Why Media Representation Matters
It was a regular Tuesday night of idly scrolling through different snap stories that looked interesting when I stumbled upon an article from Cosmopolitan about new August Netflix releases. Not thinking anything of it and barely even paying attention to what I was looking at, I opened it to see a bunch of trailers, only to stop dead at To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a movie adaption of a YA novel by Jenny Han.
Staring down at the screen of my phone and watching the first scene of the trailer, I was suddenly struck by a thought. Oh my God the main character of this movie is Asian. Where was this when I was a kid?
I felt like I was punched in the gut and suddenly transported back to when I was a little kid, wondering why I didn’t look like all the other girls around me. I grew up Chinese-American in a predominantly white area and struggled with feeling like I didn’t fit in for the majority of my life and feeling insecure, especially regarding beauty standards. And it definitely didn’t help that media portrayals left out the vast majority of ethnic people. There were very few roles for Asians in popular media that I can remember, and of those roles, most were stereotypical and racist. There were no media portrayals that I felt I could truly relate to.
Frequently, Asian-American men are emasculated in media, while Asian-American women are over-sexualized or overlooked.
Anyone remember Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles? First of all, that name is already racist. His role in the movie was purely for comedic relief, but of the worst kind. His character popped up out of nowhere in scenes and spouted off ridiculous phrases and was morbidly clumsy, doing nothing for the plot. And when he was introduced, a gong played in the background. I mean seriously, a gong? Unfortunately, this isn’t that uncommon. Asian men are commonly portrayed as being shy, socially inept geeks. Or on the flip-side, thanks to Bruce Lee’s popular movies, being some sort of Kung Fu fighter is another stereotype.
In terms of Asian women, they’re portrayed as either being quiet, docile and obedient, or some sexed out exotic creature. For a long time, many Asian women kept being cast as “dragon ladies,” women who were physically attractive, but villainous in nature. Or, they were portrayed as prostitutes or sex workers. None of this is flattering or even remotely true of the general Asian American population.
Another major issue involving Asians in the entertainment industry is whitewashing. A whitewashing story that hit headlines in 2017 was when Scarlett Johansson got cast in the anime remake of Ghost in the Shell. Her character is Japanese and people were outraged at the whitewashing of the role. What message does this send us other than that we essentially are not good enough or beautiful enough?
I rarely ever saw Asian models in things in advertisements, magazines and other publications growing up. It wasn’t until recent years that I started noticing more of a push for diversity. For a long time, the only effort I was seeing being made was maybe one or two people of color being strategically placed in certain photos so that people couldn’t explicitly complain that there was no representation at all.
I essentially grew up in a world where I realized I did not fall under what was accepted as the standard of beauty. I am not white, I do not have light hair or blue eyes. Yet I am just as American as the next person.
Sometimes people look at me and assume that I am not American and may not even speak English. It’s incredibly demeaning as someone who was born and raised in this country.
In an interview with Yahoo Style, actress Shay Mitchell, who is half Filipino, discussed her own struggles with her identity. She explained how she also grew up in a predominantly white area in Canada and had friends who were all blonde-haired and blue-eyed. In high school, she changed her own appearance to try to fit in, dyeing her hair and wearing contacts, even avoiding the sun in order to remain pale.
Now that feeling is something I can relate to - the struggle of accepting one’s own identity. But Shay Mitchell didn’t appear on my radar until I was already almost through my teens. I wish I had heard a perspective like this when I was younger.
My point here is that media representation of POC matters. Let me say that louder for the people in the back. REPRESENTATION MATTERS.
We as people of this society, are constantly being bombarded by information. It’s constantly being thrown at us from every which way, including what we see on television, the news we see, the advertisements we encounter, the books we read, social media, everything. And eventually it seeps into our subconscious. Without proper representation of what our society truly looks like, that is, diverse - we lack public figures that people who are not necessarily part of the majority group can relate to. We lack role models for young children who don’t feel like they fit the mold.
I hope that this step forward in being more inclusive of people of color continues, especially for future generations going forward. We need more positive role models that we can look up to, and people that we can relate to.
To the movie and television producers, casting directors, actors and others in the entertainment industry who are fighting this stigma and working to put a positive foot forward, I thank you.
*This post was originally written in 2018. Since then, more and more work in the media created by and starring POC have seen success and I'm so happy to see that we're continuing to make strides in the right direction.