Skip to main content

What ‘Beef’ Has to Say About Being Asian American

Amy and Danny transfer their for towards each other towards another jerk in a parking lot.

In Netflix and A24’s Beef, every main character is an Asian American person, with only a couple non-Asians as side characters. As showrunner Lee Sung Jin has said, there’s “so much more to them than just that,” and they really just happen to be Asian because he and his coworkers are Asian.

This attitude shines through in the show in a way that I find immensely compelling. Many “well ACTUALLY” types of people will decry so-called “woke” media for making race “such a big deal,” without realizing that non-white characters are often not allowed to be who they actually are without playing up to some kind of racial stereotype. In Beef, each and every character is affected by their race, but they aren’t defined by it. Which is, you know. How people in real life are.

Most films and shows try to put Asian people into boxes without even realizing it. They can’t even conceive of characters like Isaac (David Choe), one of Beef‘s main characters, who’s a street hustler and capable of great violence and manipulation. Asian men in particular tend to be emasculated to the umpteenth degree and played up for laughs (see: Ken Jeong’s character in The Hangover). But the funniest thing about Isaac is the recurring “The Filipinos are after me” bit, which is honestly a difficult joke to explain, yet it had me in tears every time. Other than that, he’s an unsettling, powerful presence, and despite how messed up he is, he’s probably one of my favorite characters in the show by virtue of how compelling he is (even though, unfortunately, the actor’s past actions muddy this somewhat).

So, on the one hand, Beef is a masterclass in how letting your identity shape your writing, yet not dominate it, is conducive to phenomenal storytelling. AND, on the other hand, it cannot help but represent aspects of the Asian American experience in ways that are inherently “radical.”

Talking about these intra-racial dynamics is definitely a little awkward for Asian people at times, for all kinds of reasons that this video can probably articulate better than I could in a short article. But I’ve never seen a piece of mainstream media showcase these dynamics as well as Beef did, and it’s incredibly fascinating to watch. Now, let’s be clear: This show deliberately hinged on a narrower focus of East Asian characters, which is why we’re mostly going to be talking about East Asian dynamics here.

There is definitely a perceived hierarchy of superiority when it comes to the triangulation of South Korea, China, and Japan. You might have heard the joke that Korean and Chinese people hate each other, but they’re unified in their hatred of Japanese people, and the Japanese look down on everyone. That is said as a joke, but there is a hefty amount of context behind it. The above tweet mentions that particular scene because it literally took a slight toward George’s (played by Joseph Lee, husband to Ali Wong’s Amy) Japanese heritage for him to act against Danny (Steven Yeun), with the implication being: How dare this Korean contractor talk shit on me, a Japanese artist? The history of conflict between these three nations is long and incredibly dark, and a lot of these historical resentments have carried over to modern biases, especially when you factor in Westernization.

Western society values what Asian culture can give them, and this is showcased through Jordan (Maria Bello), Amy’s business associate. Jordan is this incessantly infuriating white woman who wants to buy out Amy’s small business Koyohaus (a name given with Japanese favoritism in mind, despite Amy being Chinese and Vietnamese) and turn it into a mall chain. She’s infuriating not just because she’s a hound dog seeking a new investment: She’s also that kind of new-age-y, west-coast white person who adores “Asian stuff” and consumes it with a greedy, slovenly, dehumanizing mindset. She sees Amy and her business and doesn’t see a human being, she sees yet another set of exotic pieces to add to her collection.

This then extends to Amy’s place within her strange LA social scene, where exoticism is habitual and where the rich treat other cultures like currency. Her relationship with Naomi (Ashley Park), another associate of Jordan’s, is solely founded upon their shared Asianness, despite the two women quite obviously hating each other’s guts. The only time you hear characters explicitly saying, “We Asians gotta stick together,” is between these two, because it’s the sort of hollow tripe that’ll secure their space in this social scene.

Conversely, the Asianness demonstrated within the Cho family is a lot more grounded and realistic. Danny cracked me up when he lambasted his little brother Paul (Young Mazino) for wanting to date white girls. He asked if Paul really thought their parents “are gonna want their grandkids looking up at them with huge, round eyes, like fuckin’ bugs?” Which, as a half-Chinese chick with those aforementioned bug-eyes, I just about died at. (A drunk guy once told me I had “eyes like Buicks,” which was very cool and normal).

More to the point, the Cho brothers aren’t in a position like Amy where they “need” to assimilate, so instead, their references to their identity feel more natural. They don’t trust upper-class Asians and often think of them as other white people. They don’t trust Japanese-Americans (hence the George comment) because they see them as colonizers who, again, play up to white people. And when Danny and co. finally confront Amy and Naomi around Jordan, they yell at them, “Why the FUCK do you guys hang out with her? You know you’re Asian, right?” The point being, why are you offering yourself up so readily to be commodified by this dumb, rich idiot? (This whole scene is incredible though, as Jordan tries so hard to de-escalate the conflict by FALSELY invoking a “zen chess” move, and without even realizing it is blatantly ignored by everyone else in the room.)

To wrap it all up, Beef both is AND isn’t a show about being Asian American. The beauty of it is it doesn’t hinge on its Asianness to tell a story, yet because we live in a racialized world, the characters’ Asianness can’t help but play a role in the story being told. Yet it tells that story in a way that’s gorgeously, sometimes uncomfortably authentic. Even just the nature of the core plot itself, rage and vengeance, is an act of rebellion, in the sense that tales of Asian rage are few and far between (people loooooove the whole “quiet Asian” stereotype). Everything that Beef is trying to communicate is as real as it gets, and it’s just another reason why this show is quickly shaping up to be one of my all-time favorites.

(Featured Image: Netflix/A24)

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue:

Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).

Comments are closed.