The Prominence and Perception of East Asian Heroes
By Lucy Cao
Recently, RWA has become more cognizant of the romance industry’s responsibility to represent more groups in romance novels beyond white, heterosexual heroes and heroines. RWA’s mission as an organization to promote diversity is recent and most apparent at the 2015 conference, where attendees put pressure on editors—publicly shaming them—in regards to diversifying author lists. The organization has put increasing pressure on Pocket to publish their author acquisitions policy when they noticed that Pocket “does not acquire books by multicultural authors” (Romance Writers of America 2016).
Even with the growing presence of East Asian male actors in popular media such as shows like Lost, Walking Dead, and Community, Asian males are rarely portrayed as desirable romantic partners, and only 6.6% of 800 main cast members on 100 network TV shows are of Asian descent (Fitzpatrick 2015). In 2015, only 6 shows on network TV had a co-lead character played by an actor of Asian descent. When examining racial diversity in the romance industry, the numbers and history do not appear to be much better. The first—not even Asian—line of multicultural romance novels, Arabesque, was produced in 1994, and primarily features African-American romance (Driggins and Lewellen 2004). This paper’s topic is the presence and presentation of East Asian male heroes in the romance industry and the perception of Asian men’s masculinity and desirability. The lack of prominent, mainstream East Asian heroes in romance is the result of Western perception of East Asian masculinity, lack of encouragement for diversity from publishers and editors, and the relatively small number of popular East Asian romance writers, but blogs, message boards, and the Romance Writer Association (RWA) show an increased desire and growing market for East Asian hero romances.
In order to understand the standards against which Asian masculinity is evaluated in the general American romance audience, it is important to understand the Western model of masculinity in the realm of romance. Examinations of the public and societal portrayal of Western “manhood” are described as traits and actions exhibiting aggression, predatory sexual behaviors, violence, and economic competition (Sumerau et al. 2011). The stereotypical model of Western masculinity is usually labelled as an “alpha male” (Krentz 1992). Generally, the acts attributed to alpha males involve exerting control over others or preventing others from exerting control over male individuals (Sumerau et al. 2011). Media representations of these behaviors and symbols teach cultures and societies—in this specific case, Western culture, the model and standard of masculinity (Sumerau et al. 2011). Jeannie Lin, USA Today bestselling author of historical romance, defines the alpha hero as a “brooding loner, a self-made man who is not afraid to go against an entire room or even an entire society” (Lin 2016). Even as modern romances develop with stronger, female alpha characters, the Western definition of the male self involves toughness, courage, decisiveness, a sense of adventure, and a tendency to gravitate towards physical self-expression over other forms of self-expression (Roach et al. 2010). A large part of Western masculinity and self-image is centered on a nonchalant or callous attitude towards sexual encounters (Louie and Edwards 2014).
One of the reasons the depiction of Asian heroes has been slow to take hold could be because the definitions of Western masculinity and East Asian masculinity are inherently opposite (Lin 2016). To examine East Asian masculinity more closely, we can look specifically to the evolution of the Chinese model of masculinity and its modern implications. Ideal Chinese masculinity is conceptualized into a dichotomy of wen and wu, the literary and the martial (Louie and Edwards 2014). While the contemporary Western notion of masculinity is founded on macho, alpha male behavior characterized above, Chinese masculinity is argued to be more all-encompassing and complex dyad (Louie and Edwards 2014).
The wen component is defined as the cultural and civil aspect of men and the wu component is defined as the physical or martial side; Chinese masculinity is composed of both components and by this model, an ideal man has both wen and wu characteristics (Louie and Edwards 2014). Wen is characterized as more gentle, refined, and associated with scholarly pursuits related to poetry and high-ranking civil posts reached through the academic examination system (Louie and Edwards 2014). Wu is characterized by physical strength and military prowess, but not in the same sense of physicality as a Western alpha male. The wu philosophy involves seven virtues related to military authority, which involve “suppressed violence, gathered in arms, protected what was great, established merit, gave peace to the people, harmonized the masses and propagated wealth”. Rather than brute strength and exhibitions of aggression, wu involves the wisdom of understanding when to keep peace and avoid violence (Louie and Edwards 2014). It is extremely important to note that both wen and wu are considered to be socially, acceptably manly in the modern era, although throughout Chinese history wen (cultural) was preferred for men of higher social status, while wu (martial) was a more common standard for middle and lower class men (Louie and Edwards 2014). The relationship between the two dyads is equal, and in historically in Chinese literature the ‘talented scholar’ takes the place of the Western ‘alpha male’ when winning the princess (Louie and Edwards 2014).
