Depictions of white American men with Asian women increased with American military involvement in Asian countries, first during World War II and then during the Vietnam era, said C.N. Le, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Movies typically presented Asian women as exotic and sexually alluring, he said, although the portrayal wavered between the dangerous and conniving Asian female (the so-called Dragon Lady stereotype) and the passive and submissive character (the geisha or concubine). Asian men, by contrast, weren’t just the enemy of the Americans; they were the oppressors of Asian women, who relied on the American as her “white knight.”
“It’s a very powerful media and cultural image, and I think Hollywood still runs with that,” Le says. “It appeals to a core part of the audience — white men.”
Le says that audiences more readily accept the Caucasian-Asian pairing than black-white romantic relations, which have a much longer and more fraught history in America. “There are still a lot of unresolved issues regarding” black-white relationships, he says. “The perception is that there isn’t as much of a drastic difference” between Asian Americans and white Americans.
Frito-Lay says it had nothing more complicated in mind than to create an entertaining commercial when it produced its “Bah-zing!” spot. The PepsiCo subsidiary markets the snack product primarily to young men, so it was natural for the ad to depict “some bros hanging out, sharing an epic experience,” as spokesman Chris Kuechenmeister puts it.
The boyfriend and girlfriend weren’t cast with any specific person or racial identity in mind, Kuechenmeister says. Instead, “we went with [actors] who brought the characters to life.”
Given that Asian Americans were once overlooked altogether in advertising, the current spate of Asian-Caucasian pairings may represent a kind of progress, Le says.
In fact, these contemporary interracial couples are different from those of the past, Nishime says. The key difference, she says, is that the relationship is presented as “normal,” without the prejudices and cross-cultural baggage of the past. Except for the Heineken ad — in which the Asian American woman is portrayed as part of a strange and exotic world — the women aren’t the foreign or “mysterious” Dragon Ladies, Nishime notes: “In most of these commercials, the relationships are fairly mundane.”
Imada sees change coming, albeit slowly. In the “Harold & Kumar” movies, he points out, the title characters (who are of Korean and East Indian descent) have non-Asian girlfriends. And on “The Walking Dead,” the post-apocalyptic drama series on AMC, a running plotline is a romance between a young Korean American man and a white woman over the objections of her father.
But Imada, an advertising man, thinks TV commercials, rather than movies or TV, will show the way toward more imaginative and broader representations of Asian Americans and other minorities. He sees an increasing number of non-white ad-agency creative directors and corporate marketing executives, and a strong business rationale: Asian Americans constitute about 5 percent of the U.S. population, a demographic that marketers will ignore only at their peril, he says.
A small but telling sign: McDonald’s this year aired a spot in which a young Asian American guy turns to his white, red-headed girlfriend and blurts, “I love you!” Seemingly stunned by the remark, she hesitantly replies that he’s “the Egg McMuffin of boyfriends.”
It was a rare instance, and may have been the first, in which a TV commercial reversed the usual Asian and Caucasian roles.
Progress, in any case, Imada says.