There’s nothing inherently wrong with stereotypes, after all, they tend to come from the truth. Stereotypes exist for a reason. I certainly had a typical overbearing Asian immigrant mother who demanded the best from me and was a good little Asian who got good grades in the gifted program and played tennis and violin. But the problem has always been with the substitution of actual character development with stereotypes creating hollow caricatures often for laughs. That said, Asian characters shouldn’t be constantly defined by them.
For people who are used to seeing stereotypes as a substitute for character development, it’s incredibly important that there be characters who strongly buck those stereotypes and exist firmly as their own person. After all, even when characters —especially accented characters— exhibiting stereotypes are full of well-rounded characters who are more than that. For example, viewers who are used to not taking Asian characters seriously won’t look past that. This is what Asian characters like Jessica Wong from Fresh Off The Boat are so often dismissed as just the typical dragon lady in spite of the series giving her a rich history and clear characterization. Add in the conversation surrounding the efforts to have an Asian American cast as Danny Rand in the Iron Fist, and its clear that there is a deep lack of understanding of how being in the diaspora works (but Danny is supposed to be a fish out of water in Asia! How can that be if he’s Asian?!). All of which shows how people think Asians can’t play more than stereotypes.
So here are some Asian characters you can see on your TV right now who even the densest person has to admit don’t fit into their image of what Asians “should be.”
Ezekiel Jones – The Librarians
A world renowned thief with a heart of gold buried underneath a don’t give a damn attitude raised by a petty thief who took in children and trained them to follow in her footsteps Ezekiel Jones is certainly a unique character. His physical skills are in acrobatically avoiding laser grids not martial arts, his technological skills are about breaking past security not programming, really the most stereotypical asian thing is his drive to be the best…and he is and never lets anyone forget it.
Blink – The Gifted
There’s been a lot written about the east asian girl with the coloured streak of hair trope showing she’s “not like other asians” and how that streak is their substitute for actual characterization just like the glasses and calculator is for the studious asian boy but Blink, with her whole head of coloured hair and loner with a hard past history, is definitely a full character.
Eddie Huang – Fresh Off The Boat
In the episode Breaking Chains it’s revealed that Eddie has used the ignorance and white guilt of the teachers at his middle school to get out of tests and joining clubs and get free periods and when his younger brother Emery comes to school just wanting to do well and participate he gets mad that Emery wants to live up to all the stereotypes he wants to dismantle so Eddie can be himself. This episode so beautifully shows how you don’t have to have either/or and that the problem is when characters are reduced to being just the stereotype and not their whole person (and don’t worry there’s another list coming of characters who may superficially be stereotypical but aren’t at all because as the episode notes, you don’t have to change yourself for others). Eddie is an Asian on tv who loves rap and hates school and doesn’t live up to any of the model minority myths.
Andi and Bex Mack – Andi Mack
One of the great things about Disney Channel is their dedication to making sure BIPOC kids don’t always have to compromise and see themselves in only white characters and I try to think of how much a show like Andi Mack would’ve meant to me as a kid and get really emotional about it. Andi Mack is just another teen, boy crazy, creative and loves hanging out with her friends and Bex, a rebellious motorcycle riding kind of mess of an adult, is thought to be sister but actually mother who got pregnant as a teen and was sent away by her parents who raised Andi as their daughter. It’s a soap opera premise and so sweet and wonderful.
Marinette Dupain Cheng – Miraculous Ladybug
A half-Chinese aspiring fashion designer and Parisian superhero is certainly not the typical Asian you see on tv. Splitting life between boys and school and saving the city Marinette doesn’t have time to worry about what people think she should be and just is the delightful powerful character she is.
Josh Chan – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
I have two cousins who are total SoCal Asian Bros (to the eternal frustration of my Tito) and yeah it’s another stereotype but it’s not one the majority think of when thinking about Asian stereotypes and Josh Chan embodying that role on tv is so essential, especially since he is a full character and not just the stereotype. I’m glad that Rachel Bloom has said this was always going to be the ex-boyfriend and that the CW went with it.
Jason Mendoza and Tahani Al-Jamil – The Good Place
Both of these characters started the show as everything you’d expect from Asian characters. The silent monk and the overachieving model minority. And both of them so thoroughly dismantled that initial impression that they can’t not be on here. This interview with Manny Jacinto hits the issue straight-on about needing more hot dumb Asians and this interview with Jameela Jamil about how Tahani has progressed and her armor of perfection is fantastic.