The Menacing Villian

The Menacing Villain trope originated from the Yellow Peril discourse around Chinese immigration in the late 19th century. The emergence of the character of Fu Manchu infused this stereotype into Hollywood, who held onto the trope throughout the course of history in correlation with U.S. political affairs. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 led to the emergence of the menacing Japanese villain as both a reflection of American prejudice and propaganda for the war efforts. The Asian villain stereotype flipped with ease in the coming conflicts with other Asian nations and during various other societal conflicts. The constant perpetuation of this trope indicates the inherent bias that has persisted throughout American history and the lack of true differentiation between Asians of different ethnicities. Racial imagery in this form is surprisingly adaptable and has proved to be damaging to the Asian American community. 

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Throughout the course of WWII, Hollywood transposed its focus from Chinese to Japanese villainy, and instead utilized the Chinese as the depiction of what Asians should be, attempting to mend their relationship with the nation and its people. This all shifted in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under the rule of Mao Zedong. Yellow Peril sentiments abruptly reacquainted themselves with the same pre-war disdain they held for the Chinese and became linked to the Red Menace.1 The Chinese now not only represented a threat to the American people, but to the entire world. These sentiments were infused into the film The Manchurian Candidate where the sinister Dr. Yen Lo delights in mentally torturing his captives, brainwashing them, and utilizing them for murder. The film even goes so far as to depict Dr. Yen Lo brainwashing a crowd while standing in front of menacing portraits of Stalin and Mao Zedong. Connections to the originations of the Hollywood Asian villian are made throughout the film and Dr. Yen Lo is described as “that Chinese cat…smiling like Fu Manchu.”2 This statement confirms the notoriousness of this trope and how deeply it has been engrained into society since its beginning. As a spy for Communist China living in the United States, Dr. Yen Lo is shown appearing seemingly innocent as he pauses his nefarious plans to shop at Macy’s and buy gifts for his wife.3 This blend between cruelty and assimilation reveals the fear of communist spies within the United States and the conception that assimilation was not enough to keep Chinese Americans from being corrupted by the ways of their ethnic nation. The ease with which American culture and Hollywood increasingly regarded the Japanese as benevolent and the Chinese as the, once again, evil and diabolical threat indicates how little Americans distinguish between different nationalities of Asian peoples and the harbored Yellow Peril sentiments that persist in society.4

The Green Berets (1968)

In May 1954, political leader Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces took control over the northern section of Vietnam, leading to the Geneva Conference in July 1954 where the nation was split at the 17t parallel. Following this, anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem took control from the current emperor to become president of South Vietnam. After this transition of power, The United States under President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged full support to Diem to defeat communist sympathizers in the south. This sparked the deadly and brutal armed conflict of the Vietnam War.5 Unsurprisingly, the nationality of the Asian villain changed once again with the onset of the Vietnam War as seen in The Green Berets. This film takes the form of a Cowboys vs. Indians film where the ‘superior’ American soldier battles to the death against the ‘savage’ and ‘barbarous’ Vietnamese soldiers.6 The film is an immense simplicity for the atrocities that occurred in Vietnam, committed both by the United States and Vietnam. The Green Berets is a clear tool of propaganda that attempts to alter the reality of the Vietnam War and portray the American cause as entirely righteous. Hollywood took the tone of American officials who were convinced that the fall of Southeast Asia to communism would cause communism to spread throughout the world (often referred to as the ‘domino theory’7), affirming the need for the United States to intervene and save the world from such a fate. Instead of an authentic depiction of the war as a destruction of human life that led to as many as 2 million civilian casualties and nearly 1.1 million North Vietnamese, 200,000 U.S., and 250,000 South Vietnamese military casualties8, Hollywood succumbed to clichés, unable to do away with their discrimination against Asian peoples.9

Rising Sun (1993)

Rising Sun further perpetuates the Menacing Villain trope with its depiction of Japanese businessmen that pose a threat to the American industry, threatening to take it over through deceit and murder. This villainous form was influenced by the U.S. economic recession of the 1980s that led many American workers and business to resent the growing economy of Japan and feel as though such corporations were ‘stealing’ U.S. markets. Such fears were present throughout much of American society as one 1992 poll reveals: a year before Rising Sun was released, it was reported that “Americans rank the Japanese economic threat higher than the Russian military threat.” The United States had been in a recession for eighteen months when the poll was conducted and three years, Japanese corporations purchased several high-profile American businesses and real estate.10 Such fears of a Japanese takeover are evident when one considers Chinese American Vincent Chin who was brutally murdered by white autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan on June 19, 1982 due to their belief that he was Japanese and blamed Japan for the current recession.11 Rising Sun takes ahold of this Japanese enemy and creates a convoluted plot that centers on a Japanese corporation’s bid to buy Microcon, a leading-edge American computer company, that is vital for developing technology for the U.S. military. Framing the film in terms of war Michael Crichton, author of the novel version of the film written in 1992, says in an interview, “the Japanese have invented a new kind of trade—adversarial trade, trade like war, trade intended to wipe out the competition.”12 The director of the film echoed such fears in later interviews and didn’t shy away from fully portraying the Japanese film characters as shifty, criminal, and an overall threat to American society. The film also exacerbates the Japanese enemy by suggesting that such market behavior allows wealthy, Japanese businessmen to exploit American women. The character of Lieutenant Graham searches a white, female victim’s purse and after finding bills, Japanese credit cards, and Japanese cigarettes states, “These little guys eat shit in Tokyo. Crammed into subways, working in big companies. They come here and they’re rich and free. They all want to fuck a Rose Bowl queen. And then they kill the Rose Bowl queen on the Nakamoto boardroom table”14

