Sports have often been seen as a safe haven from politics, an escape from societal issues audiences would rather not deal with. Hence, sports journalism is traditionally seen as apolitical, avoiding controversies, and focusing on human interest pieces. In the Olympics specifically, media focus is drawn to entertaining and inspiring stories. Painting storylines of heroism and triumph over adversity are common media themes, creating a sense of national pride (Jiang, 2013). When political issues are touched upon, they can often be skewed by proprietary companies, and stories may be told in a less than satisfactory manner.
However, the ownership and power in media broadcasting is becoming decentralized. With the rise of new media, technology has given more people the ability to become media producers. With a broader range of producers, new media is allowing non-mainstream stories and perspectives to come to the forefront (Pederson, 2014). In the realm of sports, it is argued that new media is a breakthrough for outsider voices, removed from corporate and political control, willing to address the political issues and controversies in sport through blogging and social media.
At the Olympics, online audiences were keen to challenge news stories presented to them. Tackling issues surrounding Muslim competitors and sexist reporting among others, the internet showed its ability to be critical and socially aware.
Unfortunately, as new media sources continue to grow, traditional broadcasters seek to capitalize on these growing audiences. As often as online audiences continue to promote their stories, traditional media outlets are also seeking their place in the social media landscape (Pederson, 2014). For-profit news sites (as opposed to bloggers) are perfecting ways of attracting new readers. Social news sites such as Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Upworthy and a host of Facebook news pages continue to grow in reach and popularity. In their method, they seek compelling stories that have already gone viral, mining and capitalizing on user-created content (Norman, 2012). These stories can be further skewed (i.e. clickbait) to be captivating and easily spread, allowing owners to profit.
Like many other Olympic Games in the age of Internet 2.0, the Rio 2016 Games presented its fair share of viral, meme-ified moments. One beloved star of Rio was bronze medalist Fu Yuanhui, a swimmer from China. As she appeared across newsfeeds, her manner of speech and goofy, exaggerated mannerisms quickly won the hearts of North American online audiences. Though media featuring the swimmer was mostly spread through websites and social channels that did not carry a specified athletic focus, her rise to fame is telling of the nature of American sports journalism.
In this framework, we can use Fu Yuanhui’s representation as an example of how new media is still heavily influenced by traditional media practices and values. As sports media is seen as grounds for securing consent for various social and political practices (Szto, 2016), it is important to analyse what stories are told, how they are told, and what ideologies they may promote.
In my review of social media content pertaining to Fu Yuanhui, it seems her virality took off after airings of two post-race interviews:
Originally broadcast on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), she expresses her satisfaction with her speed and performance, describes her training and is ultimately surprised by the news of her qualification for a medal. Her high pitched voice, excited tone, and exaggerated facial expressions and mannerisms are distinct, prompting her popularity. Through textual analysis of articles featuring Fu, commonly used descriptors include words such as
- adorable, lovable and darling
- quirky and hilarious
- genuine, refreshing and relatable
- meme/gif/emoji queen
When considering the meaning behind portrayals of Fu Yuanhui it is important to understand the concept of racialization.
Racialization: The social construction of race; attribution of certain characteristics and traits to an ethnic group/groups through racial construction and performance.
For Fu Yuanhui, we examine the perception of her “Asianness” through media’s construction of her character. Language plays an interesting role in the creation of Fu Yuanhui’s mediated personality. The keywords used in her media coverage carry important connotations. While they have positive intentions, they skew towards the effeminate and are somewhat infantile (with the exception of genuine, which is neutral in its positivity).
There are several discrepancies in translation that must also be considered when analyzing media coverage of Fu Yuanhui. In the most popularly spread and often quoted version of her video, she describes her use of “mystic energy”. In North American media, this phrasing is often used to build upon the quirkiness of her character. However, the connotations between the mystical and the so-called Orient are often seen historically. In this case, Fu Yuanhui’s use of the phrase “mystic energy” is both demonstrative of her quirky personality and her Asianness.
However, we must also consider that “mystic power” is not the only translation for her words. In searching for other versions of the interview, I found translations of “primordial power”, “powers of chaos” and “prehistoric power”. We can then see that the use of the word “mystic” is a choice of the writer of the story. In viewing these translations, it was also discovered that the Chinese phrase is in fact a reference to a popular Chinese television program. This shows the cultural divide between her North American fans – if an American athlete were to reference “The Force” it would likely be perceived differently. It comes into question how much of her quirky & adorable nature is the result of the media’s use of foreign-ness.
The traits attributed to Fu Yuanhui are not new. Teresa Mok, a doctoral candidate of Psychology at Purdue University, categorizes character types and common characteristics of Asians seen in American media (1998).
