[4 May 2004]
He could have been any other loser. When American Idol introduced William Hung to us in January, he seemed like just another contestant being held up for ridicule as an atrociously bad singer. Four months later, Hung has become Idol’s most unbelievable success story. Those who ridiculed him in the beginning are now wondering who will have the last laugh.
From the first airing of his infamous Idol audition, reactions to Hung’s sudden celebrity have run the gamut from repulsion to adoration and back again. The strange and disarming combination of Hung’s nerdy, F.O.B. appearance, stilted performance and humble fortitude—“I already gave my best. I have no regrets”—has placed him at the center of a Gordian knot of race, sex, performance and pop.
For fans starved for sincerity, Hung became a paragon of authenticity. Unlike other Idol contestants who banked on contrived freakishness to win a moment of TV notoriety, Hung oozed earnestness. There was no hint of irony in his performance despite its undeniable badness, and Internet scribes quickly propped Hung up as a plucky icon of realness. Within days of his audition’s airing, there were fan Web sites, MP3 and video remixes, and a slew of t-shirts and buttons on Ebay. Early coverage in the press treated Hung as a curiosity—a nerdy “every man” getting his 15 minutes. No one expected that William Hung would now boast a CD out on Koch Records, an accompanying music video, and appearances on Ellen, the Tonight Show, and the Today Show. In other words, Hung is huge.
But it’s not all love. David Ng and Emil Guillermo have both penned scathing diatribes about the racist underpinnings of Hung’s fanatical reception, and Jimi Izrael went so far as to call him an “American Sambo.” To be sure, racism contributes to Hung’s appeal. Ebay shoppers can purchase t-shirts featuring a crudely drawn, buck-toothed caricature with “She Bangs” inscribed below it.
During Hung’s recent performance on the Today Show, some fans wore masks—life-size photos of Hung’s face with the eyes cut out—reminiscent of Hollywood actors performing in yellowface, not to mention the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. Although those wearing the masks probably intended them as a humorous tribute, they were in effect reviving a long tradition of the co-optation and performance of race. In turning Hung’s visage into a mask, they simultaneously emulate him and belittle him.
In Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, author Eric Lott asserts that blackface is always an ambivalent, polyvocal phenomenon. Early blackface performances were not merely an exercise in expropriating and denigrating the customs and appearance of black people. They were also an expression of a twisted “love” for and fascination with black culture. Through blackface performance, Lott argues, working class whites often identified with and celebrated liberation struggles and resistance narratives originating in black culture. Blackface became simultaneously an identification with a source of power and a means to control and contain that power. As such, it was a sensitive barometer of white racial anxiety, longings and guilt.
The simultaneous adoration and ridicule of Hung’s fans echoes the multivalent character of blackface. Caught in a paroxysm of racist love, his fans play out their own fantasies of celebrity and race—at once pulling Hung close as an “inspiration” and pushing him away as a freak. This ambivalence calls for a more nuanced understanding of racism than the outright repudiation espoused by Ng and company. As they rightly recognize, Hung’s emergence as a “star” shines a spotlight on the intersection of race and masculinity; what they fail to see is that it also throws the very definition of masculinity into question.
As an Asian American man, Hung is a heterosexual “subaltern.” (Despite an affinity for Elton John and the Village People, Hung is presumably straight, saying in Rolling Stone, “I would prefer to get married before engaging in sexual activities.”) Asian American men long been largely deprived of sexual self-definition, a result of white paranoia over the sexual and economic threat posed by early Asian American “bachelor societies” (the product of racist immigration and labor policies) and the more recent rise of Asian national economies. When these tensions erupt into media, the resultant images of Asian masculinity are almost always cast in emasculated and/or villainous terms. As a result, the sexual capital of Asian American straight men stands near zero.
