Will Sharpe plays Ethan Spiller on Season 2 of HBO’s “The White Lotus.” Ethan is a departure from traditional Asian male representation on TV.
Thefirsttime I saw a sexy Asian man on TV, he was doing kung fu. In my world, he was the only mainstream famous Asian man, a belief reaffirmed by strangers who would call me by his name: “Hey, Jackie Chan!” Before I could comprehend the prejudice behind those words, I was proud to be compared to someone so iconic.
Growing up, I began to see other Asian men on TV, but they were decidedly less sexy. I grew up on Ken Jeong’s characters in “Community” and “The Hangover.” Although hilarious, his Asian maleness always felt like part of the joke. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of portraying Asian men from all corners of the diaspora as weak, undesirable, nerdy and asexual tropes that are perpetuated everywhere, from dating apps to porn sites.
While the 2010s gave us “Crazy Rich Asians,” the rise of K-Pop and “Shang-Chi,” it still felt like Asian men in movies and TV existed in sexual extremes. They were either fetishized — declared sexual demigods like Henry Golding and Simu Liu — or deemed sexually irrelevant. The full spectrum of humanity simply did not exist for Asian American men.
Then came Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” which was the first time I saw an Asian male on screen that was equal parts captivating and sexually complex. A month after the latest season wrapped up, I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t stop thinking about Ethan Spiller’s character and why he resonated so much. And then it hit me. Finally, here was an Asian male character that was sexually nuanced.
Despite being on vacation in picturesque Italy, for much of the season, Ethan, played by Will Sharpe, seems uninterested in having sex with his frustrated wife, Harper, played by Aubrey Plaza. At one point, Harper finds Ethan mid-jerk off and tries desperately to create the circumstances for him to have sex with her, to no avail. Whatever your opinion of Ethan, to see an Asian man pursued, to be simultaneously horny but not horny enough to have sex with his wife, was new. And sure, the outline of the giant dick we saw might have been a prosthetic, but it got its point across that Asian men get to have complex desires of their own instead of just being a prop for other characters.
Ethan is a departure from traditional Asian male representation on TV, and it’s worthy of examination since it clues us into why mainstream depictions of Asian men are so off in the first place.
There’s one obvious problem with an entire demographic being deemed undesirable by the Western media, asserts Karen Wu, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. This can make it challenging for Asian American men to find romantic partners. And that not only sucks, but it can also create inferiority complexes.
An OKCupid survey from 2014, a few years before Asians became more prominent in Hollywood, found that Asian men are the group most likely to be rejected on dating apps. Although there’s more visibility for Asian American men than ever before, many continue to run into issues that stem, at least in part, from stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture. Wu tells me that this type of rejection leads to harmful behaviors like working out obsessively, fixating on finding white partners, or (in extreme cases) becoming incels.
And so, this message that there are very few sexy Asian men, with the rest being labeled undesirable, is damaging on several levels. However, Wu tells me that Asian men can become aware of this pervasive negative representation and work together with their community to demand better.
“Asian men and women are often pitted against each other, and Asian women are sometimes blamed for Asian men not being deemed desirable,” Wu says. However, she urges all genders within the community to recognize the source of the issues and actively work to dismantle them.
Will Sharpe attends the Season 2 premiere of “The White Lotus” at Goya Studios on Oct. 20, 2022, in Los Angeles, California. Sharpe’s character Ethan was equally captivating and sexually complex, creating a full spectrum of humanity that did not previously exist for Asian American men in TV and film.
While Ethan is beautifully complex, there are whiffs of the same old Hollywood BS. The actor who plays him, Will Sharpe, is biracial and half-white Asians have often been deemed a more palatable and less risky form of on-screen Asian male representation. On top of that, Ethan’s character is, in some ways vouching for the approval of his best friend, a white man. Some could argue that he is still portrayed as sexless because, for most of the series, he doesn’t have sex with his wife and doesn’t seem interested in the sex workers his friend hires.
But the significant departure from any other Asian male representation is that he does have the opportunity for sex — he just doesn’t exercise it. So the ball, for once, is in an Asian man’s court.
Ultimately, the allure of Ethan’s character lies in the fact that he seems unconcerned with proving his desirability, and everyone around him seems to agree that he’s worthy of being pursued. The last time I saw an equally complex male Asian character was Glenn Rhee, played by Steven Yeun, from “The Walking Dead.” But that’s it.
And in contrast to Glenn, Ethan seems more concerned with navigating the uncomfortable dynamics between himself and his best friend, Cameron, than keeping a partner. As a result, Ethan is given a chance to be a mediocre straight man who can’t satisfy his wife and (possibly) cheats.
Wu and I agreed that he’s not the shiniest example of an Asian American man. Still, maybe that’s precisely what we need right now — to see one who gets to be mediocre, or perhaps more accurately, to exist on a spectrum of human complexity that includes desirable and undesirable.
In Hollywood, white men have always gotten to be morally complex and still be main characters — we should all be allowed the same privilege. Maybe that mediocrity will finally give our Asian male characters (and real Asian men) permission to own our nuanced existences.