In contemporary Chinese culture and literature, the wen-wu dichotomy continues when defining masculinity. The ideals of softer, intellectual, refined masculinity persevere in daily life by Chinese men, and also can be seen in modern media such as Sha Yexin’s play, Looking for a Real Man and Zhang Xianliang’s Half of Man is Woman, both of which depict an increasing level of anxiety in Asian men as they are confronted with Western media and the Western model of masculinity, which views their intellectual prowess and softer, scholarly pursuits through the lens of weakness (Louie and Edwards 2014, Lin 2016).
The mainstream, Western romance novel is centered on a macho alpha male hero, who is depicted as overwhelmingly economically and physically strong (Clawson 2005). This strength is contrasted with the enormous emotional strength of the heroine, who eventually teaches emotionally close off alpha hero becoming more “feminine” and emotionally cognizant through his interactions with a heroine (Krentz 1992). Through this process, the two eventually engage in a monogamous, heterosexual pair-bonding scenario, labeled as a “happily ever after” (HEA) (Roach et al. 2010). Jeannie Lin argues that because the mainstream, classic hero of a romance novel has these qualities, it makes it difficult to place an East Asian man in that role when what he would deem as heroic qualities would be considered “weak” by Western alpha male standards (Lin 2016, Hirose and Pih 2009). Asian men are seen as weak, nerdy, feminine, and asexual in comparison to white, Euro-American centric masculinity (Hirose and Pih 2009).
Cross cultural comparisons analyze Chinese masculinity as feminine, childlike, or impotent (Louie and Edwards 2014). Labelling East Asian men with these descriptives makes them undesirable as strong heroes—it is difficult to reconcile wen and wu and Western standards into the normal role of alpha hero in romance (Lin 2016). Subsequently, because East Asian standards of masculinity do not fall neatly into Western standards and tropes, East Asian masculinity is in large marginalized (Chan 2000). This is even voiced in popular Western culture: in David H. Hwang’s 1989 novella, Madame Butterfly, a character states “I am Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never completely be a man”. The images that frame Asian men in popular Western culture exclude them from normative models of masculinity and leave them desexualized, effeminate, or marginalized (Chan 2000).
When we look more specifically at the romance industry within mainstream Western culture and the images that frame Asian males, there is a history of purposely censoring or failing to include images of Asian men in positions of romantic intimacy and desirability such as romantic embraces and scenes involving kissing. For example, in the action movie, Romeo Must Die, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet where actress and icon Aaliyah plays opposite to Chinese Jet Li, an original version depicted the two kissing passionately. This scene was later removed before being released in 2000, with producers citing that it did not “test well with urban audiences”. The scene was instead replaced with a tight hug between the two. A Filipino director, Gene Cajayon, later stated in 2001 that “mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light”. This is not the only case of something like this happening—Daniel Dae Kim, one of the main characters on the ABC hit show, Lost, was characterized as a handsome, dutiful husband who could only speak Korean, and never got the opportunity to carry out a romantic plotline outside of a flashback while all his other non-Asian co-stars did (Vargas 2007).
One exception of the portrayal of Asian men in roles of desirable and strong heroes is the warrior trope, particularly one involving East Asian martial arts (Lin 2016, Anderson 2001). The warrior hero trope includes men who are soldiers, mercenaries, spies, or individuals engaged in a larger mission, usually dedicated to a philosophical belief or a noble cause (Frantz and Selinger 2012). We see this most clearly in the exception to most Western views of East Asian masculinity: Bruce Lee (Lin 2016). Bruce Lee has become the iconic, quintessential East Asian alpha hero—he is a lone wolf and a fighter, but also philosophical and ideological (Lin 2016). Bruce Lee starred in TV shows in the late 1960’s as well as internationally acclaimed martial arts movies such as Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection. He starred on The Tonight Show, and even managed to form his own production company in junction with Raymond Chow. Bruce Lee was able to appeal to Western popular norms of alpha heroes through his role as an actor playing the warrior trope. Even so, it is clear that much of the media was uncomfortable with Bruce Lee’s visibility as a masculine, desirable alpha hero as an East Asian, and even NBC producer Fred Weintraub felt that “the network, NBC, and various sponsors felt a Chinese could not carry the lead role on American television” in the 1960s. Lee frequently felt rejection even among his white, American wife’s family, and eventually returned to make movies in Hong Kong. While the warrior trope masculinizes East Asian heroes, it still does not level the playing field with Western machismo masculinity (Chan 2010).
