Is Eleanor and Park racist? And other questions to ask

Recently, there’s been an attempt to resurrect affirmative action in Californian universities. This attempt failed and news outlets flooded with articles reporting the Asian American backlash against affirmative action. Sure enough, when I went by the library the other day, I saw a banner proclaiming “SCA5 = RACISM” and two Asian American girls tabling a booth outside city hall.

And I wondered — how in the world did it get to this point? How did so many of my fellow Asian Americans end up thinking that affirmative action was racist? Well, I’m guessing the model minority myth played a role. By buying into the mindset that Asians, as the ‘model minority,’ have more in common with white Americans than with other POC, concerned parents and political leaders came to the false conclusion that affirmative action would be detrimental, and therefore racist, towards Asians.

Tell your parents, tell your uncles, tell your aunties: Stereotypes are toxic, kids. There is no such thing as a good stereotype.

Which brings me to this question: When it comes to YA lit, media, etc — is all representation good? Representation certainly matters, but to what extent does the need for representation of marginalized groups in fiction excuse shoddily written characters and stereotypes? Short answer: It doesn’t.

The thing is, there is great representation out there. It might require some searching, but it’s out there. To unquestioningly accept any-and-every form of representation means dismissing and devaluing the fantastic stuff already out there. Representation of marginalized groups in YA lit shouldn’t simply be a matter of putting a check mark next to the diversity box. It shouldn’t involve stereotypes, exotification or cultural appropriation. It can and should be done right.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an incredibly lazy when it comes to reading. I’m my English professor’s worst nightmare — a passive reader. When I read, I let the words wash over me and think of nothing but the story until I’m finished. Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to become a more proactive reader and question the things I read.

A while back, I reviewed Eleanor and Park. I was all ready to cheer for the wild success of a book with a Korean American hero and love interest. But when I read Eleanor and Park, I was a bit troubled by the racism vibes — I attributed this to the POV of the heroine Eleanor and her good-intentioned-yet-ignorant views, and ignored my discomfort.

Fast forward a few months: I picked up Fangirl, another book by the same author, and gobbled it up. Though it was a fun read, I finished the book with the same troubled feeling, this time about the novel’s problematic treatment of mental health and anxiety issues. Same author, different book, and a pattern emerged, causing me to question my initial reading of Eleanor and Park.  By itself, Eleanor and Park can be read as a cute, Romeo and Juliet style romance. But books don’t exist in a vacuum. Historical context and prevalent stereotypes cast the book in a different, and more unforgiving light.

Still, I wanted to cheer for the success of a book with a Korean American boy as the hero and a lower class girl as the heroine. Wouldn’t pointing out the problematic elements of the book do more harm than good?

Around the same time, I read Stormdancer, a self-proclaimed ‘Japanese steampunk’ fantasy novel. It ended up a huge disappointment and was, to put it nicely, pretty dang racist. This, to my mind, was a classic example of ‘not all representation is good representation.’ Each time I saw Stormdancer and its sequel Kinslayer listed on diversity blogs and goodreads shelves as a ‘diverse read,’ I cringed inside. Something was amiss here.

I don’t mean to cast Eleanor and Park or any other book, for that matter, as the villain. But it’s incredibly telling that people are more afraid/angered by the label of ‘racism’ than by, well, racism itself. For some, calling something out as racist is considered worse than actual racism (or sexism, homophobia, classism, etc). This makes for an environment hostile to critical reading and analysis.

I firmly believe that there are questions that should be OK to ask of any book: Is this book racist? How are these character depictions influenced by society and stereotypes? Is this respectful borrowing or cultural appropriation? –and so on. No book should be off-limits. Representation matters, and because it matters, giving it the careful thought and attention it deserves is paramount. (Update: And yes, for the record, Eleanor and Park is racist. Bloggers and authors have written far more eloquently than I ever can about this book’s issues. See the end of this post for links.)

One of the things that makes YA lit so awesome to me is the fact that it’s a genre-bending category open to experimentation and fresh ideas. It’s a safe space for new voices, innovative ideas, and social activism — or so I like to think. If we can’t question, examine, and re-examine works in this brave not-so-new world of YA lit, then where can we?

tl;dr Is all representation in media good representation? Not necessarily, and asking questions/thinking critically about YA lit is important! Representation matters, so we should give it the thought and attention it deserves.

Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park
Clear Eyes Full Shelves on Eleanor and Park
Ellen Oh on Eleanor and Park
The Book Smugglers: On Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Addressing Troubling Tropes Regarding Asian and Asian-Americans in YA

And always relevant:
Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story
caring is not trying, trying is not succeeding
There’s no such thing as a good stereotype.

17 Replies to “Is Eleanor and Park racist? And other questions to ask

  1. I haven’t read either E&P or STORMDANCER. I’m curious what it was you found racist about both texts. Could you cite some examples? I only ask because E&P has come highly recommended by trusted readers of various socioeconomic/ethnic background and I haven’t heard/seen the concern raised. Mainly just curious. Thanks.

    1. If you click through to the further reading, you can find some interesting takes on these books. Also, I did do a review of Stormdancer, which I linked above and you can also find here:

      My aim in writing was to raise questions and encourage critical thinking when it comes to matters of representation. I hope to spark discussion!

      Thanks for asking!

  2. The question “When it comes to YA lit, media, etc — is all representation good?” is a valuable discussion point to ask when we are reviewing or recommending books.

    Is all representation good? NO. I believe, as a reader and reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, NetGalley, and my own blog that it is far better to be honest. When there are stereotypes, call it like you see it.

    We want readers to purchase good lit, not just because the novel is from a person of color, latino, Native, etc.

    My money only goes so far, so I depend on reviews and friends recommendations before I buy a book. Thanks for bringing the subject up for discussion.

  3. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, ever since I came across that Angry Girl Comics post on Tumblr. I haven’t had a chance to read Eleanor and Park yet, so I wanted to reserve judgement, yet those parts she pulled out were really so blatant that I feel like they’d stick out for me, as well, and if I were the editor involved, I’d have asked for those lines to either be adjusted or for us to see some growth from Eleanor as she got to know Park better.

    So on one hand, I’m glad to see some pushback against Eleanor and Park, because so many people love it so unreservedly that I had some worries about fetishization. Yet at the same time, given that so few Asian men are considered sex symbols in American media and how many terrible “yellow peril” stereotypes still remain, positive depictions of Asian men as love interest are in general a net positive thing, in my opinion. I love Cindy Pon’s hashtag #cuteasianboys for the same reason, calling attention to cute Asian guys in media (see: Daniel Henney’s roles anywhere, for example–he should be more famous than he is, and not just playing the bad guy in Wolverine; I loved him in Shanghai Calling).

    It’s a very fine line, and I’m not sure (because I haven’t read it) how I feel about where Eleanor and Park fits regarding the line, but I hope that with the book’s success, better representation will follow. I know *I’m* looking for that, as an editor.

    1. Personally, while I do think that more people of all races should be represented in our media, I don’t think that fetishization is good in any sense. Calling attention to ‘cute Asian guys’ for their talent or simply good looks is fine, but fetishization objectifies people. Also, people tend to fetishize only Koreans and Japanese, currently, which hurts the Southeast Asian community. I certainly do not want more ‘koreaboos’ or ‘weeaboos’ who glorify certain parts of Asia, post horribly sexual fantasies, and are simply disgusting in general. Can America, and the world in general, end racism, fetishization, and call attention to talented individuals without backstabbing comments? Heh. I highly doubt it.

  4. YES, there needs to be representation that does NOT rely on stereotypes and/or cultural appropriation (cough Stormdancer cough cultural appropriation cough cough). I think it can definitely do more harm than good if we have stereotyped representations of poc–in such cases, I would prefer no representation at all!

    Also, yes to “No book should be off-limits.” I think, too often, we are just so glad to have representation–any representation at all–that we latch onto whatever is offered and fail to address its problematic implications. People seem to miss the fact that you can love something–and still acknowledge how problematic that something is (Harry Potter and Cho Chang, anyone?).

    This is definitely something that needs to be addressed by editors, publishers, etc. as well as readers. We as the audience need to take responsibility through, as you mentioned, buying books that portray poc characters as complex human beings (versus books that rely on racialized caricatures). We do NOT live in a post-racial (or post-feminism) world, and sadly, our culture reflects that.

    Thanks for bringing awareness of this issue–there definitely needs to be more dialogue about representation and diversity (in terms of race, sexuality, and more), not only in books, but in other media forms as well.

