- Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation
Darrell Y. Hamamoto makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of race, representation, and power with this comprehensive study of television programs about Asians and Asian Americans in the United States. His survey ranges widely, spanning the entire five decades of commercial network television and covering every conceivable genre, including situation comedies, serial dramas, made-for-television movies, action-adventure programs, westerns, documentary reports, variety and musical performances, talk shows, news reports, and even late night, program-length commercials.
Given the discriminatory mechanisms that routinely deny Asian Americans and members of other racialized “minority” groups access to the television industry’s key artistic and administrative positions, and given the medium’s historic over-representation of White middle-class individuals and experiences, one might expect the key issue in this book to be the dearth of Asian American images on television. Yet, Hamamoto’s research shows that television images of Asians and Asian Americans have been frequent, pervasive, and significant, even though they have almost always been degrading, insulting, and implicated in the most vicious and pernicious forms of racial ridicule and stereotyping. It is not difficult to explain the absence of positive images of Asian Americans on United States television, but the volume, intensity, and obsessive repetition of negative images that Hamamoto uncovers demands explanation, analysis, and interpretation.
The particular images deployed against Asian Americans on television will be familiar to most students of Anglo-American racism and White supremacy. Over and over again, Hamamoto’s research shows that television programs represent Asian Americans as perpetually foreign and never American. They depict Asians as murderous and mysterious, as amorous or amoral, as symbols of danger, refuge, inspiration, and forgiveness, but never as people with diverse histories, needs, interests, or ambitions of their own. Television representations draw upon the storehouse of sexual racism pioneered in Hollywood films and popular novels, depicting Asian American and Asian men as effeminate while constructing hypersexualized images of Asian and Asian American women. Given the infinitely plural and diverse ways of being Asian or Asian American, why do these exceedingly narrow frames appear again and again in commercial culture?
Hamamoto argues that media racism exists to hide the crimes of history. [End Page 104] Anti-Asian racism in the United States, in his view, grew logically out of the White supremacist narratives fashioned in the past to justify genocide against Native Americans, to rationalize the enslavement of African people in America, and to legitimate the conquest of Mexican and Native American lands. Thus, a racialized story was already in place before people of Asian origin arrived in the United States in large numbers in the middle of the nineteenth century. Subsequent stories emerged from the particular abuses enacted on Asians in America — stories about the sexual “peculiarities” of Asian American men and women served to hide the legal barriers that Whites created against family formation among immigrants from Asia. The history of United States imperialism in the Pacific and wars against the Philippines, Japan, Korea, China, and Viet Nam loses its economic and political dimensions when represented as encounters between “innocent” Americans (almost always White) and enemy soldiers marked by their sadism, or native civilians characterized by submissive gratitude for the presence in their countries of White Americans.
Similarly, caricatures of nineteenth-century Chinese cooks, laundry workers, and laborers make low wage labor the peculiar cultural property of Asian immigrants rather than a result of racist exploitation, while the specter of avaricious Asian and Asian American businessmen in the modern world deflects resentments and anxieties about capitalism onto the bodies and cultural identities of the Asian other. These maneuvers move Asians and Asian Americans out of history and into nature, and they conceal the actual history of conquest, exploitation, and racist vigilante terror behind a mask of “cultural misunderstandings.” Hamamoto argues that these cultural constructs have deadly serious social consequences, that they loom behind and legitimize acts of anti-Asian violence, and they perpetuate the scapegoating of Asian Americans for...