Even if the warrior trope does place East Asian males in a more desirable (by Western culture’s romance standards) role, some would still argue that portraying a hero as a martial artist is a representation of an “alternative” form of masculinity—one that still does not place East Asian males on an equal playing field with the rich Dukes of Georgian romances (Hirose and Pih 2009, Lin 2016). Hirose and Pih argue that portraying East Asian heroes as martial artists is still a form of subordinated masculinity, although certainly an improvement from other forms of emasculated roles that Asian males take on in Western media and stories. The two argue that this idea of subordinated masculinity occurs because of the nature of the style of fighting involved in martial arts—fighters rely on striking techniques, but also techniques that involve submission. Placing East Asian heroes in these situations where they must also “submit” during fight scenes continues to feminize them, although in a much more subtle and less obvious way (Hirose and Pih 2009). Therefore, Hirose and Pih argue, the warrior trope in martial arts form is still an alternative portrayal of masculinity that is not as “alpha” as white, Euro-centric, swashbuckling knights due to cultural perception and the nature of the physicality exhibited by the hero. We continue to see the marginalization and feminization of East Asian masculinity, even when East Asian heroes become popular in acceptable forms. These warriors still often take on East Asian definitions of masculinity—for example, in Jeannie Lin’s The Sword Dancer, her hero is a warrior and somewhat of an outcast, but he is still a scholar and values intellectual pursuits. Most of Lin’s warrior heroes tend to emphasize their scholarship or have at least considered taking the national examinations (Lin 2016). East Asian heroes are still considerably marginalized for the most part outside of their niche, even when they follow the warrior troop, and are by no means considered to be mainstream (Hirose and Pih 2009).
One of the first popular, exotic romance novels even featuring a major East Asian character was written in 1899: Miss Nume of Japan: A Japanese-American Romance, the tale of a white man and an Asian female’s “forbidden romance,” and an example of the exoticization of Asian characters to suit white interests (Strehle and Carden 2003). It appears that narratives between white males and Asian females are much more common, and relationships between white females and Asian men are almost never represented (Strehle and Carden 2003). Under the “Ethnic” section of the popular romance blog, All About Romance (AAR), the first contemporary romance featuring a hero of Asian descent was published in 1957. The novel, Pearl S. Buck’s Letter from Peking, features Elizabeth MacLeod, an American and Gerald MacLeod, a Chinese/Scottish hero (All About Romance 2003). Buck was a Nobel-Prize winning author, but certainly an exception. Her main male character is Eurasian, not completely Asian, and the novel follows the family as they deal with the struggles of being a family of mixed blood (Buck 1957). While one of the first contemporary romances we can trace was published relatively early, the majority of East Asian heroes, if any, are featured more commonly in paranormal and historical romance—more so than contemporary romance, and even when Asian heroes are featured, they are interestingly often paired with African American heroines in paranormal romances (Asian Heroes 2012, Tan 2007).
One of the first contemporary East Asian American novels to focus on a completely Asian male and portray him in a somewhat desirable light was based off of a 1974 influential Asian American anthology published by Howard University Press, titled Aiieeeee!. The novel, Wane Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, was published in 1989 and followed the story of a young Asian American veteran and playboy, Ben Loy, who goes back to mainland China to marry the daughter of one of his father’s close friends. The novel follows the couple as they deal with the Asian American societal pressures (Danico 2014). When we look at the book cover for Chu’s novel, all versions do not depict any distinctly Chinese or Asian characters. The history of silhouetting Asian characters and even more so Asian heroes is akin to the censoring of Asian male intimacy in popular media, but we do see that East Asians exist relatively early on around when the genre romance novel began to develop (Tan 2007). We will explore depiction of Asian male heroes on romance covers later on.
