Professor Parreñas-Shimizu talks about her latest book, Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies.
Celine Parreñas-Shimizu begins her latest book, Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies, with a close reading of the controversial “Gay or Asian?” photographic spread from the April 2004 issue of Details. For those who need a refresher, the spread featured an Asian American male model accompanied with captions that conflated stereotypes of Asian American and gay men, such as this gem: “One cruises for chicken; the other takes it General Tso-style. Whether you’re into shrimp balls or shaved balls, entering the dragon requires imperial tastes.”
As you can imagine, this recycling of well-worn racist and homophobic images sold as “satire” did not sit well with a lot of folks, especially Asian American men, for whom this “straitjacketed” representation of Asian American male sexuality was a reminder of the many ways in which Asian American men have historically “fallen short.” But this crisis of masculinity, Parreñas-Shimizu warns, “must not lead to solutions that actually deepen and reemphasize Asian American masculinity as lacking such that the presumed and unstated racial problem is really the queer and the feminine.” Instead of beating up other men or conquering women to lick racial wounds, Parreñas-Shimizu wants us to consider “ethical” manhoods in which Asian American male sexuality is re-defined as the care for self and care for others.
Where can we find these alternative masculinities? In the same site of representational injury: the cinema. Parreñas-Shimizu, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara, takes her readers on a critical tour of Asian American films, characters, and actors past and present such as James Shigeta, Bruce Lee, and the Hmong American actor Bee Vang from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I sat down with Professor Parreñas-Shimizu last March during the 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where she served as a respondent for a panel on Asian American media, to talk about her new book, the joys and challenges of being both an academic and a filmmaker, and of course, Jeremy Lin.
“I work as both a film scholar and a filmmaker,” says Parreñas-Shimizu, who also has an MFA in Film Production and Directing from UCLA, and has made over five experimental and documentary films, including Birthright: Mothering Across Difference (2009), which won the Best Feature Documentary at the Big Mini DV Festival. “So I take the knowledge as someone who has worked behind the camera, who’s worked with lighting, production design, makeup, the body and facial expressions, whether you touch each other or not touch each other…that really speaks volumes. Being able to arrest time, space, expression, and movement as a filmmaker really informs my film scholarship.”
And in turn, Parreñas-Shimizu’s filmmaking is informed by the pedagogy of the classroom. “In my first film, The Fact of Asian Women, I shared with the actors the work of the women who came before them, like Anna Mae Wong, Nancy Kwan, and Lucy Liu,” who also comprise some of the subjects of Parreñas-Shimizu’s previous book, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, which won the 2008 Cultural Studies Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies. “I historicized them—where did they come from, why were they popular when they were popular—and we would talk about their craft. So the film became a space for teaching. We would shoot what I learned from the actors and what the actors learned from me. But the challenge is how to make it visually innovative.”
Another challenge for Parreñas-Shimizu is how to make an innovative Asian American film in the face of the dominant discourse of “claiming America” and its problematic (yet understandable) desires for voice, visibility, and authenticity—“positive” representations. To that end, she is currently developing her first feature narrative film based on a true story about a Filipin@ American community in Martinez, California. “In 1931, there was a Filipina woman who was accused of infidelity and stealing money from her husband. She was then kidnapped, gagged, beat up, and buried alive,” says Parreñas-Shimizu. “You have to frame your subject in a certain way—claiming a voice, moving out of invisibility, telling the story of your people. But what if the story involves one like mine? Where there’s criminal behavior on the part of the very people you’re supposed to represent positively?”
This expectation for Asian American artists to represent one’s community “positively” at the expense of an expansive and complicated portrayal—the “burden of representation”—is something that Parreñas-Shimizu feels strongly about. “The demand to make films that represent your community does an injustice to the actual work the filmmakers are trying to do,” Parreñas-Shimizu says. “You can’t film an idea. You have to film very concrete things, a very concrete person who’s going through some kind of dilemma. This person may not be a positive person. I’m thinking of the work of Quentin Lee’s Ethan Mao, which features a character who’s bullied and silenced by his own father for his sexuality, and then wields a gun against his own family. I think it’s a story worth telling. But once you make the demands of, ‘Is this the kind of visibility we want?’ it can be unfair to the goals of the filmmaker, which is to tell stories that help make spaces for these people.”
At the same time, Parreñas-Shimizu understands and feels the importance of Asian Americans wanting to see themselves in a way that hasn’t been seen before. This is why she was instantly mesmerized by the breakout of NBA player Jeremy Lin, whose sudden emergence was coined “Linsanity.” “It’s interesting to watch all the cameras look for Asians in the audience, but Asians have always been there,” insists Parreñas-Shimizu, a long-time fan of sports teams from her hometown of Boston. “Participation in sports is itself an assertion of citizenship and belonging. For me, being a Filipina immigrant in Boston and just loving the Celtics and basketball, I remember loving that school was canceled because the Celtics won the NBA championship and you’re part of that group in the subway going to the celebration.” As a mother of two young sons, ages six and nine, Parreñas-Shimizu wondered what was going to happen when the Celtics played Lin’s New York Knicks. “They pulled out their Celtics jerseys and they said, ‘Jeremy Lin is all right but we’re Celtics fans,’ and I thought, ‘Wow! That’s so interesting!’ But yeah, you see that hunger. I know that hunger. It’s painful.”
