America's Asian fetish frenzy: An Indian American wins Miss America and CBS's Julie Chen reveals a different kind of affirmative action

September 16, 2013 3:45 PM

For those of us who scan mainstream American culture for blips of Asian American life, it was quite a wild weekend when the two biggest stories in our universe--Julie Chen's secret revelation of double-eyelid surgery and the unprecedented Asian American representation on the once lily-white Miss America pageant--dramatically intersected.

Julie Chen, before and after. Which one could be Miss America?

In that key segment I call the decisive "pageant interrogatory," eventual winner Nina Davuluri, 24, Miss New York, was asked what had people buzzing everywhere I went. Essentially,the question was, "What do you think about Chen's decision to have plastic surgery to make her eyes look less Asian?"
Davuluri's response, based on reports: "I don't agree with plastic surgery, however I can understand that from a standpoint. More importantly I've always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And Miss America is always evolving... I wouldn't want to change someone's looks. Be confident in who you are."

Considering all the manipulative cosmetics that go on in pageants, from simple Vaseline and protuberant implements to plastic surgery itself, I'm sure Davuluri understood what was at stake. And she gave an answer that would help her win--the safe "feel good" answer.

It was an answer that definitely played to where the Miss America Pageant wants to position itself when it comes to the subject of mainstream beauty in a diverse America.

Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri, the first Indian American to wear the tiara.

In 2013, the pageant apparently means business when it comes to really looking like America and not some white-washed version. 

It was back in 2001 that Filipino American Angela Baraquio from Hawaii became the first Asian American to win. In 2013, there were three Asian Americans in the top five: Davuluri, the Bollywood dancing pre-med from University of Michigan; first runner-up Crystal Lee from San Francisco; and Minnesota's Rebecca Yeh, the fourth runner-up.

More than a decade later, we had an unprecedented showing for Asian Americans. But honestly, beauty pageantry is still institutional sexism on parade. Should we really be glad that we have finally diversified acceptable public sexism? Or that the pageant has begun addressing in earnest its audience's Asian fetish?
It's definitely a conflict for many of us, women especially. This year, some were intrigued by the prospects of Miss Kansas as a different image of the "girl next door." Theresa Vail is a 22-year old Chinese and Chemistry major from Kansas State. She's also a gun-toting blonde with visible tattoos, who serves as a National Guard sergeant and hunts deer. The modern woman? Who kills like a man? She got some pre-pageant pub, and ran on the platform of breaking stereotypes. 

But doesn't she know that the pageant doesn't break old stereotypes; it just creates new ones? 

Which brings us back to Julie Chen and her plastic surgery. 

What if Julie Chen looked like Miss Kansas? Would she ever have been told point blank by a Dayton, Ohio TV news director in 1995 that when she was on camera, her eyes made her looked "bored" and "disinterested"?

Or would she have been told she was good enough to be a weather girl? 

The comments revealed by Chen on her show, "The Talk," made a young self-conscious Chen seek out the top agent in the business. The agent, whose name Chen did not reveal, but who she said represented the top Asian American female anchors in the business, surprised her with his advice.

He showed her a list of plastic surgeons to contact in order to get the eyelid surgery that would make her eyes look more "Western."

Chen explained on her show that she had asked her family. And after much discussion, she decided to have the surgery for her career.

It's sad because, I swear, the mindset Chen faced in 1995 is still present today among decision makers in newsrooms throughout America. Enlightenment is slow in coming. And even though the current bosses at her old station have apologized, what good does that do? Different owners, different people.
Now with the Miss America standard becoming more acceptably Asian, I'll bet it only perpetuates the already existing Asian female news anchor stereotype that dates back to Connie Chung, and that Chen helped further by plastic surgery.

Personally, I feel sorry to a point for Chen. As an Asian American male who has anchored nationally on radio (at NPR) and on regional TV (in Washington, D.C.), I know the barriers she encountered. I've personally heard the phrase, "You'll never be our anchor, not going to happen." So I know what Asian American men and women in broadcasting face. Still, no one ever told me to get rid of my Filipino nose. Not even for radio.

There does come a time when you get to a crossroads with careers in mainstream media. You either get out, compromise (and change), or you fight.
That's when you make your Faustian deal, and maybe Chen was feeling somewhat pressured to come clean during her show.
But for what? To grab ratings on a segment about secrets? I'm sure if she had a bout of bulimia, like the new Miss America has admitted, she would have gladly revealed that. Or maybe an affair, like show co-host Sharon Osbourne's fling with Jay Leno.
But maybe she was ready to deal with some guilt.

For nearly 20 years, Chen's been at the top of her game, and many of us thought it was simply just because of...what?  Her talent? Her journalism skills?
Meanwhile, whenever any of us would say how racist the industry is, we would be marginalized as troublemakers. "Racism? What racism?," people would ask. And then they'd point to Julie Chen. 

Well, what about Julie Chen? Since the late '90s until now, she has been the picture of success. In daytime, primetime, and bedtime (by virtue of marriage to CBS chairman Les Moonves). 

And now we know that for all those years, she's been living a kind of lie, mocking those of us who for many years have cheered her for breaking the notorious glass ceiling and discrimination in broadcasting. 

She had broken through on her own, we thought. And she did, sort of. With a little help from surgery--an acceptable form of "affirmative action" that made her look more white and acceptable than the rest of us. 

It's interesting to see the reaction Chen is getting. Some of my Asian immigrant friends are aghast that Chen went for a form of cultural racism. Others, women in particular, have been railing against double eye-lid surgery for years.
Still others say, right on, Julie.
You go girl? 

It's hard to imagine Martin Luther King's reaction to racism would be to try to make himself whiter and more acceptable. You mean like some Uncle you know who?

But it's not so much the surgery that bothers me. That was just her remedy to the problem of workplace racism and discrimination. And when she had them telling her a common industry belief about Asians, she didn't try to bust it wide open for everyone who faced the same racism. She didn't fight them. She went along. She agreed with them. She changed herself and became a huge success.

That makes Chen a victim who doesn't want our sympathy. She'll settle for ratings.

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Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, @emilamok.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. And we should not forget people with ethnic sounding names being anglicized another form of racism and discrimination. Nice to hear from you Emil.
Posted by: Bruce Wong | Sep 16, 2013 8:49 PM

2. Racism comes in all forms and at varying degrees. It's sad to think that it will always be there, but call me a dreamer, I have faith in humanity. There are people out there who try to change through awareness baby steps at a time. That's why we have organizations like Stockton Sister Cities Association (Sister Cities International member), Friendship Force International and plus more. Thank you for your wonderful article, Emil.
Posted by: Marjorie D. Quillinan | Sep 19, 2013 2:25 PM

3. Emil, this was a well written and thought-out piece. I have ambivalent feelings about Chen coming out like this on her national tv show. But most likely her so called revelation did nothing but reinforced the cultural stereotype for most Americans. I've always thought she was just a marginally better than average media personality, and she would do something like this once she drifts into twilight of her career. I think it would have been better if she brought to attention some of the bullying she experienced as a kid in school and how she dealt with that. In light of the fact that so many Asian American kids get bullied by whites and blacks in many school districts without much care or mediation by officials, she could have used her show to ACTUALLY do something that truly matters to Asian American community.
Posted by: JW | Sep 22, 2013 9:57 AM

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