  5. E&P is not a racist book. Rainbow Rowell ( the author – and how could she be racist with a name like that :)) is writing about reality. She more than likely hates racist people but she also has to be true to her characters. Do some research on Robert Cormier and why he could never seem to write a book with a happy ending. Eleanor is a realistic character who falls madly in love with Park who happens to be Korean. I did an interview with Rowell who said that there was no particular reason that Park was Korean in her book. She based his character partly on an Asian acquaintance of hers from high school. So relax. E&P is all good.

    1. Sorry, Sue, I don’t think that works as an explanation. Rainbow Rowell is still working from within the limited viewpoints of a mortal human being, and therefore she can make mistakes. Saying that a book is problematic or possibly contains racism doesn’t make the author a bad person. I think it’s important to talk about this kind of thing, rather than dismiss it and tell people to “relax,” because invalidating the perspective of someone coming at it from a different place than you isn’t helpful.

    2. Unfortunately, yes, Eleanor and Park was racist. Rainbow Rowell, may not have meant it, but that in itself is an even greater problem, as it points towards the internalized racism. The era itself of the book, intended to be racist, correct? Yet Eleanor falls in love with Park who HAPPENS to be Korean. Then how come she fetishizes him and uses very stereotypical terms to describe him? If race was no factor in her loving him, I would assume she would describe him as she would describe any other person. Also, the cultural references are nil in the book.

  6. This is a thought-provoking post, and an issue I’ve run around in my own mind a million times when deciding how to write my own characters. (I still haven’t reached any solid conclusions.) My general feeling is that, as a white person, it’s my job to listen to the people who are directly affected in cases like these, rather than dismiss their opinions. I may have a gut reaction because I loved Park as a character, but frankly I think my opinion means much less than that of, say, Wendy Xu of Angry Girl Review, a person who obviously deals with these issues in her own life on a daily basis.

    On the other hand, I don’t think white writers should necessarily be afraid to write characters of other races – but they should realize that it will take a significant amount of work to do so respectfully. And again, a significant amount of listening to other people.

    And on yet another hand, I think it’s worth mentioning that there are kids out there who are delighted to see some representation of themselves in Park as the main character and love interest. That’s not nothing.

    Finally (sorry for the longest comment ever), but I’m curious what you found problematic about Fangirl’s depiction of anxiety. As someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, I identified so very much with the main character and her struggles, so I’m just curious if you wouldn’t mind elaborating a little.

  7. I have read E&P but not yet the Angry Girl review, which I will do now. Since I saw this blog post pop up in my RSS feed I too have been thinking about whether E&P is racist.

    I agree with Stacy in her response to Sue, sometimes we don’t even realize that we perpetuate racism by depicting stereotypes- even if we don’t even realize that we’re depicting stereotypes.

    I recently saw a preview for the recent Seth MacFarlane movie and was so disgusted by it’s stereotypical display of Native Americans (i’m sure there are other groups but I only saw that) and it made me wonder why I was okay with it when it’s in the form of a cartoon like Family Guy, but not when it’s people. I think on some level it’s all interrelated.

  8. It’s hard to savvy your point without some examples from the text– I feel like you’ve buried the lede here, all the way into the comments section. To say something is racist without explaining the evidence that led you to such a conclusion feels like reading an algebra test with all the answers but no work shown.

  9. The way I saw the weird racism vibes in E&P is that in Nebraska during the 80’s there really weren’t that many Asian Americans and because of that racist stereotypes were more accepted. I figured that when seeing it through Eleanor’s eyes, a girl living during the eighties in the mid-west, it makes sense that there would be ignorance issues.

  10. You still don’t specifically cite what exactly about E&P you find to be racist, in either this post or your original review. What is racist about E&P? I find it troubling that you can just label something racist with literally no explanation why.

  11. I just finished reading eleanor and park, and I must admit I was a bit troubled by the depiction of Park’s mother, but not so much that it interfered with the rest of the stunning narrative. I disagree, very strongly, that the book itself is racist. I think your reading of it is sloppy and reductive. And even if a depiction is itself racist, or if a character behaves in a racist fashion, that does not mean the author or the book or they publisher endorses racism. And in fact, I think the depictions of Park and his mother challenge stereotypical views of race by problematizing it. Anyway, I think the book is a wonderful story, not really like Romeo and Juliet at all, really. I wish you would give it another chance. Or maybe just become a more thoughtful reader.

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