My Drag Masculinity Steals the Show in “Everything Everywhere All At Once”
Part 2 of Brian Lin’s essay on complex Asian American identities in the record-breaking box office hit
To all the versions of myself who haven’t made it to a bathhouse, here’s what to expect. Start with the obscured visibility of a club. Add the purposeful disorientation of a haunted house. Multiply all of that by the atmospheric arousal of scrolling through Pornhub, as most everyone is wearing just a towel. Divide everything by a heightened fear of germs, and the result is what it feels like to gallivant through a bathhouse.
And to anyone like myself who feels universally undesirable—thirsty and nobody’s cup of tea—the most painful part of bathhouses might be the constant, visible acts of evaluation. I’ve been four times—the famous one in Chicago. Whenever I sat down, in front of a TV playing porn or in the psychedelic steam room, I was submitting myself to judgment. Even when I was just trying to watch porn, playing the role of my own fluffer before cruising through the glory hole, I knew that people were watching whenever they wandered by. They were deciding on my worth.
I’m not used to thinking that people might want me. Even the possibility of sight and understanding feels a little hard to name. Speculative, almost, like my worthiness is out of this world.
In Everything Everywhere All At Once, the characters do unlikely things to jump into other universes. Alpha Waymond gives himself four consecutive paper cuts. Deirdre staples a receipt to her forehead. Evelyn pees her pants. Anomalous, these acts read as absurd.
By this logic, the pair of Asian American henchmen who Verse Jump with butt plugs would never, ever bottom. When the security guard catapults across the room, crotch blurred and legs kicked, his enthusiasm for penetration is supposed to be absurd.
When it comes to gay sex, hetero-patriarchy denigrates bottoming because it positions “the man” as “the woman”—the receptive orifice, the site of vulnerability. Put bluntly, bottoming makes men into pussies, gays into faggots, and Asian American men into—well—nothing.
By default, Asian American men are ineligible for masculinity. At best, our access is conditional—the right body, the right hair, the right voice, the right style. By bottoming, we forfeit an already precarious claim to masculinity.
In the view of Everything, an Asian American man forgoing masculinity is as unlikely and ridiculous as pissing on yourself, as breaking your own arm. Queerness for the film is an unequivocal abnormality.
Asian American men are undesirable. We are ghostly and illegible. Our undesirability gives us reason to re-invent ourselves in other images, Black or white, masc or femme. In the nowhere of neither-nor, our ghostliness leads us to learn the power of personal style. Presenting as anyone and everyone, we get lost in illegibility.
Asian American masculinities, failing, are forms of queerness. One way or another, to whatever extent we’re aware of it, Asian American men are doing drag.
This can be our power. This can be our gift.
My first time at the bathhouse, I started at the hot tub. Before I knew it, in the midst of so much froth, a Midwestern Oscar Isaac, unambiguously white and unconcerned with skin care, was reaching out to me. Feeling unworthy of touch for most my life, I felt obligated to reciprocate. We were just starting to kiss when he invited me to his room. In that instant, I asked myself whether I was attracted to this person or only caught up in the moment. Thanks to therapy and a loving partner, I was making a decision on the premise of my own desirability.
I told White Oscar I’m good. I felt bad for leading him on and got my brown ass out of the hot tub.
Waymond is an icon of kindness. He tolerates Evelyn’s constant derision and disregard. He bakes cookies for Deirdre every time the family goes to the IRS office. And, sticking googly eyes everywhere, he treasures the cute. Through Waymond, the cute, the soft, the weak—all the qualities that render Asian American men worthless in the U.S. sexual economy—transform into such sweet tenderness. Tenderness, at the end, is the family’s saving grace.
Waymond is who I try to be on my best days.
After the hot tub, I retreated to my comfort zone, or rather, the porn-set equivalent of it on the third floor: the gym. A light-skinned Black man, bald, was working out in the buff. In the middle of reverse lunges, he watched himself in the mirror with the seriousness of a SAT proctor. This rigor might account for his physique—toned arms, thick legs. He stood almost too tall, as if reaching for some desired height. I held my towel at the waist, afraid it would fall off. I approached him like a loser in the lunchroom, deciding whether to stay and, if so, where to stand and how overt to make my watching. Guided by the honorable principle of explicit consent, I walked up to the very naked man.
