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Breaking Down The “Silent Asian” Trope

In recent news, the beloved show Umbrella Academy has been called out for perpetuating the “Silent Asian” phenomenon in the entertainment industry. Number 6, also named Ben, is a deceased sibling of the Hargreeves family, a tight-knit party of supernaturals. He lingers in the world as a ghost, trailing behind Klaus’ antics, who can communicate with the dead, throughout the entirety of the show (until the season two finale, of course).

Justin Min as Ben (Courtesy of Huw Fullerton)

He is depicted as reserved, even-tempered but for bouts of palpable emotion; he hardly interacts with the rest of the squad, and thus has paltry amounts of dialogue, despite having an integral role in the story.

This trope refers to the curious trend where Asian characters are part of the core cast, yet rarely do they actually speak. Hollywood has an undeniable track record of this: Karen Fukuhara plays Kimiko Miyashiro in The Boys, who’s, coincidentally, mute. And in the Pitch Perfect franchise, Hana Mae Lee’s Lilly Onakuramara speaks in an inaudible, unintelligible voice. It, presumably, was meant for a comedic effect — yet, in this context, many Asian viewers took it as mocking.

Jimmy Wong, actor in Mulan, sums it up perfectly in his tweet, where he pointed out the fallacious connection made between attractive, painfully quiet Asian characters and the so-called aura of “mystery” surrounding them. Must they always be abnormally beautiful for no other reason than to serve as a pleasing fixture on the show? It’s demeaning and objectifying.

In reality, the Silent Asian trope is merely a reflection of Western contemporary stereotypes of Asians. It’s no secret that Asians are typically seen as reticent, perhaps more tranquil or shrewd to add some dimension, but usually introverted. Quiet Asians are what we’re comfortable with, what we’re used to. Even I myself didn’t notice the frequent occurrences of “silent Asians” until social media shed light on it. I’d become so inured to this Asian stereotype that I momentarily forgot that it even was a stereotype, subliminally accepting it on TV shows and films without question.

That was what chilled me the most once I realized it — the unconscious warping of my beliefs, until I began to see Asians — myself — as those belonging to a single personality.

Perhaps this typecasting has deeper roots, stemming from Asian cultures. Unlike Western cultures, East Asian cultures don’t value gregariousness as much. Instead, they prize traits like dignity, wisdom, loyalty and harmony with others. Their emphasis on the community rather than the individual can connote blending in, not being an obtrusive presence to others.

However, while these monoliths may have been the genesis of these stereotypes, it certainly doesn’t excuse Hollywood’s industry oversimplified representation of Asian characters. The world is a melting pot of cultures, yet the power of individuals is never overshadowed, so why shouldn’t that be the case for Asian cultures?

Moreover, the supposed silence of Asians has had far more harmful implications in the year of 2020. The inception of COVID-19 has led to a flare of racist attacks, verbal and physical, towards Asians, both on social media and in real life — which the mainstream media has scarcely covered. Like all minorities, we’ve long been targets of bigotry, yet never has it seemed so malicious until now. Our heritages should never be let go. But we are multifaceted, recognizing the worth within our Asian birthrights and our Western homes.

Stereotypes about our passivity have led bigots to believe they can wound us with impunity. It’s time we rethink our history of silence. It’s time we prove Hollywood wrong.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

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Phyllis Feng is an Ohio-based writer who loves venturing into a diverse array of topics, from literature and music to mental health. She always seeks to emphasize honesty and empathy in her work. In her free time, you'll usually find her with a book and a mug of tea in her hands.

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