How The Asian Himbo Challenges Hollywood Stereotypes Of Asian Men

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Early Hollywood movies often cast Asian actors as kung fu masterminds or geeky wimps. Today there are characters like Josh Chan and Jason Mendoza who have helped redefine Asian male characters to be more than just stereotypes, and in some cases into everyone’s favourite himbo.

The age of the himbo can be traced back to the early 2000s, and it hasn’t really left popular culture since, with the humble himbo resurfacing online over the past few years. 

But how did a term that was originally designed to insult women transform into a character we lovingly adore on our screens?

What Is A Himbo?

The term himbo was originally coined in 1988 by The Washington Post movie critic Rita Kempley —a necessary word to describe the age of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Fabio, to name a few. 

The word is a masculine version of ‘bimbo’, which actually used to be a masculine word itself, derived from the Italian word for baby boy. But you might be familiar with it as a term to chastise women who don’t fit into society’s outdated idea of an “acceptable woman” à la Paris Hilton or Karen from Mean Girls.

A himbo is defined as a ‘good looking but unintelligent young man’. It gained popularity in the 80s with the rise of the quintessential Hollywood action hero splashed across movie posters, posing in all their muscle bound glory. Any time a himbo movie is made, it’s generally all people can talk about. And with the 80s resurgence making its mark thanks to nostalgia fuelled hits like Stranger Things and Top Gun: Maverick it looks like the himbo is here to stay. 

What About The Asian Himbo?

Since the 1900s, Asian representation has come a long way in the history of Western cinema. 

The character of Dr Fu Manchu featured in movies, TV, and more, was one of the first archetypes of Asian men in cinema. Cultural historian Christopher Frayling describes it as a response to the widespread anti-Asian sentiment present in many western countries in the late 1800s known as “Yellow Peril”. The character was a huge villain but also smart and ambitious, often scheming for world domination.

One of the most infamous representations of an Asian character was actually played by Mickey Rooney, who was not Asian, in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961). The character of Mr Yunioshi has been criticised for being a hostile and incompetent caricature of Asian men in western culture — yellowface in general is never okay. 

Then we started seeing more of the Asian nerd — Long Duk Dong, or Donger, from Sixteen Candles (1984) was one of the OGs.

Together, these popular Hollywood representations left behind a swath of negative stereotypes for real-life Asian men. Either they were scheming villains, or dorky punchlines — and either way, not particularly desirable.

Then in 2004, we got Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

This was kind of a turning point for Asian male characters. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) weren’t tied to stereotypes or the butt of the joke. They were just two guys on an adventure.

Throughout the 2010s, we started seeing a little more diversity in Asian male characters.

And then came Dong from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt played by Ki Hong Lee — our first real Asian himbo. Lee is presented in the show as the main romantic interest. He’s also not the brightest bulb, but very sweet and desirable. 

Dong Nguyen (left) played by Ki Hong Lee, Netflix

Since then, characters like Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) from The Good Place also hit the himbo trifecta.

Josh Chan, Warner Bros | Jason Mendoza, NBC

Why We Love Himbos

The himbo’s resurgence has been dubbed a natural reaction to the once-loveable hot nerd, who themselves were an antidote to the ever-popular bad boy stereotype. In 2020, they were a way for Hollywood to be “sifting through the wave of toxic masculinity discourse, but keeping the brawn”

The rise of Asian himbos are a direct subversion of the Asian nerd stereotype, but also of geek culture in general, which became more popular and mainstream in the 2010s. Some of that quirky energy manifested as fedoras, m’lady’s, and the dreaded Nice Guy TM, and geek culture started to get called out for sexism and gatekeeping.

Ultimately the himbo shifts the dial back from the media narrative of nerds being the “good guys”, to this conventionally attractive character with an air of innocence and naiveté. 

And as for the rise of the Asian himbo, culture writer Martyn Reyes pointed out that “tackling this issue of Asian masculinity is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reframing the harmful stereotypes faced by the Asian community as a whole”.