How Netflix's "Beef" Captures Asian American Men and All Our Complexities

The sharp increase in Asian representation in movies and TV shows has been the stuff of celebration in recent years, and for good reason. But while "Crazy Rich Asians" may be a caricature of extreme wealth, and "Everything Everywhere All at Once" is utterly weird (in all the right ways), Netflix's "Beef," starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, is grounded in a relatable reality. Even if things spiral way out of control as the series progresses.

There is more than one way to "be a man" in modern Asian American culture.

Growing up in the 1980s and '90s, it was rare if I saw another Asian male face on screen. And if I did, he was most often a single-faceted secondary character. He'd be the token Asian among a group of predominantly white friends, like Ke Huy Quan's Data in "The Goonies." He probably had an accent and was usually nerdy. He was a trope, played for laughs.

As a second-generation immigrant, I never really connected with Asian stories in Asia, either. The "Young and Dangerous" crime drama series is great, but that's not me. I didn't see myself in those characters and those situations.

More recently, though, we're seeing more and more Asian American and Asian Canadian stories being told. In movies like "The Farewell" and "Turning Red," and in TV sitcoms like "Kim's Convenience" and "Fresh Off the Boat," the children of immigrants try to navigate two cultures at the same time. They play basketball and listen to hip-hop, but are still bound to cultural expectations from their parents and extended family. They're never fully American, nor are they ever fully Asian. They're caught in between.

Beef. (L to R) Rekstizzy as Bobby, Andrew Santino as Michael, Steven Yeun as Danny, Young Mazino as Paul in episode 106 of Beef. Cr. Andrew Cooper/Netflix © 2023
Andrew Cooper | Netflix

This underpins the depiction of Asian masculinity in Lee Sung Jin's "Beef"; it sets the stage for what it means to be an Asian American man today in Western society. Collectively, Danny, Paul, George, Isaac, and Edwin show us there is more than one way to "be a man" in modern Asian American culture.

Danny Cho, played by Steven Yeun, is a complete, complex human being. He isn't just "the Asian guy." He's a struggling average Joe who keeps trying to do the right thing, but keeps messing things up. Like so many other Asian Americans, he struggles to be "the good son" for his parents. Unspoken filial piety is a given, because Asian families don't talk about that stuff. It's all assumed, and that's why Danny, as the eldest son, feels so much pressure to build a new home for his folks.

Because "Beef" is able to move beyond tokenism, it is also able to move past the stereotypes of Asian male pacificism and the model minority narrative. David Choe's Isaac is a morally suspect "cool hustler." While he clearly gets mad, his anger almost feels restrained. Like he's holding something back. Truly, all of the characters display some form of repressed emotion.

For my part, growing up, I was always taught to keep my head down and not draw undue attention to myself. It was an unspoken rule. Violent, public outbursts just weren't a thing. So, the way Danny retreats into himself, suffering alone, is remarkably relatable. The passive-aggressive ways he lashes back — like in the bathroom scene at the end of the first episode — feel true to the Asian American experience. Looking up the least painful way to kill yourself, alone in the dark, is another example.

We need to let go of that generational trauma, that repressed anger.

If anyone asks, Danny says he's doing fine, despite the fact that he's obviously not. He doesn't know how he'll manage, or fix things, but he's bent on figuring it out himself. Even if he keeps failing. Ali Wong's Amy perhaps said it best: "I hate pretending that I don't hate things." We're expected to put on a show of positive humility, even when we're completely falling apart inside. Not even four chicken sandwiches from the best Burger King in LA can fill the void.

Maybe that's why the more extreme outbursts in "Beef" are so cathartic. We're living vicariously through these characters. I would never be able to yell at someone in the middle of a parking lot myself.

And these characters offer us dimension. Amy's husband, George, played by Joseph Lee, might be the first Asian stay-at-home dad I've ever seen on TV. Then, we have Danny's brother, Paul, played by Young Mazino. We might first perceive him as dumb and lazy. He's called an f-ing child. But all he wants is to be seen. Who can't relate to that?

Paul and Danny also show how brotherly love works in culturally specific ways. Even in conflict, after a cooling-off period, family continues to come first. They want to do right by one another, even if they're both remarkably flawed in their approaches. Despite it all, building animosity never materializes into actual violence.

Beef. (L to R) Young Mazino as Paul, Steven Yeun as Danny in episode 104 of Beef. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
Andrew Cooper | Netflix

Indeed, all the characters show that we struggle in our own way. And we all feel like failures in our own way, too, even picture-perfect Edwin (Justin H. Min). Maybe we're all burdened with an inferiority complex.

For me, even the "friendship" between George and "Zane," which is based on false pretenses, represents Asian male friendship goals. They talk openly with one another about their feelings. We get the impression that the emotional support is genuine (even when it's obviously not). In another life, they could have been real friends. They're two real people connecting over the struggles of their shared Asian American humanity, despite huge differences in lifestyle and upbringing.

But, it's not real. Nothing lasts. Everything fades.

Perhaps that's the real take-home lesson from all of this. "Beef" is about learning to let go. We need to let go of that generational trauma, that repressed anger, all those expectations placed on us by the model minority myth. That way, we can just kick it with the guys, take the wheel, and drive for a while.