Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For Episode 8, Whose Stories Are Being Told: Centering Racial Diversity in Mainstream Hollywood Movies we discussed the following texts:
1) Movie – Green Book
This movie set in the 1960s is based on a real-life friendship. There’s lots of casual background racism in Tony’s working-class Italian family against the black handymen. His father and brothers come to keep his wife company because they seemingly don’t trust black men with a white woman. Tony is as racist as his brothers and father where he throws away the glasses the handymen drank out of though when his wife notices the glasses in the trash later, she just rolls her eyes and takes them back out. It reminded me of how people in India do the same for people they consider to be of a lower class or caste – maybe not throwing glasses away but having a separate category of glasses reserved for a certain group of people. Tony’s wife is also clearly not comfortable with the racism but never questions or challenges him about it. It’s uncomfortable calling out people you’re close to – but important.
Tony’s new prospective employer is a black pianist called Dr Don Shirley who is about to embark on a concert in the deep south and needs a driver/personal assistant. The titular Green Book refers to a guide for hotels in the deep south – which ones allow white and black people to stay together in the same hotel and which don’t. It is a necessity for travelling while black. Even when he’s being interviewed for this, Tony is full of racial slurs for Eastern Asians and Asians he’s encountered in the building. The movie is set in New York, a diverse multicultural city even in the 1960s – but this proximity to diversity seems to have had little impact on racist attitudes. Don is part of a trio with two white men playing bass and cello. Before they start travelling, Tony immediately chums up with them presumably because they’re white. Dr Don speaks in Russian to his cellist which Tony casually assumes is German and makes some very anti-German/eastern European comments. Outwardly one might appear as “tolerant” but the person is actually racist which is shaped by living in a structurally racist society. Does Tony even realise he’s racist?
The journey features constant tension between the rich black musician used to getting his way and the poor white driver who’s used to seeing black men in inferior positions. Lots of intersections of race and class where both Tony and Dr Shirley are marginalised and privileged in different contexts. Dr Don has a more traditionally classical education as opposed to Tony’s more workaday engagement with the world. Don is worried about Tony’s accent, language and vocabulary when it comes to interacting with rich, educated people. Don even proposes changing Tony’s last Italian name for other people’s convenience because it’ll be too difficult to pronounce; a problem often encountered by people of colour in all-white settings or with South indians in North Indian settings. Everything is so contextual. I like that the dynamics here are flipped on their head, though Tony’s racial and situational privilege means he refuses to make this adjustment and insists on his last name being kept the same.
The movie shows both Tony and Don (but mostly Tony) unlearning prejudice through their interactions with each other. Tony assumes Don should know all the popular black music and is shocked he doesn’t because “these are your people”. Tony also steals a jade rock at a garage that had fallen on the ground claiming he found it so it doesn’t count as stealing; but Don makes him put it back. Another example of overturning stereotypes where usually black people are considered to be untrustworthy. There are more casual stereotypes about black people’s food/music which Tony shares with Don and that Don doesn’t fit into – fried chicken, collards, and greens. Don is offended by the assumptions to which Tony responds that he wouldn’t be offended if Don said all Italians ate pizza and pasta – this is negotiated more lightheartedly than anything. Stanley does try (very uncomfortably) eating some Kentucky fried chicken with his hands – “It’s so unsanitary.” However, he is willing to learn from Tony a little bit and try new experiences.
Tony eventually feels some sort of loyalty to Don and gets into a scrap with a white worker at a venue who is also casually racist. Tony also experiences a segregated hotel for coloured people and he can’t believe the decrepit condition. Don gets beaten up by racist white people in a bar in the deep south when all he wanted was a drink. Tony is forced to confront racism thanks to his job and confront some of his own prejudices. At one point, their car breaks down in front of a field full of black workers who stop and stare at a black man so unlike them and Don stares back presumably thinking about how he’s only a couple of generations removed from this and still not fully exempt from the racism. When they’re in North Carolina at a fancy hotel, the owner says that he asked his help for what Don would like and serves home-cooked fried chicken much to Don’s chagrin. At the same hotel, Don is directed to the outhouse reserved for black people and not the indoors toilet for white people. He would rather go back to his motel to use the toilet there than put up with the humiliation.
Tony is offended when Stanley implies he’s the same as the racist white people in power they encounter. He obviously doesn’t consider himself as racist as the deep south. The cellist tells Tony to behave himself because Don asked to play down south despite being able to earn more money in the north. Tony wonders why. Don places himself in actual danger maybe because he’s using a soft-war approach to confronting racism and presenting a black person who upturns their stereotypes. This exceptionalism isn’t without it’s problems either – the idea of a good black person worthy of respect as opposed to all the other black people. You don’t need to prove your humanity by assimilating to white culture. It reminds me of the instance of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper recently where she tried to call the cops on him in a New York park. However, a lot of the responses to this involved writing about what a handsome, accomplished black man she tried to get arrested and potentially murdered was. That’s not the point. All black people – regardless of their looks, education, wealth, status – need to be treated with the same amount of respect and humanity as everyone else. Of course, even with black people – like with everyone else – there’s a diversity of experiences. There is no monolithic black experience.