Is it okay if I hang out here?
All the spaces here are for public use, so you can do whatever you want.
I felt shamed and put in my place. I went back down to the first floor, floating into the steam room.
Fuck kindness. Waymond—at least, the version of him we see the most—dresses like a little boy. He relies on glasses and a fanny pack. He talks like a strung-out duck. Waymond knows it too, his undesirability. When Evelyn tells him about Alpha Waymond, describing the alter ego as a macho man, regular Waymond squeals, Ooh, I want that!
Waymond is who I’m terrified of being on my worst days.
The obvious thing to say is that Asian American men are discarded as “feminine” or “effeminate,” and sure, that’s all true enough. Why am I getting a full-sleeve tattoo if not to appear “hard”? (Way more expensive than a breast plate. Permanent too.) Why did I make my Grindr display name “Masc ⬆️ looking” if not to override the assumption that Asian American men are all twinks with tiny dicks and high-pitched voices?
Reducing our disposability to a hatred of femininity leaves out something key: our particular condition of undesirability. According to NPR, in 2014, OkCupid polled its users and found that Asian American men “fell at the bottom of the preference list for most women.” For the Grindr veterans out there, you’ve likely come across “no fats, no femmes, no Asians.” In season 8’s Drag Race finale, Kim Chi turns the normalized rejection into a lip-sync extravaganza. In the chorus of her song, Kim flips the reasons for her supposed undesirability into a source of power. “Beyoncé, Madonna got nothing on this triple threat,” she sings. “Do the fat, femme, and Asian.”
I’ve been all three at different points in my life—#intersectionality. I was fat until college. As a squishy, Asian adolescent, I often looked to myself like a child. The common denominator between boyishness and sissiness is a soft, almost sexless presence. To achieve the opposite, I’ve hit the gym three times a week for eight dedicated years. Living with all my bodies and so much self-loathing, I message Asian American men now with the fear they won’t respond. In my head, at the least, few of us find each other attractive. It’s hard to hold this assumption and bypass a conclusion of self-hatred.
On the first floor, in the steam room, I found a corner where two white guys were making out, an Asian American man standing by. He caressed one of them on the back. Knowing better now than to speak, I put my hand on the Asian American. He shook me off and looked at me with disbelief and revulsion. I had crossed a line, obvious and unspeakable. To this day, I feel his rebuke in my body still: a shrinking and a skinning, leaving me tender-bodied like mud.
Putting myself up for an Asian American man’s judgment is like barking up the wrong tree. The tree is the kind growing beside a building’s façade. The tree is a spectacular deformity.
Ghostliness is the condition of Asian American men’s bodies. People see through us as if we were not there—within space without taking any of it up. When it comes to most Asian American contestants on Drag Race, the judges accuse them of lacking personality, as if the queens were all surface and no depth. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, the only people I see eating out alone are my fellow Asian American men. It’s no shade. I notice us as one among us.
Some Asian American men feel so far from desirability that I fear they’re worse than worthless. I find them immeasurable for value. The ones with the bad haircuts who wear clothes instead of outfits. The ones who are chubby, the ones who are scrawny. The ones who look like I did growing up in the Chicago suburbs. My eyes curve around these men like roadkill. I see them; I don’t want to. I see them, but it hurts to. It’s easier on my ego to refuse these men sight.
Knowing how I view my own so-called brothers, I never leave the house looking any less than my best. Clothing has the power to make my body available for sight. Almost compulsively, I’ll change whatever I’m wearing until I get the outfit just right. I dare not dress badly. That would cut me off from worth—from what it is to be in this merciless American world.
From the disproportionate number of Asian American men who appear dressed by professional stylists, I know I’m not alone. Our abjection also explains why some of us get swole to the point of absurdity—even of monstrosity. These men’s bodies look like they have something to prove. And they do: the validity of our claim to value.
