholas Cage made his “Asian men should be in Hollywood” comment in the interview, how many Asian guys supported him? I’m guessing very few, he would be lucky if he wasn’t insulted by some Asian guys.

    So the question is, why are you Asian guys not cooperating with the other team?

    How about getting a fat paycheck from an Asian boss?

    When I was growing up, I was taught to work for White people, because they were nicer, more professional and their jobs pay better. You were loser if you work for your own kind. Now, I did have a stint with an Asian boss, and yes, he paid me with paltry wages, and try to exploit me to the fullest.

    The entire AA equality movement is a fucking sham and is hypocritical.

    There’s plenty of Asian Americans working for other Asian Americans, in Silicon Valley and in small businesses. You can’t expect high wages when small businesses have tight profits.

    To have more Asians working for other Asian bosses you need to trample the bamboo ceiling first, so more Asians can climb the ladder in the corporate world, many are held down. Even in the Casino industry where there are abundance of Asian gamblers, but the very top positions are hogged by White people particularly white men. Most Asians can only become card dealers or middle-tier managers. So how do you expect Asians working for other Asians when there’s a bamboo ceiling keeping all Asians down?

    There’s a lot of Asian doctors and dentists who opened their own clinics and they do hired hundreds of Asian workers.

  • pj

    Honestly the level of scrutiny applied to what John said given the context of the interview and the scope of what a site like Vulture puts out is a bit inane. This clearly isn’t an academic text and yet the level of discourse that has emerged from the response and its awkward dissections seems to suggest this much. While I generally agree with much of the commenters say from both ‘sides’ of the argument, in the end John rattled off two extemporaneous statements that the author of the article found problematic and subsequently took him to task for. If we want to submit ourselves to this level of critique given a dialogue-specific instance then we will be forever beholden to the constant policing of each others language which gets us nowhere in practice and otherwise. To me this only impedes the progress of advancing any significant epistemic change in asian/AA activism in the west. And because of this dynamic, we will remain completely ineffective at realizing any worthwhile goal. Constance Wu should be able to make deliberate statements promoting asian women without it meaning ‘to the exclusion of asian men’. And vice versa via John Cho. I didn’t get the impression he was saying that asian women don’t suffer, he was clearly referencing his experience in a Hollywood-specific context. John should be taken to task for saying that asian men suffer ‘more’ than asian women which is an impossible statement to verify (and in many cases, as the author pointed out, is demonstrably untrue). The author clearly likes John: she goes to great lengths to showcase her admiration for much of what John has said and done in the past. But to the extent that the author felt compelled to extrapolate on his statement to form implications of her own seems overwrought and at times deeply cynical.

  • Sarah

    The irony is “Our sisters, wives, mothers and daughters endure distressingly high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts” yet Asian males endure *higher* rates and you don’t care. You’re so caught up in your own suffering that you have no time for the suffering of your brothers. It’s a real shame

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