We find out later that Don was pressured by his record company to play popular music because people wouldn’t accept a black man playing a piano or classical music due to their own preconceived notions that they would rather not disrupt. The movie features other everyday humiliations such as Don isn’t allowed to try on a suit in a shop in Georgia (presumably because he has black people cooties?) but is welcome to buy it and have it altered (because capitalism must go on).
Don also is gay – as we discover when he’s caught with a white guy at a YMCA in Georgia and threatened with arrest – and therefore doubly marginalised. Reminded me of Shy Baldwin in Marvellous Mrs Maisel who is also a gay black man beaten up for these identities and uses make-up to cover up his bruises. Don assumes Tony will be homophobic as well as racist but Tony surprises him with his open-mindedness – including unlearning his bigotry.
Tony punches a cop who calls him half a nigger for being Italian which shows the different kinds of prejudice which exist. Both he and Stanley are arrested and then released when Stanley calls Bobby Kennedy who in turn calls the governor to free them. Don may be marginalised by his race and sexuality but he’s also massively privileged in terms of his wealth and social connections. This provides little comfort though as Stanley has an existential crisis about not being black enough, not white enough, not man enough. He feels like he doesn’t fit into any of the roles he’s born into and which have been socially constructed. In the last club in Birmingham, Alabama, Stanley isn’t allowed to eat even though he’s playing there later which causes him to refuse playing there, an action Tony wholeheartedly supports. At the end of the movie, Tony ends up calling out racism in his own family
2) Movie – Crazy Rich Asians
In 1994, the Young family from Singapore aren’t allowed to book a hotel in the US after the manager sees they’re Asian and suggests they should look in China Town – only to find out they’re the new owners of the hotel. The perception that Asians can’t be wealthy or even deserving of occupying the same space as wealthy white people.
I found lots of parallels between the Singaporean/Chinese community in New York and Indian community in general. .Beginning with – as soon as one person finds out that Nick Young and Rachel Chu are a couple, the news immediately spreads from young people to their parents and eventually to Nick’s mother in Singapore. When discussing Nick’s mysterious family, Rachel’s mother proposes, “Maybe his parents are poor and he sends them all his money. That’s what all good Chinese sons do.” Very Indian thing to do! Chinese Americans aren’t seen as really Chinese – pursuing passions is seen as American, living for your family is seen as Chinese. Nick’s grandmother is very mother-in-lawish to his mother – and she does the same to Rachel. Rachel has the same problems she did where Nick’s mother doesn’t come from the right sort of family, so she’s cruel to Rachel in turn too! More similarities with Indian culture!
I loved encountering the different experiences of Chinese people in the US versus in Singapore. Rachel doesn’t know Nick’s family is rich because Nick doesn’t behave like a rich person – even stereotypes about wealth exist which may not always be true. However, in Singapore, rich people have an entirely distinct culture which we discover through Rachel’s eyes – they live in another world! I can easily imagine this in an Indian context too. The market they go to eat food as well – Singapore and India are such different countries but the street food culture is so similar. I also enjoyed that the glimpse into the culture through its food was done without exoticising it – through a cultural insider lens rather than an outsider.
I wonder how long bachelor/bachelorette parties have been common in Singapore (and India) and how widespread their popularity is. It’s definitely a Western cultural influence, I think, where western culture is global culture. An example of cultural imperialism? At the same time this blends in comfortably with Asian culture as well. Is calling an older woman aunty a thing in all Asian cultures? Rachel’s friend’s mother has decorated the house with lots of tacky gold to showcase wealth – so desi!
The movie also features class tensions where Astrid and Nick both have “commoner” partners which, in Astrid’s case, also intersect with gender and idea of masculinity – Astrid has far more money than her husband which makes him insecure. There’s also comments about old money and new money – the Youngs are old money – new money Taiwan Tycoons, Beijing Billionaires. Then there’s also impacts of presumably colonisation – even if you’re rich in Asia, in the US, the UK, you’re judged by the colour of your skin – whether it be Chinese or Indians. Rich people do appear ruthless though where Rachel is accused of being a gold-digger and is treated horrifically.
Ken Jeong’s character makes fun of Chinese accents. The difference between cultural outsiders and cultural insiders making fun of specific cultures. Who’s representing the culture and which audience is it for? It includes a lot of themes, food and activities which are common in the Chinese community but not so common in Hollywood representations (for example, the dumpling-making, mahjong).
