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a composite image of Steven Yeun in Minari, standing in a sunny field, and Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, sitting shirtless at a drum kit

Steven Yeun in Minari and Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Images: IMDb

In Richard Fung’s essay Looking For My Penis, the artist and writer explained how Asian men in Western popular culture are forced into one of two categories: ‘the egghead/wimp’ or the ‘kung fu master/ninja/samurai’. He contrasts the hypersexualisation of Black men against the desexualisation of Asian men, as constructed by white folk. Similarly, in Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America, David L Eng explores the conflated relationship between Asianness and submissiveness, expressing that ‘for Asian American men racial identity was—and continues to be—produced, stabilized, and secured through mechanisms of gendering.’

From Sixteen Candles’ geeky foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) to Matthew Moy (Han Margaret Lee) in 2 Broke Girls and Ken Jeong (Mr Chow) in the Hangover trilogy, sexual ineptitude has long been forced onto Asian male characters by Hollywood. White actors have historically (and contemporarily) used yellowface to play East Asian characters; Marlon Brando’s role as a Japanese interpreter in the 1956 film Teahouse of the August Moon and Mick Rooney’s dehumanising part in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as an angry Japanese landlord both caricatured them as repulsive, threatening or alien. The issue of desexualisation is highlighted in Romeo Must Die, where the only kissing scene between Aaliyah and her lover Jet Li, who played a Chinese martial artist, was edited out in favour of a platonic hug. These undignified illustrations of Asian men came as a result of the model minority myth, as well as the West’s attempt to solidify Asian men as threats post-World War II.

The imperial mindset that generates these dangerous representations of Asian men also harms Asian women and queer Asian folk. Female characters on screen are often categorised as either the aggressive ‘dragon lady’ or subservient ‘geisha girl’. Queer Asians, on the other hand, are hardly ever represented on commercial screens to begin with. If they are, gay male and trans Asians have existed similarly to cis Asian women, fetishised and hyperfeminised by white men.

Sexual ineptitude has long been forced onto Asian male characters by Hollywood.

In saying this, the last few years have seen a much-needed, albeit infuriatingly slow shift away from these boring portrayals of the Asian community in Hollywood. Most recently, two Asian actors made history in the 2021 Oscar nominations for Best Actor: Steven Yeun was the first Korean–American (and indeed first Asian–American) to be nominated, for his role in Minari, and British–Pakistani Riz Ahmed’s performance in Sound of Metal saw him become the first Muslim actor nominated for the same award. These nominations are indicative of the immeasurable talent of Asian performers, the loosening constrictions of the roles they are typically forced to play, and also the reinvention of Asian masculinity on screen.


Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama, Minari, follows the Yi family in their relocation from California to a dilapidated mobile home in rural Arkansas. Jacob (Yeun) digs his hands in the dirt, revealing healthy soil as his wife (Han Ye-ri) cautiously watches, and explains his plans to build a ‘Garden of Eden’: to wrench his family out of financial insecurity by growing fruits and vegetables for nearby Korean diasporic communities. This quasi-American dream can be interpreted as adhering to Western modes of masculinity—assertion, domination and productivity—but instead of focusing on notions of assimilation, Chung allows Jacob to maintain the values of his culture and family, which in turn reinforces a reading of masculinity that isn’t intrinsically tied to Western constructs.

As the Yi family begin to settle into their new home, we see Jacob and son David (Alan S Kim) set out to find water for the farm with the help of a blindfolded dowser, a local with a thick Southern accent, burly frame and cocky demeanour. Jacob immediately dismisses him when he is quoted $300 for two water wells. ‘Americans… believing that nonsense! Korean people use their heads,’ he huffs at his son. ‘Never pay for anything that you can get for free’. The audience witnesses the passing of knowledge from father to son as Jacob instills a sense of independence, resourcefulness, and how to be a ‘man’. In an overhead shot, we see Jacob’s progress—standing inside the well with a dirt-stained singlet, surrounded by the dug up soil. He produces a celebratory howl and invites David to do the same. They continue to do this back and forth, a screaming match to see who can let out the loudest roar. While Asian men are historically portrayed as demure and meek, the duo challenge this through their noisy performance.

Chung allows Jacob to maintain the values of his culture and family, which in turn reinforces a reading of masculinity that isn’t intrinsically tied to Western constructs.

In an interview with Oscars, Chung reveals that ‘sometimes for immigrants, we’re not the foreigners. We look at the white people as the foreigners, the other.’ This ‘reverse-othering’ of masculinity is highlighted in the peculiar character of Paul (Will Patton), who assists and guides Jacob with his farm. Instead of writing him as a ‘white saviour’, Chung deliberately uses Paul’s strangeness as a device to create distance between him and the audience, mirroring the way non-white characters are habitually shown. The dynamic between Paul and Jacob also subverts the ways white and immigrant relationships exist in film, wherein Jacob becomes Paul’s boss thus asserting him in an unusual position of power.

This form of authoritative masculinity, though, is challenged when despite his competency and determination, Jacob’s grand dream of creating a successful farm falls to pieces. Where similar characters would react with rage and violence, Jacob transcends these markers of toxic masculinity through his reserved resilience. As Soleil Nathwani writes in her column for Rolling Stone India, Jacob’s anger is ‘examined as a toxic emotion to be overcome, not a muscular force to be deployed.’


In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a talented and ruthless drummer who grapples with the reality of losing his hearing. The film has been praised widely for its spectacular sound design and its contribution to d/Deaf representation. One thing overlooked is the subversive complexity of the film’s Asian, Muslim lead.

