VOLUME 3, ISSUE 315 | April 8 – 14, 2004
Magazine Feature Outrages Asians
Details satirizes Asian, gay characteristics; editor denies discrimination
Composed by Details staff writer Whitney McNally, the feature satirizes certain traits that the magazine seems to indicate associate Asian men with homosexuality.
Online petitions calling for a public apology from Details and the dismissal of McNally have collected thousands of signatures.
But in a twist to the controversy, preliminary investigations indicate that while journalists’ fingers point to Details, a mainstream, white-run magazine, the item itself might have been inspired by the work of a gay, Asian American webzine publisher.
“Gay or Asian?” is the question printed at the top of the full-page item, which resembles an advertisement. Beneath the title is a photograph of an Asian American man standing alongside a caption that reads: “One cruises for chicken; the other takes it General Tso-style. Whether you’re into shrimp balls or shaved balls, entering the dragon requires imperial tastes. So choke up on your chopsticks, and make sure your labels are showing. Study hard, Grasshopper: A sharp eye will always take home the plumpest eel.”
In addition to this large caption, along the length of the man’s body is text describing the model’s clothing and physical appearance, with sexualized references to Chinese and Japanese food and cultural items.
“Delicate Features: Refreshed by a cup of hot tea or a hot night of teabagging,” reads one description, in reference to a sexual activity involving manipulation of the scrotum.
Another caption declares, “White t-shirt: V-neck nicely showcases sashimi-smooth chest. What other men visit salons to get, the Asian gene pool provides for free.”
“‘Gay or Asian?’ was an absurd and tasteless play on worn out stereotypes of both the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community and East Asian cultures,” reads an April 1 letter from GAPIMNY. “It demeaned all gay men as sexaholics, Asians as exotic chattels from far off lands and Asian men as passive and effeminate. Most distressing, it suggested Asian men cannot be both gay and Asian. Or that we are both and therefore should be mocked.”
In a March 26 letter, the San Francisco-based Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) wrote, “While we can’t figure out exactly what the feature is trying to say––Asian men are gay? Asian men look gay? Asian men would be better off gay? – there’s no disguising the fact that it combines leering sexual innuendo and a litany of the most tired clichés about both Asian and gay culture with no goal other than to ridicule both groups.”
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has also spoken out against the item. It submitted a statement to Details which the magazine plans to publish in its May issue. Peres has also said he would meet with representatives from GLAAD and other organizations in the third week of April.
Peres did not respond to messages left for him by Gay City News––in fact the Details switchboard would not forward calls to his office––but released a brief statement that will accompany GLAAD’s letter when the magazine’s next issue hits newsstands on April 27. The statement says in part: “We appreciate the substantial feedback on this item that we have received, and we will certainly keep those concerns in mind as we move forward. We regret that anyone was offended by the article, as that was not our intention.”
However, representatives from the Asian American advocacy organizations say this response does not adequately address their concerns and assert that they would like an admission of wrongdoing by magazine executives and staff.
“It’s kind of like, ‘If you’re offended, we didn’t mean to do so,’ it’s that kind of a letter,” said Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), of the Details statement. “They need to acknowledge that this is offensive to their customers, their readers.”
Details publisher Bill Wackermann also did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, and the magazine said Whitney McNally is out of the office this week. Andrea Kaplan, who an assistant described as the only spokesperson empowered to speak for the magazine, is also out of the office this week, and was unable to respond to questions about AALDEF’s comments about the magazine’s statement.
Advocacy groups say the magazine singled out Asian men for ridicule and attack.
“Are there any other entire categories of men you would have felt comfortable making fun of entirely on the basis of sexuality? We think not,” read a portion of the AAJA letter.
Since August, 2003, Details has run several versions of the faux ad, under the section heading “Anthropology.” The features juxtapose stereotypes of gay men against those of men of different ethnicities and classes, and in one case––“Gay or Jesus?”––the page explored religious themes.
