Four score and seven minutes ago (party-on dudes!), I expressed some ambivalent feelings about Vietnamese representation in Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam. Given the tantrum-like shit-storm that followed, I was hesitant to write the promised article, “Questionable Vietnamese Masculinity.” After all, there’s only so many people you can piss off before one of them comes after you. But after some reflection, I came to the inevitable conclusion that pissing people off is what I’m good at – and that it entertains me to no end. So sit back, relax, and piss off.
Within the last few months, Americans have been inundated with images of masculinity run amok.
The women (and some thoughtful men) in VTP’s readership may laugh here, direct our attention to the male-dominated political arena of American politics, and derisively snort, “When isn’t it?” To which I retort, “Ewwwww, gross. Stop snorting,” before feebly replying with a shrug, “When congress isn’t in session?”
But even such detractors have to admit, the testosterone level has reached ridiculous highs as of late. We’ve learned recently that the Governator harbored an illegitimate lovechild for the past ten years, John Edwards used campaign finances to cover-up his infidelity, and an irony (and common sense) deficient Anthony Weiner has been sending pictures of his junk to a number of women via social media.
Behind all these scandals is an internalized concept of masculinity that’s hyper-sexualized – and grossly over-rated. Sadly, this isn’t some odd convergence for American politics, but an extension of a prototypical masculine image in American society. Simplified to Neanderthalian extremes, it grunts, “Muscles, Sex, Violence: Good!” Summer movie goers can attest to that fact.
One consequence of such a mentality for the Vietnamese community in America is the continued emasculation of the Asian man. With the niche exception of Karate-Chop-Action (KCA) movies – which present a fetishized problem in and of themselves – Asian men are sparingly portrayed as anything but feeble stereotypes. This produces a false dichotomy between the hyper-masculine and the effeminate – and the racial categories that embody them.
Who, dare I ask, is man enough to deconstruct such a rigid paradigm, but Luke Nguyen?
Questionable Vietnamese Masculinity
As portrayed in Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, Nguyen represents an image of masculinity that refuses to fit within the mold of standard archetypes of Western manhood. He constantly performs a mediated form of masculinity, fluctuating between exaggerated extremes with a kind of self-aware humor that both reveals and mocks the hidden precepts of what it means to be “a man” in Western culture.
Consider the opening scene in Episode 10, Season 2 of Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam. (Sadly, the episode has been taken off of YouTube. You can still watch Nguyen get drunk and perform a traditional bamboo dance at the end of this segment. Or see him use his chopped bamboo here.)
Like many other cooking-show hosts, Nguyen exaggerates the “freshness” of his ingredients, and in Mai Chau he goes so far as to climb a coconut tree himself to attain his desired bounty. This display of agility is typical of the masculinist desire to conquer and dominate. In Man v. Food, for instance, host Adam Richman travels the country conquering the culinary monstrosities that push the limits of the edible. But where Richman always seems to confront his challenges with artificial first-pounding manliness, Nguyen continually places the performance of masculinity in crisis. Its at the height of his triumph over the coconut tree – a kind of Bear Grylls Man vs. Wild moment – that Nguyen shows a subversive streak and breaks the testosterone-laced display of uber-manliness with a shrill scream.
Its cause? An ant.
This constant undermining at the most crucial moment of masculine exertion helps to draw our attention to the ridiculousness of the initial precepts of masculinity. We chuckle when he jumps at the ant not only because it contradicts the masculine display, but also because it reveals the performativity of the masculine act to begin with.
In the same episode, Nguyen prepares a whole carp cooked in bamboo. The scene begins with Nguyen looming over a batch of bamboo, phallic machete in hand, telling us that he is about to conquer nature once again in some awesome display of masculine power. What actually happens? He jumps back, tells his virile Vietnamese sidekick/laborer to chop the bamboo down. In this scenario, his instrument of phallic power isn’t merely metaphorical (as in the machete), but mediated through the young man – a vexing hierarchy of first and third world positionality. As troubling as this may be in a post-colonial sense, it’s also incredibly subversive. The scene has Nguyen not only give up his phallic power, but hand it over to another (native) man. This homosocial mediation structures a kind of entertaining triangle in which production is enacted through (hired) labor, and all the grandiose notions of Western phallic power that’s invested in the image of a machete-wielding Nguyen goes flaccid.
Compare these situations in Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam to the many shows of Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. Ramsey berates all those around him in a display of dominance, never tolerating challenges to his power or control. You’ll never see Ramsey vest his power in someone else without first toting his own abilities. All his shows have essentially the same premise: he teaches (lesser) chefs how to cook and any challenges to his authority are portrayed as fool-heartly and unproductive.
Refreshingly, Nguyen makes no such claims to that dominating position. (Such a stance would be even more problematic give the historical power dynamic between western and Vietnamese culture). Instead, he showcases a self-depreciating sense of humor, challenges restrictive archetypes of masculinity, and willingly learns from his native Vietnamese brethren. They teach him how to cook, how to labor, and yes, even how to dance. Its a safe bet you won’t see Gordon Ramsey dance about in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.
There’s little doubt that many issues arise from Nguyen’s portrayal of and interaction with the Vietnamese people on his show. His treatment of masculinity, however, is one that challenges simple binaries and self-consciously questions the rigid boundaries of what it means to be “a man.” Instead of giving credence to normative understandings of manliness by attempting to attain the exaggerated hollywood version of the Uber-Mensch, Nguyen situates himself within those categorizing practices only to highlight their absurdity. His Vietnamese masculinity is exactly what it show be: self-aware and questioning.