- Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies by Celine Parreñas Shimizu
Han Lee, the Korean American owner of the Williamsburg Diner in the current prime-time CBS sitcom Two Broke Girls, plays a key role in the negative reviews the show has received. In "Yo, Is This Racist? 2 Broke Girls and the New Long Duk Dong We Never Asked For," blogger Andrew Ti writes that Lee is a "tiny, greedy, sexless man-child" who fulfills "every possible Yellow Panic stereotype with an actually fairly impressive level of thoroughness."1 Ti attempts to account for the long history of racist depictions of Asian Americans, but by generalizing Lee's masculinity, he appears to exclude and dismiss other powerful stereotypes, such as those that construct Asian American femininity.
The strategy is hardly new: How often have similar attempts to critique racialized masculinity depended on marking femininity, and homosexuality, as forgettable and otherwise undesirable positions? Is there anything to be gotten from "asking for" Long Duk Dong, the stereotypical Asian immigrant character from the 1984 hit film Sixteen Candles, whom Ti cites as an antecedent for Lee? Is it possible to construct alternative racial, gender, and sexual identities that do not unwittingly reinforce whiteness and heteronormativity? As Celine Parreñas Shimizu asks, "Is the sex act political for the Asian man because he is no longer sexually absent? But what comprises his sexual presence?" (174, emphasis added). [End Page 128]
Shimizu's new monograph, Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies, argues for a critical attention to negative and undesirable cinematic representations of Asian American masculinity. Rather than dismiss such representations for inhabiting a gender and sexual lack that defines Asian racialization, she contends that more is at stake—namely, these portrayals provide the means to construct an ethical manhood not dependent on control and domination, the very terms of racialized heteronormativity. A politics grounded in what she calls "straitjacket sexuality"—the set of norms that discipline Asian American masculinity as sexless, emasculated, and passive—is insufficient and, more to the point, dangerous. Many of us have been trained to bemoan Long Duk Dong, for instance, for serving as the racial, nonmasculine other to one of the film's main characters, Jake Ryan, "the ideal white male" (117). But while recognizing the historical and cultural contexts for stereotypical characterization is important, it also forecloses an alternative ethical reading Shimizu reveals. While we want to see Long Duk Dong rebel against the racism he faces, he "carves out his own space, derives pleasure, and achieves recognition where there was . . . pain and misrecognition" (121).
The point, which might seem counterintuitive, is crucial within the current moment of Asian American studies and its affiliations with feminist and queer theory. Shimizu writes that we need "to advocate a masculinity that criticizes rather than emulates the one that deems [Asian American men] inadequate" (84). Racialized heteronormativity, it appears, is most dangerous not when it is imposed by dominant others but when it is internalized and reproduced within Asian American critical responses. We might not have put the straitjacket on, but we help perpetuate its constricting bondage. We tighten the straps.
For Shimizu, films are not merely a case study; indeed, they play a constitutive role in shaping alternative ethical relations that can help "to remap what is valued in our society" (9, emphasis original). Many of the Asian American male characters she examines deliver a care for others that detractors find simply pathetic and emasculating. James Bond's heroic masculinity, for instance, is defined not by compassion but by sexual conquest, standing in sharp contrast to the characters Bruce Lee played that afford the possibility of "empathizing with others who occupy [different] structural positions" (5) precisely because normative masculinity is out of reach. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas's ethical philosophy on the alterity of the face that renders the self vulnerable, she privileges vulnerability and lack. Shimizu writes about how recognizing our vulnerability can lead us beyond...