The Problem with Eleanor & Park

I initially began reading Eleanor & Park because it features an Asian-American protagonist who doubles as the main love interesta rare occurrence in popular contemporary American literature. Upon being published in 2012, the young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell received favorable reviews; it made NPR’s list of Best Books of 2013, won the 2013 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, and in 2014 was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.[1][2]

If it’s such a great romance novel that features the rare Asian-American protagonist, why didn’t I love it?

The young love story takes place in the late 1980s, in Omaha, Nebraska. Park Sheridan is a half-Korean, half-white high school student from an upper-middle class family. He enjoys spending his time listening to music and reading comic books, and is also deeply insecure about his Korean identity. Eleanor is described as an overweight redhead who comes from a poor, abusive household. She often comes off as closed-off, snarky, and insecure, although readers get a better glimpse into her mind when the perspective switches from Park’s to hers. Eleanor & Park is essentially a high school love story that tries to grapple with issues of poverty, domestic abuse, racism, and so on—but ultimately falls short.

As this article is a response to a particular book’s portrayal of an East Asian character, the analysis will consequently be on representation and implications regarding East Asians in America. This is an important distinction to make, as non-East Asians are often grouped and erased under typical Asian stereotypes that predominantly apply to Asians who gain privilege from their proximity to whiteness. The erasure of non-East Asians must be recognized as an important issue in broader discussions of Asian representation, and how “Asian American” is a politically created identity that effectively ignores diversity among Asians living in America.[3]

Eleanor & Park perpetuates stereotypes and contributes to the fetishization of East Asians, as well as depicts a toxic power dynamic between an interracial couple as an example of romance. The book does more harm than good in terms of East Asian representation in popular media. Problematic representation can have harmful implications for those being misrepresented, particularly when it is marketed as a cute love story towards a young and impressionable audience.

It’s important to begin by recognizing the potential problems with writing authentic characters with identities removed from the author. Rainbow Rowell is a white American woman who grew up in Omaha, the predominantly white city in which the story takes place. Non-hispanic whites make up 67.2% of the population, while Asians and Asian Americans make up only 3.3%.[4] Rowell has shared that she grew up in a “really poor, really white” neighborhood, and that her junior high school had very few Asian people.[5] Consequently, she had little exposure to what it was like to be an Asian American in that context. So why did Rowell choose to write a Korean protagonist? Rowell herself has admitted that the first time she was asked this question, she shrugged: “I write [characters] the way I see them, and usually never come back to think about why.”[6] She admits that little conscious thought was initially given to Park’s identity, as well as to all of the potential implications attached to writing him. She only later addressed the importance of diversity in literature after being pushed by fans to address it.

If authors don’t have their own experiences on which to base their writing, they must do thorough research to ensure that their fictional depiction is respectful and genuine. That kind of meticulous and empathetic research takes time and effort. As I read Eleanor & Park, it increasingly became clear to me that Rowell did very little, if any, research on what it is like to be an East Asian American. Or, if she did, she chose not to include it.

The first issue that stood out to me is that “Park” is a common Korean last name. At first, I thought that it was his last name, and that he was using it as his first name as a form of reclaiming his Korean heritage. However, it was revealed that his full name is Park Sheridan. It is a similar case to J.K. Rowling’s Cho Chang; a quick Google search reveals that the so-called first name of an Asian character is actually a common last name. Although in Eleanor & Park, one could argue that it was Park’s parents’ way of keeping him connected to his Korean culture, it is unlikely given the fact that his mother changed her name to Mindy when she moved to America, in order to better assimilate. Rowell likely chose the name as a means of reinforcing Park’s Asianness, and by extension his otherness, in contrast to Eleanor.