It’s interesting that they get married in a church which is decorated as a paddy field. I thought that China didn’t really have a religion largely. Perhaps this signifies Singaporean influences? The big fat Chinese wedding was also super familiar – big fat Indian weddings are everywhere. More similarities with Indian and Chinese cultures include the scandal of an extramarital affair for a woman which forces Rachel’s mother to run away from the anticipated violence of her husband. Of course, there’s the gender disparity too because Astrid’s husband doesn’t face the same censure or social ostracism but also the class factor where Astrid is able to weather the storm in a way Rachel’s mother couldn’t do.
3) Movie – Last Christmas
I love that the three movies have different kinds of diversity – casual inclusion without mention, all-diverse cast, and a story with diversity as the crux. But I love that the movies are also not about the diversity (except in Green Book) and are also full of jokes and fun – the kind of movies I would watch even if I didn’t have to for this episode.
This movie features the casual inclusion of a lot of diverse, intersectional identities – including interracial relationships, mental health and trauma, immigrants, working-class families, trans woman doctor, romance between an older couple, lesbian relationship, disability, homelessness, women cops. In all instances, the inclusion was done in humanising, complex ways rather than mere tokenism.
I think two of the Asian actors in this movie also made an appearance in Crazy Rich Asians. Maybe this implies that there may not be as many Asian actors around. I’ve read that British actors of colour move to the US because it has more opportunities but the critique has been that this leaves less room for black American actors. Is it similar with Asian actors in the US? Structural racism within the movie industry might mean there’s only very limited room for actors/writers/directors of colour.
Santa – aka Huang Quing Shin – a Chinese (?) immigrant keeps changing her name based on where she works, similar to the experience of Chinese students in the UK who have to adopt Western names. Kate’s sister Martha, as a child of immigrant parents, had to become a lawyer because that was mother’s dream. Immigrant stories are so similar all over the world. Of course, there’s racism even within the immigrant society as the movie – a romcom – shows more lightheartedly. Kate’s mother, an Eastern European immigrant, watches a Brexit rally on TV and thinks the people hate them and want to send them away. This sympathetic moment of her worries is broken by “I blame the Poles” which made me laugh out loud – not because xenophobia against Polish people is funny but the situation was quite ludicrous – as reflected in Kate’s expression. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene in the bus where a white couple (possibly Eastern European) are speaking in a language that isn’t English which attracts the notice of a white man. He shouts, “Why don’t you lot go back where you came from?” at them followed by “Speak English or get out of my sodding country!” Different kinds of discrimination.
“There’s no such thing as normal. It’s a stupid word. Does a lot of damage.” – Tom
Hibiki wrote this essay for a children’s literature module which focused on the representations of race and racism in two YA books exploring two different cultures – Ichiro in Japan and The Hate U Give in the US. He drew on his own experiences of racism in the UK, his first experience of racist discrimination as someone who’s grown up in Japan which is largely ethnically homogenous as opposed to the UK which is more diverse.
The essay explores racism in both Japan (anti-Korean) and the UK (anti-people of colour) – where he is a part of the dominant group in the former but marginalised in the latter. His essay allowed me to learn a lot about the culture and racism in Japan, something I haven’t really encountered otherwise. Racism exists in the form of anti-Korean attitudes among both racist groups as well as the regular people who have been influenced by their propaganda. There is also an affinity towards white, blonde, blue-haired white people living in Japan. This is similar to India where the colonial mindset still remains where Western and white is seen to be superior, but people from neighbouring countries are discriminated against. The essay proposes that one of the reasons racism isn’t addressed in Japan is because racism is seen to be an issue which exists outside the country between white people and black people; this overlooks the dominance of other kinds of racism within their own societies. Again, this is similar to India where black isn’t welcome even if it is Western and there are different shades of racism even within the country based on which part of the country you come from – skin colour, language, accent, food. It also notes the ignorance among Japanese people about racial insensitivites like blackface. That makes me think about how cultural contexts are so different in that what may be taboo in one culture may not be in another because they don’t have the same background knowledge and historical contexts.
The essay also briefly explores racism in the US and UK and talks about the link made between Islamophobia and terrorism in mainstream media (Whereas mass shootings by white people or other acts of violence aren’t called terrorism by the media). It points out the role of media in perpetuating these Islamophobic stereotypes and anti-black attitudes. You can see some of the latter with the recent Black Lives Matter anti-police protests in the US in how certain news outlets frame the narrative.
The essay talks about how reading diverse children’s books can impact young people in ways which make them more respectful and empathetic towards different races and cultures. It points out the lack of BAME characters in children’s literature in the UK and in the US – which don’t have proportional representation to reflect their increasingly diverse populations. The essay uses two YA books to explore the representations of race and racism. Ichiro is a graphic novel which explores the experiences of the titular protagonist, a Japanese-American boy who moves to Japan from the US and encounters unfamiliar food, culture and language and faces discrimination and othering – though he has his own racist stereotypes as well. The Hate U Give, a YA novel, features the life of 16-year-old Starr who grapples between her two homes of a poor black neighbourhood full of violence and an elite private school largely dominated by white students and staff. She has to constantly code-switch not just her language but her entire being as she moves from one place to the other. The book looks at police violence against black people and protests similar to the Black Lives Matter movement. The essay also points out the ignorance of these racial issues among white people in the book and in real life.