Executive Decision (1996)

Executive Decision
turns its attention to a new American enemy: those of Arab and Muslim decent. Arab nations experienced a growth in economic power due to their hold on the petroleum market; the tensions surrounding such power was aggravated in the 1970s when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries instituted a petroleum embargo that resulted in increased prices and gas shortages. Around this time, radical groups supporting the liberation of Palestine or other Arab and Muslim causes increased, causing American media and news to focus their attention on such events. Headlines of bombings, kidnappings, and airplane hijackings made frequent appearances, and a fear of such nations was cemented in 1979 with the kidnapping and holding of 52 American hostages for over a year. Such developments created a new Asian villain in the form of the Arab and Muslim terrorist. Executive Decision revolves its plot around the white protagonist saving the entirety of the U.S. Eastern seaboard from an Islamic terrorist leader who has suicide bombers infiltrating hotels and airline hijackers attempting to poison the American people with stolen Russian nerve gas.15 This film does not stand alone in its depiction of those of Arab decent, and this particular perpetuation of the Asian villain has proved especially harmful since the events of September 11, 2001. These events seemed to confirm Hollywood’s portrayal of this ethnicity and harmful stereotypes continue to persist against Arab and Muslim Americans. The increased surveillance, hate crimes, continued stereotyping, and profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans is worsened by Hollywood’s portrayal of Arab terrorists in films such as Executive Decision. Through this film and the effects such stereotyping has had on groups of American citizens, the great harm of the perpetuation of the menacing Asian villain becomes ever clearer and proves that such tropes should be dismantled. 


Die Another Day (2002)

Die Another Day was produced in the wake of George W. Bush’s designation of North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech and North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January 2002. This film acts as a U.K./U.S. coproduction that pairs legendary agent 007, James Bond, with U.S. NSA agent, Jinx. The film’s central villain is a North Korean colonel by the name of Zao who seeks world domination through the utilization of a weapon that harnesses the power of the sun. James Bond is also shown to be tortured by various North Koreans and has subsequent nightmares throughout the film following such events; this reveals the Cold War paranoia of U.S. society and the remnants of North Korean suspicions following the Korean War. Alongside such post-Cold War sentiments, the events of 9/11 led to further tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Post-9/11, the White House and the Pentagon framed North Korea as a grand threat in possession of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons that would be used to manipulate the Western world. The fear of North Korea providing weapons to various terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda also existed and are evident in the portrayal of Zao with such a nefarious, world-ending weapon.17  This film highlights yet another form of Hollywood’s ability to act on political and societal conflict, portraying themes within films that are often harmful and perpetuate gross stereotypes of Asian Americans.18


  1. 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.
  2. Chung, Hye Seung. Hollywood Diplomacy: Film Regulation, Foreign Relations, and East Asian Representations. New Brunswick: Rutgers U.P., 2020.
  3. Pomerance, Murray. “From Fu Manchu to M. Butterfly and Irma Vep: Cinematic Incarnations of Chinese Villainy.” Essay. In Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen, 187–200. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
  4. Frankenheimer, John, director. The Manchurian Candidate. United Artists, 1962. 2 hr., 6 min.
  5. Editors. “Vietnam War.” A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009.
  6. 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.
  7. Editors. “Vietnam War.” A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009.
  8. “Vietnam War.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed December 10, 2021.
  9. Wayne, John, director. The Green Berets. Warner Bros., 1968. 2 hr., 22 min.
  10. Locke, Brian. “ The Orientalist Buddy Film in the 1980s and 1990s: Flash Gordon (1980), Lethal Weapon (1987–1998), Rising Sun (1993).” Essay. In Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen: The Orientalist Buddy Film, 75–99. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  11. “Vincent Chin Is Murdered.” A&E Television Networks, March 26, 2021. 
  12. Locke, Brian. “ The Orientalist Buddy Film in the 1980s and 1990s: Flash Gordon (1980), Lethal Weapon (1987–1998), Rising Sun (1993).” Essay. In  Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen: The Orientalist Buddy Film, 75–99. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  13. “Rising Sun Script – Dialogue Transcript.” Rising Sun Script – transcript from the screenplay and/or Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery movie. Accessed December 10, 2021.] Rising Sun exemplifies how the Menacing Villain is not limited to wartime fears and efforts, but instead adapts to the particularities of the time and is able to perpetuate Asian discrimination through any societal grievances that target those of Asian nationality.13Kaufman, Philip, director. Rising Sun. 20th Century Fox, 1993. 2 hr., 5 min.
  14. Racial Stigma on the Hollywood screen (pgs. 82-84)
  15. Baird, Stuart, director. Executive Decision. Warner Bros., 1996. 2 hr., 13 min.
  16. Chung, Hye Seung. Hollywood Diplomacy: Film Regulation, Foreign Relations, and East Asian Representations. New Brunswick: Rutgers U.P., 2020.
  17. Tamahori, Lee, director. Die Another Day. EonProduction/Warner Bros., 2002. 2 hr., 13 min.