Recently, The Good Place producer and co-writer Megan Amram came under fire for a series of past anti-Asian tweets. Her tweets, dating back to 2011, claim that Asian Americans are “r——-” and that she has trouble telling them apart. The producer apologized via a Twitter statement. “I specifically would like to apologize to the Asian American community, who I have hurt most with my tweets,” she wrote, “I very much understand why you are hurt.” In light of Amram’s past sentiments, it is worth taking a look at the show’s handling of Asian stereotypes with its main Asian American character, Jason Mendoza.
Mendoza As The “Dumb Asian”
Mendoza is played by Manny Jacinto, a Filipino-Canadian actor. In The Good Place, he is an amateur DJ and drug dealer from Jacksonville, Florida. Mendoza ends up in the Good Place when he is mistaken for the Taiwanese monk Jianyu Li. Nonetheless, his identity is eventually revealed through a series of silly stunts and naive decisions.
Mendoza’s defining trait is his obliviousness. The Asian American character is portrayed to be childish and slow-witted. His line, “I have no idea what’s going on but everyone is talking and I should too” defines his state of mind in most situations. Many believe his lack of intelligence is stereotype-breaking. In an article for Teen Vogue, Rachel Yang commends Mendoza for overturning the model minority myth, which owes Asian immigrant success to their passivity and compliance with American norms. Jacinto himself vouches for Mendoza’s character freshness. In an interview with Mochi Magazine, Jacinto says that his role “is not your typical hardworking nerdy Asian stereotype.”
How The Model Minority Myth Fails Southeast Asian Americans
Nonetheless, the model minority myth was predicated on the success of and generally applied to East Asians. The term was first used in 1966 to describe the success of Japanese Americans. It was later applied more generally to East Asians, as well as East Indians. It obscures the economic and academic shortcomings experienced by Southeast Asian Americans—Southeast Asian Americans like Jason Mendoza.
While Asian Americans’ income level surpasses that of all other races, there is a huge gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution. Indian and Chinese Americans make more than the average Southeast Asian American. Poverty rates among Southeast Asian Americans also exceed the national average. That is largely due to the difference in education amongst the ethnic groups.
The majority of East Asian and East Indian immigrants arrived in the U.S. on skills-based visas. On the other hand, the majority of Southeast Asian immigrants were low-income refugees forcibly displaced by the Vietnam War. The disparity of their situations sets them up for entirely different lifestyles in the United States. According to the American Community Survey in 2006-2008, 65.8% of Cambodian, 66.5% of Laotian, 63.2% of Hmong, and 51.1% of Vietnamese Americans have not attended college.
Not All Representation Is Good Representation
Mendoza is identified as a stereotype-defying character because Asian Americans are seen as a monolithic group. The lumping-in of Southeast Asian people to the model minority prevents them from getting the academic and financial support they need. In a past tweet, Amram joked that she cannot tell the difference between Asian people. One has to wonder if it’s the same crude sentiment guiding the development of Jason Mendoza. The confusion of Mendoza with a Taiwanese man, the dumbing-down of his character, and his history of drug dealing all seem ignorant, if not sinister, in retrospect.
This is not to put down people who enjoy The Good Place or Jacinto’s role. The show is well-crafted and Mendoza is undeniably lovable. Nonetheless, let us not be afraid to have high standards when it comes to representation. Writers and producers should not be able to place a “dumb Asian” in the lineup and expect it to be commentary. More than a Twitter apology, media creators can prove their support by showing nuanced understandings of Asian American identities and history.