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Whitewashing and Fetishizing Asian and Pacific Islanders in Charlie’s Angels & Pair of Kings

Updated: Apr 4

I grew up in a small bubble of non-stereotypical Asian representation. Like all kids of the early 2000s, when we switched channels between Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network, we witnessed a range of Asian representation. Disney and Disney XD starred Brenda Song in Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (John Laing, USA, 2006); as the titular role, Wendy was resilient and funny. Song also portrayed the ditzy yet loveable London Tipton in Suite Life of Zach and Cody (2005) and Suite Life on Deck (2008). Nickelodeon had Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) and later Legends of Korra (2012), fictional worlds focusing on Asian and Indigenous cultures. However, these media examples are outliers, as the large collective of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) content centers on model minorities, derogatory stereotypes, or fetishization. That is, of course, when API races and ethnicities are not whitewashed and erased from films and series.

 

Between 2007 and 2019, API representation equaled 5.9% in the top 1,300 films. 29 films had Asian co-leads, and 21 had Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander co-leads, resulting in only 44 films featuring leading characters in these ethnicities. Moreover, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson accounts for 14 of these roles. Furthermore, 59% of all actors only had one leading role across all 13 years. Additionally, the intersectionality of API actresses statistically reduces job opportunities; for example, women of any name were less likely to be hired than men with the names Ben, Robert, Josh, Jason, Chris, Tom, James, Daniel, John, Michael, Robert, and Sean. And, when API women are displayed on screen,  23.3% of the time, they are dressed in sexy attire, 21.3% show nudity, and 12.5% are hypersexualized (Wang Yeun, 2021). Conclusively, racism and sexism are interdependent forms of oppression; when race intersects with this authority, this reinstates racial hierarchies, giving white men more dominance and ultimately dehumanizing women of color (Finzsch, 2008). 



Ally McBeal (David E. Kelley, USA, 1997) has been accredited as having the first significant Asian representation in mainstream media, Ling Woo (Lucy Liu). In a TV series based around whip-smart lawyers, Liu breaks the glass ceiling for Asian women. However, the series also sets the tone and standard for Asian women.  While Ling’s character breaks the soft-spoken Asian immigrant storyline, men lust over Ling’s presence, and her female friends often comment on her beauty. Ling Woo states, “Whenever I say the word, it drives men crazy, even some women.” The blonde conversational counterpart is shocked, unable to understand that Ling sends men into a frenzy just by the way she says the word sex. After begging Ling to say the word twice, she becomes speechless. Here, audiences can see Ling attempting to grapple with Asian fetishization as well as being sexualized by her friend. Unfortunately, this is arguably one of the more tame scenes where Lucy Liu is being fetishized for being an Asian woman.



In 2000, the exploitation of Asian femininity was on display, as Luy Liu is fervently sexualized on Charlie’s Angels (McG, USA). In the film’s opening scene, Alex Munday (Lucy Lui) skydives with Dylan Sanders (Drew Barrymore) onto the boat, where they meet the third angel, Natalie Cook (Cameron Diaz). With a helmet hiding Alex’s facial features, audiences are unable to see the character. The film introduces Alex’s face in slow motion; when Alex takes off the helmet, she turns her head to each side, her hair slinging from either side––creating Alex’s first sexualized appearance. When Dylan, who is wearing a mask of LL Cool J’s character, removes the disguise, the same effects are in place for a fraction of the time, highlighting the difference in sexualization between a white Drew Barrymore and an Asian Lucy Liu. This helmet-slinging becomes a motif throughout the film, as in the following scene when Bosley (Bill Murray) describes who Charlie’s Angels are; Alex wins a fencing bout and rips off her mask in the same hair-flowing slow-motion shot as before. 

While Bosley narrates the immense talent of all the angels, Alex’s impressiveness touches upon the model minority stereotype. “The stereotype generalizes Asians in the U.S. as intelligent, well-off, and able to excel in fields such as math and science” (Pew Research, 2023). Alex's parents were well off and professors of philosophy and economics at Harvard. She was a child prodigy at gymnastics, fencing, chess, archery, and equestrianism. As an adult, Alex became a doctor, aerospace engineer, and a Stuttgart ballerina. While the vast amount of her accomplishments would be unrealistic in the real world, the exaggerated reality in the film shows the sheer lengths it takes to be a good person of color or model minority. 



Later in the film, Alex instructs Natalie to flip her hair to flirt with a man successfully. While this could be interpreted as Alex owning her sexuality, it is more accurately noted as the male gaze, as the film's writers and directors are all white men. The director, McG, controls the male gaze to best mold women into an ideal fantasy (Finzsch, 2008, p2). While the male gaze was on display in the original television series Charlie’s Angels (1976),  the series’ sexualization becomes racial fetishization in the film because it furthers the idea that women of color are objects rather than people. 



Lucy Liu walking through office in leather outfit

For instance, when Charlie’s Angels are breaking into Red Star’s secure vault, Alex dresses up in a tight leather skirt-suit with a long baton. She powerfully walks through a long room full of male engineers, staring as she struts down the room, their heads turning as she passes them. As she leaves the room, a hundred or so men chase after her. In the following shot, the men sit in a room somewhat like a university lecture hall. With the goal of distracting them, Alex whips her baton. She yells at the men, demanding answers to her questions, and those who answer correctly are held tightly to her bosom. This scene encroaches on an array of male fantasies, whether that be the “sexy librarian or professor,” and switches the stereotypical roles of dominance, another possible fantasy. Alex, under the control of the male gaze, is the result of derogatory racist ideology intersecting with hypersexualization and fetishization, cementing these themes as stereotypes for future Asian characters. 