- Evil & Power-Hungry
Asian villains were often seen on a quest for power, or world domination. Mok describes a desire of Asian villains to corrupt (white) morals and (SOMETHING). These villains were often formidable due to their intellect and ability to scheme, with secret knowledge stemming from their “oriental” background. This character is sometimes described as a “Fu Manchu”, named after a film villain franchise running from the 1920s into the 80s.
- Confucian Wisdom & Mystic Sage
As mysterious and knowledgeable as Fu Manchu, this character trope instead aids the (often white) protagonist by sharing his foreign secrets. Mok describes his use of “fortune cookie maxims” in broken English.
- Hardworking and Servile
Seen as diligent, sometimes to the point of being self-sacrificing, this character type was seen early on in peasant roles. It carries through to the work ethic of the “Model Minority of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.
- Foreign Fool
This trope finds itself in the roots of the emasculated, weak Asian character. His foreign sensibilities are not an asset as seen in the latter categories, but a social barrier as his unwitting behaviors become the subject of humor.
Specific tropes also arose when factoring in gender, with Asian females characters incorporating exotic beauty and sexuality. The Dragon Lady is seen as an extension of the evil & power hungry male villain, using seduction as an additional tool to her intellect to manipulate those around her. By contrast, the Lotus Blossom can be seen as a variation of the docility and passivity of the model minority, placing emphasis on the exoticism of Asian characters. Her exotic nature and willingness to serve a male figure are significant aspects of her allure as a sexual object.
When considering Asian athletic figures in popular culture, many of these Hollywood characteristics carry through. As Asians have been typically portrayed as weaker, and non-athletes, focus is placed on their ability to be hard working and strategic, rather than due to innate ability or talent. Even with character tropes displaying physical prowess (e.g. warriors, martial arts masters, ninjas), it is seen as the result of intense study, practice, and dedication, with speed, stealth and control as the source of their power. While Black athletes are often typecast with brute strength and animalism (Schultz, 2005), the media focuses on the focus and control produced by Asian competitors.
In Chinese international sports specifically, it is interesting to see a relatively unique media framework including the Chinese government. In a study by Lingling Zhang, perceptions of Chinese people and the Chinese government were collected during the Beijing Olympics. We see the traits described by Mok arise in the descriptors given. A common narrative is seen of the Chinese Government’s desire for power and glory imbued into their athletes. While athletes are shown displaying the characteristics of tireless work and servitude, the Government embodies the ambitious behaviors and cutthroat, by-any-means necessary, quest for power and domination, translated to the international sports stage as victory.
These tropes did not arise from random whim of the North American media. These tropes have significant historical and political roots, dismantling the myth that sports can ever be separated from politics, especially in their media coverage. In North America, changes in policy and government alliances had significant impact on the racialized images portrayed in popular media. Public fears over economy and morality during Asian immigration waves resulted in periods known as “yellow peril”, in which we saw the first images of the “Fu Manchu” characters. When the US allied with the Chinese against the Japanese, popular culture began presenting Chinese characters in a more sympathetic and accessible light, with subservient and model minority characters, as well as comic relief. With the rise of Chinese communism, media tropes turned this dedication to work into austerity, coldness, over-seriousness and a lack of humanity. Finally, as interracial couples became more accepted in both the public eye and American legal system, media images began to portray a sexualized Asian woman. (Mok, 1998).
As stated by Jaime Schulz, the layering of identities, especially marginalized/minority identities, creates a complexity in popular media (2005). North American media has the tendency to caricaturize minority characters. While she is quirky and goofy, it is important not to relegate her to solely these characteristics (the Asian fool). Upon viewing Chinese-produced media after her rise to fame, we see a more complex version of Fu Yuanhui – capable of elegance, while maintaining her sense of humour. She is still animated, but able to talk about her Olympic experience with reference to more profound emotions (she is excited over her individual bronze, but feels guilty for letting her team down in relay).
When Fu Yuanhui is described as “genuine” and a breath of fresh air – we must ask – in comparison to what or to whom? In an article by the Guardian, sportswriter Mark Dreyer describes the Chinese Olympic team as such:
“manufactured Olympic champions” from the state-run sports system who were effective at bringing home medals but had cardboard personalities
Fu Yuanhui is a step in the right direction. She is not sexualized as an exotic beauty. She breaks the stereotype of cold and hyper-competitive. However, we must question how other athletes personalities may have been formulated or simply left out by American news sources.
Fu Yuanhui’s spread across new media shows the potential for new media sports journalists to provide stories that are missing from mainstream news. While corporate and for-profit media producers continue to take hold in the new media landscape, they still are following the trends of media users and their public audiences. While these new sources run a risk of airing unfounded stories or unknowingly biased information, there is a greater degree of balance and democracy. In Fu Yuanhui’s rise to fame, we see an appetite for a more diverse range of Asian characters – as Asian athletes continue to break out into the American athletic arena, we can hope to see a continuation of this trend in other popular culture areas.
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