Probably one of the most well recognized, modern authors writing Asian male characters is Amy Tan, who reached critical acclaim for her contemporary novels discussing the Asian American female experience, including The Joy Luck Club in 1989, which won praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and The New York Times. Tan’s novel sold over two million copies and was translated into seventeen languages (Brooklyn College 2004). It was a finalist for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lost Angeles Time Fiction Prize, and also won the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Commonwealth Gold Award, the American Library Association’s Notable Books award, and was selected for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read, but still did not portray East Asian males as “heroes,” focusing primarily on East Asian women and often depicted them as oppressed in relation to East Asian males (Lin, n.d.). However, Amy Tan increased the visibility of Asian American literature in popular culture, and set the stage for more East Asian characters and subsequently, East Asian heroes (Chung 2015). Still, we do not see any hint of East Asian faces on the cover of The Joy Luck Club, and it can not necessarily be considered a romance. (Amy Tan – Awards, n.d.).
Amy Tan set the stage by becoming visible and popular, but one of the first writers in the Asian-set, multicultural romances to reach acclaim was Jade Lee, breaking boundaries by writing about the Qin Dynasty in novels like The Concubine in 2009. Jade Lee has made it on the USA Today bestseller list in 2006 as well as won several awards for her novels, which feature Asian American heroes. She has been a RITA finalist for her 2009 Tempted Tigress under Best Historical as well as a Romantic Times BOOKclub Kiss award recipient for Desperate Tigress among many other awards for her work under other names (Lee 2016). Jade Lee was one of the first successful, well-received, award winning authors for writing East Asian heroes in genre romance novels, and has gone on to win other awards under the name Kathy Lyons as well. Her presence and success beginning in 2006 demonstrates how recent the popularity and success of representing East Asian men as desirable has been.
Jeannie Lin argues that Jade Lee set the stage for her and other now popular authors who write romances with East Asian heroes. The most popular genre romances for strong, East Asian heroes are historical romances and paranormal romances. Some of the more prominent, well known authors of East Asian hero historical romance include Jade Lee, Jeannie Lin, Sharon Cullars, Kei Swanson, and Cindy Pon, who writes primarily for young adults (Judy n.d., Eirene 2013). Some of the more prominent authors in the paranormal genre include Christine Feehan, Majorie Liu, Tess Gerritsen, and Liz Maverick. Some well-known contemporary romance authors that include East Asian heroes in their romances include Suzanne Brockman, Alisha Rai (who writes erotic contemporary romance), Madelynne Ellis, and Kevin Kwan, who writes towards a broader audience than solely the genre romance audience. We find East Asian heroes in all areas of genre romance, but most frequently concentrated in historical and paranormal, evident by threads on Amazon boards asking for recommendations of Asian male hero romance novels (Judy n.d.).
An interesting study of one of the bestselling East Asian authors or writers of East Asian romance is Tess Gerritsen, who herself is of East Asian descent. She began writing romantic thrillers in 1987, but they were all featuring white characters—only after she switched to a more general thrillers and crime genre outside of genre romance and found success did she finally include an East Asian hero in her book, The Silent Girl. By 2011, when this novel was published, Gerritsen had already reached international critical acclaim for a number of other novels, after she attended Stanford University and got her medical degree. Her novel, Harvest, hit the New York Times bestseller list in 1996, and from then on Gerritsen won the Nero Wolfe Award for her novel, Vanish, and the RITA Award for her novel The Surgeon. Out of the fourteen novels she has written since then, Gerritsen only began including East Asian main characters in one. When Gerritsen was later interviewed about her lack of inclusion of Asian characters in a Reuters article, she responded by saying that “I had an editor tell me that every time they had an Asian-American major character in the book, it didn’t do well” (Lies 2011). It seems that editors dissuaded her from writing in Asian characters, because they were concerned with profit margins and the number of sales of her books. Gerritsen herself also said that she believed that the genre romance audience were only interested in reading romances that reflected their own races: “the majority of my readers are white and I think they want to read about white characters” (Lies 2011).