A perusal of recent issues indicates that the “Anthropology” page has included “Gay or Guido?” grasping onto stereotypes of Italian American men, “Gay or Democratic Front-Runner?” and “Gay or Preppy?” among others. In the October, 2003, issue, the version was entitled “Gay or British?” and featured a white man dressed as a dandy. The caption read: “One cruises the West End; the other cruises the West Side. From London to New York, when it comes to style, the British fop and the American queen are cut from the same cloth.”
A further description of the man runs: “Pale skin: Bronzed biceps are for Greek heirs in Saint Tropez. A curdled-goat’s-milk complexion signifies the subtle sophistication of fox hunting in a light drizzle. God forbid there should be any little brown ones in the bloodline.”
Representatives from the advocacy groups, many of whom said they were unaware that the page was an ongoing editorial feature of the magazine, maintain that “Gay or Asian?” translates into a particularly potent expression of bigotry.
“When you’re offending a racial group and there’s a history where racial stereotypes of that group have led to discrimination, it’s different,” said Fung. “We are focusing on the larger issue of how this representation leads to hate violence, racial discrimination, and all the reasons why Asian Americans are still not equal in the society.”
“The piece would not be so objectionable if there were a balanced representation of API [Asian Pacific Islander] men in the media, but there is not,” said John Won, co-chair of GAPIMNY. “In the end, it comes down to what do these particular representations give us and where do they leave us?”
Won said that his organization’s response to Details includes a recommendation that the magazine run articles and other items conveying “positive images of Asian Americans, representing people’s actual lives and struggles.”
Some Asian Americans who work in the media say the issue is not so much a consequence of unbalanced imagery, as it is the under-representation of Asian Americans at the editorial level.
“I think that the real issue is lack of representation of journalists of color in newsrooms and at magazines,” said Edmund Lee, a features editor at Women’s Wear Daily, a sister publication of Details, published by Fairchild. Lee was consulted by Peres by e-mail concerning the controversy.
“His correspondence was short but not engaging,” Lee said. “The issue of representation is something that has not been addressed and probably won’t be addressed. And that speaks to the industry at large.”
Lee said he was unaware of any Asian American editor or writer on staff at Details.
The controversy has raised queries as to the internal decision-making of the magazine to run this feature regularly.
Unconfirmed accounts assert that Details drew inspiration for the item from two hugely popular Internet games called “Gay or Eurotrash?” and “Lesbian or German Lady?” created in 2001 by New York psychiatrist and webzine publisher Richard Wang. In these games, players are shown pictures of people taken by Wang and challenged to choose between the two descriptions in the games’ titles.
On his website, blairmag.com, Wang, who is a gay Asian American, states, “I decided to come up with this little web guessing game to decide if a guy was gay or euro based on distinct clues in attire and body language. Call me superficial but that’s how it works, ok?… I actually went out onto the streets and took pictures of guys at Rockefeller Center cuz it was easy to just hang back and wait for them to stop and pose on their own there, and I’d just snap their pictures…so come play the game…it’s fun and educational!”
Both versions of the game caught on rapidly among young, urban gay men, who e-mailed the link to each other across the country. The Advocate, a national gay newsmagazine, ran a story on the game and its creator in an August, 2001, issue, calling “Gay or Eurotrash?” “subversive” and “a lark.”
Details magazine, which in its current editorial format was launched less than a year earlier, was casting about for editorial content to suit its ambiguously gay format. Wang believes that they alighted on his identity game as a ready-made fit.
“Details is constantly trying to copy me,” said Wang, who is a contributor to the style magazine Index. “I basically own anything that goes ‘Gay or, insert description.’”
Wang added that he thought the captions in the Details item were “uninspired and not very interesting.”
Wang says he has gotten “not a single complaint in the several years that [my] page has been on the web,” adding, “I think my page is just as offensive as the Details piece, and I suppose I’m lucky that there’s no Eurotrash Legal Defense Fund.”
Those directly involved in the “Gay or Asian?” controversy take a harder line.
“That’s not good enough” is the title of an e-mail and letter-writing campaign by the non-profit organization Asian Media Watchdog. The group is planning a demonstration in front of Details’ offices on West 34 Street on Friday, April 16, from noon to 1 p.m. For information, visit asianmediawatchdog.com.