Essay: Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

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  • Subject area(s): Sociology essays
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  • Published on: July 26, 2019
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  • Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling
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America is clearly a melting pot, not a melting screen. Founded on ideals of freedom, in the United States there are dreams to be chased—equal opportunities and upward social mobility offer a lot of promise. But for some races, the “equal opportunities” they receive turn out to be less equal than that of other groups. Almost invisible in mainstream media, many Asians in America find themselves struggling to enter an industry heavily unreceptive toward their race. In a country with arguably the most diverse collection of differing ethnicities, races, cultures, and religions, the American entertainment industry is almost sterile in its representation of this wide variety. A study done by USC in 2013 revealed that the entertainment industry hardly reflects America’s eclectic population, with 76.3% of all speaking characters in movies being Caucasian, 10.8% being black, 8.2% Hispanic, and scraping the bottom of the barrel are Asians at a paltry 3.6% (Keegan). With Asians composing 7.2% of America’s total population, one has to wonder about the disparity between reality and the underrepresentation of Asians in the media. Even relative to other minorities, Asians remain elusive on the big screen. The answer to why Asians are so scarce in the media and entertainment industry may lie in something dubbed by American economist Jane Hyun as the “bamboo ceiling”, a term used to describe the barrier that prevents Asians from reaching certain positions on the corporate ladder, especially in the entertainment industry, regardless of skill or expertise. A troubling aspect of the bamboo ceiling is that no one group is responsible for it—the community is, through its everyday actions and treatment of the Asian population, a philosophical concept called subjectivity. Powerful “Ideological State Apparatuses”, or ISAs, imprint on Asians what their role in society should be. The dominant class shapes the culture of the community, asserting their ideology as natural and normal. Thus, it establishes hegemony, where the population finds itself “spontaneously” consenting to those ideals. In conjunction with ISAs and hegemony, Asians are also affected by interpellation, in which they are led to believe they freely walk into their subjected identities when they are in fact beckoned into it. In Donald Hall’s Subjectivity, Hall elucidates the hazy workings of subjectivity on individuals, describing identities as the product of external forces exerting their perspective on them. For Asians in America, so much of what we have been subjected to has become reality.

For Hall and many other authors, the stereotypic treatment of minorities such as Asian-Americans greatly affects their grasp on their own identity and what they believe they can or cannot do. In Glass Ceilings and Asian Americans, racial studies professor Deborah Woo notes that Asian-Americans are “discriminated against in positions where public exposure is concerned” (21). She argues that this is due to a public that has internalized the stereotypes of the quiet, unsociable Asian, and today’s underrepresentation of Asians in the media is an evolution of that idea. Similarly, in Race in Mass Media, race theorist Joanna Schug reinforces the power of subjectivity on reality, pointing out that “certain racial and ethnic groups in their entirety are viewed as being prototypically more masculine or feminine” (2). She wields this idea as reasoning for why there is stronger representation of Asian females in the media than there are Asian males. These internalized stereotypes place more and more shackles on what an “acceptable” Asian in the entertainment industry should look like. Echoing these sentiments, Tojo Thatchenkery, a researcher at George Mason University, agrees in Making the Invisible Visible that Asians are restricted by age-old stereotypical views and an ethnocentric mindset of masculinity and femininity. He asserts that “To reclaim social visibility, Asians must assert themselves as capable individuals in the workforce, yet attempting to do so is a troubled task in an industry so assured of the meek Asian” (14). However, American sociologist Victor Nee disagrees in “Why Asian Americans are Becoming Mainstream”, noting that Asian representation in the media has “reached a peak that only seems to grow” (7). He argues that as the second fastest growing minority in the United States, more and more exposure to Asians are helping to break down stereotypes that have plagued the race since America’s inception. Nee asserts the importance of not looking at Asian representation rates in comparison to other races, but rather in comparison to previous Asian representation rates. Asian representation is indeed skewed in American media, and the concept of subjectivity outlined by Hall is crucial to the formation of the bamboo ceiling above the heads of Asians all across the United States. Although some scholars believe that Asian Americans are becoming increasingly popular in the media, Asians are underrepresented and misrepresented in American media because of the United States’ subjective forces as a collective, exerting pressure on Asians to fulfill a certain image unconducive to the entertainment industry.
