Monday, June 05, 2006

The Grass is Just as Yellow Over There

Every year around February, one of my favourite traditions is to find a small group of friends, make a giant tub of popcorn, print out the Academy Award ballot and have everyone fill it out, and watch the Academy Awards straight through while heckling the lame comedy of the poor schlub they got to be Master of Ceremonies and reminiscing over the year's nominated features. Sometimes, I live-blog the event; more often then not, I'm too busy getting lost, for one brief evening, in the magic of the Hollywood industry as only a mere mortal sitting in a dark apartment on her rickety hand-me-down couch seeking a glimpse into a more glamorous life can. I remember watching the 2001 Oscar's back in my junior year of college. I was joining my Lebanese friend, R, and a few others at her place, and that was the year that Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for and eventually won Best Foreign Film. As the featured song from Crouching Tiger was being performed on-stage, someone -- perhaps, I -- made a comment about how disconcerting it was that whenever Chinese people are represented in Hollywood, we're always a caricature of our true selves: whether we're incessently martial arts-ing, flying through the air on invisible wires, or other two-dimensional representations of Chinese culture. Not that there was anything wrong with Ang Lee's piece de resistance, but I despised the seeming fetish Hollywood had (and still has) for 'the Orient'; a fetish that seemed to fuel overrepresentation of some sort of false Western imagining of a mystical Oriental world, where, as electroman loves to say, 'all Asians can fly'. R immediately countered, growing heated. "At least your culture is represented somewhere in Hollywood," she responded, "being misrepresented is better than not being represented at all!" R dismissed claims that the Chinese/Chinese American community might be offended by fetishization of their culture, claiming that fetishism was the sincerest form of flattery. At the time, I admit I couldn't comprehend how R could actually yearn for such dehumanizing attention. This exchange has stuck with me for five years since its original occurrence, as a focal point for what seems to be a constant struggle not only amongst different minority communities, but within minority communities as well. African Americans are arguably hyper-represented by the MTV/BET genre of pop culture: endlessly "bling-blinging" and oozing sex hormones from every orifice for the visual pleasure of the teenaged and twenty-something White audience. Those who aren't hip-hop lyricists and video vixens are gang-banging drug dealers or White-washed suburbanites indistinguishable in the issues they face from their White counterparts, only dipped in a light milk chocolate to add "flavour". Ultimately, there are very few role models that a young Black youth can look to as encouraging positive development, academic achievement, and personal and professional success while remaining authentic to Black culture. In one Canadian study, youths of all races seemed to be internalizing racial stereotypes portrayed in media, and these surveyed youths were overwhelmingly more likely to consider Whites in "good" career paths (e.g. police officer, doctor) and Blacks in lower-class and morally corrupt career paths (e.g. criminal, janitor). Naturally, this would lead Black scholars and thinkers to complain about the types of images we see on television and on the big-screen, even advocating a decrease in media representation if it means a decrease in seeing the same caricature over and over again. And yet, many other minority groups are highly underrepresented, including Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and the LGBTQ community, and despite the fact that what few media representations we do see tend to also be racial or ethnic stereotypes, members of those communities would argue just as vehemently that what is more damaging to youths of those communities is the media invisibility of people like them. Those who feel ignored by Hollywood would sacrifice some caricaturizing in favour of any attention whatsoever -- and indeed, I (now, but not in 2001) can relate, for some of my most memorable interactions with Hollywood as a child were instances in which I found a character I identified with on a physical level: Dante Basco's Rufio in Hook cemented Basco as one of my favourite actors of all times precisely because I hadn't, until that point, been exposed to any meaningful characters who "looked like me". As a strong, independent leader of the Lost Boys, Rufio made aware of the nagging disconnect I had always sensed between myself and the characters I saw on TV, while simultaneously initiating the steps to correct for it. Within the Asian American community, we see a similar struggle between overrepresentation and underrepresentation occurring between the opposing factions of different sub-identities within the Asian American community. Asian American men, for example, complain of an overrepresentation of female Asian American characters in Hollywood and media and link their own underrepresentation with an emasculation stereotype of Asian American men. Politicized Asian American women, recognizing that they have long played the dragon lady prostitute or demure Oriental flower sexual