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A Review of the Notoriously Racist Novel: Eleanor and Park

(A/N: This began as a school assignment, in which we were asked to write an opinionated essay on something we felt strongly about. It was our final paper and I had procrastinated it for two weeks, so I needed something I could write quickly. Essentially, that meant something that made me angry. Lo and behold, a long-ass book review.)

Eleanor and Park: A Guide to Getting Away with Racism

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As a teenager who has read his fair share of popular contemporary Young Adult novels, grown up in a community of other teenagers who have read their fair share of popular contemporary Young Adult novels, and held discussions with said teenagers, I’ve noticed that the audience of the YA genre has an appalling lack of critical ability when it comes to picking apart a book. Despite its popularity, every half-decent book critic knows that when it comes to the YA genre, there hardly exists a single book with a realistic storyline. Donning the guise of every teenager’s dream romance, the classic YA storyline is almost as unrealistic as the happy endings in the Disney movies where the prince saves the princess by kissing her back to life. In YA fiction, we are exposed to a world of Manic Pixie Dream Girls—female characters who exist only to cater to men’s happiness without caring for their own, then mysteriously disappear once they finish catering—idealized relationships, and all-white teenage protagonists, but without teenager problems like homework, college applications and real-life experiences that would obstruct a good story. Reading YA fiction is like putting on a pair of glasses polarized exclusively to idealism. And though the popular YA novel Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell claims to be more realistic than the rest of the genre with a non-white male protagonist and a female who isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream, it’s no less horrendous than any other book in its genre when you realize that the non-white protagonist is defined only by the physical aspects of his race, and is used to perpetuate racial stereotypes throughout the novel.

For those of you who haven’t read or heard of Eleanor and Park, it presents itself in the classic form of most YA novels, with a teenage couple of an overweight red-headed girl and a half-Korean boy taking center stage. Eleanor lives a pretty tough life: upon becoming the new girl at her school, her weight, conspicuous red hair, and horrible clothing (a result of living in poverty with four siblings and an abusive stepfather) subject her to her peers’ bullying from the moment she steps onto the bus. On the other hand, Park comes from a family that’s pretty well-off relative to the rest of his community, with a younger brother, a Korean War veteran father, and a Korean-immigrant mother. After Park catches Eleanor reading over his shoulder, they begin to exchange comics and mix-tapes, and quite predictably fall in love. When Eleanor’s stepfather, Richie, finds out about Park and threatens to kill her, Park drives her off to her uncle’s house, and the novel draws to a close.

Doesn’t sound much worse than other storylines in the genre, right?

I must admit that when the book first hit the New York Times Bestseller list, I’d been really excited. Both overweight girls and Asian boys have a glaring lack of representation in contemporary pop culture, and as an Asian-American myself (who is actually quite overweight compared to my relatives in China), I was ecstatic to hear that they would be the main protagonists of a book with a happily-ever-after love story. Then, I caught wind of Wendy Xu’s review of this book.

Though it was filled with vile excerpts and analytical summaries of the racism in the book that made me sick to my stomach, I couldn’t help but second-guess the review. Maybe they wouldn’t sound as bad in context. Maybe Wendy Xu was just another overreacting Everything-Is-Racist Social Justice Warrior slandering the name of a perfectly fine novel. The story did take place in 1986 Omaha, Nebraska, only two decades past the height of the Civil Rights movement, after all. Of course there would have to be some racial insensitivity if part of the book was from a white girl’s point of view.

Almost as soon as I picked up the book, I knew I was wrong. I’d hoped that I wasn’t, but throughout the novel, every aspect of Park’s characterization adhered to or propagated serious, harmful stereotypes about Asian-Americans. And the worst part is, hardly anyone has noticed. I might not even have noticed as much as I did, had I not been looking for it, because I was so used to hearing these stereotypes. The audience response to Eleanor and Park seems to me a reflection of the internalization of racism against Asian-Americans in our society and culture.

As soon as we are introduced to Park Sheridan, we learn about his ethnicity this way:

“What the fuck does Sheridan know about kung fu?” Mikey said.
“Are you retarded?” Steve said. “His mom’s Chinese.”
Mikey looked at Park carefully. Park smiled and narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, I guess I see it,” Mikey said. “I always thought you were Mexican.”
“Shit, Mikey,” Steve said, “you’re such a fucking racist.”
“She’s not Chinese,” Tina said. “She’s Korean” (7).