So, after seeing these specific cases of success when representing East Asian heroes, are people really not interested in publishing or reading East Asian characters in romances? A quick search on the Harlequin website for the keyword “Asian” yields 159 results. When you consider that the romance industry publishes approximately 9,000 books per year romance novels, 159 results (some of which are not even relevant to the search topic) on a website owned by a publisher that releases four books a month per line seems to underrepresent the Asian community (Rodale 2015). If we examine the search results even closer, only four of these titles feature obviously Asian men on the cover, and many of the results feature all Caucasian characters on the cover—this could be attributed to a failure on the part of Harlequin for failing to develop a better search engine, or it could be a demonstration of how little emphasis is put on incorporating East Asian diversity into their novels or labeling and displaying them properly on their website.
While prominent romance authors like Jeannie Lin and Jade Lee are published under the line Harlequin Historicals, contemporary Asian romance does not appear to be a central focus. Harlequin has a line of multicultural novels that emphasize African American novels, but not a line dedicated to Asian-American romance. Another survey on Goodreads finds that there are 388 novels categorized under “Romance Books with Asian Love Interests” in 2010, and 165 books listed under “Romance Books With Asian Male As Love Interest” in 2011, and of these only 24 depict an Asian male on the cover, some of which are partially obscured (Suzan 2011). All evidence points to a lack of diverse, East Asian heroes in genre romance, or a failure on part of the publishing industry to promote these books as much as their mainstream, white counterparts, which make up the majority of genre romance novels.
The lack of promotion by editors and publishers of East Asian heroes (and heroines) is evident on the covers of novels that have Asians as main characters. There is a history of putting white characters on the cover of romance novels, despite their obviously Asian heroes and heroines not just with Harlequin publishing, a phenomenon frequently labelled as “whitewashing” (Schutte 2012). For example, the novel The Immortal Rules, written by Julie Kagawa and published in 2012, a vampire romance novel featuring a Japanese main character, features a white character with red photoshopped eyes instead (Schutte 2012).
The paperback edition of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix features an obscured face rather than mimic its hardcover edition, which is stereotypically Asian (Schutte 2012).
The Telegraph’s 2014 list of “10 best Asian novels of all time” fails to feature a single novel with realistic portrayal of an Asian character’s face on the cover. However, maybe things are improving—in 2015, two out of the “ 5 Korean Novels You Should Read Now” in the Vanity Fair Culture section featured the full faces of East Asian looking characters (Marcus 2015).
Example of a Harlequin Historical novel featuring an East Asian hero (2015):
If a search is done on the Harlequin website for “Asian,” the earliest novel that appears in the results showing an Asian male on the cover was published in 2011. The earliest, well received novel published by Harlequin featuring a clear, East Asian hero on the cover I could find was the USA Today bestselling author, Jade Lee’s The Concubine, published in 2009. The cover can be seen below.
This progress can be seen in the form of Courtney Milan’s contemporary romance, Hold Me, where not only is a very visible Asian male lead featured, but he gets to romantically, intimately embrace a white woman:
Published in 2016, as well as Jenny Holiday’s Sleeping with her Enemy (2015), not only features an Asian male hero, but depicts him in a position akin to the rich, alpha millionaire male hero we are so used to seeing as tall, dark, handsome, and white.
While we see these depictions as progress, it is difficult to understand how seeing Asian men depicted on romance novel covers translates into American reality. Do these trends mean that Asian men are being viewed more favorably by their heterosexual, female, American counterparts? Although certainly not directly related or caused by increased visibility of Asian heroes and romance novels, we can examine Asian male desirability alongside the phenomenon of increased Asian male media exposure. Studies conducted by OKCupid from 2009 to 2014 based off of QuickMatch scores help explain preferences and how people weigh race when considering attraction to a potential date.
Women Rating Asian Men, 2009-2014
These numbers show that only Asian women demonstrated an increase in attraction when rating an Asian man, while all other women continued to negatively weight Asian male attractiveness at the same level or even an even more negatively discounted level (Rudder 2014). All this data was collected for the purpose of heterosexual couples.
Another study was done based on the data collected off of Facebook’s Are You Interested (AYI) app in 2013. Users see pictures of people’s faces, and then respond to the question “are you interested” with a yes, no, or maybe. The data was based off of the responses after a person had “yessed” another when considering race and actual responses due to a match. The data showed that at least one group of males was likely to respond more favorably to every race of females including Asian, but no specific females of any race were more likely to respond to Asian men (King 2013). These numbers show that Asian men are less desirable than all other men when taking race into account even more so than the OkCupid study.
