Monday, July 28, 2014

The Asian Fetish and Racism in Eleanor & Park

Disclaimer: Throughout this post, I will be using page numbers given in this version of Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park was first mentioned to me by one of my best friends. She said that it was being made into a movie despite the fact that many Asian-Americans were taking offense to its content. They viewed it as racist and inaccurate. Naturally, I was intrigued. Surely the book couldn’t be horrible. I even told her that it probably had a few merits.

If you haven't heard of Eleanor & Park, it's essentially a novel about two teenagers who fall in love in the 80's. Eleanor is an overweight, red-headed girl with four siblings and an abusive stepfather, and Park is a half-Korean boy who hates that he's Korean. The two are social outcasts, and somehow find friendship (and love) in each other. 

I began reading it a few days ago, and just… wow. What an absolutely terrible portrayal of Asians. Rainbow Rowell could have done so much with what she had, but she failed to live up to the standards that having a POC main character entails. Because you can’t just decide to make the main character a person of color, as she essentially did with Park. You also have to research what you’re writing, and know what you’re talking about. ­

At the beginning of Chapter 3, we are told that Park knows everything about kung fu. Not because he’s Asian, Rowell tells us, but because his father is obsessed with martial arts. Okay, fine. Whatever. But then the next sentence talks about how Park has been taking taekwondo (side note: she spells taekwondo wrong) lessons since he could walk (23). Park knows a lot about kung fu; he’s been taking taekwondo lessons since he could walk. That’s Rowell’s claim. The problem here is that kung fu and taekwondo are not interchangeable terms. They’re not even the same style of martial art, and they don’t even originate from the same country. Kung fu is a Chinese martial art; taekwondo is Korean. Rowell writes the scene in such a way that implies taekwondo is a form of kung fu, and in doing so she shows us that she has no actual knowledge of Asian culture and history at all. Let alone any respect for it.

Haha, respect for Asian culture. Let’s talk about that for a second. Park’s father met his wife and “brought her back” (192). Right, because her home wasn’t already in South Korea… where she had lived her whole life… and where her family lived… and where she had grown up… Yeah, no, her new home is the United States, and that’s just where Mr. Sheridan decides to take her. Mrs. Sheridan is shipped off to the United States without anything to remind her of home. As far as we readers are aware, she seems to have abandoned her heritage completely. She took on a more “American” name, Mindy*, which is just so disgusting that I actually want to cry. While it’s fine for people to change their names if they want to, and I understand why they would want to, it hurts my heart that people feel like they should. Because according to our culture, having an American name is the norm. And if you don’t have an “American” name, you’re not a true American. And you’re an “other.” And “Mindy” didn’t want to be an other. And it hurts that Rowell decided to write Mrs. Sheridan in this way. She decided to write Mrs. Sheridan as a woman who apparently broke all ties with her homeland despite having lived there her whole life. It hurts that Rowell erased her Korean culture and apparently shared nothing with Park or his brother, Josh. Like… we are told nothing about their Korean heritage. We didn’t get to meet anyone from Mrs. Sheridan’s side of the family. Korean culture is wiped from this novel entirely, and I was so hoping that we would see something in “Mindy” or in Park that allowed us a glimpse of a culture that deserves more respect and attention in American media. But no, we didn’t get that at all.

Instead, we got a Korean mother who, for whatever reason, abandoned her roots, and a half-Korean boy who hates that he’s Korean because “nobody thinks Asian guys are hot” (501). Like… what does that tell the readers about Asians? What is this book telling me, an Asian? That I’m not good enough the way that I am? But hold on, wait. I’m a girl.

And according to Park and Rowell, I “have it better” because I’m a girl. Because “white guys think [I’m] exotic” (501). No, Rainbow Rowell. No, Park Sheridan. I do not “have it better” because I’m an Asian girl. What an absolutely disgusting idea to promote in a novel that has been taken into the hearts of young readers everywhere. I do not have it better because white people desire me for the color of my skin. I do not have it better because I am stereotyped as dainty; as a doll; as obedient; as submissive. I do not have it better because I am desired by white men simply for the color of my skin. I am being made into an object—a fetish—because I have Asian roots. There’s nothing “better” about that, Park.

And, while we’re on the subject, “nobody thinks Asian guys are hot.” What a harmful thing to write into your novel. I am so disgusted by this book that I can’t even believe it’s a real book. Really, Rainbow Rowell? Nobody??? The term “Asian men” is so expansive that you are digging yourself into a very big grave. And, you know, it’s okay for Park to think this. I get that he’s confused by his identity. I relate to that. I know nothing about my culture. I’m Chinese, but I’m adopted. It’s okay for Park to doubt himself and struggle with his identity. What’s not okay is for Rowell to deny readers any growth or closure on the subject. Park deserves closure. He deserves to feel comfortable in his skin and I think he deserves to accept that he’s Korean and that being Korean isn’t bad. But instead, we get Park caking on eyeliner and doing everything he can to look as non-Korean as possible. Again, what does that say about being Asian? About being Korean?

