Margaret Cho And Lisa Ling Talked To Meghan Markle About Asian American Stereotypes — And It's One Of The Most Illuminating Conversations I've Heard All Year

    It's so rare for these things to be talked about in such a nuanced way on a mainstream platform.

    Note: This post contains mention of racism, violence and police brutality. 

    On last week's episode of her podcast Archetypes, Meghan Markle spoke with Margaret Cho and Lisa Ling to "demystify the Dragon Lady" and examine the stereotypes that many East Asian women face in the US, as well as their experiences from childhood to Hollywood.

    screenshot of Archetypes podcast page on Spotify

    Obviously, it's not easy to break down the origins and impact of racial stereotypes in a 46-minute podcast episode. But hearing Margaret and Lisa talk about their experiences, as well as from sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, was illuminating. As a Korean American, it gave me a lot to think about, especially because I find mainstream platforms rarely address topics like these in such an in-depth and nuanced way.

    So here are some of my favorite moments from the episode, along with some real-time reactions of my own:

    1. At the beginning of the episode, Margaret explains that the Dragon Lady archetype stems from a fantasy of Orientalism. She compares the Dragon Lady to the Femme Fatale, a woman who is both beautiful and deadly, before adding that, because Asian women are confined to the Dragon Lady stereotype, they can't just be beautiful in media. "It's also so pinned to this idea that Asianness is an inherent threat," she continues, "that our foreignness is somehow going to get you. The mystery and the exoticism of it is part of it. And unfortunately, that trope has really stuck to film, but also to Asian American women or Asian women."

    Margaret Cho on The Kelly Clarkson Show

    When she mentioned Orientalism right out of the gate, I knew the episode would be engaging. Orientalism isn't some new, hip theory, and the mystery and exoticism of the Dragon Lady, as Margaret touches upon, obviously didn't originate from Kill Bill. Said wrote Orientalism in the '70s, meaning that there was enough of a pattern, even then, to establish a theory that practically birthed the study of postcolonialism. But despite how tangibly it manifests in our day-to-day lives, Orientalism is often relegated to academia. So to hear it mentioned in a popular podcast by celebrities was refreshing and validating — especially as Asian representation and racism are often reduced or denied.

    2. Margaret talks about being raised on TV and movies but never actually seeing Asian people in them. This led her to watching silent films, where she discovered Anna May Wong, perhaps the first Dragon Lady, whom she now empathizes with. "She was born in Chinatown in Los Angeles, and she was the first Asian American movie star at the dawn of film," Margaret says. "And she couldn't get any roles in America, so she was in a film where she played sort of this caricature of an evil Dragon Lady. And I think that for me, I really can see why Anna May Wong would want to take that role because it's like she's not offered any roles here. I mean, she's in a few American films where she basically reprised that role."

    black and white image of Anna May Wong

    I'll admit that sometimes when I watch older shows from the late '90s or early '00s, I not only cringe at the stereotypical, "fobby" Asian side characters but wonder what exactly the actors were thinking — especially when I know that actor was born and raised in the US. However, Margaret's empathy for Anna May Wong made me reflect on the individual vs. the system. More recently, non-white celebrities have come forward and talked about either taking the few stereotypical roles they can get, or rejecting overly stereotypical roles based on principle. And that's sparked a larger conversation around duty — are they complicit in perpetuating stereotypes? — vs. choice — acting is their career (and how they make a living), and there a few other opportunities for them.

    3. When introducing sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, Meghan mentions her book, Reel Inequality — which looks at the impact that US wars in Asia have had on the portrayal of Asian women in Hollywood — and makes sure to note "how the sex work around those military camps shaped the hypersexualized depiction of Asian women in movies like Miss Saigon and The World of Suzie Wong."

    scene from Miss Saigon play

    To be honest, I've (thankfully) never seen these movies, but just reading the plot is enough to get the gist: powerless Asian woman falls in love with white American man, only to be abandoned and left to raise a child alone in her war-torn country while dreaming of a better life. While you might argue that, independently, these stories can exist as tragedies, if they're the only films depicting Asian women in Western media, then there's at least a subliminal motif that I'd liken to modern hypersexual, green card-seeking, gold-digging stereotypes of Asian women and exoticized interracial relationships.

    4. Nancy also shares her own experiences and makes a really great point: "I myself have been propositioned in an airport in Atlanta, of all places, by a stranger who said 'me so horny.' ... I knew he was talking to me, even though I don't even know if he'd seen Full Metal Jacket, which is where that line comes from. So when people ask me, 'Does Hollywood matter? It's just entertainment,' I can point to this — where lines from a fictional movie, that maybe no one's even seen now, [are] part of culture and the way that Asian women are harassed and belittled." Meghan then reminds listeners of 2 Live Crew's notorious 1989 song, "Me So Horny," which reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart.

