Thursday, November 23, 2006
Do you think we're sexy?
- By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, November 22, 2006
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As George Clooney celebrates his second time around as People's "Sexiest Man Alive," Jeff Yang looks at the status of Asian men in American culture. From Gedde Watanabe in "16 Candles" to Daniel Dae Kim in "Lost," it seems like the image of the Asian male has come a long way, baby. Or ... has it?
Flipping through my glossy copy of People's annual "Sexiest Man Alive" issue (Double sized! Over 200 hunks-a hunks-a burnin' love inside!) has led me to a couple of quick conclusions. The first is that George Clooney is, indeed, a piping-hot serving of manwich. I mean, I'm a straight, married male with a kid, but I can still see how if I were of a different gender or sexual orientation, I'd have great difficulty throwing Clooney out of bed for eating whole-grain Tuscan crostini.
The second is that, even so, Clooney is not even close to my pick for the Sexiest Man Alive. In fact, I wouldn't even call him the sexiest man in the Nov. 27 edition of People. That's because the issue also contains Yul Kwon, described by People's editors in interviews as a Sexiest Man Alive "finalist" and profiled in the mag's section on "Sexy Men in Sexy Environments."
Clooney is smart, funny, owns an Italian villa, and is the kind of sharply dressed man that ZZ Top correctly noted every woman's crazy 'bout. But Kwon is another creature entirely -- a genetic specimen so undeniably ideal (at least in comparison to yours truly, as both wife and mother have hinted) that he prompts thoughts of the classic comedy "Twins."
This is Yul: classically sculpted features, egg-carton abs, able to reconstruct civilization on a desert island with nothing more than a pair of coconuts and a feral chicken. And this is me: laughably doughy features, egg-shaped physique, desperately trying to file a piece on sexy Asian guys before my editor sends burly men to snap my fingers like takeout chopsticks. It shouldn't be difficult to identify who's the Arnie and who's the Danny in this comparison.
"The thing about Yul that's compelling is that he's smart, he's strong, he's a leader, but he knows when to show strength and when to be restrained, and God, look at those abs," says Cynthia Wang, People's associate L.A. bureau chief. "Everyone was saying, 'Wow, we can't miss that man, the way he looks, the way he behaves -- he's got to be part of this issue.' And as both an Asian American and, admittedly, a reality TV junkie, it's great to see that."
There are other Asian men in the "Sexiest Man Alive" issue, too -- including "Harold and Kumar"'s John Cho, "Lost"'s Daniel Dae Kim and Hong Kong pop idol/"Grudge 2" star Edison Chen. In fact, if you take it at face value that People magazine is a reflection of, well, people and their attitudes toward mainstream popular culture, you'd have to say that the image of Asian men has taken an enormous leap forward in the two decades since the "Sexiest Man" issue was inaugurated (with the original honor going to Mel Gibson -- lo, how the mighty have fallen).
Not So Fast, a Bit More Furious?
Of course, not everyone buys into that line of reasoning. Take for example Ethan Lee, UC Berkeley grad and creator of a buzzed-about new Web comic called "Single Asian Female," which he calls an attempt to encapsulate some of what he learned in his Asian American Studies classes into "a form that's easy to read and understand."
If it seems a little weird for guy to be writing a strip called "Single Asian Female," well, Lee says it's because he wanted to talk about issues that could only be effectively expressed from the point of view of an Asian American woman -- "like the story about Asian females getting hit on by white guys with Asian fetishes."
Also, as some on the Web have suggested, people are a lot more likely to read a strip with an Asian American female protagonist -- just like they're more willing to watch news with an Asian American anchor, or more likely to accept an Asian woman as a romantic lead.
"Asian men are still stereotyped as geeky, sexless losers, including by some Asian American women," says Lee. "I remember that even in my Asian American Studies classes, there were two or three Asian women who bragged how they only date white men. I distinctly remember one of them saying, 'I'm afraid an Asian man might beat me,' and another saying, 'Well, I've always been attracted to the Abercrombie and Fitch model type.'"
But, I ask him, is that really representative? Even if there are attitudes like that out there, it's hard to think that those are really the norm today. Certainly things have changed in the past 20 years, with society moving -- slowly -- toward a more progressive, inclusive standard of beauty, right?
Lee doesn't think so. "Go to any newsstand, and just stand back and look at the magazine rack," he says. "Over 90 percent of the people looking back are going to be white. If you exclude Beyonce, Oprah and a bunch of athletes, you're talking more like 99 percent. That's what Asian Americans internalize when they think about who's sexy, about who they want to get with. They think: 'White people are sexy, and we want to get it on with a guy like George Clooney.'"
Jeff Adachi, San Francisco public defender and producer/director of "The Slanted Screen," a documentary exploring the evolution of the Asian male image in film and television, is somewhat more sanguine. "Slanted Screen" also makes the case that representation in media both reflects and impacts societal attitudes -- but Adachi believes that the worst excesses of Hollywood history are behind us, and a new breed of Asian American actors, producers and directors is crashing the show-biz gates in a way that's not only increasing the number of Asians in film and on TV but reframing the way we're being portrayed as well.