The essay talks about how things like narrow eyes are used to discriminate against East Asian people – something Hibiki himself experienced in the UK. This made me think of how even when you look the same, sound the same, follow the same god such as in Ireland and the United Kingdom, you still find people to hate on some grounds – Catholic/Protestant. The essay talks about the compounded problem of racism where even when you’re verbally targeted, you may have to choose to ignore the assault or escape the racists so as not to be physically attacked. In the UK, the pandemic has increased racism against East Asians because COVID-19 originated in China. This is also happening in India where North East Indians, many of whom have physical features resembling East Asians, were faced with racist attacks. In the US, the president keeps trying to call it the China virus and this representation has impacts on the mainstream imagination. In India, the pandemic is being used to target Muslims.
The essay notes how racism can be internalised among marginalised groups as well, especially if it is inherited within families. Ichiro thinks someone wearing a turban is a terrorist conflating the turban with a skullcap and also associating all Muslims with terrorism – similar to Hibiki’s own experiences where he had an anti-Chinese slur hurled at him even though he is Japanese. Ichiro also faces negative reactions from an older Japanese neighbour who is against his mother marrying a foreigner i.e. an American man – an attitude which is apparently common among elderly Japanese people, according to the essay. What counts as foreigner depends very much on the context. Even in the US, everyone is an immigrant apart from the Native Americans. Identifying someone as a foreigner or related to a foreigner serves to immediately exclude – as in Ichiro’s case who is considered to be different since he doesn’t speak Japanese properly and doesn’t look Japanese enough for the people discriminating against him. Presumably, it will never be enough because you’ll find something else to criticise if the instinct is to other rather than include. With the dominance of language, it isn’t just English as evidenced in the example where Ichiro is bullied for being unable to speak Japanese as fluently as native Japanese would. The difficulties faced by people who move to Japan from another country is similar to different parts of India where language is political – Maharashtra and Marathi, north India and Hindi, South India and not embracing Hindi as a political act. Different cultures even within the same country – in Japan, in the US, in India, in the UK – where one group has stereotypes about the other on the basis of race, religion, national origin etc.
White people – like any dominant group – expect to be given the benefit of doubt without making any concessions or changes themselves – for example, Hayley claims to be offended when accused of racism by both her best friends and claims ignorance. Why is it never the dominant group’s responsibility to place themselves in the shoes of marginalised groups in order to evoke compassion and empathy and demand justice? The essay notes that the stereotypes go both ways – the black characters also have some fixed notions of what white people like, dislike and do based on their conversations in the book.
Referring to Hayley and Chris’s responses in THUG which also applies to real life contexts:
“There are a number of white people who do not know what racism is, what makes minority people suffer and how those people feel.”
While white people may not realise racism exists because of their racial privilege, black people don’t have the same privilege to ignore the existence of racism since it impacts them on an everyday basis, oftentimes fatally. The essay also notes that Chris really learns from his experiences of being the only white person in Starr’s black neighbourhood – this embodied experience of being a minority isn’t practical for everybody – but children’s books and media in general can do a great job of understanding lives which differ from your own.
Curiosity about other cultures instead of suspicion; cultural exchange instead of cultural imperialism – the absence of this impacts both the marginalised and the dominant groups. However, this doesn’t undo generations of oppression and it shouldn’t be the burden of the marginalised to seek empathy and inclusion. People need to access diverse stories which both reflect and differ from their own lives and experiences in order to get to know other cultures which you may or may not encounter in real life. But this needs to be an active, ongoing, and lifelong process of seeking to educate yourself.
5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who Crazy Rich Asians
Eugenia, a Chinese-American talks about her experiences of watching Crazy Rich Asians. She was excited about the Asian representation in a mainstream Hollywood production. This representation wasn’t just reflected in the cast but also in the creators – which, as E points out, is almost more important than having a diverse cast since the creator makes so many of the choices. E acknowledges there have been some critiques of the movie – including the lack of Singaporeans in a movie taking place in Singapore. Singapore is a diverse society with lots of Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants in the country. E points out that since the movie deals with the lives of rich Chinese people, she saw what she expected to see i.e. diversity in service roles – maids, guards etc. – which reflects the lives of the elite much like in Jane Austen where we don’t see the lives of the working class characters represented. The books which the movie is based on is often referred to as Jane Austen with Asians.