Throughout the book, there is constant focus on Park’s otherness. His mixed-race identity is often reduced down to a plot device for the white protagonist to fetishize and project upon. The frequent mention of Park’s green eyes does less to contribute to his character, and more to emphasize how “exotic” he seems to Eleanor. Throughout the book, Eleanor repeatedly mentions the phrase, “stupid, Asian kid,” when referring to Park. The phrase sprung from her negative first impression of Park, but eventually becomes a phrase of endearment.[7] She is fixated on the very fact that Park is Korean: “Maybe I’m attracted to Korean guys… and I don’t even know it.”[8]

Park himself embodies many common East Asian stereotypes. He does taekwondo, excels in math, struggles in English, and is often described as small and feminine-looking. He is described as likely never getting any taller than five-foot-four, taking after his mother’s slender build, in contrast to his macho father and younger brother. In fact, “all the women in his family were tiny, and all the men were huge,” while “only Park’s DNA had missed the memo.”[9] Even Park’s younger brother “looked like a big German or Polish kid.”[10] This further reinforces the stereotype that East Asians are small, and emphasizes Park’s differences in relation to the white and more white-passing characters.

Not only does Park embody many East Asian stereotypes, but he also harbors severe internalized racism. He has low self-esteem because he is smaller than his younger brother, and also looks more Asian. He once admits to Eleanor that he thinks nobody finds Asian boys attractive. Park believes that it’s different for Asian girls because society, particularly white men, views them as exotic, and that “everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls.”[11]

Rowell also perpetuates stereotypes through Park’s mother. There is focus on how Park’s mother is petite and slender, a common stereotype about East Asian women. Eleanor in particular focuses a lot on Park’s mother’s appearance: “His mom looked exactly like a doll…tiny and perfect…Eleanor imagined Park’s dad, Tom Selleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea.”[12] The comparison is supposed to be a compliment on how delicate and “perfect” Park’s mother is; however this comparison is insulting and inaccurate, as Eleanor calls a Korean woman a “Dainty China person.” It serves to further the fetishization of Asian women by non-Asians, as well as uphold the view that Asians as a group are monolithic.

There is also a strange predator-prey dynamic between Eleanor and Park. Eleanor often uses food metaphors when describing Park, and sometimes alludes to the fact that she wants to eat him. At one point, Eleanor bluntly tells Park he makes her feel like a cannibal.[13] When Eleanor describes her feeling of wanting Park to touch her again, she refers to herself as “one of those dogs who’ve tasted human blood and can’t stop biting. A walrus who’s tasted human blood.”[14] In this sense, Eleanor is the predator and Park is the prey, and an uncomfortable power dynamic between the two is established by the dominance Eleanor has over Park.

So why does any of this matter? Diverse and authentic representation in popular culture is important because our culture shapes how we expect people who look a certain way to act, what their personality and temperament should be, what sort of job they likely have, and so on.[15] The problem with American media like Eleanor & Park perpetuating such stereotypes, even the “positive” ones, is that it reinforces a very narrow definition of how Asian people should look and act. Stereotypes attempt to establish what is “normal” for a marginalized group—even though in the case of Asian Americans, the broad stereotype is only meant to apply to a fraction of the community. East Asian men are often emasculated in Western media, as is the case with Eleanor & Park, and that can negatively impact how East Asian men growing up in the U.S. view themselves.[16] If East Asian men are strictly portrayed as short, good at math, bad at English, and knowing some form of martial arts, what does that say about those who don’t fit the bill?

The stereotype that East Asian women are slender, petite, and dainty is also harmful; women who don’t fit into this narrow stereotype are underrepresented in media and thus can have a negative view of themselves.[17] Furthermore, this description feeds into the racist stereotype that “Asian women are seen as naturally inclined to serve men sexually and are also thought of as slim, light-skinned and small, in adherence to Western norms of femininity.”[18] This limited portrayal is overwhelmingly seen as something positive in Western media, despite the stereotype having troubling roots from America’s postwar military incursions in East Asia. In South Korea alone, an “estimated 300,000 women were working in the sex trade by 1958 [after the end of the Korean War], with more than half employed in the ‘camptowns’ around the American bases.”[19] Therefore, it’s even more shocking that when Rowell describes Park’s mother as “a dainty China doll” that his white father brought back from Korea, she does so with implicit intent. Rowell claims that she was influenced by her father’s service in South Korea, and the fact that he always carried a picture of an unnamed Korean girl with him; Rowell suspected that her father had always been in love with the girl.[20] Through Eleanor, who may have had good intentions but was nevertheless ignorant, Rowell romanticizes the dehumanization of East Asian women as objects for white men to bring home.

