— Dalai Lama
— Dalai Lama
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
— Eckhart Tolle
— Julian Barnes, My Life as a Bibliophile
— nayyirah waheed, ism
i wanna die but then im like idk jk
I word-vomited a couple thousand words on Asian Americans and media, and then spent four hours paring it all down to what you see below.
I’ve spent the last few weeks contemplating Asian Americans and media, as have many people, thanks to #CancelColbert and the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. I have a not-so-Suey-related conclusion to this all: Asian Americans need to stop pussyfooting about media representation.
This may seem anachronistic, especially since the purpose and existence of this blog is rooted in highlighting Asian American representation in media, but to enact real change in media, real change, the world needs more than a convoluted, blerched hashtag and more than hand-wringing, derisive outcry over whitewashed casts and ever-persistent stereotypes.
Some things to note, as I keep dragging you along:
- Many, many people have written extensively about #CancelColbert, and a good number of folks have written worthwhile pieces from different perspectives with different analyses: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13
- In a sweep of glorious irony, #CancelColbert somewhat foretold the end of ‘Stephen Colbert,’ but Stephen Colbert got the last laugh and the world of late night has got itself a new
wardance-off. The #CancelColbert hashtag will indubitably be wiped from society’s memory in the next few weeks, if not already, because situationally, protesting Stephen Colbert is wholly unlike protesting Mickey Rooney. #pickyobattles
- The entertainment industry already has many existing structures in place to self-filter, both internally (such as the legal department and Standards & Practices) and externally (various watch groups, content distributors, the FCC). What you see on television is rigorously regulated, with content strainers codified for company, network, show, audience, advertisers, and accessibility. The standards of South Park Sesame Street has not.
- Whether or not something will please the audience is often not the first thing on show creators’ minds. Anthony Bourdain said this pretty well earlier this week: “If you think about who the audience is and what their expectations might be, I think that’s the road to badness and mediocrity… You go out there and show the best story you can as best you can. If it’s interesting to you, hopefully it’s interesting to others. If you don’t make television like that, it’s pandering.”
- Not to say that having expectations of respect for all groups of people leads to “badness and mediocrity,” but take another look at our First Amendment. We can say whatever we want to, with the exception of fighting words. Also, the First Amendment means you can get called out for expressing yourself as an ignorant and oppressive asshole.
TL;DR: Asian Americans need to stop self-victimizing when they call out horrid or unsavory representations in the industry. Boo-hoo-fucking-hoo, because entertainment, and media representation, is not insulated from change, and if you, the audience, truly want change, want your kind of change, there’s two ways to be heard in media.
- With your wallet.
- With your self.
The first is pretty straightforward: put your money where your mouth is. Boycotts and protests, though hard to organize because of the spread and fractured reality of the Asian American community, aren’t necessarily your most effective tools for change, because "we can’t and shouldn’t avoid engaging with the bad and ugly of our American legacy," a la Jeff Yang, and because we’re such a small fraction of the audience, removing ourselves from the audience has no significant impact on the bottom-line, and reinforces the idea that Asian Americans are not part of the American audience, that companies don’t need to worry about what they put out for fear of alienating us, because we’ve already put up that dividing line. Asian American audiences, on a national level, simply don’t have enough clout to play in the major leagues just yet.
On the other hand, however, what are you doing with your money? And your time? And your effort?
Big media is kind of like junk food, where it’s accessible and everywhere and everyone knows it. Just like the snack food aisle, though, there are alternative options of media, on the fringe and hard-to-reach shelves, produced by the same big companies that produce your junk food, but in significantly smaller volume because they perceive there isn’t a market for the ‘specialty’ items. And then when nobody buys the special stuff, like the comic books about and by persons of color, then big media’s idea of a faltering market is reinforced and they get the message that to dabble outside of their formulas is a waste of time.
That’s not to say you should settle for some shitty television show just because it stars people of color and is from people of color: you can have your standards, you can keep your preferences, but if you dislike what the mainstream media offers, take an extra step to find the truly diverse content that you like, because it (probably) exists out there. (Coloring an otherwise-white character so that the diversity box is checked is tokenism). Get off your lazy ass!
Now, the second method of being heard in media does require more: more Asian Americans working in the media! Year after year we get lobbied with how abysmal the numbers are for Asian American faces on television, but nobody knows the percentage of Asian Americans working in entertainment off-screen, except for ‘very few.’ Asian Americans, as a group, need to gird themselves for increased likelihood of subjective discrimination in the workplace and recognize the value of arts and arts-related careers.
Asian Americans in front of the camera get platforms to call out racism, but often after-the-fact: see Mindy Kaling’s frustration at SXSW, Azis Ansari on twenty-year-old Indian stereotypes, Julie Chen and double-eyelid surgery, and Lucy Liu on a career chuffed with dragon ladies.
Working in media, though, also involves lots to do behind the scenes and beyond the studios, and there’s a dearth of racism and discrimination, overt and inadvertently microaggressive, experienced backstage and in the cubicles and conference rooms, much of which audiences will never see on-screen. Like most oppression, though, what does make it on-screen is often from a place of ignorance, that the largely Caucasian media workforce does not realize is discriminatory…
…because there’s often not a person of color. Persons of color working in media should not have to carry a burden of speaking for their group, but sometimes (a lot of times), those persons will take it upon themselves, when a piece of content-in-progress may be problematic, to speak out and edify their teams why such-and-such is problematic. Sometimes, those persons don’t even need to speak out; their presence alone is enough to remind the homogeneity at large that they may need to take another look at what they’re producing. Depending on the career level, the network, the power any one of those persons may have, things will change. We, as an audience, though, just happen to never really know about these conversations, but as an Asian American working in the media, I can testify that what we see on screen is only a fraction of what those of us working in the media see, endure, coax and create.
Over the Garden Wall
Congratulations to Pat McHale, former/key Adventure Time writer and creative director, as Cartoon Network’s announcing his Over the Garden Wall miniseries will premiere this fall. The miniseries, the network’s first, will span ten parts and will feature the voices of Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, and Melanie Lynskey. Over the Garden Wall stems from Pat’s short “The Tome of the Unknown.” If it’s anything like that cartoon, it will be among the most beautiful animated shows you’ve ever seen. If we ever wanted to see a production Tumblr, it’s for this.
Hands-down the most beautiful animation I’ve seen from Cartoon Network, with incredible pacing and super-intriguing story, even after reading the log-lines. Watched the short about 18 times and it gets better every viewing; looking forward to seeing the mini-series and working on it has been a mystery in and of itself. It’s very different from anything CN has done… ever, really, and is very distinct compared to the current Studios shows.
Forever wondering if I am contributing to a conversation by using my own experiences or being self centered and rude.