Let’s talk about Josh Chan. Now, Josh Chan is an incredible character for reasons within and without the context of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I really like watching him do stuff, and I really like Rebecca do stuff around him. There was a video a while back called “Was It Supposed to Be Greg?” which had gone through several iterations since before the channel started, and at one point was more a discussion about Team Greg and Team Josh. So I guess now we have occasion to revisit that other part of it, but first note that of course teams is not the way to go about this.
But it’s nearly impossible to avoid, right? It’s just one of those paradigms that appeals to our minds the way we like top ten videos and appreciate stereotypes as a liberation from thought. Thinking about Rebecca’s love interests as Team Greg, Josh, Nathaniel or Trent actually helpfully plays into the rom-com subversion, because it points us to Team Rebecca.
Regardless, like we asked with Greg, will it be Josh in the end? There’s one scene I want to hone in on, in episode 207, when Valencia and Rebecca come upon security footage at Anna’s salon. It’s a moment that had me deflating almost as much as these two mooks, because it was sad to hear that Josh felt about Anna what he never did with Rebecca and Valencia. So what was all that emotional investment about, Joshy? But, looking back, I wonder if he really meant this, or if it was an expression of insecurity.
He flits from woman to woman — each new pretty girl has to be perfect, and I think that distracts from his true feelings. Maybe he loves Rebecca, maybe he loves Valencia. But it’s hard for him to tell, though neither woman was having that in the Electric Mesa. Let’s take it back to 110, where Josh and Rebecca sit by the fire, the way they were ten years prior.
Clearly, Rebecca answers insecurities that Josh has, and I think that’s a good hallmark of a relationship, that kind of active complementing, so long as it’s mutual. And that’s where complication one enters: Rebecca likes Josh for a lot of reasons beyond Josh. However, in the previous episode, we saw how he’s one of the few people to actually accept her.
But complication two and three: does Rebecca really believe in Josh, or just the ideal of Josh, and can Josh really have accepted Rebecca back then when he didn’t know the whole story? Wow. I don’t know if I can answer these questions right now, I think we’re gonna have to wait and see.
But I think that’s the ticket. If we want to figure out if it’s gonna be Josh in the end, in television terms, one of the questions we’d ask is what do the two offer each other? When we think about Darryl and White Josh, we see how they fulfill each other and answer their respective dramatic needs. I think that Josh has a lot of growing up to do, and I think Rebecca can help him there, and that’s how their relationship will fulfill each other’s. In tandem with psychiatric help, Rebecca will overcome the ideal Josh in her mind by helping to shape the real Josh, which solves his dramatic need which regards arrested development.
“You’re gonna poke a kid’s eye out with those.”
I’ve said before I don’t think Rebecca will end up with anyone, and I’m mostly sticking with that, but I think it will always be a question of Josh or not, just given the way Rachel Bloom had described their relationship one time, that they’re two people who are always gonna find their way back to each other. She runs into him at the pharmacy by the Heather cutout, and she didn’t tell him to leave at the end of season two, I guess because she couldn’t, but who knows?
These are the questions that keep me up at night. Because while I am ultimately Team Rebecca, I’ll level with you, I’m kind of Team Josh, too. And the reason why is a long, sad story, the likes of which you will not enjoy and will regret having read. Please turn back now. I suggest this article instead. But if you’re still with me, to properly tell this story, we need to go back. How far we going back? Way back, but for me, only back to 2013. That’s the funniest part. You’ll see. Here we go.
The Slanted Screen
There’s a documentary from 2006 called The Slanted Screen, which you might want to check out, though it focuses I think exclusively on East Asians. On the website, the synopsis is as follows: “From silent film star Sessue Hayakawa to Harold & Kumar Go to Whitecastle, The Slanted Screen explores the portrayals of Asian men in American cinema, chronicling the experiences of actors who have had to struggle against ethnic stereotyping and limiting roles. The film presents a critical examination of Hollywood’s image-making machine, through a fascinating parade of 50 film clips spanning a century.”
It’s pretty wild to go back and think about movies that contributed to the stereotypes of the Asian man, and you compound on that wild in seeing those images persist today. And so, what’s the problem? The problem itself is pretty simple, if its ramifications are not, that being the castration of the Asian-American male.
