The “Insecure” finale aired a week ago, and there’s one character who’s yet to receive the love he deserves. Still, after appearing in four episodes, Andrew, aka “Asian Bae,” has at least gotten some appreciation from fans over his dreamy, well-conditioned locks and overall swaggy style.
But in the current media landscape, Alexander Hodge ― who plays Andrew ― brings more to the screen than just a pretty face.
Andrew is a love interest of Yvonne Orji’s Molly, and throughout the arc of their relationship on “Insecure,” he maintains a calm, confident air. When he and Molly are on good terms, he exhibits a smooth, effortless game. And when she abruptly leaves during a date, prompted by a conversation about her relationship with openly-married man Dro, Andrew takes a no-bullshit approach. Despite Molly’s attempt to apologize, he doesn’t budge.
I think it’s so important to see a confident, outspoken, man bun-sporting Asian man on screen saying, ‘I want what I want.’ We haven’t had that before.Alexander Hodge
Though Andrew is the only Asian in a predominantly black cast, his character avoids any age-old karate master or graceless math nerd tropes. Hodge told HuffPost that while he’s hesitant to call the character “revolutionary,” the part definitely helps chip away at some long-held stereotypes attached to Asian men.
“I think it’s so important to see a confident, outspoken, man bun-sporting Asian man on screen saying, ‘I want what I want.’ We haven’t had that before,” said Hodge, who’s of Chinese descent.
Hollywood has so rarely allowed Asian men to be romantic leads or to have any roles that portray them as actual desirable human beings.
The sexless Asian male stereotype took root years ago, when Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. to build the transcontinental railroad. In an era thick with anti-Chinese sentiment, restrictions like anti-miscegenation laws and, later, the Chinese Exclusion Act, cut off their access to heterosexual norms and ideals, leading to “the emasculated Asian-American male subject,” according to research from 2013. The stereotype was only further perpetuated on the big and small screens.
The absence of roles portraying desirable Asian men in Hollywood has swayed opinions in the real world. Asian-Americans can still recall when Steve Harvey physically bent over, laughing at the idea of finding an Asian man attractive.
“The structural emasculation of Asian men in all forms of media became a self-fulfilling prophecy that produced an actual abhorrence to Asian men in the real world,” restaurateur Eddie Huang said of the incident, summing up media’s reach and power.
Hodge told HuffPost that growing up, he had few Asian male role models. And Hollywood certainly didn’t make it easy to find them.
“My perception of male Asian identity came from media representation. And obviously, in the 90s, that didn’t give me much to work with,” he said.
He also admitted that he struggled to embrace his Chinese identity in particular.
“I was ashamed of being Chinese as a kid, and would revel anytime I was confused for Polynesian, Hawaiian or Maori, because these other ethnicities had an exotic attraction and appeal that my [being] Chinese didn’t carry in a white society ― the irony being each of those ethnicities were at one time influenced by Chinese.”
Hodge’s character in “Insecure” is groundbreaking not only because Andrew is a romantic interest, but also because he is also part of a rarely represented interracial matchup between a black woman and an Asian man.
Asian men and black women are the “most discriminated against and excluded on dating websites,” notes Dr. Anthony Ocampo, sociologist and associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona.
Some see Andrew and Molly’s relationship as a nod to a controversial passage from “Insecure” creator Issa Rae’s book Misadventures Of An Awkward Black Girl that went viral earlier this year. Rae had proposed that black women and Asian men “join forces in love, marriage, and procreation” because of what they face in the dating world.
Portraying such a relationship on screen is historically significant, too, Ocampo says.
“It’s important to show any type of relationship that challenges the audience’s stereotypes of who is allowed to fall in love. Less than a century ago, there were laws about which races Black folks and Asian folks were allowed and not allowed to marry,” he explained. “Less than 10 years ago, same-sex marriage was illegal in most parts of the country. Popular representations of unconventional relationships helped bulldoze stereotypes about who could fall in love with each other.”
Like Andrew, Hodge is in an interracial relationship with a black woman. But he’s careful about bringing anything from his personal life onscreen, as that “would insinuate that black women are interchangeable and can all be treated the same, so I couldn’t allow myself to do that,” he said.
“I would say the biggest thing my real-life relationship allowed me to bring was a more grounded appreciation of black culture and the black community ― understanding that just listening to J. Cole doesn’t make you an expert on the black experience,” Hodge explained. “My real-life relationship definitely allowed me to sink into the character of Andrew more truthfully and see Molly for who she is entirely, without caricature or presumption.”
It’s important to show any type of relationship that challenges the audience’s stereotypes of who is allowed to fall in love.Dr. Anthony Ocampo, Cal Poly Pomona
Dr. Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, agreed that relationships between Asian men and black women aren’t typically celebrated in mainstream media. “Insecure” could very well inspire other writers to bring more diverse relationships onscreen.
“What we know from media research in general, the more you see a particular type of image repeated in the media, the more comfortable people become with that image ― in other words, it becomes normalized in important ways,” Hunt said.
In the future, it’s more likely that writers will be “able to imagine an Asian man with an African American woman when maybe they couldn’t or wouldn’t have thought of it before,” he added.
What’s more, Andrew’s complexity challenges longstanding stereotypes, Ocampo said. In one scene, the character turns up the charm, while in another, he can be “kind of an asshole,” he explained ― just like actual real-life human beings.
Indeed, it’s uncommon for Asian characters in Hollywood to have full-bodied, fleshed out storylines that showcase a range of emotions. A 2017 study revealed that Asian characters are tokenized in television or missing from shows entirely. When Asians are cast, they’re often relegated to the roles of perpetual foreigners, exoticized women, emasculated men and model minorities, among other outdated stereotypes.
“In Hollywood, Asian men are portrayed so one-dimensionally,” Ocampo said. “They are most often nerds, martial artists, liquor store owners. Very rarely do Asian men get to portray characters who have depth, who have flaws, who fall in love.”
Ocampo added: “That, in and of itself, is revolutionary, because Asian-American characters rarely have the opportunity to be complicated and messy.”
I think [Andrew’s] incredibly important for the culture. He’s important for my little cousins, so they believe they can be who they want to be.Alexander Hodge
Unfortunately, in 2018, a character like Asian Bae is still somehow a rarity. And Hodge feels it’s got to do with the stunning lack of diversity behind the camera.
“For a long time, the writers, showrunners, producers have been white, have been men. With a more varied makeup of writers, directors and producers, we get to see more varied stories,” he said. “People write what they know, and what they can believe. Sometimes it takes a new voice with a new experience to show people what else can be written.”
“Insecure” boasts a diverse writers room comprised mostly of women. And Hunt says the representation there likely made a difference.
“All the research I’ve done in recent years that looks at writers rooms finds, over and over again, that writers rooms led by people of color and/or women tend to be more diverse and tend to develop storylines and characters that are different than what you get when there’s a white male leading things in the writers rooms,” Hunt said.
“I don’t think we would’ve gotten this image with a writers room led by a white man. I think there’s something unique about ‘Insecure’ that allows this to even become a possibility,” he added.
Hodge hopes that other young Asian-Americans can derive a little inspiration from his character.
“I think [Andrew’s] incredibly important for the culture. He’s important for my little cousins, so they believe they can be who they want to be,” Hodge said. “That they are strong, that their opinions matter, that they can get the girl. I hope they can find freedom in Andrew.”
And, for the record, Hodge does follow a few hair rules for his own locks: “Don’t heat it, don’t blow dry, don’t use chemicals.”
Asian Voices Editor, HuffPost