Pair of Kings poster

While Charlie’s Angels produced fetishized caricatures of Asian women, Disney XD’s Pair of Kings (2010) whitewashes and mocks the representation of Pacific Islanders. Despite previously mentioning some positive representation in 2000s children’s television, the blatant mockery of race towards biracial and Pacific Islander communities in Pair of Kings is impossible to ignore. The series follows “biracial” fraternal twins, Brady (Mitchel Musso) and Boomer (Doc Shaw), who their aunt and uncle in Chicago are raising. When a large man knocks on their door, Mason Makoola (Geno Segers), their royal advisor/head of security, declares that he has come to pick them up so they can rightfully claim their throne on the tropical island of Kinkow. During their heir, the kings struggle to learn the customs and traditions of their Pacific Islander-coded people.  


Firstly, Kinkow is a fictitious tropical country, so while the series does not explicitly mention the country's race, adults can consciously decipher that the inhabitants are Pacific Islanders. However, the twin kings of this country are scripted as biracial, with a white father and a Black mother. The actor of Boomer is Black, and the actor of Brady is white, and when their long lost brother comes, announcing that they are triplets, Boz (Adam Hicks) is also only white. While this mocks biraciality, it also whitewashes the Pacific Islander community, an already ignored race. This is similar to Aloha’s (Cameron Crowe, USA, 2015) casting of Emma Stone as Alison Ng––a Native Hawai’ian, Chinese, and white character or the whitewashing of Doctor Strange’s (Scott Derrickson, USA, 2016) The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). By repeatedly whitewashing API characters, it “commits representational racial genocide by whitening people of color” (Oh, 2021, p 3).  By giving more power to white people, whitewashing becomes a theme throughout media representation that systemically insinuates notions of undeserving and unwanting self-representation as well as abiding by the Black/white paradigm (Finzsch, 2008).


Mikayla fighting

Despite Pair of Kings’ PG rating, the series continually objectifies women, or more specifically, girls. From the moment of their arrival, Brady unabashedly flirted with Mason’s daughter, Mikayla Makoola (Kelsey Asbille). As the daughter of the royal advisor, Mikayla spends much of her time teaching the Kings about Kinkow’s history and culture so that they can make informed decisions about the island’s cultures and traditions. This is, of course, in between the times Brady unabashedly objectifies and “flirts” with her. The Makoolas are coded as Pacific Islanders; the actor who portrays Mason is Native American and African American (Radish, 2015). In turn, Asbille, who plays Monica in Yellowstone, is Taiwanese and white (Maillard, 2017; Lange, 2017). 


"crazy" old man at Kings swearing in ceremony

Despite Asbille's character’s race being different, the series relies on stereotypical traits of Pacific Islanders, encouraging Brady to fetishize Mikayla continually. The series goes as far as to remove Mikayla’s romantic agency altogether. As per tradition, the Kings’ birthday wish becomes true for a day; Brady wishes Mikayla to shamelessly flirt and compliment him. Unable to stop, all admiration follows with negative comments as Mikayla seeks for the day to end quickly. The frivolity of Pair of Kings is not lost upon me; nevertheless, the series reproduces racist rhetoric as Pacific Island cultures and communities are manipulated to become the butt of the joke, and it introduces the fetishization of API women.


At a glance, Charlie’s Angels and Pair of Kings are vastly different forms of media. However, the realities of these comedic worlds incorporate racist motifs that continue to erase Asian and Pacific Islander communities from the entertainment industry. As both visual texts hypersexualize and fetishize their female protagonists, Pair of Kings whitewashes Pacific Islanders from the screen, removing these cultures from the conversation and upholding hegemonic powers. By spotlighting this problem in children’s television, we can understand that whitewashing is deeply rooted and systemic in our society and the entertainment industry. As per Charlie’s Angels, the film is one of the first to produce the model minority stereotype. This paves the way for future model minority characters as the film has proved this racial diversity to be a financial success. Together, Charlie’s Angels and Pair of Kings spread racist rhetoric to all ages, embedding these detrimental ideologies into our future. 


 

Lange, A., & Cheng, S. (2017, October 4). This small role has caused debate among Native actors in Hollywood. BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/arianelange/yellowstone-native-representation-controversy   

Maillard, K. N. (2017, August 1). What’s so hard about casting Indian actors in Indian roles? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/movies/wind-river-native-american-actors-casting.html 

Oh, D. (2021). Whitewashing the Movies: Asian Erasure and White Subjectivity in U.S. Film Culture. Rutgers University Press.

Pew Research Center. (2023, November 30). 3. Asian Americans and the “model minority” stereotype. Pew Research Center Race & Ethnicity. https://www.pewresearch.org/race-ethnicity/2023/11/30/asian-americans-and-the-model-minority-stereotype/ 

Radish, C. (2015). February 6). Banshee interview: Geno Segers talks about Chayton's violent streak. Collider. https://collider.com/geno-segers-banshee-interview/ 

Sun, C.F. (2002). Ling Woo in Historical Context: The New Face of Asian American Stereotypes on Television. In Gender, Race, and Class in Media : a Text-Reader (2nd ed., pp. 656–664). essay, Thousand Oaks : Sage Publications. 

Wang Yuen, N., Smith, S. L., Pieper, K., Choueiti, M., Yao, K., & Dinh, D. (2021). The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders across 1,300 Popular Films. USC Annenberg. https://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii_aapi-representation-across-films-2021-05-18.pdf 

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