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Beef’s Depiction of Rage Subverts Traditional Asian-American Narratives

The Netflix dramedy presents Asian-American characters who are unapologetically angry.
  • Amy (Ali Wong) in Beef (Photo: Netflix)
    Amy (Ali Wong) in Beef (Photo: Netflix)

    An intrinsic aspect of Asian culture, particularly for immigrants, is this need to always be “good.” Asians in the diaspora aren’t afforded the same luxury that white people are when it comes to emotions because we’re taught from a young age to hold them in. It means accepting pain and mistreatment without complaint so as to not draw unwanted attention to yourself. To keep your head down, because you’re lucky to be in this country in the first place. It is the price that we must pay for a seat at the table, to prove that we also belong here.

    Lee Sung Jin’s Beef explores what happens when that pain becomes externalized, yet does so without making identity the story’s focal point. It’s a refreshing departure from what we’ve come to expect of Asian-American narratives in mainstream media. Beef challenges the portrayal of Asian people as “good” by presenting nuanced and deeply complicated characters who are honest, problematic, and angry.

    The show’s protagonists, Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong), are petty and insufferable, both exhibiting traits that are toxic and manipulative. However, they aren’t depicted as one-dimensional villains. They’re complex individuals whose unresolved trauma from the past is carried into adulthood, threatening to explode in outrageous ways. In their case, it’s ignited by a mundane road rage incident that transforms into an obsessive cycle of revenge and changes the trajectory of their lives.

    In her 2020 book Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong describes “minor feelings” as the emotions Asians are accused of having when we go against the labels that have been forced upon us. When minor feelings are expressed, they’re “interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with their deluded reality.” In Beef, Danny and Amy are plagued by these minor feelings. They harbor their anger under clenched fists and tight-lipped smiles: Amy blinks through racist microaggressions from billionaire Jordan Forster (Maria Bello) to keep her business deal from falling through, while Danny works dutifully as his contracting clients disparage him, in order to move his parents back to America. These little moments of pain culminate in a larger, repressed fury.

    But Beef doesn’t shy away from the rage — it embraces it. Although Danny and Amy spend a majority of the season apart, when the two do cross paths, they become the worst versions of themselves. It’s cathartic to watch these two Asian characters wreak havoc on one another. Their racial identity alone doesn’t define them — instead, it provides context for the way they interact with the world. Danny’s role as the eldest son in a family of immigrants informs his character, the same way Amy’s estranged relationship with her parents informs hers.

    Before Wong was attached to the series, creator Lee Sung Jin initially considered casting a Stanley Tucci-esque white man as the character who would eventually become Amy. However, he abandoned the idea quickly because he didn’t want to center the show on race and power dynamics. “I am very proud of all that’s happening in Asian American culture today,” Jin told Variety. “But I think especially as a writer, you’re always wanting to lead with character first. Yes, these characters happen to be Asian American, but there’s so much more to them than just that. It really isn’t an act of dodging, but it is more of an actively pursuing character.”

    The show’s appeal then lies in how universal Danny and Amy’s range of emotions are. But while the main characters’ sense of ennui is an experience that all audiences can relate to, Beef is coated with subtle Asian details and in-jokes that provide it with an authenticity unmatched in mainstream media’s representation of Asians. Whether it’s George’s mother insisting on calling him by his Japanese name “Joji,” or Danny’s hilarious repetition of how “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds,” the show’s culturally specific dialogue is comforting and accurately reflects how Asians speak and interact with race dynamics on a daily basis.

    Beef is a breath of fresh air amid the current landscape of Asian representation. That’s not to negate the powerful and necessary works depicting the Asian diasporic experience. The past decade has launched a renaissance of Asian-led media into the mainstream. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience provided space for Asians to lead sitcoms, despite the genre’s historic erasure of and exploitation of Asian bodies as the butt of racist “jokes.” Romantic comedies such as Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe challenged the traditional stereotype of the emasculated Asian man. A24’s Minari painted a heartbreaking portrait of assimilation, displacement, and the American Dream, while Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All At Once tackled themes of shame and intergenerational trauma. The critical successes of these works have been pivotal in convincing Western audiences that Asian stories are not only profitable, but worth paying attention.

    Beef marks a new stage in the evolution of Asian-American storytelling, one that integrates Asianness organically without depending upon identity as a plot device. It doesn’t see Asian identity in relation to whiteness, and it’s less focused on dismantling the labels that white people have placed onto us the same way previous stories might have — narratives that, while deeply rooted in the Asian experience, are also centered around a discomfort in cultural hybridity and a need to make our existence palatable for white audiences. The constant need to validate our existence in front of the Western gaze contributes to the othering of Asian bodies, and it touches upon a desire for stories that go beyond the tortured immigrant tale.

    Hong writes about being dissatisfied with the Asian-American talking points of disbelonging, tired of the narrative that we must feel stuck in a “sense of in-betweenness.” Similarly, in Shu-mei Shih’s essay “Against Diaspora,” Shih argues that “diaspora has an end date… Everyone should be given a chance to become a local.” Beef subverts the conventional expectations of Asian diasporic media by presenting Asian-American characters who are unapologetically angry and imperfect, raising the possibilities for Asian representation.

    Beef is streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Dianna Shen is a TV Writer at Primetimer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine and Decider, among other outlets.

    TOPICS: Beef, Netflix, Ali Wong, Lee Sung Jin, Steven Yeun, A24, Asian Americans and TV