Model Minority

by David Leonard

4 May 2004


If only American Football Idol had existed when I was in college, I would be rich and famous right now. I would have been the perfect American Football Idol: I tried hard, knew my limitations, and played with a lot of heart. Sure, I had trouble tackling, I was slow, and I couldn’t catch the ball. But if mediocrity with a smile was as chic then as it is now, I could have been football’s William Hung.

The now famous American Idol contestant first appeared on Fox’s megahit series in one of the “parade of losers” episodes, performing a ghastly rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” While looked positively joyful, he told the cruel judges he had done his best, and only hoped to touch the hearts of millions of viewers. Websites dedicated to Hung sprang up immediately. This outpouring of love and support prompted a return appearance on Idol, as well as a performance at a UC Berkeley volleyball match and visits to Good Morning America, the Today Show, Ellen, and the Tonight Show. While others continue to vie for the title of “American Idol” (and the all-important record contract), Koch Records already has Hung under contract. His album, which includes covers “I Believe I Can Fly,” “Hotel California,” “Rocket Man,” and “Y.M.C.A.,” was released on 6 April, debuting in Billboard’s Top 30, amassing sales of over 30,000.

His fans extol his genuineness and gumption, but, as David Ng observes, Hung’s popularity provokes a serious discussion of race and gender. His success may look like the fulfillment of the American Dream, but his spectacle reflects the nation’s history of racism and minstrelsy. In the case of African Americans, this took the form of blackface, put on by white or black performers. The history of Asian and Asian American representation in U.S. popular culture includes its own types: the pollutant, the coolie, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority, and the gook. Like the Zip Coon or the Red Man, the Chinaman remained an inassimilable and racialized other, an object of derision.

The phenomenon of William Hung recalls such stereotypes: an infantilized, incompetent, and feminized (impotent) Asian male, he will never be “the same.” Recalling caricatures with heavy accents, big teeth, and bad clothes (FOB), he appears non-threatening and socially “backwards.” “America” does not love William Hung for his winning attitude or his dreadful singing, but because, like Tonto or Step n’ Fetchit, he fulfills an historical fantasy.

This fulfillment is nowhere more evident than in Hung’s music video for “She Bangs.” Mimicking Martin’s own video, he is surrounded by scantily clad women. But Hung shows little interest in them, maintaining a physical distance; in a documentary chronicling the video’s production, William’s mother forbids any contact between her son and the women, and insists he wear a raincoat during a scene where he and the dancers perform in the rain. As the girls writhe wetly, he looks as if he’s in another world.

Born in Hong Kong, William Hung is transformed in the States into the model minority: contented and non-threatening. As Janet Jackson reveals her breast during the Super Bowl and hiphop MCs grab their crotches, William Hung looks like a desirable alternative to the increasingly black world of popular culture.

His popularity reflects a new kind of racism, one barely submerged beneath claims of colorblindness. Given the outrage that followed Abercrombie & Fitch’s racist t-shirts last year, I expected a loud protest over William Hung’s exploitation. I anticipated that Asian American groups would challenge his representation by profits-mongering media, or even that a kind of coalition—including Jesse Jackson and Emil Guillermo, the NAACP and the National Congress of American Indians—would denounce the racialized commodification of this young man.

But, while some individuals have demurred, no organized objection has emerged in mainstream venues. This reflects U.S. popular culture’s focus on inclusion and media “representation” in the absence of politics and systematic activism. So, while William Hung is getting paid, and some Asians celebrate his popularity as a source of communal pride, his exploitation and embodiment of racial caricature still require inquiry and opposition. Today our memories are apparently so short-term that we can’t see patterns over time, or perceive connections between cultural products that traffic in racial mockery.

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//Mixed media