Charlie’s Angels Sequel Under Fire

lucy puts up her dukes

The crime-fighting female trio that captivated America with their mastery of espionage, martial arts, and skin-tight leather pants is back again. Teenage girls across the country may be ecstatic about the film sequel to the blockbuster hit Charlie's Angels, but some fans aren't so pleased with Full Throttle. Among the skeptics is an organization of Asian American moviegoers that is somewhat goaded about scenes in which Lucy Liu's character, Alex, introduces her parents: a white father, played by John Cleese, and a Chinese mother, who only appears in an old photograph.

Much uproar from the Asian American community has surrounded Lucy Liu for her over-sexualized “dragon lady” role in Ally McBeal, but for the most part, her role as Alex Munday in the first Charlie's Angels film was celebrated as an attempt to show the non-stereotypical side of Asian Americans. Alex Munday was portrayed as an Asian American woman with vigor and confidence, an exceptional rendering that wasn't constantly epitomizing cheap Oriental clichés. But the implication that Liu's character is biracial -- half Asian and half white -- has the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an organization dedicated to monitoring the media and advocating balanced and sensitive portrayals of Asian Americans, steaming.

"The casting of John Cleese as Alex's father leaves us confused and angered," MANAA president Aki Aleong states in a letter to Full Throttle director Joseph McGinty Nichol. "You infer that Lucy's character (Alex) is half-Caucasian. This is problematic since it is obvious that Lucy Liu is not of mixed race. At the same time it nullifies the wonderful statement you made by casting her in the first installment." A MANAA press release also declares that they want "to make clear that we are not against movies portraying bi-race or multi-race people ... To now imply that [Lucy's character is] half Asian belittles the pleasure and relief Asian Americans and fair-minded audiences had when they saw an Asian woman standing up for justice and overcoming great obstacles."

Once confirmed by McGinty's publicist in the fall of 2002, another discovery about Full Throttle only served to rub salt in the wound. Turns out that in the original production script for Full Throttle, producers had written the scene with Alex's parents to be an exchange of comedic banter between a Jewish mother and an Asian father -- a biracial marriage that American audiences rarely see on film or television. For unexplained reasons, the script was later changed to put forward a white father and an Asian mother, the Asian mother reduced to a meager photo who sets the backdrop for the funny and charismatic white father, Cleese.

Many admirers applaud Asian Americans such as Lucy Liu and Connie Chung for gaining increasing visibility in the mainstream media, but their praise overlooks the fact that the Asian Americans who are achieving star status are all female; meanwhile, Asian American men hide behind the disparaging roles of immigrants with "fortune cookie" (broken) English or are reduced to receiving respect only for their karate chops and kung foo punches -- that is, if they're lucky enough to get even these parts.

If Asian women are consistently equated with the stereotypes of either the exoticized and eroticized dominatrix or the meek and blushing China doll...these portrayals will begin to reflect themselves in the Asian American reality of this country.

"We probably need not emphasize to you that a serious lack of substantial roles for capable Asian-American actors has rendered them nearly invisible in television and movies," Aleong's letter to the Full Throttle director states. "By casting John Cleese as [Lucy's] father ... you've robbed the role from an Asian-American male actor." In addition, the decision to cast a mere extra with a non-vocal, non-descript role as Liu's Chinese mother obviously was a decision given little consideration, as it only perpetuates denigrating Asian American stereotypes of submissiveness and "Oriental" exoticism.

To some non-Asians, MANAA's criticisms of Full Throttle may seem finicky and even overly skeptical. But hardly anyone can deny the role of the media in shaping racist stereotypes throughout history. If Asian women are consistently equated with the stereotypes of either the exoticized and eroticized dominatrix or the meek and blushing China doll, while Asian men slip deeper into invisibility within the media, these portrayals will begin to reflect themselves in the Asian American reality of this country.

This then begs that age-old question: Does life reflect art, or does art reflect life? If the media frequently shows Asian women in the company of White men, while at the same time depicting Asian men as nerdy and dateless, is this a reflection of what's already going on in our society, or is it creating a model that young viewers are bound to imitate?

Studies show that Asian Americans are more likely than any other minority ethnic group to marry someone from a different race. Yet according to the 2000 U.S. Census report, Asian American women have white husbands 3.08 times more often than Asian American men have White wives. In some urban areas the gendered disparity in interracial dating is even higher: a 1992 article in the San Francisco Examiner reports that in San Francisco, “four times as many Asian women as Asian men married whites … in Sacramento the ratio was 8 to 1.”

Perhaps the recasting of Liu's parents in Full Throttle was simply an attempt to conform with the Asian female/white male coupling that American audiences already find familiar and socially acceptable -- an attempt to create hype by addressing an interracial theme, without tipping the glass so far as to alienate viewers who aren't yet comfortable with the less common and more controversial Asian male/white female couple rarely seen on the big screen. But why is the Asian female/white male couple -- prominent on TV shows such as Ally McBeal (in which Liu is paired with a white actor) and in films such as Madame Butterfly and The Joy Luck Club -- more socially and aesthetically acceptable on the big screen and in real life?

Some scholars believe that in a society that assigns whites and males dominant positions, and Asians and females submissive positions, the white male/Asian female couple fits better into the perceived hierarchies of gender and race. In his article, “Disparity in Asian/white Interracial Dating,” Tanaka Tomoyuki, an anti-racism writer and lawyer, points out “people have the idea that whites are better or superior… This combines with the asymmetric conception of dating and marriage to produce the effect that a WM/AF couple is much more acceptable than a AM/WF couple. An image of an AM/WF couple just ‘doesn't seem right’. It strikes a nerve. This is why we see so few AMs in romantic relationships with WFs on TV and in films.”

The few Asian male/white female couples that do appear onscreen are either portrayed as ridiculous or taboo. In 1984’s Sixteen Candles, 16-year-old Samantha (Molly Ringwald) is horrified when a dorky Chinese foreign exchange student, Long Duck Dong (Gedde Watannabe), stays in her bedroom and accompanies her to her school dance. In 1999’s Anna and the King, a remake of the musical The King and I, a subtle romance between Chow Yun-Fat and Jodie Foster develops, yet Hollywood doesn’t permit them even a peck on the lips.

Asians have been assimilating into American culture for over a century. Maybe it's time for media writers and producers to hush their subconscious (or even conscious) desires to portray harmful stereotypes and to finally depict characters that Asian Americans can relate to. Throwing in a few Asian American guys (with some charisma and dates, please) wouldn’t hurt, either.

Yvonne Wong, 17, is a WireTap intern and a student at Lowell High School in San Francisco.

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