Steve Harvey has a unique knack for embarrassing gaffes. If you recall, he’s the talk show host who awarded the Miss Universe crown to the wrong contestant in 2015, and then in his Twitter apology managed to misspell the countries represented by both women involved. In this past, these flubs have mostly generated there-he-goes-again laughter. But Harvey’s recent comments regarding Asian men can’t be as easily dismissed. Essentially, Harvey told his audience that he couldn’t imagine any way an Asian man could ever be deemed attractive—causing a social media eruption by playing into long-standing stereotypes of Asian males as emasculated and nonsexual.
And the reaction rapidly expanded beyond the internet. Prominent Asians, from The Daily Show’s Ronny Chieng to Star Trek icon George Takei to Fresh Off the Boat author Eddie Huang, denounced Harvey—the latter in a massively shared op-ed for the New York Times. All of New York’s leading Asian American politicians sent a joint letter to Endemol Shine, who produce Harvey’s show, demanding an immediate public apology for his “offensive, classless comments.”
Many others reacted to the slight by going on the offensive:
Within hours, the internet hive mind had posted a staggering array of undeniably hot Asian guys, such as those on this expertly curated list by Huffington Post relationship editor Brittany Wong: “21 Fine-As-Hell Asian Men Who Will Make You Swoon And Then Some.”
This is hardly the first time lists like this have popped up—they’re generated any time a celebrity or media organization invokes the stereotypical image of the Asian male. Wong’s is very similar to this BuzzFeed post published back in 2014. Some of the names and faces have changed, but the commonalities are clear: Almost all of these men are tall, shirtless, and have the muscles of a Greek god training for the Iron Man triathlon.
And as a not-so-undeniably-hot Asian guy—a medium-aged divorced dad with a one-pack, a molded-not-sculpted face and hair that’s backed gingerly away from my forehead like it’s afraid of my eyebrows—I find these galleries a little awkward. Highlighting a handful of insanely gorgeous genetic-lottery winners doesn’t exactly contradict the assertion that average Asian men like me are, in the eyes, minds, and hearts of the West, inherently unappealing.
In fact, these hyper-hot galleries underscore the fact that these guys are exceptions to the rule; that by reaching an optimal standard of Western masculine beauty, these Asian men have managed to overcome their racialized lack of appeal.
Of course, this conundrum is familiar to women of any ethnicity who have been told that magazine swimsuit issues and Victoria’s Secret runway shows are paradigms of sexiness. But the trap that Asian men have fallen into is pernicious, because the rush to showcase these paragons is often led and cheered on by Asians ourselves. In doing so, we’re reinforcing the basic premise of critics like Harvey: that adherence to Western masculinity should be the yardstick by which manhood and sexual appeal are universally measured. Instead of rejecting objectification and fetishization—realities that Asian women face every day—Asian men are aspiring to such circumstances.
To be clear, being compared to these paragons doesn’t really impact me, personally. Not anymore, anyway. I’ve been fortunate enough to have reached a point in my life where I don’t feel the need to measure attractiveness based on how much laundry you could do on my stomach.
But this acceptance came only after a chubby childhood, an ungainly adolescence, a self-conscious teenhood, and a reflective young adulthood. I can only imagine what 13-year-old me would’ve thought about being told I’d have to measure up to exemplars of masculine physical perfection like Daniel Henney, Godfrey Gao, or Justin Kim.
The funny thing is, I’ve met many of these guys, and they’re smart, funny, and talented—a few are also (secretly) a bit geeky and weird. That doesn’t make them less “hot”—it makes them more so. But you wouldn’t know that from the greased-up images we see circulating the internet. Instead of subverting or complicating stereotypes of emasculated Asian man, such pictures inadvertently validate toxic masculinity, emphasize implausible body standards, and eclipse the actual people behind the abs.
Where’s the list of “hot” Asian men featuring Masi Oka, who changed my life when he put the Hiro in Heroes, or Ken Leung, best known as Miles Straume in Lost? Parvesh Cheena, who can be seen now on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is all hot, all the time in my book.
Intellect, wit, charm, sweetness, political savvy, and kindness may not show up as clearly in photographs, but these qualities last longer and wear better. So next time Steve Harvey takes aim at Asian sexiness—or lack thereof—maybe we should reconsider flooding Twitter with pictures of Asian men with six-packs. Yes, there are Asian men who are able to mold their bodies into the Western ideal—and yes, they look great. But there are other measures of attractiveness which don’t require us to embrace the terms of toxic masculinity or exotic femininity. Before instinctually posting that JPEG, remember that attractiveness isn’t rooted in the skin we’re in, but the people we prove ourselves to be.