An icon of transformation, Jobu is a drag queen. Her wigs, her make-up, her larger-than-life outfits—all of it’s so gorg, all of it’s so stupid, stupid in the best way possible. Recall her club-kid teddy-bear number in the final fighting extravaganza. Rewind to her first appearance in the film. She’s masked and in different patterns of plaid. Insert Valentina joke here. The all-white costume with the bagel hair is precisely what you’d get on Night of a Thousand Beyoncés if a queen did Black Is King. @RuPaulsDragRace.
Jobu Tupaki is supposed to threaten the integrity of the multiverse. On a cis woman, the beautiful costumes read as fashion. On a man, though, they would be drag: a disruption to the gender binary and the heterosexual family it undergirds.
Everything leaves room for Jobu to be a son. It barely genders the character of Evelyn’s child. Yes, much of the story’s pathos comes from the mother-daughter parallel. Still, most of the dialogue would make good sense if the child identified as a man. After all, we know very little about Joy. She’s dropped out of college. She likes pigs. She wears plaid, so maybe she likes Nirvana?
In another universe, the Daniels made this deeply felt movie about a mother and a son. In our universe, though, Asian American men are undesirable, ghostly and illegible. With hot-dog fingers, talking rocks, and an Asian American family to boot, Everything is already a monumental gamble.
To center it on a queer Asian American man? One absurdity too many, that would cross the line.
After the white Oscar Isaac, the Black bodybuilder, and the Asian American tree, I found a gaggle of guys on the second floor. One was a ginger. Another was Asian, bald and an otter. The ginger came soon after I arrived. Before the ginger left the group, he said something to the Asian American, who said something back and smiled.
Knowing it was safe to talk to the Asian American in the insistently non-verbal space, I told him it was my first time at the bathhouse. He took me on a tour. Eventually, we parted ways. I spotted him later, dressed at his locker. I said hi in my towel, told him I was visiting Chicago. He said he was too. He came for work often, he was leaving again that weekend.
Now we know for next time, he said. Don’t come to Steamworks on a Wednesday night.
Hey, you want to take down my number? In case, you know.
He did, and the following night, I ended up at his hotel. Nothing fancy, just one off the freeway. He was on Outlook when I made it to his room. We talked on his bed for a little, lying close enough to resemble a pair of confidantes. When we held each other, it was with something approaching fierceness. Fierceness and desperation, which is to say, longing.
I’ve longed for a man who saw in me the thing most worth holding: himself.
Once, on a plane, because my hair was past my shoulders, the white-woman flight attendant asked if I was an island boy. Once, as I was leaving a Target, a Black fashion designer messaged me on Grindr, saying my asymmetrical, clashing-plaid puffer jacket had caught his eye, and when I said I was from LA, he said he’d known it—was sure I was from either coast. Once, in line at a different Target, because I was wearing a denim skirt, a white woman carrying kitty litter asked for my pronouns. Once, at the nudity-required Korean spa, after I joined the circle jerk in the sauna, I was sexting with the Black man who initiated it, the one I was making eyes at the week before, then to no avail, and he said he’d assumed I was straight. Once, in a circle of queer writers, including a white dude who looked straight out of a J. Crew catalogue, people were passing around poppers, and when the bottle got to me, I handed it to the next person, and the writer who just hours ago had given a talk about radical inclusivity asked if I was even gay. So when I say that Asian American men are illegible, what I mean is this: people aren’t sure how to read us.
On Drag Race, it goes all the way back to season three when Manila Luzon made herself hyperlegible in an improv challenge by basically performing yellowface—and won to the consternation of Black and Latinx queens. (#ShangelaWasRight. #Mostly.) Jump to season twelve. Kahmora Hall, a classic case of “just a fashion queen,” revised Manila’s stereotypical affect for 2020 standards by walking the runway as a literal dragon lady—and received praise for celebrating her heritage. What happens when you don’t make yourself painfully easy to read? In Rock M. Sakura’s case, people said to her face it must be so easy for Asian queens to do drag—because Asian men already look like women.
My own illegibility started in elementary school with Abercrombie & Fitch. My siblings and I, three fat Asians, clogged the check-out line while whitegirls filled our shopping bags with clothes in the largest sizes. In middle school, I pivoted to Quiksilver. A different image of whiteness—edgier, riskier; an act of dress-up nonetheless. All these years, I put on clothes to fit in, to hide.