As Ruben, Ahmed exudes a masculine energy that isn’t often afforded to his Asian and Muslim actor counterparts. More specifically: his character has sex appeal. The film’s opening scenes immediately indicate the lead actor’s virility to the audience. Ahmed is sat by the drums topless, cast in lighting that outlines the contours of his muscles. He holds a strong, brutish gaze towards the audience before the camera draws closer to his upper body, revealing his many tattoos. After a slow build the percussion finally takes off. He strikes the drums with passion and ferociousness, the motion accentuating his tensing muscles. These few moments challenge the historical, social and political constructions of Asian male sexuality depicted on screen. South and West Asian men are often cast as terrorists and foreign aliens who threaten Western values, East Asian men as nerds or service staff; both are embodied as the antithesis to sexy. As opposed to being racially ‘castrated’, Ahmed’s character Ruben possesses sexuality and becomes a desirable individual.

South and West Asian men are often cast as foreign aliens who threaten Western values, East Asian men as nerds or service staff; both are embodied as the antithesis to sexy.

The character’s racially gendered subversiveness goes unappreciated perhaps because the role isn’t inherently tied to race. This correlates to the work of gay Japanese–American filmmaker, Gregg Araki, who was heralded as the pioneer of queer new wave in the 90s. Araki explores sex, queerness and youth culture using punk aesthetics, unconventional dialogue and outlandish narrative arcs. While employing actors of Asian heritage in his earlier films such as James Duval (Vietnamese–American), and more recently in his television shows such as Indian–Canadian Avan Jogia and Chinese Singaporean–Australian Desmond Chiam in Now Apocalypse, Araki never explicitly uses race as a plot device. Showing male actors of colour engaged in graphic sex scenes, Araki embodies them with a certain eroticism and lust that doesn’t heavy-handedly link to race as a goal to generate a powerful statement. In Kimberly Yutani’s essay, Gregg Araki and the Queer New Wave she mentions the filmmaker’s comments regarding ethnicity in his film Totally F***ed Up. ‘The parts are not written in any sort of ethnic way. Their ethnicity was completely interchangeable. The ethnicity of the characters was like a wardrobe, essentially.’ As Yutani writes, instead of focusing on race in his films, Araki is more bound to the interests and sexuality of Americanised characters. Like Ahmed’s portrayal of Ruben, Araki’s characters of colour are sexual beings simply because they are.


In an insightful Actors on Actors segment for Variety, Ahmed and Yeun quizzed each other about their respective practices and experiences navigating the industry as people of colour. In relation to the inevitable topic of representation, Yeun discussed the departure from his role as Glenn on the Walking Dead. ‘I couldn’t be stuck there servicing a genial natured guy for the rest of my career because inside I didn’t feel that way. I can be angry, and be vengeful, I can be all these other things and I wanted to explore that for myself.’ Additionally, in an interview with the Guardian, Yeun talks about how Jacob found empowerment in his cultural values and beliefs. ‘I think America’s power is connected to either whiteness, or physical power. It was really fascinating to play someone who had their own intrinsic power. It allowed me to touch something that I had suppressed in America.’ The film’s notion of masculinity can be read in the same light. In Jacob’s rejection of Americanised manhood, he was able to assert his own, ultimately reflecting a reclamation of Asian male identity on screen.

Urgent groundwork needs to be done to address the uniquely destructive representations of Asian women and queer Asians in commercial films and television.

In the same conversation, Ahmed mentioned that his identity as a brown, South Asian British Muslim—or being positioned in a ‘cultural no-man’s land’—is what allowed him to connect to his deaf character. He also spoke of entering the ‘promised land’ as a minority actor, where his roles aren’t tied to racially specific characters or stories, where instead ‘they are just people’. As a result, audiences saw Ahmed play a hot, deaf, recovering heroin addict, drummer—overruling any preconceptions of Asian masculinity. All at once, he is able to be sexy and attractive, fragile and insecure, furious and vulgar. Ahmed’s performance ultimately stretches the tight parameters Asian and Muslim men have been historically confined to, paving the way for other actors to play roles that reflect the realistically complex and multi-dimensional identities of Asian and Muslim men.

Tackling this issue of Asian masculinity is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reframing the harmful stereotypes faced by the Asian community as a whole; even then, it’s only progressive under a white, heteronormative reading of gender. It’s also the most achievable and palatable issue to tick off a list penned by an overwhelmingly white male dominated industry. Meaningful and urgent groundwork still needs to be done to address the uniquely destructive representations of Asian women and queer Asians in commercial films and television.

Neither may have won the Oscar in the end, but Yeun and Ahmed’s performances, and their Best Actor nominations, indicate a significant move towards more nuanced displays of Asian masculinities. Minari’s success rests in its refusal to be validated and justified by the white gaze. By extension, Yeun’s character maintains a certain masculinity that is empowered through the devaluation and deviation from Western modes. Ahmed exudes sex appeal and displays complexity in his dramatic performance of Ruben in Sound of Metal. Audiences are introduced to his muscles and raging outbursts, and are left with his silent introspection and vulnerability. Both Yeun and Ahmed force cinemagoers to reassess their personal constructions of race and gender—not only in relation to Asian men, but to the specific gendering of other marginalised communities. Their performances challenge the master narratives that serve to castrate Asian men, and in turn redirect the broader expectations of masculinity held in popular consciousness toward sensitivity and self-awareness.