Balding hipster-nerd brings his demure girlfriend to his boys’-night-out poker game. Girlfriend looks like an easy mark. But as the game unfolds, she’s not what she seems. Shedding her prim blouse and headband for a tight tank top, sunglasses and headphones, she turns out to be a smooth operator. “Bah-zing!” she says triumphantly at the end of the spot, laying down a hand that wipes the guys out.
This scenario, from a new TV spot for Ruffles Ultimate chips, amusingly busts one stereotype (women can’t beat men at poker) but subtly reinforces another familiar ad trope. The boyfriend: Ordinary looking — and Caucasian. The girlfriend: Beautiful — and Asian American.
White guy and Asian American woman. Now where have we seen this before? Actually, a number of places:
●Chevrolet this summer featured an Asian American woman playing second fiddle to her Caucasian husband as he haggled with a car dealer (“Good job, baby,” she coos as hubby seals the deal).
●Heineken imagined an exotic date in a commercial last year that paired a Caucasian guy with an exotic companion (Samantha Rex, a Thai American model-
actress). Together, they cavorted through a nightclub filled with colorful characters.
●Apple touted its iPhone in an ad in which a white soldier watches rapturously via the phone’s FaceTime feature as his very pregnant wife (Asian American) undergoes a sonogram.
Asian Americans have gained a presence in commercials in recent years, with companies such as McDonald’s, Verizon, AT&T, Wal-Mart and others featuring them as individual characters and in a variety of settings.
But when it comes to depicting couples, the portrayal goes mostly in one direction: White guy and Asian American woman. The combination may be the most common depiction of mixed-race couples in popular culture; African Americans are rarely glimpsed with white mates in TV shows or commercials, for example. It may even be more common than an Asian American man paired with an Asian American woman.
And it’s a sore point among some Asian Americans.
A coalition of Asian American activists, known as the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, has “regularly” raised objections to the image in meetings with studio and network representatives, says Bill Imada, chairman of IW Group, a Los Angeles-based ad agency. “It seems to be okay if the man is white and the woman is Asian. The community thinks it typecasts Asian women as exotic or as playthings.”
At the same time, Imada says, “Asian males are just not viewed as being lovers, as being manly enough, or sexy enough, to carry a story or a commercial. The idea is that they’re not strong enough to woo a white woman. So they don’t get the roles” and are rarely paired with women of any race.
Ads featuring Caucasian males and Asian females play off a long history of such portrayals, says LeiLani Nishime, a professor and Asian studies scholar at the University of Washington. “I think part of the comfort with those images comes from the way they affirm a lot of stereotypes we already have about asexual Asian men and sexually available Asian women,” she says.
Such relationships have been the star-crossed heart of dozens of movies (“Shogun,” “The World of Suzie Wong” and “The Joy Luck Club” to name three), a recurring feature of numerous TV shows (“Ally McBeal,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Gilmore Girls” and the new “Elementary,” with Lucy Liu), and a theme of Broadway musicals (“South Pacific,” “Miss Saigon”). Decades earlier, it was even the basis of an opera (“Madama Butterfly”).
In TV news, the pairing of an older white man with a younger, Asian American, female co-anchor has become so familiar that some in the news business refer to it as “the Connie Chung effect.” Chung was the first Asian American female to co-anchor a network newscast (with Dan Rather) in 1993.
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.