While many other factors contribute to what makes a mate desirable and there is no data or studies that show a direct link to media or romance novel portrayal of men and real life desirability of men, it is an interesting phenomenon to look at. Jeannie Lin herself says “mere exposure effect is important for defining attractiveness,” and she considers Asian male prominence in media to be an important step in the perception of Asian men as sexy and masculine (Lin 2016). Perhaps the effects of the increase in Asian male diversity in the romance industry need more time to become visible, or perhaps the increased portrayal of Asian alpha males is not related at all to real life desirability. There are too many factors to consider to link the two, but we can view the stories side by side.
Another potential reason that has been argued about why there has been such little visibility for East Asian heroes is the fact that there are few prominent East Asian authors writing romance novels according to Tess Gerritsen (Gerritsen 2007). Gerritsen also argues that not enough East Asian men and women read romance novels, and other East Asian scholars like Alex Tizon, Pulitzer Prize winner and professor, argue that Asian males are not featured as heroes because as a society we have decided to make them invisible and their lack of desirability is a consequence. He wrote Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, an examination of Asian American masculinity, and discusses the “lack of strong Asian American male leads” as “symbolic annihilation” and the cause of “totalizing effects of omission.” Furthermore, Tizon ties this into the East Asian stereotypes of “inferiority,” and argues that even Asian women don’t perceive their male counterparts as “man enough” to date seriously or consider as real romantic partners. So, Tizon’s argument makes it seem that it’s not an issue of the lack of Asian romance authors, but the general perception of East Asian masculinity, as represented by the dating website studies (Janet 2014). Regardless of these theories, it is generally agreed upon by Jeannie Lin, Gerritsen, and Tizon that in order to change the perception of East Asian masculinity, there needs to be a greater number of East Asian heroes in the popular media and romances.
Maybe as a result of this understanding, there has been a large push for increased diversity in romance novels by Romance Writers of America (RWA) very recently. The RWA annual conference is one of two large meetings held by romance novel writers, editors, agents, publishers, and enthusiasts (the other being the Romantic Times Booklovers convention) (Hung 2015). Their most recent conference, held in 2015, featured more than 150 seminar and panels and included a panel called “Multicultural Romance: When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong, and How to Make it Right”. In July 2015, RWA’s board established a diversity ad hoc committee (July Board Meeting Highlights 2015). Following this, RWA’s November 2015 meeting highlights also discussed their Diversity Committee’s goals for improvement like selecting more diverse speakers and RWR articles selected. In February of 2016, the committee released an open letter discussing its primary goals: expanding RWA’s educational opportunities, ensuring all members reap the benefits of conference attendance, affirming that all members should feel safe and welcome at RWA events, and growing the romance market. While they aim to address diversity and inclusivity in the romance community, they only specifically reference black authors or African American romances, and do not use the word “Asian” or “Eastern” in any part of the letter. It seems that RWA has not chosen to make increasing visibility of East Asian heroes a priority, and a lot of the diversity it references as an institution is in reference to African American genre romance (RWA Board of Directors). Based on searches on the RWA website, it seems that there have been no specific panels or Romance Writers Report (RWA’s monthly magazine) geared towards Asian heroes, although they do discuss diversity and multicultural romances.
Furthermore, although the 2015 RWA convention did seek to address increasing diversity and inclusivity in the romance industry, personal accounts tell a different story about the atmosphere surrounding diversity and inclusive discussions. Suleikha Snyder, an Asian author (although not East Asian), discussed her experience at the 2015 convention in her blog post, “A Tale of Two Conferences,” stating that she felt that “publishers still don’t quite know what to do with multicultural and queer romance” and that the “conference was a convergence of microagressions,” mentioning that she was given the side eye in elevators, Asian authors were frequently confused for each other, and that she felt an air of resentment among most authors when issues of diversity were brought up in discussion (Snyder 2015). It seems that while RWA is making strides to become more inclusive and diverse, the atmosphere of the convention does not reflect these new attitudes, but certainly could with more time.
