e've all seen and heard it before: Smart. Rich. Asian. This stereotype is what's called the Model Minority Myth, and it characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group that has achieved a higher level of success compared to the general population through some innate talent somehow brought about by race and culture. We all know about this, but do we really understand how it came to be?
Now, a myth like this didn't penetrate the public consciousness without outside help, and much of it can be traced back to media. To truly understand where this myth comes from, we'll have to go back to the 19th century, when Asians weren't perceived as model citizens just yet.
In fact, Asians in America were once seen as a scourge and were referred to as the Yellow Peril. This took on a new life in the United States, among pioneers and early settlers who were promised prosperity but were then met with nothing. Their anger was redirected to Chinese workers building the railroads along the Pacific, who became the scapegoats. It is because of this that Asians were originally perceived to be nefarious people looking to steal jobs and soil everything that America stands for.
This stereotype stuck around and even inspired some early films. Such portrayals can be found in the Chinese character in the 1932 film The Mask of Fu Manchu, where the titular Fu Manchu, played by Boris Karloff, was one of the earliest evil genius archetypes in modern cinema. Echoes of Yellow Peril can even be found in modern films, too, as the upcoming Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings puts Shang-Chi, who is canonically the son of Fu Manchu, at the forefront.
So if Asians were painted in such a bad light, when did this all change? There are two events that perpetuated this shift. One is the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system for immigration. Instead, the law based immigration off of familial ties and prioritized people who were skilled professionals. This led to an influx of Asian professionals migrating to the United States. Then there was William Petersen's January 1966 article in The New York Times, entitled "Success Story: Japanese American Style." The article proposed that the apparent success of Japanese Americans was due to their incarceration in internment camps during World War II, which gave them a great work ethic and strong cultural values. Petersen even proposed that this made Asians inevitably more successful than white Caucasians.
To this day, iterations of this idea can be seen in modern film through characters like Data from The Goonies (1985) and Takashi Toshiro from Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Hollywood's insistent portrayal of Asian Americans as stereotypically smart characters feeds off of and reinforces these biases. In fact, researchers at Harvard and Ohio State Universities have found that media affects our subconscious judgments toward others. But the effects of film go way beyond just perception — as it can manifest in one's opportunities, developmental experiences, and even mental health.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the stereotype of all Asian Americans as wealthy, highly educated, and stable puts undue pressure on them. This makes them less likely to reach out for help regarding mental health issues and ultimately affects how they live their day-to-day lives. This is something highlighted by psychologists at Maryville University, who point out that mental health and learning success are intricately intertwined. And in the case of minorities who experience the enduring pressure of this cultural myth in Hollywood and the world that worships it, this can have drastic consequences. One such manifestation of this might be seen in how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now ranks suicide as the ninth leading cause of death among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
So, are all stereotypes bad? While that may sound like an absurd question to ask, the nuances of this subject are best described under the lens of what many perceive as a positive stereotype: Asian Americans are all brilliant in the fields of math and science. Unlike other stereotypes, especially those surrounding other racial and ethnic groups, this one pushes a positive narrative. But not unlike other stereotypes, all the Model Minority Myth does is cause harm to the minority that it pertains to.
This is why films like Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004) are admirable when put under the lens of the Model Minority Myth, as the inherent incompetence of the characters can be seen as a subversion of years upon years of systemic discrimination. The bottom line, of course, is that although Asian characters can be portrayed as intelligent, they should never be defined as intelligent for simply being Asian.
Y. Gbadamosi is a 21-year-old business studies student who enjoys traveling and a good cup of coffee. She loves Film and its influence on mainstream culture