    Immediately, Nancy's point and Meghan's example struck me. Call it synchronicity or a coincidence, but lately, as I blast nostalgic '00s bops (thanks, TikTok), certain lyrics that I sang along to as a kid stand out to me as an adult — particularly, the "love you long time" lines in Nelly Furtado's Maneater ("You doing anything to keep her by your side / Because she says she love you, love you long time") and Fergie's London Bridge ("I'm Fergie Ferg / And me love you long time"). Call me overly sensitive, but the fact stands: these hypersexual lines, born of Asian stereotypes, are so normalized that, at best, we repeat them unknowingly, and, at worst, we knowingly believe they're harmless and innocent.

    Do I think Nelly Furtado and Fergie intentionally included those lines to perpetuate Asian stereotypes? No. In fact, I'd argue that both songs are meant to be empowering, badass, and feminine (Fergie literally uses the line to describe herself). 

    However, both songs are about temptress-esque women who use their sexuality to get what they want, thus posing a danger to men — and the use of the Full Metal Jacket line undeniably ties that back into the hypersexual, Dragon Lady stereotype. And then I wonder: Would the connotation or overall vibe of the songs change if they were sung by Asian women, like a K-Pop group?

    5. In the second half of the episode, Meghan speaks with Lisa, who talks about the erasure of Asian Americans in US history: "I think Asian people in this country have been historically just overlooked. I mean, look, our history isn't told in our history books. I mean, one could go their entire educational career without learning a single thing about Asian American history or the contributions of a single Asian American."

    Lisa Ling attends Variety's Power of Women presented by Lifetime

    At that point, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the irony that Asian American history is excluded from history textbooks, especially given the extent of US imperialism in Asia. While that doesn't touch upon the positive contributions of Asian Americans, much of this history directly impacted Asian American activism that shaped the US, from labor movements and anti-war movements to women's rights, gay rights, and indigenous rights.

    For a super reductive history brief that I'm writing simply to make a point, the US fought in: 1) the Philippine-American War (1899–1902), when the US annexed the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War, despite the Philippines' declaration of independence; 2) the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), an anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising in China; 3) the Korean War (1950–1953), after the US and the Soviet Union decided to each administer half of Korea as part of Japan's surrender during WII, causing Cold War tension clashes between the North and South; 4) the Vietnam War (1955–1975), another Cold War-era proxy war, wherein North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union and China, while South Vietnam was supported by the US. 

    And those are just some of the better-known conflicts the US has been involved in throughout East and Southeast Asia (let alone Western Asia, such as the Middle East, or the Pacific, like in Hawaii and Samoa). Domestically, the US incarcerated Japanese people in camps during WWII and effectively banned Asian immigration until 1965. 

    If these are at all mentioned in American history textbooks, they're often glossed over and minimized, with no real acknowledgment of their impact or destruction.

    6. Meghan includes a clip from one of Margaret's shows, wherein she jokes, "I've been a comic for a long time. I always wanted to do this, ever since I was a kid. But I never saw Asian people on television or in movies, so my dreams were somewhat limited. I would dream, 'Maybe someday I can be an extra on M*A*S*H.'" Meghan then cuts in to remind listeners that M*A*S*H was a '70s show about a mobile army hospital during the Korean War.

    In retrospect, I found this clip interesting. Meghan includes it early in the episode, foreshadowing Margaret's empathy for Anna May Wong and Nancy's point US wars in Asia and Asian representation in Hollywood. While Margaret dreams of being on TV, she recognizes there isn't space for her in an industry dominated by white men. However, that industry does tell stories of war, many of which took place in Asia, thereby allowing her some proximity to her dream as an extra in a sitcom set during the Korean War. It makes me think of the model minority myth and proximity to whiteness that surrounds Asian Americans, as well as how it contributes to internalized racism.

    Similarly, Margaret and Lisa reveal how the lack of Asian American representation in media informed their careers: For Margaret, it made her feel like she didn't belong in media, so her "essential joke" as a comedian revolves around the fact that she's not supposed to be there. 

    Lisa, however, wanted to be on TV, but because the only person on TV who remotely looked like her was journalist Connie Chung, she believed broadcast journalism was the only path available to her in media. 

    7. Lisa notes the importance of taking up space as an Asian American, especially as Asian culture can often discourage it: "There's that popular term, 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.' I think the amazing aspect of being an Asian American, particularly being an American, is we want to stick out. We don't want to be hammered down." She continues to explain that as Asian Americans, we can bring our rich histories and cultures with us while also being empowered to say what we want. This ability to be unapologetic and unabashed, she says, is a powerful and positive part of the American experience.