E expresses her frustration about criticism that calls the movie racist for this lack of diversity. She points out that the movie centers the Chinese-American experience through Rachel Chu’s character who travels to Singapore and is considered as a foreigner. This is similar to all Asian-Americans who go back home where they don’t fit in even though they may, to an outside gaze, look the same. This is similar to my experiences after a year and a half abroad in the UK and probably reflects the experiences of an increasing number of young people who are educated abroad and return to India. Fitting in and being different is a such a universal theme – though in this case, it is particularly important since it focuses on the lives and experiences of a group which has not traditionally been represented in mainstream Hollywood media. As Toya says, she found it very relatable too – even though she’s a black American. E points out that Asian-American experiences are always erased or minimised in the US. They’re considered as model minorities and their accusations of racism are overlooked. E thinks the simplistic criticism of racism has a harmful impact on people for whom the movie was made, especially with a movie with an all-Asian cast, an Asian writing team and director.
These criticisms make me think of how movies like this are tasked with a bigger burden to do all the job of representation perfectly since there are such few fully-diverse movies out there. Rather than making room for different kinds of diversity and stories, the few diverse media which do exist are supposed to fix the imbalance. E talks about how she’s been starved by Asian faces in media and devoured stories which had even the least bit of diversity – superficial or otherwise. Which is why this movie was so important for her. She talks about the American show Fresh Off The Boat, which has found a love-hate reaction from Asian-Americans. The title is a slur and the stories are farcical but Asian-Americans are still so starved for representation. E almost wishes only Asian-Americans could watch this show because the jokes are the sort they can laugh at but not white people: “There’s a part of it which feels minstrely.” E talks about how she became emotional about even small representations of her experiences – food and visits to the market.
She also recommends To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and the important role it has played in normalising East Asian characters and all the possibilities for cosplay with Lara Jean and Halloween costumes. One of E’s issues with the movies is the three sisters who are supposed to be half-Korean. However, out of the actors who portray these characters, one is Vietnamese, one is half-Filipina and only one is half-Korean. As they’ve mentioned in previous episodes, they don’t like the implication that all Asians are the same. Even if white audiences don’t realise it, Asian audiences do. Which means that the imagined audience doesn’t include their perspectives. However, E was still happy to see the representation.
E talks of the experience of watching Crazy Rich Asians with her mother, who has lived in different parts of Asia and who pointed out different things like food and songs which she recognised and loved in the movie. The conversation made both the hosts teary because they both understood how important and impactful representation can be. E also acknowledges the impact of the representation of Asian single mothers which is rarely seen on-screen or even in real life, and which reflects E’s own relationship with her mother. As E reiterates, there may be places where the movie lacks and has some flaws, but this doesn’t diminish the powerful impact it can have on Asian-American audiences. According to E, the creators of this movie had to fight to cast an Asian-American actress in the lead rather than a white actress because the producers couldn’t conceive how an Asian-American would be a fish out of water in Singapore, completely erasing the very real experiences of Asian-Americans who go back home.
E loves the representation of language. One of the characters says “Go to hell” in three different languages which blew E’s mind because that’s how she thinks – in Chinglish. But that is never represented in media, an experience which I relate with as well, as an immigrant in the UK who is mostly surrounded by white people.
E also talks about the tension about rice paddy fields where older generations of Chinese people are very conscious of this and want to distance themselves from it. They use skin whitening creams to ensure they don’t look like they’ve worked in the rice fields, their hands have to look good too. However, this culture has been embraced by younger people who don’t have a directly contentious relationship with the rice fields. In the movie, the wedding scene happens with rice field decorations which is shunned by the older Chinese characters but embraced by the young people. These nuances can be understood by people who have background knowledge of this history and I loved learning about it through E’s perspective. This also makes Toya emotional again because she remembers her own family history where two generations ago, they were sharecroppers and now she is able to do so much that was unimaginable before. Different histories but similar emotions.
E talks of the experience of her and other immigrants to the US bringing their culture’s food to school which is ridiculed by people eating peanut butter sandwiches. This is similar in India where non-vegetarian food isn’t allowed in some schools and in others, vegetarians may treat it with disgust. This happened to me in school as well. E felt this shame even with Chinese music. I wonder if this is why I cling on to my Indian clothes and language and food and music in the UK because I feel like I’m not surrounded by this otherwise. Asian music may be regarded with suspicion by white people but K-Pop and J-Pop has been embraced by white audiences – something which goes unremarked on.
Both hosts criticise Awkwafina’s blaccent which she code-switches in and out of like many other people. This isn’t something I noticed which points to the different contexts of racism and ignorance. Toya has an issue with what is becoming a cultural norm and thinks there needs to be a conversation about using another culture’s language/accent as a prop or as clothing. She doesn’t hold this against the movie because she loved the movie and was happy E got to experience what she herself did with Black Panther.
