The Ongoing Portrayal of Asian-American Characters on “Glee”

Today, March 18th, marks the air date for the 100th episode of the award-winning musical dramedy Glee. Since its 2009 debut, the show has not only been praised and noted for its popular covers and ability to tackle controversial topics, but also for its diverse casting.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Glee, there are two Asian-American characters on the show: Tina Cohen-Chang and Mike Chang. Tina (played by Jenna Ushkowitz) is introduced as a shy Goth girl with a fake stutter who has a beautiful singing voice, whereas Mike (played by Harry Shum Jr.) appears as a football player who dances like a boss.

Not your stereotypical geisha or model minority student, right?

With an obvious shortage of Asian-American talents in mainstream media and their roles being molded into Hollywood stereotypes, it is refreshing to see Glee feature two non-stereotypical Asian American main characters. However, despite Tina and Mike’s unique quirks, the two never fail to reference their race and say the word “Asian” in almost every episode. As a couple, Tina and Mike were both counselors at “Asian camp” and share “Asian kisses” – we kid you not, they actually call it that. And when their relationship dives, where do they turn to? Asian couples therapy!

Not to mention, there seems to be a lack of original and substantial plots for Glee’s Asian-American cast members. Tina’s last notable storyline was back during the first season, in which she overcomes her shyness and drops the fake stutter. For Mike, his first and only storyline to date is the cliché tale about him convincing his prudent father into letting him pursue the arts rather than medicine in college. Not only does this blasé story span over the course of a mere three episodes, but it also doesn’t come to play until the third season.

Why these pocketed portrayals of Asian Americans in mainstream media still occur in this day and age in Hollywood could possibly be due to the power of trend. When Gavin J. Blair of The Hollywood Reporter interviewed actor Masi Oka (Heroes and Hawaii 5-0) last year about this subject, he provided the following quote:

“It’s changed in Hollywood, but only so much. You can’t get Asians cast in leads yet. Maybe as a second lead, but the lead is still going to be Caucasian or African-American. But Hollywood is fickle, it follows trends. If a show or film did well with an Asian lead, then it would take off.”

Progress has no doubt been made since Glee’s pilot premiered. Since 2009, actress Mindy Kaling has produced and starred in her own show, Jeremy Lin became the first American basketball player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, and hip hop band Far East Movement became the first Asian American group to earn a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. For a show that has greatly attributed to how LGBT characters are portrayed, I don’t understand why the same can’t go for Tina and Mike as Asian-American characters, especially when more Asian-American artists and talents prove themselves to be more than their stereotypes with every passing year.

Glee has only one more final season to film after the current one ends. I hope that before the show closes, the creators and writers will give Tina and Mike more opportunities to portray stories that are not tailored to their race but relatable to all viewers. Maybe then, there’s still hope for the angelic singing Goth girl and the super dancer.


(Photo credit: Fox)

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