As Ng notes, Hung’s fans revel in his awkward, unmanly image in order to shore up their own insecurities: “Hung makes us all feel better about ourselves: Men can feel more manly and women are free to act like sluts. For Asian Americans, Hung represents everything we don’t want to be seen as (foreign, nerdish, a joke), and thus his oddball fame reinforces our own happily assimilated identities.” Although it’s unlikely that what all women want is to act like “sluts,” and that Asian Americans are all as equally invested in happy assimilation as Ng is, his point is a good one. For many, Hung is the means by which they render harmless all the things they find distasteful about themselves.
But to reject Hung wholesale as just another casualty of America’s racist imagination is to see only part of the picture. Whether we find him stereotypical or not, Hung and people like him are part of the Asian American community. People who speak with accents, people who wear pocket protectors. By failing to claim them, we are conceding to mainstream culture the power to define us.
More importantly, what Ng and others forget is that Hung has struck a chord with so many, not just because he fits into a familiar stereotype, but because he showed fortitude, and yes, grace, in the face of rejection. It was his humility, not his race, that made him stand out from the parade of crybabies and divas churning through the American Idol machine. Despite his awkward appearance, voice and dance moves, Hung dared to put his dream to the test. He may have been delusional, or simply naïve, but he tried. And then, when he failed, he took it “like a man.”
The resulting media frenzy has thrown into high relief the difference between the masculine pop ideal and William Hung. To return to Lott (quoting John Szwed): “The fact that, say, Mick Jagger can today perform in the same [black musical] tradition without blackface simply marks the detachment of culture from race…” As he stands in the place reserved for white/black/Latino entertainers in front of thousands of screaming fans, the ways in which Hung fails to reproduce the masculine ideal become painfully obvious. For Asian Americans, culture is still very much attached to race. However, place an Asian American man in an uncharacteristic role, donning “whiteface” as it were, and we begin to see how things might come undone.
The problem is that Hung’s critics are so invested in traditional ideas of masculinity (and Asian American men’s exclusion from them) that they can’t see the disruptive possibilities of Hung’s stardom. Guillermo rages, “What is Hung but an infantilized, incompetent and impotent male image? Strong? No. Virile? No. Sexy? The guy’s a virgin.” (Virgins inherently unsexy? Since when?) With these narrow-mindedconceptions of masculinity, it’s no wonder Guillermo thinks that Hung’s fans can only be out for ridicule. He’s so focused on claiming machismo for Asian American men that he can’t recognize that perhaps it’s masculinity, not Hung, that needs a makeover. We laugh at Hung because he’s inept, accented, and awkward, and we admire him because he’s brave, self-confident, and a little bull-headed (all masculine traits). In combining the feminized Asian American with the self-reliance and fortitude of a “man,” Hung embodies a new kind of male ideal.
This combination is especially evident in his more recent appearances. In an ingenious marketing move, the music video for “She Bangs” positions him as the apotheosis of a new kind of authenticity: the righteous nerd. In a “behind-the-scenes” look at the making of the video, Hung is groomed, dressed, and put through a sequence of familiar scenarios: bumping in the club with scantily clad women, driving a convertible full of scantily clad women, dancing in a rain storm with scantily clad women. In each scene, he interrupts the shoot, saying, “Cut, cut… I’m not comfortable… I want to be myself.” And at the end of the final scene, he yells, “I don’t want to do this anymore. Gimme my backpack.” He then repudiates his record company “girlfriend” and charges off by himself into the distance.
The video sets Hung up as an Ellisonian Invisible Man (“I yam what I am”) caught in the whirlwind of celebrity artifice. By distancing him from actors or pop stars who dissemble for a living—the video critiques the professed authenticity of other music industry representations. Hung is a “real person” the video says, like you and me. His is truly the success story of the underdog, not just a dramatization of one. Although the video is itself patently fake—Hung’s acting is terrible and the sets and costumes are exaggerated to the point of parody—it leaves the viewer with an image of an Asian American man (pocket protector and all) determined to define himself, for himself.