But the medicine that so many Asian American men use to heal that pain—what Parreñas-Shimizu calls a “phallic masculinity,” or what other scholars call a “hegemonic masculinity”—only hurts others in the process. “I think it’s very easy to define masculinity in terms of the hero who saves the day and beats everyone up and sleeps with a ton of women. So if you define masculinity in that way, the Asian American man has to fall short. You’re still proposing a straitjacketed definition of what is gender and sexuality for Asian American men,” says Parreñas-Shimizu. “I want to open up a world where someone like William Hung can be sexy! And the thing is, people did find him sexy! He got marriage proposals! So if we look at masculinity, and what people want from it, it reveals that there’s something very limited and lacking in that kind of phallic masculinity. It’s not really good for people.”
That tension between the desire for national recognition and the danger in subscribing to a phallic masculinity (which undergirds the nation) is what drove Parreñas-Shimizu to unearth the vast filmic repertoire of Asian American masculinities. “After I toured for two years for my first book, people kept asking, ‘Now that you’ve proven the hypersexuality of Asian American women, what do you have to say about the asexuality of Asian American men?’ I thought, “We have to historicize it and see if that’s really what’s going on. Because if it’s true that Asian American men have only been seen as asexual and effeminate, then how do you make sense of Sessue Hayakawa or James Shigeta? These huge heartthrobs from almost 100 years ago, fifty years ago? So many women fainted at the sight of their sexiness and beauty. So we have to be very careful about creating that blanket statement.”
Indeed, there has been a recent upsurge of interest in revisiting Asian American film stars of bygone eras who had been previously dismissed for accepting racist caricatures, like Wong, or whose three-dimensional portrayals were ignored, like Shigeta. “It’s not only happening in Asian American Studies classes and Ethnic Studies classes, but also in the professoriate where people are finding these figures in the past and bringing them back to life. We are writing them into history. And I’m excited to see what young people are doing with this material too. There’s so much work to be done and we have to give people the space, the resources, the jobs to continue doing this work.”
What Parreñas-Shimizu discovered in the course of her research on Asian American male film stars was something unexpected—an ethical manhood that cares for self and for others. Bruce Lee, one of the most iconic figures in cinematic history, embodied this kind of manhood. “Bruce Lee cared for the people around him. He had this amazing expression of vulnerability that women and others found electric. He also had a relationship with violence that was regretful. Violence was only inflicted when it was justified. And he had to be punished for it.”
Lee’s sexuality, which Parreñas-Shimizu describes as “magnificent,” was claimed by multiple people in different ways “After his death his wife published a book called Bruce Lee: The Only Man I Knew,” she says. “It was a claiming of him as a good father and a good husband. At the same time, a movie that came out called I Love You Bruce Lee which was about the sexual prowess he had in the bedroom with his mistress. So there were these competing ideas of masculinity and sexuality that are both not quite right because they’re rather binary—one is a sex bomb guy and one is a good husband. But I think Bruce Lee in his movies as well as in his interviews presented a much more complex masculinity that’s somewhere in between those two.”
Parreñas-Shimizu says there are many contemporary examples of Asian American manhoods that don’t veer to either heteronormative pole of master of the pillow or master of the family. “Keo Woolford is one of my actors in my earlier films who starred in a production of The King and I for a long time, and has a show at the East/West Players Theater called Three Year Swim Club that he directed and choreographed. It’s about an Asian American coach who trained these Hawaiian kids to compete in the Olympics. He does a lot of work on the Pacific Islander body that’s interesting.” Then there are our favorite stoners, Harold and Kumar. “You can say they’re a part of this new trend of bromance, nontraditional men who are the new romantic heroes, but they themselves have an interesting love affair with each other. Friendship is really celebrated where they can say they love each other.” And then there’s pornography, where if Asian American men appear at all, it’s usually as orientalized “bottoms” in the “rice queen” genre, or gay white men paired with gay Asian men. But there’s one Asian American male pornstar who’s rewriting the script. “I’m writing about Keni Styles, who is the first celebrated Asian heterosexual pornstar recognized by the big awards. In his own video series called Superman Stamina, he gives his racial history as an adopted Thai man and the bullying he received as an orphan in London. He developed premature ejaculation because he never thought Asians could be stallions in bed. And so now he sells these videos on how to overcome that. My essay is going to be included in a feminist porn book that’s coming out next year.”
I often ask my interviewees what their favorite song is to sing in karaoke. Parreñas-Shimizu, however, might be the first Filipin@ person I’ve ever met who has never sung a karaoke song. “My weakness in life is lyrics,” she says. “If I hear music, I can’t tell you what the words are. Isn’t that bizarre? I can’t do it. I know happy birthday. It’s almost like I’m tongue-less. I come from a really musical family. We had a family reunion in Vegas where there was karaoke and everyone did it. They sang Madonna songs, but I didn’t do it.” If Professor Parreñas-Shimizu ever writes to write a book about William Hung, I’d like to suggest a title that borrows from one of The Material Girl’s most famous songs—Touched For the Very First Time: William Hung and Asian American Ethical Manhood.
Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies was published in April of 2012 by Stanford University Press, and is available in most major bookstores. Her first feature film, Birthright: Mothering Across Difference (2009), is available at www.progressivefilms.org