It isn’t just that Asian men have small penises but that they’re also awkward with women, they’re nerdy, mathematical, and aren’t interested in romance. There’s an article in The Huffington Post talking about a misfire Tinder advertisement where the only guy who got swiped away was the Asian guy, and it contains this quote from Hong Kong-based Ariadna Peretz: “This video not only disrespects the market that Tinder seeks to serve, but also reinforces the stereotype Asian men aren’t attractive to women.” That’s kind of an interesting way to phrase it, as a stereotype. I know there’s a lot of Asian media watchdogs out there who’d bristle at that, because for them it’s very real: in America, Asian guys just aren’t attractive to women.
Almost as confusing as Robert the Dog
Dating site statistics corroborate this (though Asian men certainly are not alone at the bottom of the list), and when you watch Hollywood media for any significant stretch, you begin to understand why, and it’s hard to blame women in this circumstance. Not only because racial bias is implicit and hard to control — you can’t always control what you’re attracted to anyway — but because Bruce Lee was a long, long time ago. And in his place, we’ve had a lot of weird stuff.
Growing up as I did, Asian, I was not aware of any of this. I didn’t know about Bruce Lee until high school, and I didn’t know Asian men were thought to be unattractive until college. So that didn’t mean I transcended those problems, I just wasn’t aware of them. Myself being unattractive in those days was purely my fault, and that was fine.
And then sophomore year of college rolled around, and I specify college because that’s a place, theoretically, for smart people. The year was 2013, and you might remember this but the pop star prodigy Lorde was, to put it lightly, being criticized for dating an Asian guy. And an article I read about it invoked the idea of “Asian Male Ugliness,” whose history is cataloged here. That was a watershed moment. Like, this shit has been codified, it’s real, and everybody I ever knew was aware of it, clearly, and I wasn’t. That’s how I felt anyway, pretty dumb and now also, apparently, ugly. Let me try — that day, I felt not like Tony Leung, but Tony the Tiger. GRRREAT!!
This is definitely a problem, you know? Nobody should have to feel this way. But what are we supposed to do? How do you solve this unsolvable problem, this problem being that we think Asian men are ugly and unfuckable because we haven’t had Asian stars and the Asians we have had are always played for jokes. That to me doesn’t suggest an immediate solution, so you fucking tell me, genius. So much adversity. What half-rhymes with adversity? I don’t know.
Enter Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
As they tell it, the creation of Josh Chan as an Asian guy happened in two crucial steps, and I would add a third to that. First, Aline Brosh McKenna, for some unknown reason, just put it out there that Josh was Asian. Like, that’s what made sense for the character, that’s what she felt. And she said that to Rachel Bloom, her creative partner who had the power to say no, who said yes. This is the process by which honest and meaningful diversity happens in Hollywood. For McKenna, it was what felt right for the story, and for Bloom, it was just normal.
That’s two very important things that of course we need more of. We need more creators in positions of power who don’t not think of Asians when conceiving their stories, as well as the creators to whom Asians were never not normal. As Bloom will tell you, she grew up in Southern California, and the prom queen and king when she went to high school were Asian.
Trebecca, the perfect couple name
And the third ingredient is that there was a super-talented Asian guy to take on that role. This guy, Vincent Rodriguez III, it’s like he can do anything, and if you want someone to represent your people, we really lucked out. Compounding on that, it’s additionally impressive of the showrunners and casting director because Rodriguez III is gay, and I know that gay guys get locked out of straight roles a lot. But I mean, come on. Look at him go — the makeout scene in the courtroom is completely convincing, you wouldn’t even know that he reeked of garlic for some reason as they were filming. (True story).
Summer 2015, I graduated and immediately moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in grocery shopping and watching YouTube videos about crocodiles and was still pretty haunted by the whole Asian male ugliness thing. You know, that was pretty disappointing to learn about. In early 2016, I saw a bench ad in Burbank for a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and I thought, “Wow, that’s not gonna last.” Then I read an article about White Josh actually, and thought I should check the show out. And wouldn’t you know it, an Asian guy romantic lead.
