- A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation by Nguyen Tan Hoang
Nguyen Tan Hoang’s A View from the Bottom takes somewhat counterintuitive aim: to highlight gay male Asian and Asian American bottomhood as “an advantageous position” (21) of pleasure and critical thought and to resist the heterosexist remasculinization of Asian America. Nguyen’s positional insistence demands a delicate balance between “high” gay male theory, which has yet to account adequately for racial difference, and Asian American criticism, which still grapples with queer subjectivities and “low” materials like pornography. Against these currents, the author pits “low theory,” a fitting description for his eclectic visual archive and theoretical breadth. Low theory allows Nguyen to probe the gay male bottom position when it meets Asian American racialization. It is in this intersection that he diagnoses a state of racial consciousness that he calls “bottomhood.” With its unusual subject matter, A View from the Bottom boldly attempts to demonstrate the nuances of “bottomhood” as a fraught social identity and an overlooked Asian American subject position.
Chapter 1 most concretely exemplifies Nguyen’s thesis and method in its detailed reading of pornographic films featuring Asian and Asian American actors, particularly top-turned-bottom Brandon Lee. This chapter also introduces the relational dichotomy of white top/Asian bottom, which serves as the premise for the entire book. This rigid binary sees Brandon Lee’s ground-breaking Asian topness in gay pornography as a sign of his assimilation into white America vis-à-vis his “fresh of the boat” costars. In the last few pages of the chapter, Nguyen curiously breaks the gaze on Brandon Lee and shifts his attention to other gay Asian porn actors cast in what Nguyen calls “an accented pornography.” While this brief analytical move ushers in provoking thoughts on the actors’ intraracial pleasure and breaks through the confines of racially charged staging, it also lays bare the lack of cohesion in the chapter as a whole. Nguyen’s critique finds its most provocative moment here when it abandons the white top/Asian bottom constraint, but this perspective fails to gain momentum since the binary continues unabated in the other chapters. [End Page 165]
Chapters 2 and 3 expand the book’s archive to cover two popular films, John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992), respectively. These chapters broaden bottomhood to encompass asexuality perceived in the Filipino houseboy Anacleto in Reflections and shamed heterosexuality in the case of the Chinese sugar daddy in The Lover. The temporal and geographical scope of the book is striking across these chapters: from French colonial Indochina in the 1920s to the U.S. South in the 1960s. Nguyen’s semiotics centering on the “bottom,” literal and symbolic, holds these divergent texts together and showcases the conceptual capaciousness of Asian bottomhood across time and space qualified by the author’s concise contextualization. Anacleto as an “asexual bottom” brings forth “a bottom worldview” (97) that permeates and unsettles the heteronormative order of the Southern white military world in Reflections. On the other hand, the Chinese man’s “gorgeous ass” mooning in The Lover titillates with its “potential for penetrability” (139) and tampers his threatening heterosexuality. “Bottomhood” thus moves beyond the realm of sexuality into multisited (post)colonial racial configurations. As the book renders into bottoms both an effeminate, supposedly asexual Filipino houseboy and a Chinese pedophile ostensibly topping a white girl, these two subjects in turn bring bottomhood to its limits and threaten to dilute it altogether. Can bottomhood succinctly represent effeminacy, asexuality, vulnerability, and even heterosexual shame? These chapters answer in the affirmative, but their unstinting generalizations may give the reader pause.
Chapter 4 turns to some experimental films that respond to the pornographic representations studied in chapter 1. Reading video works by Asian and diasporic artists such as Ming-Yuen S. Ma, Wayne Yung, Tony Ayres, Michael Shaowanasai, Erica Cho, and Nguyen himself, the chapter...