Throughout the entire novel, Rainbow Rowell portrays Asians as essentially undesirable. It’s apparently a mystery as to how and why Eleanor loves Park, and she (Eleanor) says that it could be simply because she has a thing for Koreans. Oh, good, way to be exactly like those gross white guys, Eleanor.  

I’m going to apologize in advance for the lack of structure in the following paragraphs. The next few points will not flow as easily together, unfortunately. Still, they are important points to make when discussing the racism in Eleanor & Park.

For starters, we have Park and Josh. Park is supposed to “look more Asian” than his brother, yet he has green eyes and Eleanor thought it was "hard to tell" if he was Asian (24).  As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t look Asian in my mind. And we know Josh doesn’t look Asian. Rowell says that Josh looks “like the Korean genes had skipped him altogether” (217). So for some reason, Josh looks white. Josh also gets a white name. And there’s nothing wrong with that, really… just more… Korean culture erasure… Park, of course, as the brother who supposedly looks more Korean, gets the “Korean” name (which is actually a Korean surname, but let’s not even go there). Not only has Rowell erased Korean culture from her Korean family, she’s also erased Korean appearance. Korean identity. No wonder Park has no idea who he is and what being Korean means; it’s been erased from his life completely by his creator! Way to go, Rowell.

I want to talk more about Park, though, as he’s one of the main characters and we get quite a lot of information about him. Rowell emasculates Park consistently throughout the novel. This is another thing about Asian men in media: emasculation. Asian men have such an unfortunate history of emasculation, and Rainbow Rowell does not hesitate to do the same thing to her beloved Park Sheridan. While Park kisses Eleanor, he wonders if he might be gay (129). When Park admits he likes that Eleanor doesn’t wear typical girl clothes, he wonders if he might be gay (296). Park wears eyeliner. Park’s father accuses him of acting/dressing/wearing make-up like a girl. With the last part especially, these qualities could have been used to help Park discover and come to terms with his identity. They could have been used to help him understand his identity as a half-Korean teenager, but instead they were used as one-offs and never discussed again. At one point, Eleanor says that she thinks Park is prettier than any girl (207). Given the fact that Eleanor is not attracted to women, it’s hard to discern exactly what this means. Is she implying that Park is comparing himself to women? That he is trying to look like a woman, and that Eleanor thinks he’s prettier than any other girl? I don’t even know what this means, to be honest, but I do know that it makes it sound like Park has feminine qualities about him that, yet again, grossly emasculate his character.

And then we have the Asian eyes. Ohhhh yes, even though Park apparently doesn’t look Asian at all (except he does? I don’t even know what’s happening with his appearance, to be honest. Rainbow Rowell confuses me), he has the eyes. You know, the ones that disappear when you laugh? No, really, that’s how Rainbow Rowell described his eyes when he laughed in Chapter 13. And when he’s really happy, his eyes “disappear into his cheeks” (372). And then we have that ever glorious scene where “Park’s eyes got wide. Well, sort of wide” (115). But it doesn’t stop there. “Sometimes [Eleanor] wondered if the shape of his eyes affected how he saw things. That was probably the most racist question of all time” (115).

Just because your character acknowledges the racism doesn’t make it okay to use it. In fact, it makes it even worse, because to be honest it seems like Rowell is trying to be funny. And I wish she wouldn’t, because having people laugh at you because of the shape of your eyes is the least fun thing in the world. And when people ask you if you “see widescreen,” what exactly are you supposed to say? “I don’t know, do you see in fullscreen?” Like, really? She could have, and should have left it at “Park’s eyes widened.” Not “got wide. Well, sort of wide.” Just “widened.” Because then we not only understand that they didn’t get SUPER WIDE BC OMG ASIAN EYES but we also avoid the racism. And that’s a great thing to avoid whenever possible.

However, Rainbow Rowell continues to tack on racist comment after racist comment. On 94, we have the following passage:
She didn't need to be telling weird Asian kids anything. 
Weird Asian kid. 
She was pretty sure he was Asian. It was hard to tell. He had green eyes. And skin the color of sunshine through honey. 
Maybe he was Filipino. Was that in Asia? Probably. Asia's out-of-control huge.
I just find it interesting that Eleanor has been calling Park "Asian kid" (stupid Asian kid, actually) for the past 93 pages and only just now wonders if he's actually Asian. She periodically curses/insults him throughout the book by referring to him as "stupid Asian kid" or "weird Asian kid," as if his Asian-ness is an insult. You don't see people saying "Stupid white kid" whenever they hate someone. No, they say "stupid [name]," give or take a couple profanities. They give the person a name, and they don't define them by the color of their skin. But maybe the phrase is supposed to be, in some roundabout way, endearing. Too bad I didn't find it endearing at all. And then "Was that in Asia? Probably. Asia's out-of-control huge." I just... I get that maybe Eleanor is supposed to be a little racist. The unfortunate thing is that while Park never really seems to come to terms with his identity, Eleanor never seems to get over her internalized racism. The only thing she changes about her "stupid Asian kid" phrase is that she adds "beautiful" to the mix--"stupid, beautiful Asian kid." Like that's any better. When she's at her new school, Rowell makes an effort to point out that there aren't any Asians at her new school. ("There weren't even any black kids" (509), a statement which likely refers to Eleanor's only two friends at Park's school, DeNice and Beebi, who were black.**)

