The Show That’s Subtly Changing The Way We See Asian-American Men On TV
The love interest on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a rarity on television: an Asian-American guy who’s hot and sociable — and he gets laid. BuzzFeed News spoke to actor Vincent Rodriguez III, who plays Josh Chan, and the show's creators about the Asian-American dude next door.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend begins with the end of a summer fling. In a flashback, 16-year-old Rebecca Bunch, the show’s titular character, walks hand-in-hand with her teenage boyfriend, Josh. With a backwards cap and an athletic build, he interrupts Rebecca — with her retainer-clad teeth and eager eyes — as she gushes on about her feelings for him. “I just think that we’re really different, you know?” he says hesitantly, his speech peppered with “like” and “um.” “You’re really dramatic and weird. I think maybe we should take a break.” Fast-forward 10 years, and Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) is miserable. Despite a recent promotion at her prestigious law firm, the New York–based lawyer decides on a whim to move to California, where Josh lives.
It’s from here that the show has broken down tropes of the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” However, simultaneously, it has also subtly dismantled the stereotypical portrayals of Asian men seen on American screens in the past. The ex in question, Josh Chan (played by Vincent Rodriguez III), is an unremarkable albeit attractive man who just so happens to be Filipino-American. It’s an unusual portrayal of an Asian-American as the dude next door, the guy who’s hot and sociable — and he gets laid.
Josh, who oozes with masculinity and charm, is introduced as a heartthrob from the very start — he’s a little dim-witted, but a heartthrob nonetheless. Not only is he the highly sought-after love interest of a woman who moves 3,000 miles across the country for him, but he also already has a girlfriend. Born and raised in sunny West Covina, California, he’s the guy from high school who never left home. Perpetually smiling, he has no concept of anxiety — or any sort of negativity, for that matter. A man of action, he hits the gym and plays a slew of sports, genuinely loves his massive Filipino family, and hangs out with his crew of like-minded homies. It’s a role that could’ve easily gone to a non-Asian star, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s co-creators Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom intended for Josh to be an Asian man since the conception of the show.
“I grew up with a lot of Asian bros. That's a type of person that I grew up with that I've never seen anywhere in the media,” Bloom, who also plays Rebecca, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
She and McKenna found their Josh in Rodriguez, who won the role in part because of a video he sent them, of him rapping and playing guitar to an acoustic rendition of 2Pac’s “Thugz Mansion." “I was rarely brought in for a role that I felt was right for me, specifically, and was so contemporary,” Rodriguez said. On the phone, he read Josh’s character description from his computer aloud: “‘Josh is an athletic-looking Asian bro in his late twenties.’ I’m like, first of all, who wrote this breakdown? I’ve never seen this before.”
Rodriguez, 33, who is of Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish ancestry, was raised in Daly City, a California town that’s not unlike West Covina, where the show is set; he, too, grew up around people like Josh. “They describe Josh's mind as being uncomplicated from being brought up in an unremarkable suburb of loving parents,” Rodriguez said. “He's kind of a simple dude, and he had a lot of support growing up. He doesn't have the same problems as me, but I know who this person is. I grew up with Josh Chan, with Joshes in school.”
Warm, easygoing, and a little dumb, Josh initially seems like a mismatch to the slightly neurotic Ivy League–educated Rebecca, which was an intentional juxtaposition.
"We wanted to have a love story where the decision to move across the country for a boy would clearly be wrong. The opposite guy you would think for Rebecca would be a Southern California bro, someone who's really happy-go-lucky,” Bloom elaborated. It's rare to see an Asian-American portrayed as the epitome of romantic love on television, yet on the show, "Josh represents the kind of undying, unconditional love [Rebecca] never got from her own family, especially not from her mother,” explained Bloom.
As for Josh’s family, U.S. audiences have likely never seen a Filipino household depicted so accurately on television. Rodriguez grew up without seeing much in the way of Filipinos depicted onscreen, so the personal impact of this role was massive. When he first landed the role, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had been developed for Showtime, but “once it got to The CW, it was like, Oh, this is a network show, and there are 3 to 4 million viewers, and you’re the male lead. You’re the male love interest. You’re the object of her affection,” Rodriguez said. “So many things about it are, I daresay, first-timers on American television. And it’s not because this person never existed. It’s just [that] no one has thought to tell this story, and that’s what’s amazing about Rachel and Aline and their vision of their show.”
Over the years, Asian male characters have often been portrayed onscreen as some variation of Long Duk Dong from John Hughes’ 1984 film Sixteen Candles — emasculated, socially inept, unattractive, and foreign, the “very weird Chinese guy up in Mike’s room.” Think Ken Jeong as Ben Chang in Community, Matthew Moy as Han Lee in 2 Broke Girls, and Bobby Lee as Kenneth Park on Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle as examples of these. There are also the depictions of chaste, desexualized martial arts fighters who, like Jet Li in Romeo Must Die, never got the girl. And though Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cast Korean-American actor Ki Hong Lee as the show’s love interest — a controversial character who is coincidentally also named Dong — his storyline plays up his foreignness, with jokes revolving around his ethnicity (Dong is good at math and delivers Chinese food for a living).
For Josh, who speaks with a slight California surfer’s drawl, his heritage doesn’t define his character. His ethnicity doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on his attractiveness or romances.
Josh exhibits sexual desire, and furthermore, he's forthright about it. For example, in one episode, Josh goes to church and confesses to his priest that he feels attracted to Rebecca, despite already having a girlfriend. “So I think about Rebecca's smile, you know, her hair, her boobs, her butt, her…boobs,” he babbles on. “I've had premarital sex. Lots of it. And sometimes I watch adult content, and I take care of myself — and I don't mean in the vitamin/exercising kind of way.”
In the process of creating this brawny, laid-back guy, however, it wasn’t Bloom's or McKenna’s conscious intention to break the stereotype of the foreign, innocent Asian man.
“We didn’t have an overarching agenda to alter certain depictions,” McKenna said in a phone interview. “It’s just an effort to portray the town and the community the way they actually are."
“Rachel is really good at acknowledging the truth and what is common and exploring it deeper,” said Rodriguez. “Rebecca is not taking tropes off the bookshelf. She’s actually breaking them down — and part of that is Josh. [The question] shouldn’t be 'Well, why is Josh Asian? Why is he the love interest? Why is he a bro?' It’s more like, 'Why not? Why hasn’t it been? Why did we wait so long?' Finally, I’m seeing something on TV that mimics what I’ve seen in real life, like, legitimately.”
When viewers first meet Josh, he’s a perpetually happy stud who spent his entire life in a bubble, never encountering mental illnesses like depression, something Rebecca struggles with. Throughout the course of the show, however, Josh becomes more complex and grows in touch with his emotional side: That was part of McKenna and Bloom’s agenda.
“He's going to evolve in many ways. [Rebecca], above all of the other characters, makes him question the status quo that he's always known to be true,” said Bloom. “He's not a stereotype, just like everyone has nuances. Everyone feels sad sometimes. Everyone has insecurities. He definitely has that journey.”
As for Rodriguez, who spent much of his early career auditioning for parts in musical ensembles or for shows that weren’t traditionally casting Asian males, he’s thrilled just to represent the Asian-American community.
“I just wanted to be seen as an Asian person playing a normal person,” he said. “When I saw this audition, it was like, well, it’s about time, but will I get it? And then it turned into me. I’m Josh Chan. It’s fucking awesome.”