Hollywood’s Modern, Asian-American Teenager
Hollywood has had quite the appalling past of casting white people as characters written to be ethnically Asian. But despite the mess that was the recent casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Japanese pop culture phenomenon Ghost in the Shell, mainstream media has been able to meet some progress with East Asian-American representation. For once, Asian-American actors and actresses, are finally being cast as Asian characters. With repeated renewals of ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, the success of Master of None’s second season, and the announcement of a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, the past year has seen some improvement. However, these roles are still heavily based on stereotypes. By now, people are very much aware of the tropes that Asian-American actors are pushed towards—the tech whiz, the brain surgeon, the emasculated nerd. While some may argue that these scripted tropes increase the number of roles for said actors, the only thing it really does is place them in a one-dimensional box. Fortunately, there are modern Asian characters are written outside of the said stereotypes. And they can be found in 2016’s coming-of-age movie Edge of Seventeen and CW’s drama television series Riverdale.
Edge of Seventeen is the witty dramedy that received critical acclaim for its raw portrayal of teenage angst. Hailee Steinfeld’s quirky love interest is Korean-American Erwin Kim, portrayed by the endearing Hayden Szeto. In less reputable but equally popular television series Riverdale, Archie Andrew’s football rival is Asian-American Reggie Butler, currently portrayed by Charles Melton. Other than its obvious appeal to teenage audiences, what brought these two pieces together to me was their authentic characterizations of the Asian-American teenage boy.
In Edge of Seventeen, Nadine is a teenager who suffers from social anxiety and isolation—her best friend and older brother start dating against her will, her mother fails to understand any of her priorities. Throughout the movie, she firmly believes that she is seemingly alone. However, it is her friendship (and implied relationship) with Erwin that allows for Nadine to recover from her crippling anxiety. It is Erwin that provides her with pure, emotional support. Erwin is still very much the awkward, bookish character that Asian actors tend to portray. But instead of being the dork that is typically the comic relief or the rejection of the female protagonist, he becomes the only character that Nadine can truly rely on. The character does not rely on the stereotype to make a significant impression. And it is this unique development that to me, separates Erwin Kim’s character from other male, Asian characters. Erwin is not just another secondary character that could be removed from the plot without notice. He is vital to the story.
Then there is Reggie, though less wholesome, who also deviates from the given stereotypes. He is the captain of Riverdale High’s football team. He is Archie Andrews’ rival. He is arrogant and pompous, a typical archetype of all high school dramas. But the anomaly of this campy revamp of the Archie comics is that the typical jock is an Asian guy. Though not a main character like Erwin, he is a significant part of Riverdale’s ensemble cast. And with a major actor playing a trope that is the complete opposite of typical Asian-American stereotype, people are exposed to the idea that Asian actors and actresses can easily play roles outside of the one-dimensional box.
Asian-Americans are often put under the burden of harrowing stereotypes. And when fictional characters of the same age, gender, and race are ridiculed and pushed aside, it encourages the unwanted label. Though not perfect, the Edge of Seventeen and Riverdale created genuine, Asian-American teenagers. They are not manifestations of flat archetypes and base generalizations—they are characters that I could actually relate to.