Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hegemonic Masculinity Run Amok in Gran Torino

So Clint Eastwood's lastest flick, Gran Torino (2008), has been heralded as a wonderful film that casts Hmong actors in its lineup and tells a compassionate story of the Hmong community's plight while it adjusts to American culture. Likewise, it supposedly illustrates a rigid, white male's self-reflection as he matures, and learns to accept his immigrant neighbors of color. Hmmmm, really?

Not so. Gran Torino follows the recycled racist and sexist storylines that have historically been associated with Asians and Asian Americans in American cinema. A quick look at the cast:

Walt Kowalski: The white knight who swoops in to save Sue when she's accosted by the dangerous black men, to teach Thao how to be a "real man," to avenge Thao and Sue from the evil Hmong gang's wrong doings, and to save the entire Hmong community by benevolently sacrificing himself. This guy can whoop ass even in his old age. Within the local context of the film, Walt is the bastion of hegemonic masculinity. A similar blast from the past - Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon (1985).

Thao: Good guy, very likeable character, but let's face it, the way Thao is presented follows age-old racist/sexist stereotypes of Asian males. He's occupationally inept, verbally passive, asexual, and physically meek. Even his own family questions his ability to be a male leader. At one point, while role playing on how to be a "real man" with Thao and Martin (Walt's white male barber), Walt says to Thao, "Don't talk about having no job, no car, no girlfriend, no future, no dick, okay, just turn around and go." Of course, Thao does get a job, a car, a girlfriend, and consequently, a dick, courtesy of Walt's meticulous guidance. Couldn't have done it without the white man. A similar blast from the past - Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984).

Sue: Also a very likeable character, Sue has quick wit and a defiant tongue. When the three black males harass her, she retorts, "Oh great, another asshole who has a fetish for Asian girls? God that gets so old!" But in the end, when push comes to shove, Sue needs Walt to pull up in his pick up and save the day. Likewise, Sue confronts the Hmong gang, both physically and verbally. Naturally after Walt assaults one of the gang members, Sue is kidnapped and sexually assaulted by the Hmong gang. Thus, one of her key functions in the film is to increase the tension between white knight Walt and the villainous Hmong gang (which is likewise one of Thao's functions). A similar blast from the past - not sure, but there probably is one.

"Spider" and the Hmong gang: "Spider" (far right, kind of cut out in the picture) is cousin to Thao and Sue, and leader of the Hmong gang that assaults Thao twice, kidnaps and sexually assaults Sue, sprays their house with a machine gun, and generally fulfills the role of the devious and extraordinarily dangerous Asian gang. Research has sensationalized the tendency of Hmong gangs to use guns, kidnap people, and rape women without properly contextualizing why these gangs emerge in the first place (Straka, 2003), which has a history of Hmong adolescents' strain in school, limited occupational opportunities, and general poverty (Wang, 2002), not to mention a structural history of global displacement stemming from Hmong people's exploitation by the CIA during the Cold War (Chan, 1994). In any case, the Hmong gang members, like Walt, exemplify a violent masculinity, but theirs is presented in an excessively criminal form (conversely, Walt's violent masculinity is heroic). Similar blast from the past - Jet Li & company in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) and quite frankly, there are countess examples of this typical Asian male character and/or Asian gangs in American film dating back to World War II (Marchetti, 1993).

Youa: Another likeable Hmong character, but again, one that fulfills a long-standing stereotypical role in American film. She essentially functions as a means for Thao so that he may inch closer towards acheiving hegemonic masculinity. Her character never really develops in the film, except that thanks to Walt's guidance, she and Thao eventually do begin dating. She serves to develop Thao's character as a socially acceptable man. Oh, let's not forget her nick name, "Yum Yum," given to her conveniently by Walt. The only difference between Youa and previous female Asian love interests in American film is that the guy is usually white and she sacrifices her expendable self for him. Similar blast from the past - Suzie Wong in The World of Suzie Wong (1960), and like the Asian gang members, there are tons of similar "Suzie Wong" examples throughout American film history.

Father Janovich: Another benevolent leader in the film, who works with the Hmong community and seeks to counsel Walt. Nothing really wrong with Father Janovich's character, but are we not surprised the other leader in the community is a white male?

African American harassers: Given the racist and sexist stereotypes that abound in Gran Torino, it just seemed all the more fitting to have three black males sexually harass Sue and intimidate away her "Eminem" wanna be white male companion.