So, if organizations like RWA are pushing for more diversity and criticizing publishers like Pocket for not having racially diverse authors or romance novels, why do we not see more East Asian heroes in romance novels winning the RITA award (some Asian novels like Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair were finalists, but usually do not win) or on bestsellers lists? Publishers and editors argue that Asian American romances in general don’t do as well in sales, and based off of anecdotal evidence from Tess Gerritsen, try to dissuade authors from including Asian Americans as main characters if they want their novel to be successful. However, Alisha Rai argues that it’s not that these novels inherently are difficult to market and sell and are not enjoyable by romance readers, but that publishers fail to market “multicultural,” diverse romance novels in effective ways. After attending an RWA conference focused on promoting diversity in romance, she stated that “It’s not true that diverse books don’t sell; [publishers] don’t know how to sell diverse books” (Northington 2015).
Publishers argue that novels with East Asian characters don’t sell, and that makes it seem like there’s no one buying these books, or that there is no strong interest or desire among romance readers to read books featuring romances with East Asian heroes. After surveying the blogosphere and message boards on prominent romance blogs like All About Romance, Dear Author, and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, it seems that there are lots of conversations going on among readers about recommendations for Asian heroes. For example, on All About Romance, there are four easily searchable threads on message boards asking for recommendations for Asian romances, citing their rarity. Three of these threads are titled “Books with Asian hero/heroine (or both?),” “Recs for books with Asian/American heroes,” and “Looking For Good Japanese or Asian Romances”. The fourth is titled “East Meets West,” a discussion about interracial romances featuring East Asian heroes and white heroines. When put into context of the 4222 topics, the four topics about Asian romances seems small, but it still demonstrates a need and interest in East Asian heroes.
People are asking for interracial romances on other message boards, comment sections, and blogs, too, like on Smart Bitches, Trashy books. There was one post written by the author in 2007, asking for recommendations of interracial romances, specifically a recommendation for an Asian male and Black female. She stated that she could not think of any, and even went as far as to say that she could only remember reading “a couple” of romance novels with Asian protagonists at all, and that they were always paired with white people. Even those who are well versed in the romance industry and are leading experts in topics as bloggers struggle to find East Asian heroes in popular genre romances. Readers notice the lack of parings with East Asian heroes, and mainstream East Asian protagonists in general. There are multiple lists on Amazon books, specifically for romance novels, titled “Asian/Eurasian/White Interracial Romance Books”. There are three parts in this Amazon list series, and while these lists exist, there is still a deficit of Asian American successful romance novels on the current bestselling list : #2 and #3 bestselling in Asian literature on Amazon are two books set in Singapore featuring a white hero and heroine, written by H.Y. Hanna. Two out of the three top bestselling Asian literature books on a major seller like Amazon should not feature all white characters.
It seems that that while East Asian heroes exist in every genre of romances, they are still often marginalized or underrepresented. This could be due to the fact that East Asian masculinity can be interpreted as “weak” or “submissive” in Western standards of an alpha hero, because there’s not enough East Asian romance authors out there to create East Asian heroes, or because women reading these romance novels do not find East Asian males particularly attractive. However, it is generally agreed upon that whatever the cause for the lack of visibility and popularity of East Asian heroes, the solution is to incorporate them more into mainstream media.
In the passing years, the increased prominence of romance authors who write strong, desirable East Asian heroes like Jeannie Lin, Jade Lee, or Tess Gerritsen among others has furthered the diversity of the genres and the frequency of East Asian males appearing in romances or even on the covers. We see the whitewashing, silhouetting, and omission of East Asian characters on romance novel covers, stemming from the belief that publishers and editors think that these characters do not sell or make successful genre romance novels. Testimonials from East Asian authors like Gerritsen and Lin demonstrate this general attitude among editors and publishers, but authors like Alisha Rai argue that this is not really the case—the success of authors like Jade Lee and Jeannie Lin among the vast number of message boards and threads on romance blogs that readers are hungry for interracial romance with East Asian heroes. People are looking for East Asian characters, and turn to others for recommendations. The replies to these threads are frequently all the same few novels repeated over and over, demonstrating the market’s need for an influx of diverse characters in mainstream genre romance (particularly contemporary romance). It’s important to consider the inclusion and depiction of East Asian heroes in romances beyond historicals that perpetuate stereotypes like the warrior trope or encourage the exotification of these characters—and feature males on the covers—as RWA continues to push forward an agenda for increasing diversity.
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