I wanted to pass this question on to you guys, since we have a pretty broad range of friends (as far as nationalities go). My favorite daily comic strip is “For Better or For Worse” by Lynn Johnston. Right now it runs in syndicate, but almost every day she includes some comment about why she drew that strip, what was going on in her life at the time, or what her viewers’ response was. In today’s comic, Michael—the protagonist’s son—is complaining about school starting up again after summer break. His Japanese friend, Brian, however, is excited for school to begin:
In her commentary, she wrote,
“I was told by a number of readers that I was stereotyping Brian (whose family background is Japanese) by making him a smart kid. The funny thing was that none of the complaints came from Japanese families! Is there such a thing as a complimentary insult?”
Her question reminded me of one of our friends, Stanley Yung, who has produced movies like “The People I’ve Slept with” and “#1 Serial Killer” to combat the Asian stereotype by presenting an Asian lead who doesn’t fit the “model citizen” role. In an interview on 8Asians, a blog about Asian American issues, Yung was asked, “What stereotypes will CHINK [#1 Serial Killer] break and what new ones could it potentially create? He replied,
“My intention is to destroy the model minority image and blow it out of the water by depicting the first Asian American serial killer on film. I hope that building a film around an Asian American male protagonist will still be empowering even if he is a bloodthirsty antihero. Besides, I would prefer that Asian American men be feared rather than belittled or patronized. I think the risk of creating any new negative stereotypes is slim considering the historical tide of racial stereotypes we’re currently swimming against.”
It was through projects like this, and through some of my Asian American friends’ honest sharing, that I learned how even “good” stereotypes can be hurtful and/or harmful. From this perspective, it would appear that the answer to Johnston’s question would be “yes”. In the example of the “Asian model citizen”, the harm that results is the belittling and/or emasculating of the Asian male in comparison to the White male. It relegates Asian women to the status of obedient wife (always following the rules), an object of ownership.
A whole book can be written on this topic (and probably has), but this is a blog post so I’ll keep it short. (Certainly, the topic will be revisited in the future. I’m already thinking of other things I’d like to discuss!) But mostly, the comic motivated me to bring this question to you: “Is there such a thing as a complimentary insult?” To our Asian readers, do you enjoy being stereotyped as “smart and hardworking”, or do you empathize more with Yung’s perspective? I ask the same question to our non-Asian friends as well, since stereotypes exist for any and all types of persons. Are there stereotypes about yourself that you embrace? Or are all stereotypes, regardless if they are “good”, actually hurtful (or at least, annoying)? I find that there are some stereotypes about me that I embrace as part of my identity (for example, that the Dutch are penny-pinchers and always looking for a good deal!), while others annoy me. But that’s for another time, as I don’t want to detract from the Asian-specific stereotype in question.
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!