“We want to see all black casts. We want to see all Asian casts. We want to see the diversity of the world on screen.” – Latoya
6) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Geek Misogyny, No Totally, and Con Coverage (listen from 1 hour 06ish minutes to 1 hour 34ish minutes)
The guest is Shaun Lau who hosts a podcast No, Totally about movies – and more recently has become an Asian-American activist. He talks of “coming out” as an Asian-American, an identity which he hadn’t talked about on the podcast, and now actively engages with this identity on his podcast and with his other interviews. It’s interesting that he felt he needed to come out presumably because people thought he was white. He describes instances of of virtue signalling where people’s comments of “I don’t care if you’re Asian or not” was followed by unfollowing Shaun on Twitter when he spoke about Asian issues. This reminded me of The Hate U Give where Hayley unfollows Starr on Tumblr for her black activism. You’re allowed to be diverse but only in a very narrow, predetermined way which doesn’t make the dominant group uncomfortable or hold them to account.
Shaun talks of how important it is for him to have Asian representation in media and critiques the whitewashing in media. This representation is incredibly important to non-Asian-Americans who don’t consider Asian-Americans have the same kind of American experience as they do. Shaun himself thinks he’s more American than Asian. He talks of incident where a woman speaking Mandarin on public transport in Arizona was attacked and told to go back to her country. This othering is compounded by the lack of representation on screen because other Americans don’t consider Asian-Americans as American – especially if the only representation which does exist peddles stereotypes.
“It not just affects how people see you but also how you see yourself.” – Shaun
Shaun speaks of the mental health impact these stereotypes had on him where he didn’t feel like he could be seen as anything other than the stereotype despite everything else he accomplishes in his life. It can have a professional impact as well where employers may fall prey to these stereotypes which influences their opinion about potential employees. He appreciates that there are Asian-American actors and other creatives talking about the need for this representation which will influence younger generations of Asian-Americans, as well as white Americans.
He discusses how Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange is supposed to be a progressive move because it’s genderbending the character. However, it’s a white woman replacing an Asian character. Shaun points out that white male creators consider every identity which isn’t theirs as the same – in a way where casting a white woman instead of an Asian man still counts as diversity. Marginalised communities have the same goal of increasing diversity, but it’s ALL kinds of diversity, not just of one group but all groups. He also mentions that the #OscarsSoWhite movement and others are reaching the creators who have to respond or address these issues. While it is still a small number of creators, it’s a step in the right direction where diversity is now increasing in media. On the other hand, this diversity seems to aggravate people from dominant groups who think even superficial diversity is both a threat and simultaneously enough representation. He mentions how exhausting it is to be fighting for this all the time when everything moves so slowly and there is such a backlash against it constantly.
“The media, the way that they write about these issues can play a role or plays probably the biggest role in normalising the dissent of people of colour being misrepresented.” – Shaun
He also discusses the fact that Asian isn’t a monolith – the perspectives and experiences of an Asian from Asia would be very different from an Asian-American. For Asians, representation in Hollywood movies may not be as important or sensitive an issue like it is for Asian-Americans since they have other media which represents them. For example, Ghost in the Shell’s controversial casting of Scarlett Johanssen isn’t considered to be a big deal in Japan, as the episode of Imaginary Worlds finds out.
7) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Asians in Media
The episode featured a panel of guests of Asian descent who have different experiences with media – as creators and/or fans – as well as different intersectional identities. In the beginning the host acknowledges that one of the potential guests had said some problematic things against black women which caused her to drop the idea of that guest. She admitted her mistake and thanked the community for drawing her attention to this. Even people who talk about marginalisation and inhabit a marginalised identity can be racist towards others – as can be seen with the conversations about anti-blackness in Asian communities in the US and the UK.
They discuss the whitewashing of Asian characters where white actors are cast to play Asian characters to be able to make the movie more “marketable.” This is of course imagining a predominantly white audience for the movie when globally, Asians outnumber white people. Furthermore, this assumption that actors who aren’t white won’t draw in audiences is ridiculous. At the same time, however, audiences who are riled up because of what they perceive as enforced diversity can target a movie and its actors – sexist attacks of the female reboot of Ghostbusters and the racism against the black actress Leslie Jones.
One of the guests talks about how Hollywood seems to assume Asian-Americans don’t exist and this lack of representation won’t be met by any censure anyway. Does this feed into the model minority myth? Any censure which does exist is met with half-hearted apologies which imply that they’re only sorry because people got offended and not because they did something offensive. In the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan completely whitewashed the movie despite being Asian himself. He presumably also grew up not seeing himself represented in media, though I suppose this depends on what sort of media he was exposed to growing up. There’s also internalised racism/colonised mind where you think white is better or more marketable. Maybe he wasn’t even in control of these decisions as Diana Floegel pointed out in Episode 9 about structural racism in movie industries.