Not since Selfie with John Cho and Karen Gillan, which I also watched just because it was an Asian guy in that role. If you’re wondering, that’s partly where Bagels After Midnight comes from, anxious rationalization, telling you that I’m watching this show for more than what it does for my ego. I came for Josh but stayed for Rebecca, but Josh is still super important to me. And that’s why, when it comes to Teams, I do eye-roll every single time I hear someone say “you know what? I don’t like Josh, I’m team Greg,” as if that’s somehow a rare opinion. Obviously, you like who you like, but in sharing that opinion to be read, there is somebody on the other end who’s been rejected a whole lot, and in a variety of ways. Sometimes indirectly.
But it is hard because Josh is not really meant to be attractive in a certain sense. He’s a handsome guy, the character is also multitalented, but Rebecca is not supposed to be with Josh. I think they could make great friends, and that would be great. Not to invoke the friendzone, because the concept of the friendzone is very dangerous and has to do with the entitlement linked to sexual assault and the frankness of violence against women.
And I think it’s fine because even if Josh, by necessity of the narrative is infantilized and at points made profoundly unsexy to the viewer, we’re seeing a world where he is a top prospect, and along with various showcases and exhibitions of Vincent Rodriguez III, it’s almost as important to be immersed in that world which accepts him that way.
It’s tough, and casting diversely puts you in this bind, where suddenly people are gonna be paying more attention, but I think that the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend crew has been pretty amazing. In retrospect, why was Paula’s law school friend not a 20-something woman like Rebecca, why was he an Indian guy, whose name was Sunil and not Steve? I know they’re out there, but I really can’t think of another show that would do that, and also, I really want to see Sunil back.
The thing about Josh Chan though, is that even though we had Selfie, kind of, it still feels like a first step. John Cho was getting some buzz recently for headlining a movie, and despite being a major Hollywood star, I guess that’s pretty rare. And in all of this, believe me, I know about Tony Leung. I love Lust, Caution and Hard-Boiled and Wong War Kai is one of my favorite filmmakers — he’s an international star everywhere but the US. Sure, we could ask what about Asian-Asian studs, and that’s great, but that’s like asking Japanese people what they think of a White Kusanagi made in America. What the shit is that about? They’re over there, and we’re over here, it’s almost like we represent two different continents. We don’t see a lot of Tony Leung in American movie theatres, we’re not exposed to these people all that much. It’s gonna take some time, with Josh Chan paving the way. So what do we Asian-American guys do in the meantime?
That Huffington Post article about Tinder ends with a note from dating coach JT Tran, who recommends ditching online dating, meeting people in person so “you can project a strong, Asian masculine identity that will overcome any unconscious racial biases.” And there’s the problem.
The Male Gazes Also
A lot of the social issues filtered through the lens of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have been complicated and require some thought to answer. This one should be no different. And we see that, because Josh being the object of Rebecca’s affection makes him yet again an undesirable Asian male, but in this completely new way.
Here’s what I mean. We have a problem when the answer to Asian male ugliness follows the track of traditional American masculinity, because that’s no way to be. Josh is a buff guy who doesn’t really communicate well and is confused by emotions — at least in comparison to Greg, he’s the closest to a traditional American male on the show until Nathaniel.
I don’t deny that Asian male ugliness is completely fucked, but it doesn’t get unfucked with our first thought, because Asian-American men’s liberation should not come at the expense of others, for example, oh, I don’t fucking know, women. There’s issues of entitlement and toxic masculinity when, ultimately, this problem hinges on guys not having sex. It’s more complicated than that, but the solution is not. And that’s what’s not okay.
Making Josh Chan one of the few who played Sunset Overdrive
We have to keep in mind that our quest for social acceptance is not the only important thing happening. And if that quest intervenes upon other people’s quests, you have to recognize that. Here’s an example. One of the stereotypes facing Asian-American men is that we’re effeminate. But as Celine Shimizu points out in Straitjacket Sexualities, this actually just led to homophobia. At least, I think that’s what she was saying. The language in that book is so complicated, I couldn’t get very far. But that makes sense, right? The classic gay archetype is a guy who’s effeminate, and so be careful when or how you reject that as not part of your identity, because it might a part of someone else’s.
