<Book Review>
A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation
Tan Hoang Nguyen
[Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 304 pp.; 39 illustrations]

Tan Hoang Nguyen’s A View from the Bottom deals with the issue of Asian American masculinity as it is depicted in American media. Nguyen weaves the critical reading of various films depicting Asian American male characters with theories in various fields including that of Eve Sedgwick, Judith Halberstam, Laura Marks, and Peter Lehman. He embraces a method that he calls “low theory” derived from Judith Halberstam’s work. How he incorporates “low theory” in this book is well explained in his sentence: “my reading of texts about bottomhood are consistently guided by a mode of reading that is informed by theories and practices deemed lowly, backward, and out of date” (7). Through this way of observing texts, Nguyen argues that instead of attempting to claim Asian American masculinity in society through promoting heteronormative masculine ideals, the Asian American society should embrace bottomhood and queer depiction of Asian American masculinity in the media as the location through which we can create a new masculine ideal that subverts the masculine norm prevalent in our society.

Tan Hoang Nguyen, an assistant professor of English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr College, divides the book into four chapters. Each chapter focuses on a media depiction of Asian American man. Prior to plunging into the critical analysis of the media, Nguyen begins the book with a thought-provoking Introduction. The Introduction begins with an observation of a blog named “Douchebags of Grindr”. According to this blog post, Asian American male users of Grindr (a dating application for queer folks) were at the receiving end of most rejections on the application. This observation is significant because it is a perfect example of how Asian masculinity is perceived as a “problem” in the everyday American/Western national imagination. The Introduction broadens out from this particular observation on the gay dating scene to argue that this problematization of Asian masculinity is not an isolated incident.

Chapter 1: The Rise, and Fall, of a Gay Asian American Porn Star, analyzes the career of Brandon Lee, an Asian American gay porn star. He began his career in a top position. However, according to Nguyen, Brandon Lee strategically fell to the bottom position later in his career. In Nguyen’s reading, this fall from the top performance to the bottom role represents the instability of Lee’s top position even when he was performing as a top. Moreover, to borrow Nguyen’s words, it shows that “even in a media genre inordinately obsessed with the cock, the penetrable ass ultimately beckons” (70). Drawing from these analyses, Nguyen’s main argument in this chapter is that this rise and fall of an Asian American porn figure affirms the attraction of bottomhood that even the most masculine porn figure cannot avoid. Moreover, a legendary martial arts film star Bruce Lee’s son’s name is also Brandon Lee, and through this segue provided through a martial arts movie star and a porn star having the same name, Nguyen draws a link between the martial arts domain that propagates a certain image of Asian American masculinity and that of porn. He argues that in both genres of performance, Asian American men are portrayed as asexual and passive. Nguyen finishes the chapter by talking about Yiman Wang’s concept of “yellow yellowface”, a strategy that Asian American performers consciously employ when they have to act out an Asian American stereotype in their works. This concept connects the realm of porn with that of martial arts films as well as any other area of performativity. By using this concept, Nguyen posits that Asian American actors performing an exaggerated stereotype of their own racial backgrounds can provide grounds for subversion of social norms that created those stereotypes in the first place.

In Chapter 2 titled Reflections on an Asian bottom, Nguyen analyzes a Hollywood film Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Through the analysis of Anacleto, a Filipino houseboy character in the film, Nguyen argues that the houseboy’s bottom positioning in various ways throughout the film valorizes the association between Asians and their bottom. Nguyen argues that Anacleto’s performance of bottomhood is actually very successful in critiquing the heteronormative and white military universe on screen. He critiques David Eng’s psychoanalytic approach to Asian American masculinity for being limited in its ability to explain the subjects who are in the position to exceed, refuse, and contest Eng’s framework. Along the same lines he argues that Susan Koshy’s analysis of Asian American male sexual potency as significant but overly dismissive of effeminacy, which Nguyen argues, shows Koshy’s one dimensional understanding of effeminacy as a negative character. As he did in the first chapter, Nguyen successfully extends his film analysis into the larger social context by arguing that Anacleto’s liminal status as both a comforting servant and a sexual menace is representative of the political relationship between the U.S and the Philippines. Near the end of the chapter Nguyen observes that the critics conflate the actor playing Anacleto and the fictional character whereas other actors and actresses are praised for being able to act. He argues that even though this may be understood as disempowering, that perhaps it was actually empowering for Zorro David, the queer Filipino hairdresser who played the role of Anacleto. The one minor shortfall of this chapter is that this interesting argument of agency for the Filipino performer is only mentioned briefly and the other theorists, specifically Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns and her work Puro Arte: Filipinos on Stages of Empire published in 2012 by NYU Press which deals with this exact same issue about Filipino actors and actresses’ agency is left unacknowledged.

