My Take: Asian Representation Isn't Representing Me Yet
Recently, Disney published the first trailer for the upcoming live-action Mulan As much as there was excitement for the trailer, there was much criticism of how much it trails away from the 1998 animated movie. The most notable buzz surrounding the film was how it contributed to Asian representation in western media. Seeing the trailer reminded me again about Asian representation. Representation of Asian and Asian American identities have increased in mainstream media in the past few months, specifically in 2018 when Crazy Rich Asians came out and made millions in the box office. It was a huge milestone in terms of representing Asian American identity outside of the usual stereotypes, and something that independent film had been working towards for decades. It seems from the audience perspective that since Crazy Rich Asians was released Asian representation has relatively increased with Always Be My Maybe and Stubber serving as examples of this.
However, I have a small confession to make: I never seen Crazy Rich Asians.
It’s not like I never had the opportunity to; I could’ve watched it on 3 separate occasions. When the film came out, I felt extremely guilty because, technically, I am Asian American. News articles and Twitter were telling me that I should be excited for this film as an Asian American. The idea was that this film could and would represent and empower me. It got to the point where I felt especially guilty when I saw my friends on Facebook (most of whom are not Asian American) projecting the same message of representation and excitement. I was just not excited and, therefore, I never saw it.
How was I not excited for a film that, according to everyone else, was supposed to represent me?
The thing is: Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t represent me and that’s okay.
To be frank, a lot of these films that are “representing asian identity” don't really represent me at all. Earlier I said I’m “technically, Asian American”. The word technically points out the one size fits all term Asian American. The term Asian is supposed to describe anyone originating from the continent of Asia. So this includes: As a Filipina American, I am “technically” Asian American by definition. However, we need to consider that Asia consists of 48 countries- all with different cultures and heritages; only sharing a few similarities.
Now let’s look at the films that Hollywood hails as inclusion Asian representation- most revolve around an East Asian identity, meaning those from or have a heritage from China, Japan, and/or Korea. Even though these movies may consist of non-east asian actors such as English-Malaysian actor, Henry Golding in Crazy Rich Asians, the actors are playing characters who are East Asian. As a Filipina American, I don’t see myself in these characters. Of course, there are a few aspects of their identity that I can relate to, but I mostly cannot relate culturally, which is something I discovered through my own personal experiences growing up.
The one size fits all characteristic of “Asian” was a bit intentional upon its creation and popularization in 1968. It helped create a collective identity between Asian immigrants and communities in the United States since many were discriminated against such as Chinese and Japanese Americans. However, it becomes more complex the closer we look at it. To reiterate, there are 48 countries in Asia where aspects of their culture, heritage, and even health can differ between each other, meaning that each community that is labeled under “Asian American” have different needs and opinions. There needs to be a distinction. Even in the National Asian American survey, a political research project conducted by Karthick Ramakrishnan, Jennifer Lee, Taeku Lee, and Hanelle Wong, while able to collect data on Asian Americans by ethnicity- they still struggled with “Asian” as the overarching term.
In my research I’ve found it near impossible to find reports of representation in film/tv that separated Asian Americans by ethnicity. The struggle to find inclusive research directly intersects with the issues of erasure and colorism. With these films hitting mainstream audiences and racking up blockbuster numbers, there are many Asian Americans that reclaim the term yellow. However, yellow excludes those who identify as brown in the Asian American community as Dr. E.J. Ramos David, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and writer of Brown Skins, White Minds, points out in his tweet:
The lack of nuances with Asian American representation not only affects the consumer but also affects those within the industry. Tess Paras, actress, writer, and director who most notably played as Janna Chan in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, tweets,
To be East Asian is not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful identity that SHOULD be celebrated on screen. But to depict all folks in the “Asian” community as a monolith is a disservice to all of the individuals out there.
I almost see myself in Mulan.
I almost see myself in One Day at a Time.
Asian Americans out there should not settle with being “almost” represented. As a Filipina American who grew up on the streets of Chicago, it might take a while to find myself fully on screen. Hollywood is an institution and a rigid system to change but as individuals, we can also make change.
There’s ways to create change that can last.
1) Pay attention to the Asian and Asian Americans representation you’re seeing on screen - is it working within the confines of colorism and erasure?
2) Your ticket is your form of support. Go see, buy, and support films that are expanding media’s view of “Asian”. Are you checking out Stubber this summer? It stars Pakistani-American, Kumail Nanjiani and Greek-Filipino-American, Dave Bautista. Give it some hype!
3) Representation is not just a trending topic for when a new trailer is released, it’s the choice to live with inclusivity and to challenge the beliefs you have to make change.
Marissa is a freelance illustrator and activist who is about to start her senior year at Connecticut College. She is pursuing a major in art and has finished her minor in mathematics. After graduation, she hopes to continue to pursue her passions in representation in media and storytelling. In her free time, she plays video games and reads graphic novels.