stereotypes for White audiences, lambast women who continue to portray such stereotypes (e.g. Lucy Liu, Zhang Ziyi) in favour of lesser known or more "indie" Asian American actresses willing to go the extra mile to choose roles of more depth and quality (e.g. Sandra Oh in Grey's Anatomy). And certainly, if we take as an example the media of comic books, it is far easier to call to mind female Asian American comic book characters than it is to recall male ones. Yet (at least in comic books), what we see is that despite the infamy of characters like Cassandra Cain, Lady Shiva, Jubilee and Psylocke (all being popular yet stereotypical Asian/Asian American female characters), only 30-40% of Asian/Asian American characters are actually female compared to 60-70% of Asian/Asian American characters being male -- and forgettable. Ultimately, it seems like a case of the "grass always being greener". Every minority community communicates a dislike of the number or type of characters "like them" that they see on television, but the problem occurs when that frustration translates into tension between different communities. Rather than expressing a common distrust for the White mainstream which is responsible for all of our misrepresentations, we see tension and miscommunication between the different marginalized communities, each imagining that the other "has it better" or is "less oppressed" than they are. Herein lies the problem between myself and R -- we were too busy focused on the differences between our issues to see a common theme. If we begin to address the "envy" question, then we see that neither form of representation is positive for the minority community in question, that we all stand to lose either by invisibility or caricatured "hyper-visibility", and that imagining other minority communities as both "better off" and therefore "whiny" is inaccurate and unnecessary. Instead, we should advocate a conservative amount of balanced imagery for all disenfranchised minorities -- and, from a discussion earlier this week between electroman and myself (sparked by a post over at Written World), "balanced" has come to mean an equal representation of (in this case), people of Asian/Asian American descent who are "incidentally" Asian and people of Asian/Asian American descent who vocalize and struggle with being a person of a different identity from the mainstream. For every split-second cameo appearance of an Asian/Asian American mutant in X3 (i.e. Quill and Psylocke, both of whom had basically no powers, character development, or raison d'etre other than for the sake of Magneto sporting a United Colours of Benetton crew of henchmen), and for every "yellow spin" on a White formula (i.e. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which, though showcasing non-stereotypical Asian American protagonists in a typically Caucasian genre of comedy, nonetheless introduced insider humour to outsider audiences in a way that brought to mind a certain level of buffonery when dealing with race, rather than emphasizing the seriousness and sometimes pain of racism), we need the calculated inclusion of policitized characters like those from Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow or Alice Wu's Saving Face, who can remind us that Asian Americans shouldn't be included merely as racial tokens but as purveyors of a unique perspective worth exploring through the medium of film and print media. On the other hand, we don't need any more of the same stereotypical drivel. Enough with the hypersexualized gay men who just can't get enough ass until they (and they alone) invariably test HIV-positive to teach all straight people a lesson on promiscuity while still stereotyping HIV/AIDS as "a gay disease". Enough with the kung fu fighters who, if White: can get a woman, and who, if yellow: can't. Enough with the rap gangbangers "keepin' it real" with "money, ho's and clothes". And enough with Bai Ling as yet another leather-clad bondage queen. Actually, no more Bai Ling at all, please. I'm sure we can all agree to that. Cross-posted: Asian Pacific Americans for Progress


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"grass always being greener"

Very VERY true.Every minority thinks they have it worse than the other in many situations, and are more than willing to point it out.

Personally, I would like to see more minorities as regular everyday people.They don't have to be walking talking stereotypes, and they don't have to be over politicalized either.I'm not saying that it's not needed(the political part).Just that we don't need to go overboard with their racial identity.Just like you said, we need balance.

-Philly Jay

6/07/2006 12:09:00 AM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

Phillyjay said "Personally, I would like to see more minorities as regular everyday people. They don't have to be walking talking stereotypes, and they don't have to be over politicalized either."

The best examples I can think of for Asian Americans were Asian American-produced indie films like BLT, Charlotte Sometimes, Saving Face. Harold and Kumar wasn't an indie film nor was it made by Asian Americans, the characters were everyday people but the film had homophobic and sexist elements. I can't think of any politicized characters in these films.

6/12/2006 04:31:00 AM  

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