Dumb Asian Smart Blonde

by Shirley Wang

London Tipton and Maddie Fitzpatrick from The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. London has a bright smile and is wearing a fuzzy teal boa and Maddie wears a pink checkered cap and flower pattern red blazer
Screenshot: YouTube

I began rewatching The Suite Life of Zach and Cody again recently, a Disney show I loved as a tween. It’s about mischief-making identical twins who live in the Tipton Hotel in Boston, where their mom works as a lounge singer. The heiress of the hotel owners’ family, London Tipton, is a sendup of Paris Hilton—rich, fashion-crazed, and none too bright—played by the Hmong and Thai actress Brenda Song. I liked London Tipton a lot, and even dressed up as her one Halloween in elementary school. 

The show has a fun, campy energy that I still found myself enjoying, with all kinds of hijinks and silly plotlines. But my enjoyment came with another familiar feeling—of being disappointed in the character of London, and even a bit ashamed to like her, without quite understanding why.

In a 2019 interview with Teen Vogue, Brenda Song lauded Disney for their “colorblind” casting: 

“I don’t think people realize how ahead of the curve Disney Channel was,” Brenda says. “They were colorblind casting way before anybody else. They were giving me TV movies since I was 15 that people would never even think about. They were just telling stories and wanting kids to be able to see themselves on TV at a young age.”

Here’s a vivid illustration of the disconnect at the heart of the show, and maybe part of the reason for my uneasiness; how would ordinary teens, Asian or otherwise, have “seen themselves” in an ultra-rich, self-absorbed fashion plate with her own web show (Yay Me! Starring London Tipton)? The feeling of “representation” I might have enjoyed in seeing an Asian teen in a starring TV role would have been complicated by the understanding that her shallow, materialistic character wasn’t one to aspire to. 

Song relates that she first auditioned for the role of Maddie, London’s sidekick, who works in the hotel’s candy store (played in the show by Ashley Tisdale). In the role of Maddie, Song would’ve played a stereotypical Asian girl TV character, making snarky remarks and instantly calculating change for candy buyers in her head; not cool, but brainy. In one episode of The Suite Life, the whole crew enters a parallel universe where Song and Tisdale, as London and Maddie, switch roles and personalities. Suddenly, Maddie, the blonde, becomes “dumb.” and London, the Asian, becomes “smart.” When they flip the switch, it becomes clear—this subversion of expectations had been the joke all along. This is the game the creators of the show, Danny Kallis and Jim Geoghan, meant to play in creating these characters.

It’s a paywall, but a small one

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