One of the guests talks about how Tilda Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange takes away even their stereotypes (the Asian character she represents was very much a stereotype). Is there a difference between stereotypes written for the cultures they’re stereotyping versus for the dominant culture? Insider/outsider perspectives? Including people in the joke versus excluding people by marginalising them – depends on who’s doing the writing, I guess, as well as who the intended audience is. Crazy Rich Asians seemed to have a lot of insider jokes and stereotypes which I only recognised because they’re so similar to Indian ones. It depends on which lens is being used – white people versus Asian people. Whose experiences are being centered and whose are being othered? While I was listening to this episode, Jack wondered whether Doctor Strange could be an example of white saviour tropes as well.
They discuss whether erasing characters of colour/whitewashing stems from wilfull ignorance or malicious intent. Even when creators aren’t doing this on purpose – for example yellowface – the intent doesn’t matter when the damage is very real. They need to be more sensitive about how you portray diverse characters and how you include diversity in your story. One guest proposes that whitewashing happens because the default is white – everything else, including Asianness, is othered and not considered normal. Doesn’t this have a dehumanising effect on the non-dominant groups? Another guest talks of the trope of the model minority when it comes to Asians where Asians are the “well-behaved” diverse group which in turn marginalises other people of colour as well as Asians who don’t fit into the tropes and stereotypes this construct imposes. One guest adds that the model minority myth may also impact casting decisions because creators may think the Asian-Americans won’t complain. It’s difficult for Asian-Americans to write their own stories which reflect their experiences and perspectives if there’s no room for them at the creator table or an opportunity for them to enter the room. When Asian characters are represented, their stories are in the background whereas white characters are placed at the forefront; one of the reasons why Crazy Rich Asians was so empowering to Asian-Americans. Another guest points out that even in the background in a post-apocalyptic world, there are no Asians.
“It’s the unspoken rule of sci-fi. You can have Asian culture but no Asian bodies. And you can have black bodies but absolutely no black culture.”
The failure of imagination when it comes to what kind of stories can include Asian-Americans means that there’s a very limited scope of representation. This includes immigrant experience/Asian gangster/I really like white girls. Another stereotype sees all Asians as martial artists don’t need to be as limiting as they have been if you give more depth to the characters and don’t essentialise the character into that one tropey trait The Asian-American experience isn’t an all-encompassing umbrella – there should be room for different kinds of stories. One of the guests points out she hadn’t ever seen a dark-skinned South Asian descent actor have more than a line which wasn’t played for comic effect before Mindy Kaling. There’s nuances even within Asian representations. In India too, fair-skinned representations in Bollywood movies are predominant which has class and caste connotations.
On the sexual politics of Asian-Americans, they talk about how Asian sexuality is only seen as something for non-Asian consumption. Asian experiences are erased and straight Asian male characters aren’t shown in romantic/sexual roles. When it comes to mixed-race Asian people, there are even more nuances where they are further marginalised. There advocate for more representations with other intersectional identities such as increased visibility of queer Asians or Asians with disabilities.
They discuss the unfair burden that the few shows/movies which have Asian-American protagonists have on them. Everyone has high expectations of the show because there are few other choices – this might be at the cost of the story the show/movie itself wants to tell. On the other hand, many of the culturally specific themes might find universal appeal because even if you approach it differently, a lot of things reflect your own concerns. This is different from dominant culture’s experiences with shows which reflect them and their lives. As one of the guests points out, white people watching FRIENDS aren’t worried about whether they got it right in the same way Asian-Americans watching something like Fresh Off The Boat would
8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Ghost In The Shell
The episode discusses the backlash against casting Scarlett Johanssen in one of the roles, another example of whitewashing in blockbuster movies to make it more “marketable”. How can Asian actors become “bankable” movie stars if they don’t cast them?
Another aspect of this is that whitewashing may be much more important to Asian-Americans than Asians elsewhere. For example, the episode talks about how people in Japan were baffled at the whitewashing controversy. Since they have a thriving industry with lots of Japanese representation, they didn’t think it was a big deal. Some thought that Hollywood is a little silly anyway whereas others believed anime doesn’t outline the race of characters anyway so it was all right. They talk about the Astroboy creator who thought anime characters should be racially indistinct or draw influences from Western cartoons to have a broad global appeal. This inspired other Japanese anime creators. This also has a connection with post-second-world-war Japan when they were aware of the negative anti-Japanese stereotypes and sentiments in the US so their cultural exports were as benign as possible in terms of representation. At the same time, the characters spoke Japanese, ate Japanese food, engaged in Japanese practices – but their racial identity didn’t reflect this. One of the guests proposes that this reflects the shame and humiliation a lot of Japanese people felt after the Second World War.
Asian-Americans, on the other hand, embraced anime because they were otherwise starved of representation in Western media. Anime presented them with familiar names, food, and culture which is what is important to them. As Eric says, when anime is done well, it doesn’t feel like cultural appropriation, it feels like cultural exchange where everything seems both foreign and familiar at the same time. This would reflect in the interpretations of both Asian-Americans as well as white audiences.
