Kal Penn discusses changing portrayals of Asian Americans
Kal Penn discusses changing portrayals of Asian Americans in films and on television shows.
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2:13 p.m., May 20, 2009----When it comes to the way Asian Americans are portrayed in films and on television shows, actor Kal Penn told a University of Delaware audience that things are changing but that much more needs to be done to address issues of accessibility and representation.

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Penn made his remarks during his talk, “Changing the Racial Landscape,” to an audience of more than 400 students, faculty and community members on Tuesday evening, May 19, in Mitchell Hall.

Peter Feng, UD associate professor of English, introduced him, and Jung Lung Moy, president of the Asian Student Association, and Mridu Brahma, president of the Indian Student Association, opened the program. All three serve on UD's Asian Heritage Council.

Penn, a New Jersey native perhaps best known for his roles in the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the television series House, said that there have been incremental changes in the way Asian Americans are portrayed, especially in comparison to the characters represented in the Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan films during the first half of the 20th century.

While film industry portrayals of Asian Americans through characters such as those are a thing of the past, their characters continue to generate much interest in academic discussions on subjects such as Asian typecasting and tokenism in the media, Penn said.

Penn said portrayals of Asian Americans in films such as Harold and Kumar and Van Wilder represent a major change from the types of characters portrayed a few decades ago.

“The Fu Manchu character is a sinister Asian stereotype who is evil, while Charlie Chan, by contrast, is considered to be a 'yes' man, someone who was also considered to be good,” Penn said. “In the modern day experience, both of these characters, even Charlie Chan, are pretty one-dimensional, and Chan was not an American, even though he was a character in an American film.”

Penn, who served as a guest instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled the criticism directed at the creators and stars of the 1994 sitcom All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho.

“It was one of the first times that a major television show happened to feature Asian American performers,” Penn said. “A lot of people were very upset with the show and said that its character depictions did not accurately represent Asian Americans.”

Penn said that Cho, who talks about the challenges of making the show in her one-woman show and book, I'm the One That I Want, has said she basically did not want to represent anybody, but only wanted to make people laugh.

While such issues continually reappears in academic discussions, the issue of dimensionality is often overlooked, as is the larger issue of who owns the media companies that create and distribute these entertainment products, Penn said.

“This places blame on certain people without fully understanding or explaining the facets of creation,” Penn said. “Among the targets for blame are the media conglomerates. People want to applaud a particular series or film, but nobody knows what the actions are -- from the actions of writers to producers who are blamed for the content of the media images -- so the context becomes politicized.”

It wasn't until he started working in the media that he began to see firsthand the problems connected with race, Penn said.

“I taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania, which I put together based on a lot of the experiences that I had in the industry and the research I developed,” Penn said. “I talked about an audition I had where the casting director told me to go in and put on a turban and come back. I experienced being immediately reduced to what to wear. I didn't come back.”

Penn said that it is essential to have a discussion that seeks to explore the role of the media in socializing American culture and how individuals and groups are portrayed.

“The media does play a role in socializing our culture and in the American culture they show who is considered part of our culture and who is considered an outsider,” Penn said. “In the media context, we need to consider how they determine who is part of our culture and how these roles are being processed.”

While Penn pointed out at the beginning of his talk that his comments were not meant to be political, he did respond to questions about his upcoming year-long position as associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison in the administration of President Barack Obama.

“I wanted to take a year off from acting and I thought this would be a good way to serve the country,” Penn said. “I don't have any agenda. The president [Obama] wanted to be sure that all people were represented.”

Penn also fielded questions about how his character was killed off, via suicide, on House, a move necessitated by Penn's acceptance of the position in the Obama administration. “They said, 'Your character is going to kill himself.' I had no say in that,” Penn said.

Penn spoke as part of an Asian Heritage Month 2009 presentation sponsored by the UD Office of Multicultural Programs and the Asian Student Association.

Support for the talk also came from the Asian Heritage Council of the Office of Multicultural Programs, Indian Student Association, Korean Student Association, Rox's Christian Fellowship, NiHongo Table, East Asian Studies, the Department of English, College of Arts and Sciences, Office of Residence Life, Counseling Center, Office of Affirmative Action and SCPAB.

The program capped off a year of prominent speakers featured during each of the heritage months, with journalist Soledad O'Brien during Latino Heritage Month and filmmaker Spike Lee during Black History Month.

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Tyler Jacobson