The Grumpy Sociologist Conclusion: Audiences are supposed to watch Gran Torino, get all warm and fuzzy, and think, "Oh, that was such an honor to the Hmong community. It really showed how they struggle in America. And what a great guy that Walt was. He really matured throughout the film and did such a great thing to save Thao, Sue and their family from that hideous Hmong gang!"

Well, if that's how audiences interpret the film, THEN THAT'S HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY OPERATING AT ITS FINEST!!! In order to tell its story, Gran Torino relies on the most typically racist and sexist notions of helpless and dangerous Asian immigrants/Asian Americans, juxtaposed against white male saviors that have been presented in American film over and over and over for decades.

[Update 10/8/09: Since almost everyone who comments on here seems to disagree with this post (that's expected since that's precisely what hegemony does), let me ask a subsequent question. If the central minority group profiled in this movie was African American, would people still think the movie wasn't racist/sexist? If Walt was telling a young African American male, he had "no job, no car, no woman, no dick...," honestly, the African American community wouldn't have a problem with the movie? Having a white war vet and a white pastor show African Americans the way wouldn't be a problem? Having white writers, producers, and directors portray African American gangs the way the gangs were shown in Gran Torino wouldn't be a problem? No way, it would have been a political mess. But throw in a bunch of Hmong (a very marginalized Asian/Asian American refugee group), and it's fine and dandy.

Gran Torino reproduces racist and sexist dominant narratives (click on the link if you're not familiar with the concept). It's not just about knowing the writers/directors were aware of Walt's racism and deliberately portrayed that; it's about how he became THE central figure in showing this minority group how to be "appropriately" manly and American; it's about racialized relationships. Again, had the Hmong been replaced with African Americans, this movie would not have gotten a pass. Throw in a less well known and politically disempowered Asian American group, and people love it.


Chan, S. (1994). Hmong means free: life in Laos and America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Marchetti, G. (1993). Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Straka, R. (2003). Violence of Hmong gangs and the crime of rape. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 72, (2), 12-16.

Wang, J. Z. (2002). Preliminary profile of Laotian/Hmong gangs: a California perspective. Journal of Gang Research, 9 (4), 1-14.

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  1. "Gran Torino," White Masculinity & Racism (1.17.09; Racism Review)

    "Rutgers scholar sheds light on 'Gran Torino' ethnic stars" (1.15.09;

  2. Great review - both funny and true! My favourite part was when Walt saved Sue from the Afro-American gang, telling her afterwards that it basically was her own fault that they harassed her. Indeed hegemonic masculinity at its finest - rescuing women from its own creation (sexual violence) and at the same time casting blame on them for being in the need of rescue.

  3. Thanks for the comment and further insight! I hadn't fully thought that scene out to that extent, but very true. Amazing the numerous ways heg masculinity shakes out.

  4. ugh... you people fucking sicken me.

  5. ^
    Agree with anonymous -

    This just goes to show that alarmism knows no race...

  6. The film did contextualize the Hmong situation in the ways you criticize media for usually not doing. Isn't this a good thing? I think it's easy to look at a film by a white man that deals frankly with racial tension and quickly try to find hypocrisy. The film shows people from different cultures can live in more harmony. Is this bad? Of course if one feels that American, white and masculine qualities are inherently wrong and abhorrent then of course you would not want to see them united with other cultures. But then you would be a racist and bigot yourself. It also has a strong anti-war message. Again, what could be wrong with this? The bottomlin is that a review that criticizes this film for its masculinity would be like a review of say "Sex in the City" which criticizes it for being for chicks.

  7. I criticize the media for portraying Hmong characters in ways that follow stereotypically Asian roles from American cinema. Versions of these Asian roles have been played out in countless American films, especially since WWII. If you want me to go back to my citations and list all the films, well, it will be a long list.

    And the film didn't fully contextualize the Hmong situtation, which is precisely why I listed citations that do contextualize the this ethnic group's migration experience much more thoroughly. One or two lines on Hmong history from Sue which she concludes with, "Hmong girls go to college and Hmong boys join gangs" leaves very little diversity to exist among young Hmong in the U.S.

    My post shows that it's not "American, white and masculine qualitites are inherently wrong and abhorrent," but that an American, white and VIOLENT masculinity promoting white men as saviors and people of color as helpless or gang bangers is bad (plus, I'm 1/2 Caucasian, so it would be quite difficult for me to be bigoted against half my family). And the main problem is again, this particular racialized and gendered dynamic is recycled in American film; it follows a clear pattern over time.

    Finally, "Sex in the City" does perpetuate stereotypical gender roles; couldn't be that much more stereotypical. However, it's not as dangerous as Gran Torino. A critical difference is Gran Torino also uses race and violence as key elements in the story to create certain types of people as heroes and other types (i.e., men of color) as villains.