In her description of Mrs. Sheridan, she says that she pronounces “in here” like “in hee-ya” because she “was apparently never going to stop sounding like she just got here yesterday from Korea” (45). Because, apparently, once you live in the U.S. you’re supposed to adopt American accents and abandon everything from your homeland. Because, apparently, foreign accents need to be squashed and abandoned the moment you arrive in the United States. Because this is America and in America we speak English with English accents. Okay, Rainbow Rowell. Okay. There’s just so much about Mrs. Sheridan’s characterization that bothers me, and the fact that Rowell acts as if her Korean accent shouldn’t exist after years of living in the U.S. makes me want to fling the book I never purchased against a very rough and jagged surface.

But Mrs. Sheridan’s gross characterization doesn’t stop there. Oh, no. That would be too easy. Rainbow Rowell also describes her as small; dainty. As a doll from It’s a Small World (46). As a Dainty China doll like in the Wizard of Oz. One you could fit in your pocket and sneak out of Korea (234). Rowell likens Mrs. Sheridan, a human being, to a porcelain doll. To an inanimate object to be moved and carried at the whim of whomever. And that’s exactly what happens to her. Mr. Sheridan falls in love with her and takes her back to the United States, and as far as we can tell, she gets no say in the matter. Apparently she’s perfectly content to live in the U.S. as a woman who cleans the house, runs a beauty salon out of her garage, and smooches her husband every day. Mrs. Sheridan’s relationship with her husband is the embodiment of the gross Asian fetish. She exists to kiss her husband and look small and pretty. 

Being Korean in Eleanor & Park really doesn’t mean much. As far as we can tell, neither Park nor Josh know Korean. Who knows if Mrs. Sheridan remembers it? Surely she would, having grown up with the language. But who knows. Neither Park nor Josh have met their Korean family (Park asks for the names of his mother’s siblings [350]). There’s nothing about Korean culture mentioned aside from the taekwondo lessons, which were really just there to add to the Asian-ness and to give Park a good excuse for being able to punch so well. I really expected Park to come to terms with his identity. With the format of the book (Rowell alternates between the perspectives of Eleanor and Park), I expected to see Park introspect. To see him go through a change in identity or a change in mindset. However, Park never really reflects on his Korean-ness, and as far as readers are expected to know, the story ends with Park still just as confused about his identity as a Korean as he was on page 1.

Overall, Eleanor & Park was one of the most frustrating reads of my life. As an Asian-American, I was left deeply offended by one of the few portrayals of Asian-Americans in YA fiction.

If you’re thinking of reading this book, keep in mind that the comments in this book are racist, and they are absolutely not acceptable. The characterization in this book is despicable and disgusting, and an outright disgrace to a culture and a people who deserve an abundance of respect. It is not okay to ignore a foreign culture when you have written said foreign culture into the history of your main character. And it is certainly not okay to expect, and demand, foreigners to assimilate, as Rainbow Rowell appears to promote with Mrs. Sheridan.***

And if you have read this book, and you liked it, that's great and I'm glad that you found a book that you could relate to or enjoy or whatever it is that makes you like it. Really. I am in no way trying to insult you for liking this book. I, however, found it entirely unrelateable and offensive, so I'm obviously not giving it a raving review. I also implore those readers who did enjoy it to sit back and think about the racism in the book, if you haven't already.

for further reading:

  • "Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park" by Wendy Xu
  • A short review by Ellen Oh
  • "Review: Eleanor and Park" by Laura
  • "Rant | Eleanor and Park" by scenesandpages
  • "Why is Park Korean?" by Rainbow Rowell, in which she pretty much states that her dad went to war and maybe fell in love with a girl and never brought her home and what if she was his soulmate and he just left her there, as if she needed to be taken from her home in order for them to be together. Like, what if he lived in Korea with her? What a novel concept, right?
    • "So … in Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad gets sent to Korea because his brother has died in combat in Vietnam. He meets his soulmate there. And he brings her home." BRINGS HER HOME. AS IF HER HOME ISN'T ALREADY KOREA, WHERE SHE'S LIVED HER ENTIRE LIFE. Her home is Korea, where her family and friends are. Her home is exactly what Park's father took her from. Her home--or remnants of it, at least--is what I wanted to see.

