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A television show opens with a sex scene. From a dimly lit room, you hear the protagonist before you see him. He lets out a string of expletives because the condom broke and the girl isn’t on birth control. The couple goes to the store to buy a Plan B pill. The whole situation is awkward, believable, and hilarious in a yikes-glad-that-ain’t-me kind of way. But the situation in itself isn’t completely original or unheard of.
Yet the scene stuck out to me the first time I watched it. As I continued watching, I realized why the opening scene felt so important. Dev Shah, played by Aziz Ansari, is a sexual being. The first time he’s shown on screen, the series’ Indian-American protagonist is naked. And that in itself is what makes the show, “Master of None,” revolutionary.
The emasculation of Asian American men is tied to centuries of history and has served as a key element in their oppression. Prior to 1950, the majority of Chinese immigrants were men. This created enclaves of bachelor communities, primarily in West Coast cities like San Francisco. These all-male groups contributed to public perception that Asian men were sexually deficient, a central aspect of their emasculation. Because of xenophobic immigration legislation, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and racist attitudes towards interracial relationships, these men were condemned to be viewed as sexless opposites to heterosexual white American men.
In the 1930s, Filipino men moved to the United States to work as laborers, working countless hours for mere cents. On their down time, they would frequent taxi halls where they’d defy racist laws by dancing with white women. In response to the dancing they demonized as sexually promiscuous and threatening, white men formed Filipino “hunting parties” that dragged Filipino men out of taxi halls and beat them. The mere possibility of Asian American sexuality was so threatening that white Americans turned to violence to aid in its suppression.
Public perceptions of Asian masculinity went on to influence media representations of Asian American men, particularly in popular films. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood films featured an onslaught of Asian super villains who were, paradoxically, portrayed as both a sexual threat and physically weak, asexual individuals. In the 1984 film “Sixteen Candles,” a foreign exchange student ridiculously named Long Duk Dong is portrayed as, in the words of NPR contributor Kat Chow, a “lecherous but sexually inept loser.” The media representation of Asian American men has led to what literary theorist David L. Eng calls racial castration—how “the Asian American male is both materially and psychically feminized within the context of a larger U.S. culture imaginary.”
In simpler words, Asian American men have been—through histories of immigration, racist legislature, and media—stripped of their manhood, explaining how they’re treated today. When someone claims that they’re “just not attracted to Asian men,” it isn’t a matter of preference. It’s an example of the way Americans reinforce systems of oppression on an individual level.
It is against decades of Asian American emasculation that Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari set out to create “Master of None.” In addition to the show’s Emmy-winning writing, incredible soundtrack, and overall charm, “Master of None” is one of the decade’s most important shows in that it centers characters that break down popular stereotypes.
The plotlines are pushed along by Dev Shah’s romantic endeavours. An entire episode—aptly called First Date—is devoted to Dev’s various first dates with multiple women. In it, they discuss the racial aspects of dating, with many of the women telling him about the “Fetish-y Indian/Latina/short Filipino girl stuff” they’ve encountered.
But throughout these dates, Dev’s masculinity is never discussed—it’s a given, as if Asian American male masculinity has never been questioned. The closest the episode gets to breaching the topic is when Dev comments, “I did read somewhere that the people who do worst on the [dating] apps are Asian men and black women.” But the episode goes on without further acknowledgement. Towards the end of the episode, he ends up in the room of one of his dates, grabbing a condom. They don’t hook up—casual racism gets in the way—but Dev is written in a way that allows him to be sexually desirable. He is suave, well-liked, and the opposite of most representations of Asian American men in media up to this point.
Because of the dearth of casually masculine Asian American figures in our media, Aziz Ansari has emerged as America’s most important leading man. Given that Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, it’s critical that television and films keep up by providing broader representation. Asian American boys need more models of what their masculinity can look like.
Holding onto one narrow version of masculinity can prove dangerous, even deadly, so multiple versions of masculinity need to be represented. Dev Shah’s muted, but attractive, masculinity is a necessary model. There are young Asian American boys out there learning about themselves and their sexuality. If they’re to be accepted as full citizens of this country, it’s critical they have models to look up to.
So, if you find yourself inexplicably attracted to Aziz Ansari, that’s okay. It just means progress is finally happening.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.
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