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‘Fire Island’ Is A Win For Queer & AAPI Representation

I’d never seen a movie before June 3, 2022 that featured such a bold ensemble of queer, actors of color. And the reality is, this is also probably the first time the world has ever seen a movie like Hulu’s Fire Island. Could this be indicative of a turning point in popular culture? 

The film is directed by Andrew Ahn and stars Bowen Yang (Howie) and Joel Kim Booster (Noah); Booster was also the writer. It features cast members Matt Rogers, Conrad Ricamora, Tomas Matos, Torian Miller, and Margaret Cho. Fire Island follows a group of friends who embark on a gay man’s mecca — a weeklong vacation to Fire Island, the famous gay village on Long Island, New York. Noah, the supposed heartthrob in the group, is laser-focused on getting Howie laid during their final trip to Fire Island.

With films and shows like Heartstopper and Crush coming out in 2022 following the overwhelming success of Love, Simon in 2018, it is evident that LGBTQIA+ content has the capability to prosper in the industry. But it hasn’t been until Fire Island that the main characters were not just gay or lesbian, but that they are also people of color. Rather than two cis, white love interests in an LGBTQIA+ movie, Fire Island focuses on two gay Asian men.

For lovers of Jane Austen, you’ll be thrilled to hear that this film is a queer, modern take on Pride and Prejudice. For queer Asian men and mascs, you’ll be excited to see yourself represented on the silver screen in a totally new light — one which highlights the complexity and multifacetedness of your personality. 

Asian men have been historically emasculated by Hollywood.

Historically, Asian men have been emasculated by the film industry. The earliest representations of Asian men in Hollywood were often academically competent and nerdy, but undesirable. More recently, in Sixteen Candles, Long Duk Dong was portrayed as a social outcast, both extremely nerdy and undesirable. 

Sometimes, Asian men would be portrayed as villainous or disgusting, such as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Although Mr. Yunioshi was played by a white actor, the character was undeniably based on harmful Asian caricatures and Yellow Peril propaganda. Immigration from East and Southeast Asia during the mid-19th century was seen as a threat to the western world — so much so that the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and went out of their way to create anti-miscegenation laws to prevent interracial relationships between Asian men and white women.

Obviously, these laws affected the way that Asian people were represented in Hollywood, too. The villain Fu Manchu in Sax Rohmer’s novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, is one example of how racial stereotypes were used to pervert the public image of Asian men. The villain’s “Eastern devilry” and “the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese” were based on the physiognomy of ethnographer Bayard Taylor. Physiognomy is a pseudoscience — the practice of assessing a person’s character from their outer appearance. Taylor, who had traveled to China and did not know the culture, language or science necessary to thoroughly study the Chinese decided to rely entirely on physiognomy. He concluded that the Chinese physical features “demonstrated such depravity that they deserved not ridicule but outright condemnation.” The success of Rohmer’s writing — which grew into 14 novels — propelled the fear of “Orientals” invading Western nations into the public sphere. Rohmer sold 20 million copies based on Taylor’s damnation and disgust of the Chinese, and the impact of his work is still felt today by Asian men.

Asian male representation has changed over the past few years.

In the last five to seven years, Asian male representation on-screen went from romantically and sexually undesirable to very desirable — while also making them impervious to the outside world, known as an “Asian himbo.” Examples of the Asian himbo include Dong from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Josh Chan from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Reggie from Riverdale, and Jason Mendoza from The Good Place. But who was the target audience for the Asian himbo? Usually women.

The Asian hunk, Asian thirst trap, or Asian himbo has become the new standard for Hollywood, but fails in more than one way. First, it takes away the characters’ intellectual competencies, thus resulting in a lackluster character with less memorable lines and importance to the overall plot. It fails to represent humans as they are — curious, intelligent, and capable of learning. Secondly, the Asian himbo only works for heterosexual Asian male characters. There is still little to no representation of the queer Asian man. In this way, Fire Island is likely the only film in existence that has actively combatted both of these failures — Noah and Howie are both viewed as attractive and intellectually competent by other characters. 

If there ever is representation of a queer Asian man, this character is supporting and never the centerpiece of the story. They are the comedic relief, the sassy best friend, or the weird intruder. But when they are the protagonist of the story, people will complain.

On June 6, Hanna Rosin, a writer, and editorial director for audio at New York Magazine, wrote that Fire Island failed the Bechdel test, which is an informal way to evaluate whether a work of fiction is biased against women; films and books that pass the Bechdel test must fulfill three criteria: 1) two female characters 2) who speak to one another 3) on matters that do not concern (a) male(s). “Do we ignore the drab lesbian stereotypes bc cute gay Asian boys? Is this revenge for all those years of the gay boy best friend?” she wrote on Twitter. Rosin quickly came under fire for the tweet and deleted it, writing a new apology. “The movie was telling a story about queer AAPI men, whose experiences don’t show up enough in movies or anywhere else.”

Queer Asian men are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood — but Fire Island works to change that.

Even in real queer spaces, there is a distinct lack of representation. For example, in the FX series POSE, there is not a single Asian character. In RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is a disproportionate lack of Asian competitors featured over the course of 14 seasons and additional spin-offs. 

Racial disparities within drag continue on to magazine and publication features — in New York Magazine’s June 2019 cover story, “The most powerful drag queens in America,” only three out of 37 of the drag queens featured were Asian. Vulture also ranked drag queens in the United States and featured only two in the top 20. 

This trend — a lack of queer Asian male representation — holds true in film and television. Queer Asian men are vastly underrepresented in media and if they are present, they are shown as flat, supporting characters such as Nico Santos in Crazy Rich Asians.

In this sense, Fire Island is one of the first to show queer Asian men as complex and nuanced leads. This is why Fire Island is such a groundbreaking film — never before in cinematic history have two queer Asian men been the center of a story, the ones who have love interests and obnoxiously happy, rom-com endings. 

Films like Fire Island are working to turn the tide and actively disrupt the Asian monolith by highlighting the beautiful nuances of the Asian identity and experience. It presents queer Asians as human and carves a path in which future books, movies, and TV shows can follow in their footsteps. When the media and television portrayals of queer Asian men shift for the better, we can only imagine that this will help guide real life cultural shifts where queer Asian men can actually receive the love and support for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies that they deserve. 

Jennalynn is a non-binary, Asian American student at St. John's University located in Queens, New York. While they are a Pharmacy (PharmD) major, their passions in life are climate activism, photography, and writing. They have been featured in Teen Vogue, The Luna Collective, SUSTAIN The Mag, and are a staff writer at their university newspaper. Check out their website and socials (@jennuinn) to see their work!
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