Here’s another example, the AMWF relationship. That four letter initialism has never been uttered on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but that’s what it is: Asian Male, White Female relationship. And before I go any further, if you’re in an AMWF relationship, or know people who are, that’s great, and I wish all the best. But for Asian guys who singularly fixate on the AMWF relationship as an aspiration, that’s not great, and I don’t wish you all the best, because you’re playing into the European standard of beauty. Something that, for the record, took me my entire life to overcome, and continues to linger up there. Prompted to name my top ten hottest actresses of all time, and I don’t know who would prompt me to do so, I crunched the numbers in secret and all ten were white.
(Actually I could only come up with three, but two out of the three were white)
Imran Siddiquee is an author I’ve referenced before, and he wrote about this in a pretty controversial piece, referencing Master of None, The Big Sick, and Homecoming King, all of which are brilliant and he agrees, but they also each exhibit this pattern that for Asian guys, the white devil is our the passport to social acceptance. And in The Big Sick, that meant turning down women of color, because they’re not as desirable.
And I think the main point, again, is that entitlement. I don’t want to ruin your day with something unpleasant, but if I ever have the thought that women are stuck up bitches because they don’t see me as a viable candidate and instead flock to Joe Q. Beachbody over there, then I have a degree of Elliot Rodger in me. Obviously, that’s the extreme, but there’s the potential for violence in all of us, and hatred and resentment, and we have to keep that in check.
I mean, we have to get this right. This isn’t about just fucking around, even if it is literally that. So at the end of the day, what are our answers? It may seem unfair, but Asian-American male normalization comes at the same time we reduce the importance of traditional, toxic masculinity. I’ve heard that Steve Yuen was a good model on The Walking Dead, and I think Aziz Ansari is the quintessential example of the modern American man. The Big Sick is a romantic story that focuses on an Asian lead, and it’s good.
Now, of course, I cited The Big Sick earlier for the AMWF thing, and The Big Sick is based on a true story. And that’s where things get complicated. One of the huge blows against Asian-American masculinity came in the form of William Hung back in the days of American Idol. And that’s a real guy. It’s not Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, he’s a real person, and that’s what he’s like. Granted, the actor who played Long Duk Dong, Randall Kim, came to regret playing that role, and showed up in Snowpiercer. Which is another strike in my book as far as I’m concerned, but you are forgiven, sir. So it’s not that William Hung has to become what Americans believe to be attractive, which is a toxic exercise, but that we have to see him in a new light.
And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like Jeremy Lin before it, like John Cho, Tony Leung, all the way back to Bruce Lee, begins to shed that light, begins to turn our head and accept something new. And from the other side, I can attest that opening the iris on what’s attractive is a real thing, an actual factual possibility. During college and afterward I realized I could be and was attracted to much more than the tall, athletic white or Asian woman in her 30s, that all these metrics didn’t really matter anymore: race, body size, body shape, age (in one direction, anyway), even gender. Maybe I’m not comfortable with openly sharing who I find attractive today that I never would’ve thought of yesterday, but I think that’s okay — my mind is the safe space.
And because of this pitiful awakening, I believe everyone has the capacity to see everyone as attractive, because we’re all human, right? Without telling anyone, think about a group you don’t find very attractive and just spend some time immersed in their world. For example, if for some reason I don’t find Indian women attractive, I’ll watch movies from India, and they will become attractive, occupying what was a vacuum of experience. And I realize it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t attracted to Indian women, but that they never meaningfully occurred to me, and that’s what representation like Josh Chan directly combats. I mean, it’s the flipside of Rachel Bloom’s experience in Southern California — Asian male ugliness probably never occurred to her because SoCal was to the gills with Asian guys, they were normal, and at that point, they’re open to the scrutiny of all men — can be ugly or attractive.
Featured: The Last of Us poster, Rachel Bloom on the cover of Off Camera (probably not appropriate to hang on my wall)
However, this is where we run into the next problem, as I’m sure you felt while I spoke so frankly about Indian women. Because if you hear me say ‘fuck yeah dark-skinned girls’ and ‘plus size is fine and ’50 is the new 40 is the new 30,’ yes, that’s inclusion, but I sound like a fucking horndog. The male gaze as a normalizing agent is something we’re gonna have to contend with, especially as trans women are increasingly accepted. I don’t want to do this but it is a concrete example — there’s the brief appearance of a trans woman in an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I didn’t even realize the first few times through because in the episode, nobody said so.
