‘A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation’ by Nguyen Tan Hoang
Author: John Erickson
October 29, 2014
There is much to be said about male effeminacy in today’s hyberbolized, over demanding, and preferentially specific sexual culture. Nguyen Tan Hoang’s A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation not only reassesses male effeminacy and its racialization in the areas of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality, but the book also examines the role of the sexual bottom as a destabilizing agent in today’s homonormative and sexually politicized culture.
Little or none of the scholarship around the sexual position of the bottom has accurately articulated it as a sexual practice with the capacity to rewrite both shame and vulnerability, and how gay and masculine cultures afford agency and pleasure to the “passive partner.” Although Nguyen spends an ample amount of time critically examining these points, it is in his inclusion of race into his argument, specifically Asian and Asian American men and their portrayals in Hollywood cinema, art, gay pornography, and gay hookup sites, where he sets himself a part from today’s contemporary queer canon of scholars. Nguyen’s uses “bottomhood” as a critical category to rewrite old definitions of vulnerability and shame and offers new frameworks for how we analyze sexual and racial representations both in popular culture and in our day-to-day actions by demonstrating that power does not come from top down but rather from the bottom up. For Nguyen, “Asian bottomhood constitutes the ‘secret grace’ that renders gay Asian men legible as sexual subjects, even if they do not register as such in a society that conflate sexual subjectedhood with white masculine aggressivity, control, and power.”
Challenging the strategy of the “remasculinization employed by Asian American and gay male critics as a defense against feminization,” bottomhood conjoins sex acts and sexual discourse to ultimately “adopt it not as a fixed role, an identity, or a physical act, but as a position –sexual, social, affective, political, aesthetic – [that] facilitates a more expansive horizon for forging political alliances.” Nguyen re-emphasizes the failure to take Asian American masculinity and explicit sexual representation of the bottom seriously as a failure of popular culture’s conflation and occasional damnation of gay male sex as simply the perversion of sodomy and anal sex and not the personal and sexual relationship gay men, from all walks of life, could have with their bodies outside of subjugating sexual norms.
Although each chapter explores the variations of bottomhood in their sexual, social, affective, and aesthetic dimensions, they can act as standalone articles investigating the role of Asian American masculinity and sexual representation through the “dyad of top/bottom masculinities” in various cultural, visual, and social incarnations. From his exploration of the representation of porn star Brandon Lee to conceptualizations of bottomhood as effeminate, Nguyen explores how bottomhood functions as a catalyst for the examination of male Asian sexual identity and the role of the body in framing the politics of both shame and pleasure.
Through defining the term bottom as the “receptive partner in anal sex, the person lying on the bottom underneath the top, the insertive partner, the ‘lower’ positioning of bottom is reinforced by the additional meanings of bottom to refer to the buttocks or anus,” Nguyen shows how “assuming the bottom position, or, in sexual vernacular, ‘getting fucked,’ has acquired a host of negative association [from being considered] weak or humiliated to [the ultimate act signifying demasculinization through] getting anally penetrated by another man.” Popular culture’s definition of the bottom scapegoated not only the gay male community into stringent sexual representations, but also stigmatized sexual minorities as both failed heterosexual and gay men.
Through his insistence on the “openness of acts, bodies, and meanings to be reinterpreted and reassigned,” Nguyen insists that changing how we view the top/bottom dichotomy begins both in the bedroom and by stridently deconstructing a culture that defines such sexual acts and identities.
Although not many gay men will stumble upon Nguyen’s excellent book as easily as they will the terms and conditions associated with their Grindr accounts, perhaps the select few who do manage to make their way through its excellent prose will stop and think again before they easily dismiss those that mention the race of the user aside from the desired white, fit, masculine norm sought after on daily profile searches.
A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation
By Nguyen Tan Hoang
Duke University Press
Hardcover, 9780822356844, 304 pp.