    Asian Americans gather to protest at the "Rally Against Hate" in Chinatown

    This really resonated with me, especially when it comes to generational experiences in the US. Oftentimes, when I hear stories of prejudice and discrimination experienced by Asian immigrants in the US (like my mom and aunts' experiences in school or working at my grandparents' businesses), there's — what I perceive to be — a sense of expectation, if not acceptance, of racism as being part of the assimilation process and an acknowledgment of being other. Hate crimes are underreported, suffering is endured, and communities remain invisible. There's a sense of not attracting attention (or being the stuck-out nail). However, as US-born Asian Americans — in my experience — there's a sense of belonging that enables us to reject racism and assert our identity as visibly as any other American. And like Lisa says, that is powerful.

    The perpetual foreigner stereotype — wherein despite being naturalized or native-born citizens (sometimes for generations), Asian Americans are often perceived as foreigners due to their race  — further perpetuates this sense of not belonging and othering. It can be subtle (like the ever common, "Where are you from?") or overt (like anti-Asian hate during COVID-19: "Go back to your country!"). 

    8. Margaret reflects on the timing and place of All-American Girl (1994) — the first prime-time sitcom to feature an Asian American family, based loosely on her own life — both in Hollywood and society: "Our show historically came out at a very interesting time, and now I realize what the importance of it was after the Rodney King officers had been acquitted, and how terrible that was, and how terrible the Black community was treated, and how angry that entire time was. And so the last time Koreans had seen themselves actually was on their rooftops with shotguns."

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    "So the Korean community was so paranoid about their perception because they had never been shown on the news. They'd never seen themselves on the news or seen themselves in American culture at all. And then suddenly, there was this image of them in the sort of very violent context that they were really uncomfortable with. So when my show came out, it was really hard for the Korean community, because they also didn't necessarily approve of me because I was not college educated. I'm not educated at all. I'm very crass. I'm queer. I'm not what they wanted me to be. I'm not what Koreans necessarily wanted their representation to be. But unfortunately, I was there."

    still from All American Girl of BD Wong, Jodi Long, Margaret Cho and Clyde Kusatsu

    Margaret continues, "It was really sad because I thought, Oh, well, the Asian American community is going to be behind this. ... It really inspired a lot of people, but it also really upset a lot of people. And so we didn't have the support fully, which kind of made the network question whether this was the right project to do such a very outrageous undertaking, because it actually was — in 1994, to have an Asian American family for a cast — incredible."

    However, she also acknowledges the positive impact: "A lot of people were [behind the show], and a lot of people credit our show as the first time they saw themselves on television and inspired them to go and have a great artistic career — whether that is Ali Wong or John Cho or Joel Kim Booster or Bowen Yang, you know, all of these amazing and wonderful comedians."

    First of all, most times I've heard of All-American Girl, it was either in a condescending context (people didn't like the show; it was canceled after one season), or it was about the fact that it was the first prime-time sitcom to feature an Asian American family. So to hear Margaret talk about the larger social climate surrounding the show and the lack of Asian American support for it was really informative. Recently, Constance Wu spoke about feeling "betrayed" and "avoided" by the Asian American community after her Fresh Off The Boat tweets. And it's worth thinking about how much weight the Asian American community has on Asian American celebrities and media.

    Constance Wu attends "The Terminal List" Los Angeles premiere

    Given how little mainstream Asian representation there is in media, and the burden on Asian voices of proving marketability, it seems that the support of the Asian American community in Hollywood can be incredibly powerful or damaging — but always one-dimensional. If a specific movie or celebrity is negatively received, it doesn't matter why. Whether the movie sucked or an actor is problematic, it's simply perceived as a lack of demand for all Asian stories. On top of being viewed as a monolith and flat Dragon Lady stereotypes, the Asian American community is further constrained by these singular, superficial, and selective interpretations of their voices.

    Fresh Off The Boat, which premiered in 2015, is the first prime time sitcom to star an Asian American family since All-American Girl. And part of the backlash Wu's tweets received stemmed from the fact that she appeared to be ungrateful for the opportunity Fresh Off The Boat presented not only for her but the Asian American community.    

    At the end of each episode, Meghan asks her guests to describe themselves in three words. And in that vein, I'd describe this episode as refreshing, impressive, and insightful. Margaret, Nancy, and Lisa's conversation with Meghan on Archetypes, while deep and provocative in and of itself, speaks to just how underrepresented and invisible Asian Americans have been in Hollywood, and what it's been like to pioneer the representation we see today.

    episode page of Archetypes on Spotify

    So, if you've got 46 minutes, I highly recommend listening to this episode of Archetypes.

    (There's also a transcript you can read here.)