Date of Degree

6-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor(s)

Kandice Chuh

Committee Members

Eric Lott

William Boddy

Thuy Linh Tu

Allan Punzalan Isaac

Subject Categories

American Film Studies | American Popular Culture | Asian American Studies | Ethnic Studies | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Other American Studies | Other Arts and Humanities | Other Film and Media Studies | Television | United States History

Keywords

asian american, television, cold war, sitcom, orientalism, hollywood

Abstract

This project inquires into the abundant presence of Asian and Asian American bodies on early Cold War U.S. television, from domestic sitcoms to Westerns to science fiction programs. Drawing on archival research, formal analysis, and theories and histories of racialization informed principally by Asian American Studies and critical race theory, I investigate how the growing medium of television drove racial formation in the critical period after World War II and at the onset of the Cold War. Attending to the multiple specificities of industrial, historical, sociopolitical, and global contexts, I limn how Asian and Asian American figures were deployed to comment upon changing ideas not only around Asianness itself, but also whiteness, blackness, and U.S. domestic space. I explore how the serial nature of television – its open-endedness, its recursivity – facilitated forms of non-normative relationality. The distinctive viewing spaces and conditions of time and space provided by television, I argue, produce distinctive racial formations and were key to producing the legibility of Asian Americans as the model minority.

While previous scholarship in Asian American media studies has attended to Cold War film narratives about heterosexual interracial romance between white men and Asian women, often set abroad, my research shows that television manufactured a preponderance of domestically-set narratives of interracial, homosocial relations between white and Asian men: master/servant, neighbor/neighbor, protagonist/sidekick, father/child, and as mutual enemies. I ask how acknowledging these narratives illuminate the complexities of the era’s notions of domesticity, sexuality, militarization, and nationhood. My work also engages with Television Studies and its reliance on black-white racial binaries. I use Asian Americanist critique to reframe key assumptions about the histories and politics of American media industries and the foundational quality of race to American media production. The presence of Asians and Asian Americans on Cold War U.S. television complicates prevailing understandings of how the medium – and the nation – managed racial difference.

These research questions have necessitated an interdisciplinary approach which allows me to ask questions on three scales: the geopolitical, as the U.S. recalibrated its relationship to Asia during the Cold War; the domestic, as Asian actors came to replace roles that black actors began to refuse during the rise of the civil rights movement; and the hyperlocal, as both the nascent television industry and growing numbers of Asian immigrants began to establish themselves in the Los Angeles area. In other words, I ask how and to what extent racialized narratives and characters on Cold War television were influenced not just by national affairs like civil rights and geopolitical issues of the Cold War, but also by Los Angeles-area municipal concerns around Asian immigration and the building of suburbia.

The dissertation itself takes it shape through an archive I created through research at various institutions, including UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Paley Center in New York, Dartmouth College, the Harvard Film Archive, and materials available on YouTube. The four chapters are oriented around genre, performance, the auteur, and enfiguration, respectively; they map the various narratives, characters, and conditions of production in which Asian Americans were positioned. The programs I address include ones as broadly familiar as The Twilight Zone, which features several storylines about the Pacific Theater of WWII, and lesser-known series such as Bachelor Father, about a Beverly Hills lawyer and his Chinese houseboy, and Kentucky Jones, about a man who adopts a Chinese orphan. I illuminate these archival materials not to deny histories of exclusion, but rather to challenge them, to ask what modes of performance become legible as “Asian American,” and how.

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