New Girl and TV’s Depictions of Asian Americans
By Taylor Marvin
Last week I watched the premier of the new Fox series, New Girl. The show, which follows a 20-something girl moving in with three singly guys, was mildly entertaining (Jessica Grose’s description of Zooey Deschanel as “terminally adorable” is pretty spot on).
What I found interesting about the show is that the pilot included a minor, presumably one-time character portrayed by an Asian American actor. Despite making up 5% of the US population, Asian American actors are fairly rare on TV. What was especially interesting about New Girl’s use of an Asian American actor is that his ethnicity wasn’t touched on at all — I doubt that the script specified that the character was even of Asian descent. This is notable. Unlike African American or Hispanic characters, when TV shows feature Asian American actors their ethnicity usually plays an integral part in the way their character is presented. Modern Family is a good example of this. Despite being notably progressive in its depiction of gay couples, one of the few Asian American characters depicted in the show — a doctor played by Suzy Nakamura — is defined by her Asian heritage: the character’s role in the show is as an Asian other the predominantly white leading characters can react to, rather than a fully realized personality. Here she is talking about her mother’s high expectations and her refusal to be defined by them:
This isn’t wholly problematic. In this scene Modern Family recognizes that stereotypes can be harmful, while also acknowledging that in some individuals they’re also true. However, the real problem here is that Modern Family has room for an Asian American character only when she’s defined by her Asianness. Of course there are exceptions to this portrayal — American-born Korean Canadian actor Grace Park’s work on Battlestar Galactica and Hawaii Five-O is a good example — but it is prevalent.
New Girl is different. In the pilot, the Asian American character is portrayed [mild spoiler alert] as a complete douchebag. The central plot arch of the pilot is Zooey Deschanel’s depression over recently breaking up with her cheating boyfriend and her new male roommates’ efforts to cheer her up by taking her out to meet someone new. Deschanel’s initially hesitant — her character Jessica is portrayed as dorky and uncomfortable dating (though it strains credibility to believe that anyone that looks like Zooey Deschanel wouldn’t have men fighting over her). Despite her initial humorous failures, she’s soon approached by Peter, an attractive Asian man portrayed by actor and model Jack Yang, who arranges to meet her the next day. This is a turning point in the episode — Jessica begins to emerge from her depression and is breathlessly excited for her date. However, Peter doesn’t show, dismissing Jessica as too clingy and explaining to Jessica’s new roommates that he “just wanted to hook up”. Her roommates rush to find Jessica waiting forlornly in the restaurant, an act of caring devotion to their new roommate that cements their friendship.
On many levels, this portrayal of an Asian American is encouraging. Yes, Peter’s a douchebag. But the show’s open about this, and his Asian heritage plays no part in the fact that he’s an asshole. Unlike Dr. Minura in Modern Family, Peter’s place in the narrative structure of New Girl exists in his personality, not his ethnicity. Of course, there are lots of Asian guys who are good looking douchebags, and it’s encouraging that television writers are starting to portray Asian American characters as real people with personalities outside of their ethnicity. Additionally, Peter isn’t alone in being an asshole: one of Jessica’s male roommates is depicted as drifting dangerously close to a douchebag stereotype, a joke New Girl’s writers rely on through the episode.
On there other hand, there are still some potentially problematic issues here. To what extend does Peter’s character exist as part of and perpetuate a form of the model minority myth? The fact that he’s a player notwithstanding, Jack Yang’s character is still depicted a reassuringly model member of aspirational society: he’s good looking, and upper middle class (though admittedly all of the show’s characters are), conventionally well dressed, and hangs out with white people. Again, I’m not saying that this isn’t realistic — there are lots of Asian American guys who do all of these things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But despite the fact that New Girl depicts Peter as an asshole, in many ways he’s still fits into the popular American stereotype of Asian Americans.
New Girl’s depiction of Peter’s relationship with a white girl is similarly mixed. On the one hand, New Girl has absolutely no problem with an attractive Asian man attracting the white and equally hot Jessica, and Peter’s depiction as suave and exceedingly comfortable around attractive women is a refutation of a common stereotype of nerdy and socially awkward Asian men. However, to a predominantly white audience Peter is arguably less threatening because he’s a promiscuous player — he’ll go after white girls for sex but not for permanent partnerships, which is in many ways more threatening to insular white society.
But then again, how much does this matter? The show’s depiction of Peter is realistic — there are Asian guys who are douchebags, and if the script calls for an asshole, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be Asian. Right? I’m genuinely curious: what do you think?