And this woman is conventionally attractive to American standards, whatever that means, but unfortunately we know what that means. And some of the reaction coming from straight guys was this kind of unbridled “She’s really hot, if you don’t mind me saying.” Trans women being attractive is a huge benchmark for their acceptance, because certainly it would entirely subvert trans panic. When it’s okay to be attracted to trans women also known as women who, mind you, you are attracted to, then there’s no stigma.
But, this puts trans women in the male gaze crosshairs. And I’m not gonna say that’s bad, because I’m not a heterosexual trans woman and maybe I’d want that if I were, but we do know all about the male gaze. It’s this really delicate balancing act we’re gonna have to pull off, house-training the male gaze at the same time we use it as facility for normalization, as we are the gatekeepers and the key holders. Even just thinking about that abstractly, it sounds like a heist movie scheme.
I think she is a drug salesperson.
So if we’re gonna pull this off, okay, everybody on me, huddle, huddle, if we’re gonna do this, that falls to myself and the Asian-American men in the audience, regardless of sexual orientation. If we want to be appealing, listen to the people to whom you want to be appealing, and ignore what Hollywood is telling you about yourself, either by omission or with a Ken Jeong-shaped middle finger. Meanwhile, sensitive showrunners like Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom will continue to fight for us, even if we are not as superhuman as Vincent Rodriguez III.
As a final note, I guess I should conclude the fireside part of this long, pathetic story. So in college, while I was enjoying Pure Heroine, I felt this kind of liberation, like, the reason I never hooked up with anyone in high school or earlier was just because I was Asian, living in a town that was like 98% white. For many, I must’ve been among the first and only Asian guys they’d ever seen and in fact I went to college a couple towns over and pulled into a dollar store one time and some old white guy was outside and he told me I looked like that guy from Harold and Kumar. Like, what are you talking about? If I look like John Cho then you really have only ever seen one Asian guy before you saw me at the dollar store on a quiet night in Fitchburg, MA. I wear glasses for Christ’s sake.
But I’ve grown since then — insert penis joke here — and I’ve come to realize that that’s not the whole story. We can’t lean on Asian male ugliness as a crutch for why women don’t want to go out with us. Because maybe it isn’t just about the Asian part, but the other part of that equation. As an American male, I’m a pretty garden variety terrible person who in all honesty should not be with anyone, certainly not women. You don’t have to be that fatalistic, but don’t let other people’s racial biases cover for your own shittiness, which if you are a guy, you 100% have. Nobody fucking owes you shit, ever, you fucking entitled prick.
Actually, not yet. Look, I’ve never really been interested in Asian-American issues because as a twinkie I grew up essentially white in a body that ain’t. That afforded me the privilege of ignorance, as I mentioned earlier, and as an American, I like to arrive at social issues, not have them show up at my door knocking. I don’t sound like an Asian guy, and that puts me at an extreme advantage and makes me pretty callous. I also don’t give a shit about my libido, which is something I’m not supposed to say yet. I do hope you can appreciate that I’m caught between respecting your hardship while also respecting women’s bodies, because these two things are at odds, but I want you to know, in no uncertain terms, that you are normal. Trust me, I know how you feel. You feel like a fucking alien. You try and it seems like maybe it is this Asian thing. I want to try to convince you that this shouldn’t be our measure for feeling normal, but we can’t really help that can we? When we rove through our lives, we see that people, they just don’t notice you, or look at you, or take you seriously. Maybe you are ugly.
It’s not always gonna be like this. When you go to college, or when you move out, you’ll find that people are different in different places. Differently tolerant as they may be differently intolerant. There are people out there who will find you attractive, but you have to ready for them. And you have to find them attractive too. Whatever work that takes, that’s what we’re asking from the rest of the western world. Like I said, you’ll be surprised how a previously unattractive type of person can become attractive in your mind if you just pay attention to them. That’s a one-step process, and that’s all it will take for everyone else looking at you. They just need to pay attention, and their media landscape has sabotaged them in this effort. It’s only a matter of time.
I’m not rooting for you, but you got this.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 09/13/2017