As previously mentioned, even seemingly “positive” stereotypes are harmful. Accepting stereotypes is harmful because it’s based on the idea that “we can know things about people based on what we know about their group.”[21] Positive stereotypes are complex and often inextricable from negative ones, such as the model minority myth. When some Asians are designated as the the model minority, all Asians are  mistakenly believed to have overcome racial discrimination. It’s important here to recognize that the model minority myth applies predominantly to newly immigrated Indian and East Asians. By failing to make this distinction, disparities and diversity amongst Asian populations are erased. Bhutanese-Americans, for example, have “far higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations, like Japanese-Americans.”[22] When people don’t live up to stereotypes, however positive they may seem, they can “feel like failures,” such as Asians who are not good at math.[23] When they do uphold stereotypes, their hard work and effort are invalidated with comments such as, “you’re good at math because you’re Asian.” By accepting stereotypes that become mainstream, the factors that led to those stereotypes are forgotten or ignored.

Negative and narrow representation causes real harm to under- and misrepresented groups, through both pressure and erasure. It negatively impacts the way groups view themselves, as well as the way they are viewed by others.[24] Seeing accurate and diverse representation in media is crucial because it allows people to feel culturally accepted and validated as part of a larger society, and it allows others to view people from marginalized groups as individuals.[25] Some may argue that one book with a poorly-written East Asian-American character isn’t going to harm the Asian-American community as a whole. And they’re probably right; one book alone won’t have a huge impact on how Asian Americans view themselves and how others view them. However, this one book is representative of a much larger issue that affects Asians in America daily, and a critical perspective is long overdue.




[1] Bowers, Jeremy, Nicole Cohen, Danny DeBelius, Camila Domonoske, Rose Friedman, Christopher Groskopf, Petra Mayer, Beth Novey and Shelly Tan. “NPR’s Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2013’s Great Reads.” NPR. Accessed October 8, 2018.

[2] Rowell, Rainbow. “ELEANOR & PARK.” Accessed October 8, 2018.

[3] Ukani, Alisha. “Finding the ‘Asian’ in ‘South Asian.’” Harvard Political Review. July 12, 2017.

[4] U.S. Census Bureau. “Omaha City, Nebraska.” 2010.

[5] Rowell, Rainbow. “Why is Park Korean?” April 28, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s, 2013. Page 12.

[8] Ibid. Page 273.

[9] Ibid. Page 117.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. Page 272.

[12] Ibid. Page 126.

[13] Ibid. Page 113.

[14] Ibid. Page 234.

[15] Boboltz, Sarah, and Kimberly Yam. “Why On-Screen Representation Actually Matters.” Huffington Post. February 24, 2017.

[16] Chiu, Allyson. “‘Asian, ew gross’: How the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ movie could help change stereotypes about Asian men.” The Washington Post,. August 3, 2018.

[17] Prois, Jessica, and Gabriela Landazuri Saltos. “Asian Bodies That Proudly Defy An Archetype.” Huffington Post. May 8, 2018.

[18] Lim, Audrea. “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish.” New York Times. January 06, 2018.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rowell, Rainbow. “Why is Park Korean?”

[21] Devarajan, Kumari. “’Strong’ Black Woman? ‘Smart’ Asian Man? The Downside To Positive Stereotypes.” NPR. February 17, 2018.

[22] Chow, Kat. “’Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks.” NPR. April 19, 2017.

[23] Devarajan, Kumari. “’Strong’ Black Woman? ‘Smart’ Asian Man? The Downside To Positive Stereotypes.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] Truong, Kimberly. “Asian Representation In Film Is Getting Better — Here’s Why That Matters.” Refinery29. January 19, 2018.

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