* Mrs. Sheridan's Korean name is Min-Dae. Korean bloggers have pointed out that her name is not a very flattering name, and that her Korean parents would not be very prone to naming her as such.
** I think it's also interesting to note that DeNice and Beebi get "odd" names. They're not names you'd usually see for a white person, let's put it that way. And they're not white. Neither is Park, who has a name that is supposed to be representative of his Korean-ness. Josh and Eleanor get white names, though, since they're passably white! And Eleanor even gets the name of a queen~~~ Yeah, stop with your grossness, Rainbow Rowell. There's no reason at all why Park had to have the name Park. And there's no reason at all for naming your only black characters DeNice and Beebi. You are purposefully distinguishing them from your white characters, and that's not cool at all.
*** It is also not okay to consistently think of eating your boyfriend. Throughout the novel, Eleanor remarks that Park makes her “feel like a cannibal” [211] and that she wants to eat him. She actually has to tell herself not to bite his face [295]. Calm down, Luis Suarez.


  • "After dinner, Eleanor usually disappeared into her room to read, but the little kids always went outside. What were they going to do when it got cold--and when it started getting dark early? Would they all hide in the bedroom? It was crazy. Diary of Anne Frank crazy" (47). [I just now sort of understood Rowell's intention with this reference. However, I don't think it's fair to liken Anne Frank's situation to Eleanor's.]
  • "Most of the kids here were black, but most of the kids in her honors classes were white" (56).
  • "Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her. That would be awesome" (130).
  • "You're so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes [...] and you make me feel like a cannibal" (211).
  • "God, it was like he wanted her to eat his face clean off" (295).
  • "He is cute," DeNice said. Like it was something certifiable.
    "I know," Eleanor said. "I want to eat his face" (383).
  • "She was like one of those dogs who've tasted human blood and can't stop biting. A walrus who's tasted human blood" (433).


  1. This is really thought-provoking. I hope you continue to write blog posts in the future. I found you through a Google search on the racist themes in Eleanor and Park (I've just read it myself and wanted to see what other people thought) and I was disappointed to see you only had one post. This is a great analysis. Please keep writing :)

    1. I'm so sorry- I only just saw this! Thank you for this comment! I love writing, but I don't do it as nearly as often as I'd like. Perhaps that will change in the future. I'm glad you enjoyed my post. :)

  2. Thank you for writing this. I saw this book in the bookstore a while back and put it on my mental list of "books to read", despite it being a YA novel which is a genre I typically don't indulge in, mainly because of the two main characters. I'm a quarter Japanese and grew up in the U.S while my husband is Korean and grew up in Korea and we both know about, respect, and have lived in each country. I thought this story might be worth reading and be relatable, but after reading your review I'm very glad I didn't pick it up! I agree with everything you said and can't believe this Rainbow woman has the audacity to write about something she knows nothing about, just "because my dad was in the army in Korea".

    1. I wish Rowell had done more research on writing people of color, because this book may have been more enjoyable for me (and for many others) if she had. I think it's okay that she was inspired by something her dad went through, but she needed to do more research if she truly intended to portray Park and his family well. And, unfortunately, she didn't do that.

  3. I love this so much that I printed it out, this is such a wonderful analysis of the novel and I hope you continue to write more issues similar to this.

    1. Wow, thank you? I'm glad you liked it! I've been toying with ideas for other posts, but nothing as of yet. I appreciate your kind words, though. :)

  4. Thank you for offering your comments on this book. In one sense, asians are lucky (as compared to Indians) because at least they are recognized.

    1. I think it's important to remember that Indians are also Asian. India is in Asian. India is part of Asia. When people think of Asia, they often think of East/SE Asia (Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam), which is totally harmful to the identities of other Asians (Afghanis, Indians, etc).

      I do understand your point, and I agree; there are not enough Indians in popular media, either. The truth is that all minorities lack meaningful and powerful representation in Western media. I hope that changes some day.

  5. I read this book and enjoyed it, the racism felt intentional for the most part. I figured the author was attempting to speak to the time, and lots of books I've enjoyed have had unpleasant protagonists (A Confederacy of Dunces and Lolita to name two), so while I didn't really like Eleanor, I did find her interesting. I also loved that Park embraced his androgyny at the end with the eyeliner. But after reading this analysis, and another, I realize how tone deaf much of it really was. I was probably blind to it because I went into the book not knowing much about Korean culture myself, although as a black woman, I found that the portrayal of the two black characters left much to be desired. It's unfortunate that a writer with her talent couldn't dig a little deeper and deliver a more nuanced representation of a cruelly underrepresented demographic in YA fiction.