“Narrowed his eyes?” What, does Park only look Asian when his eyes are narrowed? Rowell might as well have written that Park took his fingers and stretched the corners of his eyes. What’s worse is that Park knows that it will make him look more Asian, which means as a character, he’s already internalized the stereotype of Asians having small eyes—and that Rowell is sending the message that it’s okay for Asian-Americans to perpetuate racist stereotypes. Taking into consideration that there were probably a lot of stereotypes at the time and not a lot of Asians in Omaha, it’s reasonable that there would be stereotypes about Kung-Fu and confusing the whole What-Kind-of-Asian-Are-You thing. What I direct your attention to here and throughout this essay, is where Rowell’s opinions come through in the construction of scenes and characters.

Furthermore, as Rowell’s exposition continues, we learn that Park’s mother runs her own hair salon in the Sheridan’s garage. It might be more subtle than kung-fu and narrowing-eyes, but I imagine that this should explain itself: who hasn’t heard of the jokes with the Asian-American women who open nail/hair salons and massage places and “can I do nay-yo foh you today?” (See: Angela Johnson’s fabulously done “Nail Salon” routine on YouTube.) Of all things Park’s mother might have been, Rowell gave her a job as the owner of a garage hair salon. But forget that for a moment—it’s a pretty stereotype-based character construction, just like Park’s, which I’ll explain later, but it’s not the entire problem: Rowell’s apparent excuse for the stereotypes and racist remarks by characters throughout the novel is the setting (recall: 1986, Omaha, Nebraska, not even 20 years after the height of the Civil Rights movement). In light of the rampant racism at the time, the lack of Asian-Americans in the Nebraskan community, and the harsh judgement of interracial marriages, how is it that “everyone in the neighborhood who could afford a hair stylist came to Park’s mom” (99)? Either everyone just decided to withhold their racist remarks for a good haircut, or (more likely) Rowell was using the setting as an excuse to use every single Asian stereotype in the book.

The entire rest of Park’s background can be discussed in a later section, where I’ll write about the fetishization of Asian women, so the relationship between Park’s parents will be analyzed later. Now, we talk about Park. First of all, why is his name Park? Park is a completely innocent name until you realize that the author has been throwing stereotypes all over the place and that Park—surprise, surprise—is the third most common last name (behind “Lee” and “Kim”) in Korea. Don’t see anything wrong with that yet? Let’s talk about how Park is described and then come back to it and the various other problems associated with her lack of research.

Case A – One of the first descriptions of Park given by Eleanor: “She was pretty sure he was Asian. It was hard to tell. He had green eyes. And skin the color of sunshine through honey” (53). Sounds pretty, except for the fact that she literally just called him yellow.

Case B – Another description from Eleanor: “… he was prettier than any girl, and his skin was like sunshine with a suntan” (111), “All the women in his family were tiny, and all the men were huge. Only Park’s DNA had missed the memo. Maybe the Korean genes scrambled everything” (117). Oh, alright. So his Korean genes are villainous, emasculating, white-gene-ruining invaders? And last time I checked, his white genes aren’t “everything.” He’s half-white just as much as he’s half-Korean. And the chances of anyone’s skin actually looking like tanned sunshine through honey unless they’re dehydrated and wearing three bottles of tanning lotion is probably close to zero.

Case C – The myriad descriptions that reveal exactly how Rowell came up with Park’s aesthetic and name. “He kind of wanted his mom to give him blond highlights” (104), “Park didn’t look pretty [with eyeliner]. He looked dangerous. Like Ming the Merciless” (213), “The eyeliner did make his eyes pop. It also made him look even less white” (217), and “Park did his hair like he usually did—flared it up in the middle, all messy and tall, like it was reaching for something. Usually, Park combed his hair out and down again. Today, he left it wild” (217). Let’s take a look at some pictures.

Ming the Merciless – Tell me this is a joke. Literally no one looks like Ming the Merciless.



If you know anything at all about K-Pop you know where his is going. If you don’t, I introduce you to… the actual inspiration for Park Sheridan:

Lee Kiseop – Member of Korean boyband U-Kiss (re: blond highlights & eyeliner)



Byun Baekhyun & Kim Taehyung – From boybands EXO and BTS respectively (re: eyeliner)

   


Do Kyungsoo – Member of EXO (re: blond highlights and “leaving it wild”)



A full list of singers in K-Pop with the last name “Park.”

Hm. I wonder… what happens if we take someone off this list? Behold, blond-highlighted, eye-lined, high-cheekboned, wild-haired glory.