  8. I have to say, I liked Gran Torino. Eastwood presented sexist and racist opinions in the movie not to show that they are valid or okay, but to show that, whether you like it or not, they are opinions shared by neighbours like Walt, neighbours that we all live by. Eastwood did this because despite people having these opinions and very entrenched racist opinions, you can still find humanity in them. The "Yum Yum" nickname was meant to be racist. But you'll notice the Hmong, instead of jumping down Walt's throat, made a joke out of it or ignored it, along with cat comments. Chances are, if Walt lived longer, and built more respect and appreciation for the Hmong then he probably would have been less inclined to use those words. Walt is an imperfect, human guy, a white guy, living with an imperfect, human minority group (Hmong) who, face it, have a crime problem. I think the movie navigated these social realisms with class, definitely one of the best movies of the year.

  9. About "A similar blast from the past - Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles" - No, I don't think Long Duk Dong is analogous to Thao Vang Lor. Long Duk Dong was put in the movie for laughs and is never taken seriously. He speaks in a stereotypical accent and talks in a goofballish manner. He's just a "crazy foreigner." Several Asian Americans found bullying on an increase after 16 Candles came out. Look up Adrian Tomine's comic about it.

    Thao Vang Lor is far more realistic and fleshed out.

    About the Hmong gangs, etc. in the conversation Sue had with Walt, she does talk a little bit about Hmong men being less able to fit in society than women, hence many get involved in crime.

  10. The article "Gran Torino – Hmong gangs" in "Kelli's blog" also states that "Thao's masculinity" is ultimately used by Walt to win the conflict. I.e. instead of using violence himself he simply tricks the gang into shooting HIM. Remember he stopped Thao from doing "maculine" revenge shooting

  11. AnonymousJun 14, 2009 01:37 PM: What Walt was "blaming" Sue for was being in an isolated area.

    I do agree that the idea that "women are at fault/asking for it" when they get sexually assaulted is horrific. However there is a precaution not to be in an isolated area where people can't see you, especially at night (though this scene takes place during the day) - Walt was telling her not to hang around that area. That precaution could apply to men and women of any ethnic group

  12. Walt's character isn't a racist.

  13. This is really good, but I think it would also be good to mention how (as I recall) Sue is totally silenced by the rape. I mean, does she even speak another line after becoming the victim of sexual violence? The perpetuation of the idea that sexual violence 'ruins' or 'taints' women was one of the more problematic things in this film

  14. Just keep repeating words like "Sexist", "Racist", "Of color", and "Misogynist", and don't worry about backing up your claims with evidence.

    You see an example of black gang members, and claim it's racist, as though there are no black gang members. You also ignore the stereotypical "rapists are male" trope, even though it's common in movies. When men rape women, it shows that the men in question are irredeemably evil, and must face punishment (when women rape men, it's played for laughs).

    Also, interesting how you keep using terms like "African-American" and "Asian-American" to refer to races, but refer to Walt or the priest as "White".

    Do you consider why you don't use terms like "black" or "yellow", or "European-American"?

    The worst sin of this movie is that it anthropomorphizes whites, showing one of them as a human being.

  15. ''Since almost everyone who comments on here seems to disagree with this post (that's expected since that's precisely what hegemony does)'' This sounds to me like ''Anyone who doesn't agree with what I say is not thinking by themselves'' Mmmhhh
    Anyway, I will ask you a different question, if the film portrayed an Asian martial artist teaching a shy white boy how to defend himself and being rude, racist and making jokes about him in the process...would anyone say anything? No. I can bet that most of people would find it ''funny'' ''like Karate kid but more mischievous'' Why? Because being politically incorrect toward white people is okay and cool. An Irish boy is also insulted and his masculinity is hurt in the film, I haven't read any single complain about it so far... I am not even white, but I can see the hypocrisy here: Walt's family are portrayed as ''white'' materialistic, selfish trashcans, did anyone say something about it? (I do not live in the US) will I think that all US families are like that? No, because a film doesn't have to be an statement of who is who and what is what, it is just an expression and a bunch of characters doing a bunch of different stuff, they are not ambassadors of entire civilizations. If people want to see it like that, then it is people's problem not the artist one.
    I can only say that after watching Gran Torino I was more interested in Hmong's culture, in the same way some other movies have made me more interested about Jewish, Aztec culture etc...In the future only black directors will be able to mock of black people and Hispanic directors able to do the same on hispanic people, I really don't want to see that.