Ubiquitous stereotypes surrounding Asian Americans limit the scope of their professional endeavors. Perception and truth become muddled as stereotypes feed into the preconceived notion that Asians are quiet, perpetually foreign, and subservient. In “Breaking Stereotypes”, psychologist Linda Akutagawa notes, “Applied to Asian Americans, [stereotypes] lead to the perception that people of Asian descent are not leaders, or lack leadership ability, a perspective that hurts Asian Americans across all sectors, all industries, and all the various roles they assume” (277). The image of the meek Asian percolates throughout all stratums of American society. Despite high rates of educational achievement and talent growth, Asian Americans still find themselves on the outside looking in. Subject to widespread stereotypes the community has largely internalized, Asian Americans are left with less opportunities to climb the corporate ladder than other groups. A closer analysis of Asians in the workforce reveal a massive underrepresentation extending throughout several fields: Asian Americans made up only 2% of the congressional population in 2012, 1.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and less than 1% of players in the NBA (Norris, “Looking at the Bamboo Ceiling”). Most prominently, this manifests in media as well, where even areas inhabited by a large number of Asian Americans see little representation or acknowledgment of their own race (Norris). The lack of Asian representation in the media only further spreads the stereotype, as widespread media exposure is one way to break the ignorance surrounding a race from which stereotypes emerge. Thus, the entertainment industry forms a dreary chain in which Asian underrepresentation allows demeaning stereotypes to proliferate, which then work to prevent Asians from taking on roles in the entertainment industry. Stereotypes, however, are a two-way street.
Asian Americans are pressured into their stereotypic role through a hegemonic society. Although stereotypes work from the outside-in, affecting the perception of non-Asian groups on Asians, they also work from the inside-out, as Asian Americans are pushed into limiting themselves to fulfill these stereotypes. In “Prescriptive Stereotypes and Workplace Consequences for East Asians in North America”, cultural psychologist Jennifer Berdahl points out that “Individuals who violate descriptive racial stereotypes suffer negative social reactions, suggesting that these descriptive stereotypes may be prescriptive as well” (141). Prescriptive racial stereotypes spring from historic social roles and inequalities. These stereotypes function to preserve those roles and inequalities by triggering heavy discrimination against individuals who challenge them. Several examples of race and ethnicity interacting with corporate practice to produce discriminatory outcomes exist: Asians in the workforce experience “initial placement in dead-end jobs, lack of mentors, biased and inconsistent standards of evaluation, and isolation from or harassment by colleagues” (Woo, Glass Ceilings 41). The idea of the prescriptive stereotype is heavily reminiscent of ideological state apparatuses, which describe a dominant group seeking to implant a specific ideology into the minds of the community. The lack of Asian representation in the media is an example of the communications ISA, which manifests itself through the press, radio, and television. Because Asian Americans see so little of themselves on the screen and in the media, they may translate that subtle message as saying those fields are not for Asians. Thus, the Asian American “naturally” internalizes the stereotypes the community holds against them, and “spontaneously consents” to domination. Through hegemony, ideas that the community imposes upon Asians are made a reality.
The lack of job advancement opportunities and positions in the media for Asian Americans is not due to a lack of skill or capability, but because of roadblocks formed by racial perception. Asian Americans represent 15-25% of Ivy League enrollment, yet hold few leadership positions in the workforce. Asians are excelling in academics and credentials, but failing when it comes to advancing to the top of industries, despite entering the market with highly coveted degrees. Perceived as being competent, yet cold and non-dominant, Asian Americans face difficulties in the workplace once their desire for advancement is known. In “Asians in America”, market researcher Eva Pereira writes,
Asians are well-represented in entry-level and middle management positions, but are stalled on the way to the top. As a result, many report feeling stalled in their careers and have begun to disengage. Of all the groups studied, Asian men were most likely to report feeling stalled professionally. Job satisfaction was also particularly low among this group — Asian men are more than twice as likely to say they intend to quit their job within the year compared to Caucasian men (1).
It is unlikely that lack of education or skills is what prevents Asians from job advancement or obtaining roles in the entertainment industry. Asians have proven to be just as capable a cohort as any other race. Instead, it is a perception problem. Asians are frozen in the image that they cannot be trusted in a leadership position. According to a study done by The Center for Work-Life Policy, “one-quarter of Asian respondents face work-place discrimination”, and it “reveals a belief often heard from workers and managers: Asian Americans are culturally uncomfortable with the type of swagger and self-promotion that often spells success in U.S. firms” (Stock, “Study Finds Asians Occupying Few Corner Offices”). The idea for why Asians are not given the same opportunities as other races to ascend to a leadership position echo a common reason for why Asians are not offered more opportunities in the entertainment industry: they lack the “swagger and self-promotion” apparently requisite of success. Although a broad, sweeping generalization, this deep-seated belief has real effects on the treatment of Asian Americans, who face discrimination and low job satisfaction when they try to break free of that image. These racial roadblocks result in Asians harboring a lot of anxiety about fitting in at the workplace and in the media, when they should have no qualms based on their education and experience. What, then, is the image that Asian Americans should match?