Park Jaebom, also known as Jay Park—one of the most well-known figures in K-Pop:

Now, you might ask, what’s wrong with drawing inspiration from K-Pop singers? They’re real people, so isn’t it a valid way to research the “typical” Korean aesthetic? Yes and no. The problem lies not in the fact that Rowell created Park from well-known Korean idols, but in the fact that she only used Korean idols, probably without doing any other research, drawing from the most widespread, shallowest aspect of Korean culture. Just like in America, most Korean men don’t look like K-Pop idols—not just because most famous people are above-average looking, but also because plastic surgery is a huge part of K-Pop. Nose jobs, cheek jobs, and even jaw shavings are so common among Korean men that not even I, a K-Pop enthusiast, can name more than three male singers who have not had plastic surgery. The reason plastic surgery is so popular? Korean men want to look more like white men, who are glorified for those traits, while the typically slender, “effeminate” traits found in most Asians make Korean men seem “less attractive.” Yet Rowell uses these traits, obtained through plastic surgery, as Park’s natural traits from his Korean side, which, among his other genetic impossibilities, continues to make me skeptical that Rowell knows anything at all about how to write a Korean character.

Now for Park’s name. Note that in Korea (and most other Asian countries), people typically address others by their last name followed by their first name. If you look up “male K-Pop singers,” it’s likely that this is the format their names would show up in. Instead of giving Park a name like his mother’s which was a real Korean first name translated into English and (from Min-dae, which is actually a dominantly male given name, to Mindy), Rowell just took Park to be a Korean first name that was already English. She also took the traits of most male K-Pop idols and applied them to Park: pretty, small and skinny, high cheekbones, good-looking in eyeliner, blond highlights, messy hair, etc. And then she slaps on the fact that his skin was tanned yellow, which doesn’t show up on anyone who actually exists, and gives him green eyes.

The latter part of that sentence exposes another problem: Park is supposed to be half-Irish, half-Korean, and yet the only trait that shows up on him from his father (despite his white genes being called “everything,” mind you) is his green eyes, which are constantly referenced throughout the book as something that makes him seem “like the person in a Greek myth who makes one of the gods stop caring about being a god” (137), “magical” and “mysterious” (171). He might as well have been a mythological creature, given those descriptions. Otherwise, he looks like a typical K-Pop idol, almost all of whom are 100% Korean (and have had loads of plastic surgery). It’s almost as if Park’s mixed-ethnicity is used solely to give him “magic eyes” (113), which isn’t even genetically possible, given that in real life, the brown-eye gene is dominant over the green-eye gene. Like Caesaria Kim writes on her blog “Scenes and Pages,” creating a physical impossibility such as this one to make Park more attractive gives off the idea that it’s “not good enough [if he’s] fully Asian. You have to have something exotic about you.”

Speaking of being an “exotic” Asian, Park’s Asian-ness is, as Wendy Xu points out, constantly used throughout the book to “Other” him and single him out from the rest of the cast of characters. Rowell, through the compliments Eleanor gives Park, treats Park’s Asian-ness as a physical trait rather than an entire cultural background, which is representative of the real-world issue of white men constantly fetishizing Asian women.

From the very beginning of the book to the very end, Eleanor refers to Park as that “weird Asian kid” (53), “stupid Asian kid” (39), “beautiful Asian kid” (310), among other things—even when she already knows his name. Of course some have argued that that was his distinguishing “trait” in a community of mostly white people, and I gave Rowell the benefit of the doubt at first assuming that Eleanor didn’t know his name. Yet Park never formally gives Eleanor his name by the time she finally starts addressing him as Park (and even then, she never stops using “Asian kid”), which means that she knew his name long before. In other words, Rowell uses his race to isolate him from other characters in the book, like being Asian is a defining, “outsider” feature.

And then, throughout the novel, Rowell continues to remind us that Park is Asian by using racial stereotypes to compliment him. When Park first holds Eleanor’s hand, she says, “Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold” (72), like maybe holding hands with a half-Korean boy is drastically different than holding hands with a white boy. What, did his skin feel like sunshine seeping through honey, too? Could she feel the ~*~mysterious~*~ and ~*~magical~*~ yellowness oozing from his pores? (Also, ninjas are Japanese, and if Rowell was trying to make a reference to Park’s skill in taekwondo, a Korean martial art, I think she does enough when Park gives his friend a “jump reverse hook” (134) kick to the face for insulting Eleanor—the only time he actually uses taekwondo, by the way—instead of just punching him or something slightly, you know, not from a stereotype-ridden Asian-Ninja-Movie.) Then, when Park is feeling all down in the dumps because “nobody thinks Asian guys are hot” (272), Eleanor actually admits to fetishizing him when she makes a meager attempt at comforting him: “When I look at you… I don’t know if I’m thinking you’re cute because you’re Korean… maybe I’m really attracted to Korean guys, and I don’t even know it” (273). And let’s not forget everything about Ming the Merciless, or the multiple times she mentions his “almond shaped eyes,” because no one has ever used that cliché to describe Asian eyes before, right?