"Historically, it's true, Hollywood tended to take three steps forward and two steps back," he says. "But we're positioned now to make much larger gains than in the past. You look at this younger generation of Asian Americans, who didn't grow up immersed in civil rights, and the idea of being constrained by race is completely foreign to them. ["Mad TV" cast member] Bobby Lee, he told me he never auditions for an Asian role, because he knows he's not going to get it -- it's going to go to the really good-looking Asian guy. So he only auditions for 'white' roles -- and he gets them, because he's funny and talented and doesn't have any baggage. He went out for a commercial that was looking for a 'mountain man,' a guy living out by himself in the wilderness, and he said he was the only person of color to show up for the audition. Everyone else was a big, bearded Caucasian guy. And he got the role."
I'm Too Sexy (for This Column)
That brash, damn-the-torpedoes, what-do-I-have-to-lose sensibility isn't just a blueprint for storming the gates of Hollywood; it's also a critical ingredient in the recipe for masculine sex appeal, regardless of race, ethnicity and culture. A nation of emo boys notwithstanding, being comfortable with who you are, even defiantly so, can make the gnarliest of dudes a lovebeast of epic proportions. It's what makes mirror-shattering rock stars like Mick Jagger, Steve Tyler and Ric Ocasek such model magnets (well, that and a few million in the bank).
"I think if you compare the general demeanor and attitudes of young Asian American men now versus a generation ago -- when people like you and me were coming of age -- you'll find a lot more self-confidence," says Oliver Wang, cultural critic, assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, and fellow blogger at the Asian American papa community Rice Daddies. "Not that we've reached the promised land of secure masculinity yet. Hell, what men have?"
Karin Chien, producer of "The Motel" and "Robot Stories," agrees. "Sexiness comes from within," she says. "It's confidence and power and success and humor all rolled up into one big package. Sexiness is knowing that you're hot, no matter what anyone else in the room -- or anyone at People magazine -- says."
Which brings me to my biggest reflection upon perusing this year's "SMA." Clooney isn't the sexiest man in the issue. But Yul Kwon, for all of his drop-forged perfection, isn't, either. From my humble perspective, 2006's Sexiest Man Alive is none other than Masi Oka, breakout star of the hit show "Heroes."
I've dropped a lot of love on "Heroes" recently, not only because I'm an addict of the program but because I think it captures the zeitgeist in a way that other series -- including the desperate denizens of Wisteria Lane and the Other-haunted castaways of "Lost" -- do not. We live in a time when we're searching for heroes. But in searching for them, we're also redefining them, casting them in new and more mundane images. We don't want flash, we want familiarity. We're seeking the extraordinary, but with an accent on the ordinary.
The heroic quest of Oka's character, Hiro Nakamura, isn't just saving the world; it's reframing the cultural dialogue on masculinity and sexual appeal, and reinventing the notion of heroism itself. Recent episodes have shown a new side to Hiro -- his romantic streak -- and my friends and I hope that the show's writers let him succeed in his chivalrous journey to save his perky soul mate, a Texas greasy-spoon waitress with superhuman mnemonic powers. (And yes, she's white, though interracial relationship issues seem refreshingly abstracted in "Heroes" -- there are at this count three significant trans-ethnic couples in the series, with nary a single reference yet to race, which, depending on your perspective, is either a sign of more tolerant times or proof positive that the show exists in a parallel universe.)
Hiro is a doughy, bespectacled and flamboyant out-of-the-cubicle geek -- a manga addict, a comic book fanboy, a hard-core Trekker. But he's so at one with his inner dork (which is also his outer dork) that it all ultimately proves irresistibly charming -- even, you know, sexy.
"I was talking to Tim Kring, the show's creator, and he told me that Hiro's character is completely the work of Masi," says People's Wang. "The way Hiro was written, the character wasn't nearly as funny and interesting as Masi's made him. The way Masi decided to play him has actually changed the direction of how the season's playing out. Did you know that all the Japanese dialogue in the show -- Masi does the translations himself. The script is written in English, and Masi converts the lines that are supposed to be in Japanese into phrases that are appropriate, slangwise. And that's kind of lost on people who don't speak the language. But it's part of what has made his character so authentic and appealing."
That's the ticket, right? It's always been out there -- it's the moral of every made-for-teens TV movie, the end zone of every sitcom's "Very Special Episode": Be at home in your own skin -- don't try to reformat yourself to the world's expectations, be yourself, love yourself, and just maybe, the world will follow.
Of course, we -- and the cast of "Heroes" -- have a long way to go before we can fix the world's problems. For one thing, the online poll at People's Web site, asking readers to vote on the show's sexiest male cast member, has Masi Oka stuck at 2 percent; floppy-haired Milo Ventimiglia is in the lead at 30 percent. I'm not saying that everyone who reads this should head over and crash the vote. But on the other hand, on behalf of Masi, me and hundreds of thousands of other happily (extra)ordinary dweebs, I leave you with this cryptic message:
Save the fanboy. Save the world.
Jeff Yang forecasts new Asian and Asian American consumer trends for the market-research company Iconoculture (www.iconoculture.com). He is the author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and "Eastern Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City. Go to www.ouatic.com/mojomail/mojo.pl to join Jeff Yang's biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian and Asian American pop-culture news.
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