How John Cho Defeated the Asian-American Actor Stereotypes
How John Cho Defeated the Asian-American Actor Stereotypes
Last year, I read a book by Alex Tizon called Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, which I picked up even though the title too nearly resembled the Tobias Funke’s memoir from Arrested Development, The Man Inside Me. In the book, Tizon laments the representation of Asian men in popular media—or really, the lack thereof. He writes of Sex and the City: “Something like 2 million Asians live in the New York metropolitan area, but Asians hardly appear in the show at all—symbolic annihilation at its best.” Symbolic annihilation: the under-representation of a group of people, usually in media. Asian men rarely show up in TV or film. And when they do, they often are at best sexless nerds, and at worst offensive stereotypes.
Strangely, John Cho is an Asian-American man in Hollywood that has been able to avoid these stereotypes. It is why I love John Cho. It is why the internet loves John Cho enough to Photoshop his face into movie posters as a reaction to Hollywood’s whitewashing problem. With Star Trek Beyond out today, this seemed like a good time to look at John Cho’s most important roles.
- BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
The indie film Better Luck Tomorrow follows four Asian-American high school students who are obsessed with studying for the SATs. They are treated like nerds by their peers until they start selling drugs. John Cho plays the cool guy, as evidenced by this cool motorcycle is he riding like a very cool guy.
The Asian men in this movie are smart, industrious, hard working. They perform well in school and in the workplace. And yet, these stereotypes have insidious foundations as to what they imply: the Asian work ethic exists to compensate for a lack of creativity. Often this notion gets taken a step further, insinuating that Asians also lack compassion and ambition and leadership skills, that they are really best suited to take orders.
Still, while Better Luck Tomorrow is by no means a great film, it was the first time I’d seen any piece of popular media that was specifically about the Asian-American experience. In 2002, it felt mind-blowing that a movie starring people who looked like me could even exist.
Bonus: it would launch the career of director Justin Lin, who would go on to helm the Fast and the Furious franchise, the most diverse action franchise. Unless you count Transformers as people of color.
- AMERICAN PIE
Cho had a small recurring role in the original American Pie trilogy. In the first one, he famously explains the definition of a MILF, then proceeds to chant “MILF” at a framed picture for several minutes. He is credited as “John (MILF Guy #2).”
In the second American Pie, Cho pees off a balcony into Sean William Scott’s mouth, who confuses the urine with warm champagne.
In the third American Pie, American Wedding, Cho’s only line is telling Jason Biggs, “Don’t be such a pussy.”
As far as I know, this is the first mainstream appearance of the Asian male as a horrible bro. In a strange way, as crude and misogynistic as Cho’s character is in these crude and misogynistic films, they at least show that Asian men are not just quiet nerds. They too can be awful, just like white men. If this isn’t symbolic inclusion, I’m not sure what is.
- BIG FAT LIAR
Cho continued to have minor parts in largely terrible films. In Big Fat Liar, he played Dusty Wong, a hip movie director. Big Fat Liar starred Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes as they sought revenge on a vindictive movie producer played by Paul Giamatti.
When cast, Cho was asked to do the role with an accent. He turned down the part, saying he didn’t want young people thinking it was okay to laugh at someone’s accent. I imagine it must’ve been difficult for Cho to turn down a part, seeing as how he struggled to find even minor roles as an Asian man. In fact, in Cho’s entire career, he has not once played a character with a fake accent.
The director agreed to let Cho do the part without an accent, and as we all know, Big Fat Liar went onto win forty Oscars that year.
- HAROLD AND KUMAR
Harold and Kumar is John Cho’s first major leading role. You could also consider these three movies “teen sex comedies” in the vein of American Pie, with the added wrinkle that its leads are grown-up Asian men.
Even while the films are interesting in their constant awareness of race, the three Harold and Kumar movies suffer from the same common problems with “stoner comedy romps”: they’re extremely male-centered and mostly unfunny. [Ed. note: WOW, OBJECTION. I will defend the first and third installments to my death.]
- STAR TREK
JJ Abrams’s Star Trek reboot marks a turning point in Cho’s career where he goes from little-known bit actor to a household name, at least among my parents.
John Cho, of course, plays Sulu—a role originally played by George Takei, the first Asian-American to have a very popular, very mediocre Twitter account.
Usually, Asians are cast as weird sidekicks who are relegated to “hacking the mainframe” while the white protagonists do all the impressive punching and kicking. In this Star Trek reboot, Sulu is the muscle. He’s the only one on the Enterprise crew with any fighting skills. When asked what kind of combat training he has, Sulu replies, “fencing”—an answer that would also satisfy my parents.
- TOTAL RECALL
The 2012 Total Recall is a version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger action classic remade to appeal to people with no taste. In it, Cho has a small part playing a character improbably named McClane. No Asian has ever been named McClane. No Asian in the future—even on Mars—will be named McClane.
Anyway, there’s nothing notable about Cho’s role here. I just wanted to show a picture of him with blonde hair.
From an article in the Washington Post: “If his new ABC show Selfie stays on the air long enough, John Cho may make history as television’s first Asian romantic lead.”
Selfie was cancelled after 13 episodes. As far as I can tell, this is before Cho and the “quirky girl” ever hook up. This is what I gathered from Wikipedia, because I couldn’t make it through more than a couple episodes.
In some ways, though, the spirit of Selfie lives on in Tina Fey’s Netflix-produced comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which stars Ellie Kemper, another redhead who becomes romantically involved with an Asian-American named Dong Nguyen. Never mind that Dong—who is supposed to be Vietnamese—is played by a Korean-American actor and speaks Korean. We are witnessing the birth of a strange new trope: redheads dating Asian men.
Is this a good thing? I don’t know. But considering that Asian men are so rarely depicted in any kind of relationship in popular media, I’ll take it.
John Cho has yet to step into a big, leading role. But at least we’re taking steps toward a Hollywood that could make that possible. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. But in the meantime, we can rely on people’s clever use of Photoshop to imagine that it can.