What’s worse is that this entire Park-sulking-because-he’s-Korean scene, Rowell is basically glorifying the fetishization of Asians. And only the fetishization of Asians! Not even the fetishization of all cultural backgrounds, in which case an argument could be made that Rowell didn’t know about the harmful effects of racial fetishization. At the beginning of the book, Steve, Park’s friend, pokes fun at Eleanor’s attraction to Park by saying, “looks like somebody’s got jungle fever” (a term for white women who fetishize black men) (30), after which Park points out that it’s “not even the right kind of racist” (30) and that “it’s not a compliment” (31). Rowell acknowledges that fetishization is racist and harmful and insulting! Yet she goes ahead and writes a scene entirely based on the benefits of fetishization when Park complains about his racial aesthetic and claims that Asian girls are better off than Asian guys because “white guys think they’re exotic” (272). How come Park acknowledges that jungle fever is completely racist bullshit but never realizes that he’s contributing to the fetishization of Asian women? Even when he talks about his mother “keep[ing her] accent on purpose because his dad liked it” (25), he doesn’t realize it’s just like jungle fever. Not to mention that his father brings Park’s mother home from Korea after the war, which Eleanor describes as “Park’s dad tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea” (126), and calls it “romantic” (104). I should also note that there’s a theme in Eleanor’s sporadic encounters with Asian-Americans: all of them—Paul, whose family moved to Omaha to escape the Chinese government, an unnamed kid who’s a “refugee from Laos” (53), and Park’s mother—were characterized as being “rescued” from some sort of oppressive Asian community. The entire description Eleanor gives Park’s mother matches the stereotypes associated with “Yellow Fever,” or the fetishization of Asian women for being generally dainty and demure, and in need of rescue from the Buff American Man—“exactly like a doll,” “tiny and perfect” (126), and like a fragile figurine smuggled to safety.

Another problem with this scene is that it’s one of the only scenes where Park actually engages in any self-focused introspection. Despite the fact that half of the book is supposed to be from his point of view, every section labelled as Park’s narrative except for two are entirely about Eleanor and thoughts that draw from his insecurity with the romance, while Eleanor’s sections split their focus between her family situation, self-confidence, and other aspects of her life. Aside from this chapter, which is used solely to encourage the fetishization of Asian-Americans and contempt for the typical traits of Asian men, the only other narrative where Eleanor isn’t a part of Park’s introspection is when his dad is forcing him to learn how to drive a stick shift, where Park whines about how his dad thinks “that he was a pussy” (79) for not being able to grasp the oh-so-masculine skill of stick-shift-driving. And Park whines about being called a “pussy” throughout the book: when he lets Eleanor sit next to him on the first day of school, when Steve calls him “half-girl,” when he “cried when his dad took him pheasant hunting” (104), when he plans to wear eyeliner out of the house and his dad says, “Park is not leaving this house looking like a girl” and Park counters with tears dramatically streaming down his face: “What else is new? Isn’t that what you think?” (218). Forget that he’s emasculated throughout the book by Eleanor’s stereotype-ridden descriptions of how pretty he is or how soft his skin is or how cute he is—even Park is emasculating himself because he’s falling short of American standards, and that hatred of his femininity because of his Korean features makes up 90% of his introspection in this book that isn’t about Eleanor.

Despite all evidence of the author’s own prejudice against Asian-Americans, many still argue that the usage of stereotypes was crucial to the book in the setting it was given to make it realistic, or that Park’s characterization and background as well as Rowell’s descriptions of him were an accurate depiction of a Korean-American living in Omaha in 1986. Though I’ve mentioned and countered all these arguments already, I haven’t said that these defensive reactions, or even just the oblivious awww-what-a-cute-story reviews, are what rile me up the most. If this book had instead been written where Eleanor had “jungle fever” instead of “yellow fever,” the stereotypes would have been much more glaring and offensive, even to the critically-lacking audience that YA novels cater to. Rowell’s career would have been destroyed—perhaps for the best, given that her other very popular novel Fangirl has received criticism for belittling mental disorders like social anxiety and depression. But no one was aware of the rampant usage of harmful stereotypes against Asian-Americans until it was pointed out by an Asian-American. This book was on display in our school library, for God’s sake.'

The fact that Eleanor and Park has hit the New York Times bestseller list, is currently in the making as a movie, and has received wide critical acclaim serves as a slap in the face to the Asian-American community as to how much outright racism can go under the radar in American pop culture when we are the victims. Of course, I acknowledge that this is a result of the perception of Asian-Americans as a “privileged minority” and our own cultural tendency to shy away from making a ruckus about these kinds of things, especially since it’s true that very many Asian-Americans live a privileged lifestyle. But one must also come to terms with the way the critical reception of this book has revealed how small our voice has become, and how widespread and normalized these harmful stereotypes are. And these kinds of reveals—not the dreamy, twisted storylines—are what is truly, terrifyingly realistic about realistic fiction.
Tags: review: novel
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