In high school, as I got into the habit of running on the treadmill while watching Six Feet Under and Buffy on DVD, I switched to Hot Topic—band tees, mostly. The deeper shift: I was seeking sight for my body. Urban Outfitters came in college. After my sister and my ma moved me into my dorm, they took me shopping on Thayer Street. I tried on skinny jeans for the first time, tugging onto my body what was never meant to fit me.
My post-college years as a high-school teacher, when I started working out with a trainer, began with the classic cool of J Crew and ended with the loud colors and prints of Scotch & Soda. Since then, John Elliott has gotten me into over-sized, Ivy Park into sneakers and women’s wear, and both into the world of streetwear.
After dressing like other people all my life, I’ve begun to create my own style. I care less now about making sense to other people. I need to be true to myself, a cliché complicated by the fact that who I am keeps changing, always and forever.
Evelyn’s visual signature centers her in the frame, universes flashing around her. In contrast, Jobu’s makes her the thing changing, kaleidoscoping from look to look. Her enemies frame this mercurial temperament as a sign of chaos, but I know better. People change their style when they struggle to feel at home in their bodies. It can be hard to feel at home in queer Asian bodies.
Jobu can’t stop changing because the world won’t stop questioning. What are you? Who are you? Where are you from?
In the U.S. racial imaginary, Asian American men can never be “real” men. We are, at best, copies of other performances of masculinity. Playing the part of frat bros or hypebeasts, on the arm of a whitegirl either way, we never quite sink into the role. When we try so hard to be real, getting every detail down to a T, everyone can tell that we’re faking.
Whereas Black men represent hypermasculinity, a threat to white women that white men must neutralize; whereas Asian American women represent the Orient, a fantasy ripe for domination; Asian American men represent a failure of masculinity. Scrambling the gender spectrum with our big legs and hairless arms, furry chests and tiny waists, we fuck gender up.
We are doing drag.
Neither masc nor femme, neither Black nor white, we don’t make sense within the order of things.
Not even in Everything Everywhere. Waymond is a joke, even to himself, right down to his name. We’ve also discussed the henchmen, punchlines about taking dick. Gong Gong looks incapacitated for the first third of the movie. When Alpha Gong Gong shows up, he’s knocking out Jobu like Mario Kart. Even sex icon Harry Shum Jr. turns out to be a live-action Disney-Pixar character. All of these men, all of whom are Asian, end up on the receiving end of ongoing humiliation.
When I’m understood as a failure of a man, I struggle to access desire, the engine of storytelling. When we find ourselves outside the parameters of narrative and value—TBH, of discourse—we’re picking up on something deep: our disqualification from selfhood and community.
However hard we try, we not only don’t matter but can’t—like fog, like ether. This explains the paucity of narratives centering us in the recent wave of Asian American storytelling. It’s hard to tell stories about the undesirable, the ghostly, and the illegible.
I wonder how the gag would land if the Jobu whacking a cop with dildos were a queer Asian American man. What it would mean if mother were standing up to patriarch for the dignity of her queer son. How Gong Gong, left alone with his grandson’s partner of three years, would deliver the line boyfriend.
Maybe if the mother’s mission were to save her queer son, the movie would treat us with some kindness instead.
At the bathhouse, the one man who didn’t think twice about holding on to me was an Asian twink.
Asian, not Asian American. As an immigrant to the Midwest, far from any ocean, I might always loathe Asian foreignness. Usually, my kneejerk reaction is taking a step back, creating distance and therefore difference.
When I define myself as the negation of something—not fat, not femme, not fobby—I’m doomed to police its presence. Hatred is knowing a thing well enough to lash out at its first appearance. Hatred is fucking exhausting.
The Asian twink closed the gap. He gave me head tirelessly; I made a show of all my pleasure. Any time people walked by, even in the pin-prick thrall of a blow job, I thought about the illegibility of our pairing—how the conjoinment of our bodies made a thing newly undesirable.
I thanked him before we parted ways. I wanted him to know how good he had made me feel. Pleasure and, grounding that effervescence, worthiness.