In America, Asians are to be cold, non-dominant, and competent, or they are met with resistance. Perhaps the most dehumanized minority in America, one might confuse a description of the stereotypical Asian with that of a robot. Through no control of their own, Asian Americans are given a mold they are expected to fill, and they face opposition when they attempt to break free of it. Cultural psychologist Jennifer Berdahl recently conducted a study in which she gauged the attitudes of non-Asian groups towards Asians who do not fit the stereotypical image of the cold, capable Asian. Her study shows that Asians described as warm experience more racial harassment than Asians described as cold, whereas employees of other backgrounds tended to experience less harassment if warm (147). The increased harassment warm Asians face is likely a response to a violation of the social norm rather than a more rational response to behavior, as colder Asians who conformed to societal impressions faced less harassment. These results reveal a scary unwillingness for non-Asian groups to accept behavior that differs from their constructed image of how an Asian should be. Even though warm behavior is favored, as seen through the attitude toward warm non-Asian groups, upholding the racial stereotype takes precedence over personal preference to behavior. Berdahl concludes that “Racial stereotypes of East Asians in North America [are] likely to serve to keep East Asians in subordinate organizational positions and undesirable social roles in the workplace” (150). Asian Americans are “hailed” by pre-existing ideology and social definitions. Berdahl’s study is alive with insight on this interpellation: Asian Americans are encouraged in the workplace to be cold, non-dominant, and competent. Thus, to attain the goal set by the community, Asians resign themselves to being hard workers and producing results in order to be seen as capable. In doing so, they eschew the social skills considered to be “warm”, and come off as cold, quiet, and unsociable. Meeting the stereotype of non-dominance completes the image of the meek Asian American, and the individual has been interpellated. The stereotypical qualities of the Asian American adversely affect the entertainment industry’s acceptance of Asians, as they tend to favor bold, magnetic personalities and presences.
Social perception on masculinity and femininity stand as another bastion against greater representation rates of Asians in the media. American mass media and stereotypes have emasculated the Asian American. Gendered race theory posits that stereotypes of racial groups typically have a gendered component, where certain groups are viewed as more masculine or feminine (Alt, “Gendered Race Prototypes” 121). Caucasians and African Americans are considered within the former, while Asians fall under the ladder. As American pop culture is notorious for being male-centric, the gendered race perception of Asians does little for opportunities in the entertainment industry. A study by race theorist Joanna Schug revealed that in popular magazines, Asian women appeared at a ratio of 4:1 in comparison to Asian men (Gendered Race in Mass Media 6). While Asian women heavily outnumber Asian men in many forms of media, it is important to note that Asian representation as a whole is still miniscule in relation to other races: African Americans had ten times the amount of representation Asians did, while Caucasians had nearly forty-three times as much in said magazines. The study only serves to confirm that there are additional shackles placed on Asian males who seek to enter the largely male-dominated entertainment industry.
Although some may claim Asians are becoming more visible in the entertainment industry today, the roles they play misrepresent the race and should not be considered Asian representation. Many Asian roles are extreme depictions of stereotypes: either of bumbling buffoons, heavily accented foreigners, or some comical, clueless figure. These disgusting clown-like portrayals of Asians in the media are reminiscent of the “Happy Sambo” in 19th century America, which dehumanized African Americans as smiling, brainless minstrels for consumption. Perhaps the most successful Asian-American actor in history, few have matched the legendary Anna May Wong’s star power or film appearances in the 20’s and 30’s (Chang, “Open Doors for Asian Performers”). But ultimately, Wong was defeated by the system and became a victim of typecasting, or only getting roles that reinforce a certain character, and died a shadow of her former self. Misrepresentation is no better than underrepresentation, and it should not be mistaken for progress.
Asians Americans who seek to enter the entertainment industry often find themselves crashing their heads into the bamboo ceiling, subjected by Western ideals imposing their image of what an Asian should be. Prevalent preconceived notions regarding Asian behavior spiral into a self-perpetuating vortex that vacuums away opportunities for Asian Americans to thrive in the entertainment industry and media. The community pressures Asians to fulfill their preordained social role, yet fulfilling that role pushes them further and further away from what the entertainment industry considers ideal. Asians who succeed in the entertainment industry acquiesce to demeaning roles that do little to advance Asian representation in the industry. Yet the future is not completely bleak for Asians hoping to break the bamboo ceiling. There is hope between the cracks of the bamboo stalks; the precious few successful non-stereotypical Asian actors and directors, such as George Takei and Ang Lee, are on the other side of the ceiling, whittling away at the barrier.

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