the mellow yellows
Is race only limited to black and white? What is the fate of those caught in between? Yaleen Ishii's essay, "My Invisible Asian Self," laments the lack of complete and meaningful representation while Brett Lomayma's pin-up classic reminds us that the fantasy often outshines the reality, until we speak up for ourselves.
MY invisible asian self
by yaleen ishii
The 90s and early 2000s was a bit of a renaissance for Jane Austen adaptations, but my teen obsession with period films was always tempered by the bittersweet revelation that I would never see someone who looked like me onscreen wearing an elegant corset and a beautiful, frilly, floor-sweeping gown. As an adult though, I realize that it’s not because people that look like me did not exist in American or European History, but rather that we have been written out of the narrative. While movies like The Last Samurai or 7 Years in Tibet that feature the experiences of white characters witnessing a period of history in Asia, the historical representations of Asian-Americans are glaringly absent from the screen. Where are the TV shows and movies that explore the story of Chinese-Americans who built the Transcontinental Railroad?
Growing up, as a biracial, Asian-American girl in the 90s you didn’t see yourself on screen a lot. When I look back at the part of my childhood I spent in front of the TV, I remember only a few Asian-American girls that I identified with:
1. Tina Nguyen from Ghostwriter
2. Shelby Woo from the eponymous Mystery Files
3. Claudia Kishi from The BabySitter's Club
4. Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls
These characters stood because they had rich internal lives and distinct personalities. They embodied their Asian heritage but also their American identities. Unfortunately, Asian-American characters with that kind of depth are few and far-between in the landscape of American television and film. Last year when the Oscar nominations came out there was an uproar over the fact that not a single person of color had been nominated in an acting category. (#oscarssowhite) Out of curiosity I googled “Academy Awards Asian-Americans” and was shocked when I realized that not only has no Asian-American woman ever won an Oscar for leading actress, it’s actually been 80 years since one was even nominated. The last and only nomination in 1935 was for Merle Oberon, a half-Indian actress who spent most of her life passing as white.
More commonly I would see representation on TV and film in the form of the Asian friend in Clueless or the Asian cheerleader in Bring it On (played by the same actress). These characters always felt empty to me though, they functioned like set-dressing. They provided a sense of diversity on screen but they didn’t have personalities or even speaking lines in most cases. Even worse was encountering characters who were outright stereotypes (e.g. the absurdly named Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles)
I’m not sure which is worse, watching Asian-American characters sitting silently in the background of crowd scenes or watching painfully out-of-date Asian stereotypes, but I remember hungering for more as a kid. The problem with such narrow representation in media is that stereotypes become the dominant narrative in people’s minds. They start to erase your individuality as a person. As the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says,“the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
The other problem with stereotypes is that they are boring. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to watch a TV show about meek, quiet, Asian people who roll their “R”s all the time and run a nail salon because that doesn’t challenge my expectations as a viewer. It’s predictable. Where are stories about the Asians I know? Asians who speak with a Long Island accent? Asians who play sports or do improv? Asians who are chefs in French restaurants?
In 2014, Cinemax came out with a new show called The Knick in which Clive Owen played a surgeon in early 20th century New York City. Even though Clive Owen (and the allure of period costuming) was what initially drew me to the show, it was the character of Dr. Algernon Edwards, a black surgeon played by Andre Holland, that I found the most intriguing. He was a well-educated, skilled professional, but racially he represented the bottom of the totem pole. He represented a bit of paradox in the show and in that time period. I remember staring at a bus stop ad for the show a week after watching the first episode and wondering what happened to Dr. Edwards’s character. Does he give up and go back to Europe? Would he ever be allowed to operate on white patients? Does he eventually win the begrudging respect of Clive Owen’s character so they could raise the standard of living in NYC together? It occurred to me that his character was something quite unique on TV where historical portrayals of people of color are few and far between. I wasn’t interested in his story because he looked like me, but rather because he made me realize how little I know about the struggles and triumphs of minorities in America’s past. In a world where we strive to be original and where it feels like everything of value has already been written about, diversity can be an untapped gold mine of stories and experiences.
Earlier this year, Kara Brown wrote a Jezebel article titled “I’m so Damn Tired of Slave Movies.” Brown acknowledged that while slavery is an important aspect of American and Black History, it is not the only aspect and is perhaps, in danger of becoming the only narrative.
I hear you Kara.
Here’s some films I would like to see:
· A romantic comedy with an Asian lead that doesn’t have a FUCKING accent.
· A superhero movie starring an Asian-American actor/actress. The superhero has some generic superhero power that has nothing to do with discovering a sword or knowing martial arts.
· A coming-of-age story with an Asian female lead. All her best friends are white. They have barely any lines.
· Asian Annie.
· A story about Yuri Kochiyama the Japanese-American civil rights activist.
· A TV miniseries about the old west- from the perspective of Asian-American immigrants who built the railroads.
· A movie about an irrepressible African-Asian-American kid who has an overactive imagination.
· A biopic about the first Asian American movie star, Anna Mae Wong.
· A disaster movie that has nothing to do with Asian-Americans but has an Asian American president.
Maybe in this era where domestic box office sales are declining, it’s time for Hollywood studios to consider new source material. There are so many marginalized groups in society who don’t have a voice, not just people of color but also the disabled, the elderly and the gay and transgender communities. Let’s create more opportunities for people to share their authentic selves. Let’s have entertainment reflect more of the people who are watching it. Let’s have more diversity on screen because it would just be more interesting.
Maybe then I could finally name an actress who could play me in a movie.