9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Growing Up Avatar American
Guest Sam Kaden Lai talks about his perspectives as an Asian-American fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated show with heavy Asian influences. He discusses how Asian-Americans have such few people of colour to dress up as for Halloween reflecting the lack of representation in media. He is largely alienated by the SFF genre which is largely white and Eurocentric. Which is why he found Avatar so refreshing. The show offers a different kind of fantasy where the vibe is Asian-American even though the creators of the show aren’t Asian-American themselves. They are white guys who are really influenced by Asian culture. This could otherwise be problematic but Sam thinks they pulled it off. He thinks it’s the perfect Asian-American show because while the context of the show is very American, the culture is very Asian. For example, fliers in the show have Chinese letters, the food is Asian. Sam says that Asian food in American contexts is his strongest memory from childhood. As Sam points out, in a fantasy world, they could have made up the food but they chose to incorporate Asian food. They did their research and represented it in a way which found excited recognition among Asian-American audiences.
This research is reflected in other aspects of the show too, martial arts, for example. A lot of Asian people worked on the show and tried to make it as authentically Asian as possible. The show signposted Asian elements in this fictional fantastical world, similar to how Game of Thrones signposts England but also incorporates its own elements. Sam points out that the show conflates a lot of different Asian cultures which would otherwise be problematic but the hybrid Asian identity and mash-ups reflect the Asian-American experience. Even spirituality in the form of Buddhism was slipped into a mainstream American children’s show – something that is very rare in Western TV. It also has Indian influences – the word avatar comes from Indian Hinduism to mean reincarnation (though that’s in Buddhism too).
Aang’s story as a refugee/immigrant where he is the only surviving Airbender whose people were murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. He escaped by flying away on Appa which one of the guests considers similar to Vietnamese history where one of their parents fled on boats. The trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people draws analogies to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima – a great Asian-American story as Sam argues. However, some of his friends poked holes in this theory – so not everyone considers the show as such.
Sam points out that many white people don’t see the difference between Asian films and Asian-American films. An Asian making a film set in Asia will be completely different than an Asian-American making a film set in the US. In the former case, Asians aren’t minorities. Even in Avatar, the Asians aren’t minorities; in fact, there aren’t any minorities because there are so many different cultures. But this is what Sam loves because nobody is a foreigner and nobody is marginalised for their culture. At one point, Aang finds a food disgusting but he doesn’t make fun of the food and instead tries to hide his feelings. It displays an encounter with unfamiliar cultural elements within an inclusive space.
The episode briefly touches on The Legend of Korra which ends with an implied gay couple between dark-skinned Korra and East-Asian Asami. According to one of the guests, this affirms both queerness and ethnicity. They didn’t confirm this couple on the show but they did in the comics (presumably because mainstream networks still not comfortable with queerness in children’s media which is changing as is evident in She-Ra and Kipo).
“If you’re trying to represent a group instead of relating to them, then basically you’re placing them in the position of the other.” – Eric
The writer Nina Coomes talks about her love of Pokemon while growing up in Japan. She then discusses how moving to the US to rural Illinois at the age of 7 meant that she couldn’t communicate anymore and the discomfort that came with that.
“In essence, I went from being completely linguistically comfortable—reading, writing, and speaking at grade level—to being functionally illiterate. I could say that I was hungry, that I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I couldn’t read or write.”
The politics of language where only the dominant tongue confers the aura of intelligence and an ability to exist and communicate comfortably in society. It’s the marginalised person and language who has to do all the hard and extra work. The dominant groups and languages expect assimilation. The essay explores the immigrant experience in an all-white space where your personality is affected if you don’t speak the language – both linguistically as well as culturally.
Nina felt a spark of hope when Pokemon arrived in the US but this was soon extinguished when she realised she didn’t recognise any of the names. They had been translated from Japanese to English, an experience which succeeded in further alienating her. This experience also served in pushing her away from Pokemon because it compounded the feelings of loneliness and not fitting in – she became an anti-fan. The things that you lose and find when you shift to a new culture and the things which retain or lose importance is interesting and sad. Nina unexpectedly reconnected with her beloved childhood media as an adult and found her childhood feelings of wonder, adventure and joy. Perhaps it signified now being comfortable with a different language, culture, and country.
“I did not at all expect to be completely suffused with giddy, effervescent euphoria, but that’s what Detective Pikachu did. In Detective Pikachu, I saw Pokémon inhabit space as if they were real. During the first establishing shots of Rhyme City, I watched agog at the many Pokémon that filled the screen. Their vibrant furs ruffling in movie wind; they slithered, fluttered, and meandered down streets. They walked, flew, and swam alongside humans, cawing, chirping, and roaring. Seeing this somehow bypassed the memories of sadness and pain I associated with the franchise, and accessed instead that old, unlikely joy.”