Television

The Deracination of Andrew Cunanan

Why is The Assassination of Gianni Versace interested in its protagonist’s sexuality but not his race?

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
FX

You finally need two hands to count all the current TV shows with Asian American protagonists. Fresh Off the Boat (ABC) and Master of None (Netflix) arrived with fanfare for breaking ground (though a third season of Aziz Ansari’s romantic comedy was uncertain even before the star’s current scandal), while Quantico (ABC) and Into the Badlands (AMC) keep chugging along, and the comedy Brown Nation (Netflix) and children’s melodrama Andi Mack (Disney Channel) have yet to become blips on the mainstream pop cultural radar. So it’s a bit strange, and off-putting, that the latest series with an Asian lead—one of the most anticipated shows of the year, it so happens—isn’t being described as such. In fact, its network—once a standard-bearer for prestige TV’s lack of diversity—is highlighting the drama’s focus on queerness and homophobia—and by doing so largely erasing its main character’s racial identity, especially in the first half of his story.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story isn’t about the titular victim but his killer: Andrew Cunanan, a San Diego native born to a Filipino father and an Italian American mother. Writer Tom Rob Smith adapted journalist Maureen Orth’s nonfiction account Vulgar Favors, structuring the episodes in reverse chronological order so we work backward from Versace’s murder. In a recent interview, Smith said of his source material that it “reads very much like an outsider commenting on a world of which they’re not part, and sometimes that can make you seem quite removed from it.” I agree with his assessment; Orth’s book includes lengthy and salacious discussions of Versace’s HIV status and the popularity of meth among gay communities. But Smith’s description could also be turned on The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which is a white writer’s dramatization of another white writer’s interpretation. American Crime Story’s first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson, tackled issues of both race and gender skillfully; there’s no reason why we should accept any less from its second.

The show’s Andrew, played by Darren Criss, does mention his father’s plantation in the Philippines early on. But between his pathological lying and that country’s colonial past, his race isn’t confirmed till about midway through the nine-hour season. A few character details here and there suggest Andrew’s racial self-hatred and the prevalence of anti-Asian racism within the gay community, but the relative sparseness of these implications is all the more noteworthy in contrast with the richly developed portrait of the decade’s homophobia.

Credit where it’s due, even if the bar for praise here is laughably low because Hollywood’s institutional aversion toward Asian stories and characters remains so entrenched: In casting Glee’s Criss (who played Blaine Anderson), Ryan Murphy hired a half-Filipino (if white-passing) actor to play the half-Filipino role of Andrew Cunanan.  Criss is excellent, and in later episodes, the Philippines-born Broadway performer Jon Jon Briones is electrifying as Andrew’s father, the sociopathic Modesto, who teaches his favorite child all the wrong lessons about the American dream.

If The Assassination of Gianni Versace feels urgent as it revisits the stifling homophobia of the ’90s, it’s far less successful in reimagining Cunanan from a racialized point of view, at least in the first eight episodes. (The season finale was not provided to critics in advance.) It’s certainly not as if those racial and ethnic depictions of Cunanan don’t exist. In his analysis of the divergent foci of the mainstream American and Filipino American media narratives about Cunanan, scholar Allan Punzalan Isaac notes that the former wagged its tongue about his “deviant” sexuality (Tom Brokaw infamously referred to the killer as a “homicidal homosexual”), while consumers of the latter looked on with a mixture of “pleasure and horror.” The horror is understandable enough. The pleasure, perhaps, is easier to grasp when you’re part of a group whose presence and history are constantly made invisible by the larger American culture. “Perhaps [the Filipino American fascination with Cunanan] stemmed from a longing to be reflected in the small screen in this American media sensation,” Isaac wrote several years after Cunanan’s death. Filipinos preferred participation, he conjectures, in “any American drama, even for the wrong reasons.”

Nearly all of the eight Filipino American scholars, activists, and advocates I talked to for this story say that Cunanan has fallen out of popular Filipino American lore, just as he’s been forgotten by American pop culture until now. Professor Christine Bacareza Balance told me in an email interview that when she polled 40 or so students in a recent Filipino American Studies course, only one or two knew who Cunanan was. But among gay Filipino Americans, he remains something of a cult figure and for a few Filipino American writers, a literary muse. Isaac begins his seminal book about Filipino American identity, American Tropics, with a meditation on Cunanan’s incarnation of many of the concepts central to his subject: the possibility of “assimilation gone wrong,” the fear of rejection and the eagerness to belong, the embodiment of Filipino/American “mestizo” beauty standards, the corresponding ethnic ambiguity. (Isaac quotes a New York Times article describing Cunanan’s face as “so nondescript that it appears vaguely familiar to just about everyone.”) Paul Ocampo, a co-chair of the Lacuna Giving Circle, a philanthropic group that fosters leadership in LGBTQ Asian American communities, offers a more cynical interpretation: “There’s an aspect of the glitter and glitz of Hollywood to this story that attracts many in the Filipino American community more than the macabre.”

It’s important to remember that Cunanan murdered five people, apparently in cold blood. His victims deserve to be mourned. But in the absence of other well-known personages (or the inconspicuousness of many successful celebrities’—e.g., Bruno Mars’— Filipino-ness,), it’s perhaps inevitable that some Filipino Americans see or project certain facets of themselves in one of the very few Filipino Americans to appear on TV and on page 1, especially during that era. Ben de Guzman, a policy advocate in D.C., saw Cunanan on the news and thought, There but for the grace of God go I. “As a young, gay Filipino American man who was around his age when he was in the news,” de Guzman recalls via email, “I was forced to look at how the same forces of homophobia and racism that informed my life must have affected him too.”

The former party boy and escort remains a symbol of queer defiance for some in the gay Filipino American community. “Here was a gay Filipino man who seemed unapologetic and daring in his acceptance of his sexuality,” says Ocampo. “In this, he seemed to exude a self-possession that many people struggle with.” Balance says that the image of Cunanan as a “queer Asian/Filipino American on the warpath” “truly goes against many dominant representations within ‘mainstream’ U.S. media.” Isaac contrasts Cunanan’s narrative with the gay/bi film Call Me by Your Name, which he observes is “set outside the U.S., outside the AIDS scare, outside any class conflict—all part of the Cunanan spectacle.” Isaac seems to anticipate a reckoning as Cunanan’s story unfurls on the series: “How is this story of intergenerational sex, wealth, casual prostitution, and reckless living in the gay demimonde of the ’90s to be received in this age of domesticated gay marriage?”

And if Cunanan’s messy and unpredictable life story seems ripe for fictional inspiration, The Assassination of Gianni Versace certainly didn’t get there first. A decade after Cunanan’s death, novelist and playwright Jessica Hagedorn (a canonical Filipino American writer), along with songwriter Mark Bennett, launched in the killer’s hometown a workshop production of their musical Most Wanted, a thinly fictionalized version of Cunanan’s story that explores media sensationalism and marginalized individuals’ desperation to belong. Smaller-scale works like Regie Cabico’s poem “Love Letter From Andrew Cunanan,” Gina Apostol’s short story “Cunanan’s Wake,” and Jason Luz’s erotic short story “Scherzo for Cunanan” likewise attempt to humanize a murderer who, while deplorable for his actions and indisputably extreme in personality, almost certainly had some desires and experiences common to many Filipino Americans. None of these works add up to a complete portrait, or could. But created from Filipino American perspectives, they explore the aspects of Cunanan’s life that white America still isn’t fully grappling with.