The Model Minority
The Model Minority trope is one of the most harmful stereotypes of Asian-Americans because of its deep integration into American society and its ability to be seemingly beneficial to the community while maintaining a hidden violence. The trope is characterized by the Asian submissive, over-achiever with little emotional life, blessed with natural intelligence, determined to integrate seemingly into American society, and so flawless that they are robbed of humanity and act similarly to robots and machines. Characteristics associated with the model minority myth can be seen in Charlie Chan’s assimilation into American society and submissive demeanor. The basis behind this trope was furthered during when numerous Chinese Americans heavily focused on distancing themselves from Japanese Americans. As an example of such attempts, Chinese American organizations distributed pins that exclaimed, “I’m Chinese,” or “I Hate [the Japanese] Worse Than You Do.” Public and political support for Chinese Americans soon followed to reduce anti-Chinese sentiments and repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, in part because of the United States government’s desire to mend its relationship with China. The Citizen’s Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion deployed a strategy to recast Chinese Americans as nonviolent, law-abiding citizens. The communities and cultural values of Chinese Americans were cast as the solutions to social ills, and Chinese Americans quickly became prime examples of assimilation into the United States.1 The model minority stereotype was weaponized in the 1950s with the rise of the Civil Right Movement as a tool to create a divide between Black Americans and Asian Americans who supported the movement. It was a tool to delegitimize the claims by Black Americans and various civil rights leaders that institutionalized racism was embedded into the United States’ system and positioned the Asian American community against Black American ‘ghettos’.2 In a U.S. News and World report from 1966, the trope was utilized in this very context and the following was written: “at a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities…one such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work…not a welfare check.”3 With this divide created between Asian Americans and other minorities, the model minority becomes the a modern yellow peril as people hold disdain for Asian achievement and it becomes a cause for resentment. Such resentment is not limited to other minority groups, but present in the white, American community as the continued representation of Asian-Americans as doctors and other high-paying jobs within media has provoked a fears that the Asian-Americans are stealing jobs; a narrative that mirrors that of the 19th century when Asian Americans posed a competitive threat for whites in the American railroad and farming job markets. The harm of this trope stems not only from its weaponization against other minority groups and fear of job stealing, but it likewise erases of the struggles of individual Asian-Americans and the unequal opportunities afforded to those of different Asian ethnicities. The stereotype diminishes the struggles of Asian from poorer backgrounds because it has created belief that that will simply work their way to success given that they are provide d thee natural gifts of intelligence and determination. To highlight the disparities within the Asian-American community, pay reports show that for every dollar the average white man makes in the United States, an Asian Indian woman makes $1.21, a Taiwanese woman makes $1.16, a Samoan woman makes $0.62, and a Burmese woman makes $0.50.4 The damaging portrayal of all Asian-Americans as the same is buried underneath a stereotype that acts as a compliment and prevents targeted assistance for various Asian-American groups that face discrimination and poverty every single day. The model minority myth is clever lie that says Asian-Americans are doing well economically and academically and therefore have benefitted from an elevated status among people of color, erasing centuries of systematic discrimination that persists today. Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian-Americans in light of the model minority myth perpetuates the stereotype and furthers the invisible harm affecting the Asian-American community. Film does not shy away from utilizing the trope in various forms and even representing it in films intended for children. Hollywood’s ability to reach all sectors of life and people allows public opinion and historical stereotypes to embed themselves in public narrative; because of this, the model minority trope remains a poison to our society today.
In Goonies, the character Data stands as a representation of the model minority trope pinned on Asian-Americans. Data is portrayed as the intellectual character of the friend group who is skilled in the field of math and science. Aside from his discriminating name that labels him simply in the light of these STEM talents, Data is given given an accent and often misunderstood for what he is trying to say as a second-language speaker. This highlights how the model minority trope paints Asian-Americans as constantly trying to assimilate into society, rarely addressing the fact that numerous Asian-Americans were born in the United States and have no form of accent. Alongside this characteristic of the model minority trope, Data is also given no emotional life in the form of relationships or desire for a relationship. He shows no interest in the girls that become integrated into the group unlike the rest of the boys and remains solely focused on his inventions and how they can aid the group. Overall, Data’s character is given little depth beyond his inventions, intellect, meek and fearful demeanor, and foolish manner. Donner, Richard, director.5
Jurassic Park Film Franchise
In the Jurassic Park franchise, we are introduced to Dr. Henry Wu, a Chinese American who is the chief genetic engineer behind the recreation of the dinosaurs. Dr. Wu plays a minor role in the first Jurassic Park film and one of the primary antagonists of the Jurassic World branch of the franchise. It is important to note that he is the only Asian character given speaking lines in the first half of the franchise; subjected to play the nerdy and intelligent character with little else known about him throughout the entirety of the film. Dr. Wu makes a reappearance in Jurassic World where his personality is given a bit more depth, but he remains obsessed with his science and only cares for his creation of the Indominus Rex.6 The character of Dr. Wu sheds light on how Hollywood contains characters of minority ethnicities as simple diversity ploys, and cares little for the actual personalities of such characters, leaving them to gross stereotypes that require little thought on the part of the filmmakers.7
The Dangers of the Model Minority Myth
Below is a well-worded argument by English talk show host, John Oliver. Within this video he details the dangers of the model minority myth and some of its originations. This video is a useful to watch to understand the various complexities of the trope as well as a helpful tool for anyone who is a visual and audio learner.
- Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Second ed. Malden, MA, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
- Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York: Simon et Schuster Paperbacks, 2016.
- “US News & World Report – Dartmouth College.” Accessed December 10, 2021.https://www.dartmouth.edu/~hist32/Hist33/US%20News%20&%20World%20Report.pdf
- “AAPI Equal Pay.” NAPAWF. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://www.napawf.org/equalpay.
- The Goonies. Warner Bros., 1985. 1 hr., 54 min.
- Giacchino, Michael, director. Jurassic World. Universal Pictures, 2015. 2 hr., 4 min.
- Spielberg, Stephen, director. Jurassic Park. Universal Pictures, 1993. 2 hr., 7 min.