Similar to the above chapter, in Chapter 3: The Lover’s “Gorgeous Ass,” Nguyen analyzes a French film The Lover (1992) based on Marguerite Duras’ novel of the same name. Incorporating Eve Sedgwick’s notion that shame is something to be utilized for transformation, Judith Halberstam’s notion of gendered shame, and Liz Constable’s argument that Western shame arises through absence of response to an individual’s sexual feelings, Nguyen does a critical analysis of the sex scenes in the film. Nguyen argues that in these scenes, touch is privileged over the visual. The tactile performance of the couple binds them through mutual shame into mutual desire. The Asian male character (Tony Leung) is only portrayed through his hands and his smooth bottom. Here, Laura Marks’ notion of “haptic visuality” comes into play. This type of visuality is different from the optic visuality because it invites the audience to become more proximal and embodied as opposed to far removed from the performance on screen. Through these analyses of the Asian male character in the film, Nguyen argues that we should not uphold the phallocentric social structure by arguing for the emphasis of Asian male penis on screen. Instead, as seen in the “haptic visuality” and the alliance that forms through the depiction of Tony Leung’s behind, Nguyen argues that vying for the image of the bottom is more subversive to the social norm of Asian American male sexuality than promoting an image of a large penis attached to an Asian American male body.

Lastly in Chapter 4: The Politics of Starch, Nguyen turns to gay Asian documentaries and queer experimental videos including Ming-Yuen S. Ma’s documentary Slanted Vision (1995), his own, 7 Steps to Sticky Heaven (1995), Tony Ayres’s China Dolls (1997), Wayne Yung’s The Queen’s Cantonese (1998) and Erica Cho’s work We Got Moves You Ain’t Even Heard Of (Part One) (1999). While Laura Marks’ theory proved to be useful in the previous chapter, in this one Nguyen critiques Marks’ interpretation of some of these films as trying the reeducate gay Asian male audience to become active agents and not passive sexual objects. Nguyen argues that this perspective corners bottomhood as a low and undesirable status when we should actually be embracing the passivity as a worthy sexual quality. Moreover, Nguyen dissects the term “sticky rice” colloquially used to refer to Asian men attracted to other Asian men; Nguyen argues that the stickiness of this romance epitomizes how race and sexuality cannot be neatly separated. Instead, the stickiness of the identity creates situations where it may hold people together or blocks and stops people from moving along. Nguyen argues that both types of stickiness provide political grounds of debate and strength for the gay Asian men.

A View from the Bottom is a critical and insightful read for anyone interested in media studies, particularly for people interested in the performance and representation of sexual and racial minorities. The book has the potential of being a reference for actors/actresses and directors who are looking for ways to engage in media activism or are interested in performing and depicting the issue of sexuality and race in a more provocative and subversive way. A View from the Bottom is also applicable for readers foreign to the theories on the intersectionality of race and sexuality as the book explains these theories with ample and easy-to-understand examples that surround our everyday lives.

     — Reviewed by Min Joo Lee, UCLA

Min Joo Lee is currently a graduate student at UCLA in the Gender Studies department. She earned her B.A in Comparative Literature and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Williams College. She grew up going back and forth between the U.S and South Korea and in the process became interested in media and its influence on cultural rhetoric. Her current research interest is the intersection between Korean television, gender, sexual identity, and nationalism.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..