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What's So 'Cringeworthy' About Long Duk Dong in 'Sixteen Candles'?

Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
Universal/The Kobal Collection
Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.

In Thursday's post about failed Asian-American TV shows, I called actor Gedde Watanabe's notorious performance as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles "cringeworthy." Some of you piped up to ask, Hey, what's wrong with Long Duk Dong?

I'm hardly the first to point this out, but it's worth unpacking again.

Let's take his very first scene. Dong, a foreign exchange student, hangs upside down from a bunk bed. "What's happening, hot stuff?" he asks Molly Ringwald's Samantha, eyebrows wiggling suggestively. She just gives him a look; it's not gonna happen. A gong sounds off in the background.

Later, a crowd of baffled middle-aged white folks finds him sprawled face-down on the ground after a drunken night. "Ohh, no more yanky my wanky. The Dongle needs food!" he says.

Asian men have been fighting this on-screen stereotype for years: the socially inept mute; the lecherous but sexually inept loser; one part harmless Charlie Chan, one part mustachioed villain Fu Manchu.

Long Duk Dong was an Asian-American cliche for a new generation. And like most media cliches, it came with IRL implications.

"Asian Americans who grew up in the second half of the 1980s complained that they were called 'Donkers' in junior and high schools," Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a researcher at Georgetown University, wrote in the book Theological Reflections on 'Gangnam Style.' "They were taunted with quotes of Dong's stilted English lines, such as ... 'Oh, sexy girlfriend.' "

Even Dong's love interest is minifying. "Lumberjack," as she's known, looms over Dong's small frame — when they embrace, its his head on her chest. In a workout scene, she rides an exercise bike with Dong on her lap.

"The gender roles are switched," Kent Ono and Vincent Pham write in their book, Asian Americans And The Media. "While this representation aims to provide comic relief, it both feminizes Asian American men and simultaneously constructs alternative gender and sexuality as aberrant."

To be sure, there's nothing wrong with swapping gender roles, on-screen or off. What's icky about this relationship is how the filmmakers present it. Dong's femininity makes him weak, and we're meant to laugh at this.

In 2008, NPR's Alison MacAdam dug deeper with Watanabe about his role. He told her that while he had a great time in Sixteen Candles, it was something that "in retrospect, he realizes he was 'a bit naive' about."

"I was making people laugh. I didn't realize how it was going to affect people," he said.

"I was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I was accosted a couple of times by a couple of women who were just really irate and angry. They asked, 'How could you do a role like that?' But it's funny, too, because at the same time I laugh at the character. It's an odd animal."

Now 59, Watanabe has acted in dozens of roles since SixteenCandles, including the openly gay Nurse Yosh Takata in ER. In an interview with Vulture last year, he envisioned what Long Duk Dong might be up to now. And Watanabe's image for his old character seemed much less ineffectual, much more fulfilled than the filmmakers probably had in mind:

"He's lost some of his hair. He has eight or nine kids, I would imagine. They are all not in the arts. By choice! [Laughs.] Probably lots of grandchildren. It's a mixed marriage. Probably married someone blonde so his kids are mixed race. Actually, he's probably been married a few times. And for someone who fell so in love with America, he's probably changed his name. Some of his kids are in the arts, one in a rock band probably, some are teachers, a few doctors. I think he owns restaurants. They're kinda famous. And he's kinda well known for it. And he's about to make a bid for the L.A. Clippers."

It's nice to think that after 31 years, Long Duk Dong was able to break out of his mold.

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Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.