Why idolizing Breakfast at Tiffany’s may not be a great idea

By Miranda Yang

If you’ve ever watched Gossip Girl, you know that one of the main characters, Blair Waldorf, has a recurring obsession with Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. And if you live in this day and age, you know Blair doesn’t stand alone. Among Blair is a never-ending sea of people who will perpetually praise this seemingly timeless film. In Gossip Girl, Blair constantly finds herself in the dream world of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Deep in sleep, she imagines herself as Holly Golightly, wearing the iconic black dress and pearls from the film. Fans of the film, and most viewers in general, share this trait: the ability to see films like Breakfast At Tiffany’s through a fuzzy, fantastical lens. But this lens is one that ignores blatantly obvious biases. In the media, portrayals of Asians are already rare, and most existing ones do more harm than good. 

Previously, the validity of the oppression and discrimination Asians face has been questioned based on the model minority myth that has comfortably taken root in our perception of Asians. Many take the standpoint that a main Asian stereotype, that Asians are good at math, should be perceived as a “good” stereotype. Subtle inaccuracies and inflations of the socioeconomic status of East Asians in America are also used to perpetuate the same model minority myth. What many don’t realize is that these stereotypes stem from mass amounts of racism themselves. Until the 1880s, Chinese students were banned from all public schools. Even after that ban was lifted, Chinese students were solely allowed to attend Chinese-only schools until the 1920s. This was all while the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place, which suspended Chinese immigration to the U.S. until 1943. When Asian immigrants came to America and either started businesses or were left with what became traditionally “Asian jobs,” like working at a laundromat, they pushed their kids to study and not take their educational opportunities for granted so they could have a better chance than their parents at being successful. This then got twisted and created the stereotype of the Asian mom, or  “tiger mom,” one that is mean and forces their kid to learn a plethora of instruments and start studying for the SAT at age 6. For a while, these were accepted as fact, so much so that the way Asians were portrayed in the media was primarily rooted in these beliefs deemed truths. 

An example can be found in the highly problematic Disney show Bunk’d in which the Asian character named Tiffany, played by Nina Lu, is a violinist who is terrified of her mom and what she will do to her if she gets bad grades. This more “PG” version of how Asian stereotypes are perpetuated in the media doesn’t even begin to compare to the “R” version, which is far worse. 

In film and television, the fetishization of Asian women has been accepted, and again, advertised as a stereotype that should be taken as a compliment. Examples of this hypersexualization can be traced back to the early 1900s, when the only options of female Asian roles in media were ones that reinforced the image of Asian sex workers- and that’s when Asians were even granted Asian roles. In 1987, the film Full Metal Jacket contained a scene of a Vietnamese woman repeatedly saying “me so horny” and “me love you long time” in what’s supposed to be broken English. In Austin Powers in Goldmember, two Japanese twins named Fook Mi and Fook Yu (trust me, it can get even worse), are fans who seduce Powers and give him a “top secret massage”– before which he crosses “threesome with Japanese twins” off of his bucket list.

Another more recent example is the use of Asian characters in the movie Mean Girls. The predominant Asian character (although her role is slim) is Trang-Pak, who repeatedly sleeps with Coach Carr, an older white male. Later on, one of Trang-Pak’s friends from the “cool Asians” table turns out to also have had an affair with Coach Carr, and the two girls attack each other. This hypersexualization has been reduced, just like the model minority myth, to an “innocent” and “good stereotype,” which could not be further from the truth. After the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, gunman Robert Aaron Long, who murdered eight people– including six Asian women– claimed to have a “sex addiction” and stated that the spa which he attacked was a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.”

When many think about predominantly Asian movies today, most probably think about Crazy Rich Asians, the 2018 film starring Constance Wu– except it almost didn’t star her. Kevin Kwan, the writer of the book the movie is based on, shared that his experience trying to find producers in Hollywood was littered with people trying to change the protagonist to a white woman. Although people praise the movie because it highlights a community in cinema that is often ignored, acknowledging the fight that it took to achieve this level of representation is necessary. Similarly, seemingly iconic actors such as Mickey Rooney, Katherine Hepburn, and Emma Stone all took part in either acting  in yellowface or whitewashing Asian characters. Katherine Hepburn played an Asian woman in Dragon Seed, Emma Stone in Aloha played a woman who was supposed to be a quarter Chinese, a quarter Hawaiian, and half white. 

Lastly, perhaps the most notable performance in yellowface is Mickey Rooney’s Mr.Yunioshi in the infamous and aforementioned Breakfast at Tiffany’s. His character is unforgettable, with his buckteeth, pulled-back eyes, and heavy accent. This, however, is not the main takeaway many seem to have after watching the movie. Instead, what’s remembered is Audrey Hepburn’s outfits and the planet of untouchable iconism Breakfast at Tiffany’s resides on. Always mentioned, always praised, always inspiring, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has been, and forever will be, a good chunk of the world’s favorite movie.