Beyond the Silver Screen: The Limitations of Asian American Media Representation

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When I was still in middle school, I and many of my Asian friends probably spent hours watching YouTubers like NigaHiga, Wong Fu Productions, and KevJumba. There was something undeniably special to me about seeing not just Asian people but Asian Americans articulating the same experiences I had growing up.

No one else was joking about Tiger Balm as a panacea, the shoes that piled up at the doorway of Asian parties, and eating every last grain of rice lest you disrespected the farmers who worked so hard to grow it. Even when they weren’t talking specifically about being Asian in America and other Western nations, it was refreshing to see Asian faces and Asian people just fooling around and being visible.

All these years later, Asian American YouTubers still have a special sway in the community. Just last year, ECAASU’s own keynote speakers were Wong Fu Productions.

So it’s not surprising to me to see that media representation has been a focus of Asian American organizing and activism for years. When Fresh Off the Boat started airing three years ago, I couldn’t help myself from marveling that a show with a Chinese American family on a mainstream TV channel could even exist at all. We cheer on Asian American celebrities like Constance Wu when they calls out stereotypes and whitewashing, and certainly for good reason.

But media representation is not and should not be the ultimate goal of Asian American advocacy and activism.

But media representation is not and should not be the ultimate goal of Asian American advocacy and activism. This is not to say pursuing greater visibility is not an important issue or a waste of time. The media and its portrayals of Asian Americans shape the way we are viewed and view ourselves in society. It shapes perceptions and behavior, and we should not stand idly by when Asian women are grossly sexually objectified and when we’re called meek and apolitical.

However when we focus most of our energies on visibility, we make invisible other, deeper issues in the Asian American community. More Asian Americans in film, music, literature, and more Asian Americans taking control of our own narratives, though absolutely welcome changes, will not solve all the problems that our community must tackle.

For starters, many Asian American celebrities are East Asian, with a few South Asians stars, which reflects a chronic problem in the Asian American community that goes beyond media representation. East Asians frequently dominate the Asian American community, spaces, and narratives, eclipsing issues faced by South Asians, Southeast Asians, mixed Asians, and indigenous Asians. East Asian dominance in the term “Asian American” has itself led to efforts to desegregate data, breaking down the umbrella term to more specific nationalities so the needs of very different groups can be properly addressed.

When the data is aggregated, it seems like Asian American median incomes are close to if not exceeding white median incomes, but only certain Asian American groups are doing relatively well. Nearly 20% of Cambodian Americans, for example, live in poverty, higher than both the national rate and the rate for all Asians.

The realm of Hollywood is ultimately far removed from the realities that many immigrant and working-class Asian Americans face every day. Issues of poverty, gentrification, language accessibility, sex worker discrimination, and much more need also to be centered when we talk about Asian American activism.

Additionally, Aziz Ansari (wince with me) said in his widely regarded Netflix show Masters of None, “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about black people or gay people.”

 Image Source: Netflix.com

Image Source: Netflix.com

An anti-black and homophobic statement in itself, it also reveals a critical issue that arises when we get too invested in the project of Asian American media representation.

Media representation is not a zero-sum game in which black people are “taking up space” that should be given to non-black people of color. Asian American invisibility is not the fault of black hypervisibility.

Hypervisibility also comes at a cost. Black people’s bodies are constantly under surveillance and physical danger, followed around in stores, stopped by police, and jailed within prisons. Black people, culture, and bodies are commodified to oblivion by those who exploit the social capital of blackness, which includes not just white people like Miley Cyrus but also Asians like Eddie Huang. Hypervisibility has not solved the problems of police brutality, racial wealth inequality, mass incarceration, nor should we expect it to.

The fundamental issue is not just about who gets to be seen on the silver screen, but who has the power in our society not just to decide who gets the acting roles but who decides policy, who controls institutions, whose voices really count.

The question of who gets to be represented and how does begin to address the issues of power, but if we really want to improve the conditions of our communities, we cannot rely on the means of media representation alone.

Instead we must also directly challenge the institutions and structures that have made whiteness not just the visible symbol of cultural power but also the gatekeeper of social, political, economic, and material power.

This work must be collaborative, not competitive. It must consider not just all Asian Americans but all marginalized communities. Too long have Asian Americans been pitted against, (and in fact pitted themselves), against black Americans. A vision for a more equitable society must include all of us -- and this can only be achieved if we support each other and work together.