Monday, April 2, 2012

My Brother's Keeper

Asian Representation By Asians.....

The YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily blog published a post recently about a movie project that is in the works from one of the blog's writers, Quentin Lee. The project is being described as a "slasher" movie, in which the protagonist is an Asian man who has been driven psychotic as a result of pervasive racial denigration and stereotyping throughout his life. As you can see from the comments section of the post, this premise has elicited some degree of opposition. But what most interested me was some of the dialogue in the comments section in which a couple of points are made with which I happen to disagree. This is the first comment of interest...
“White” films are able to tell whatever stories they want. Because no one film portrays their race. There’s enough of them that it’s not an issue. Asian films from Asia are the same. So in order for this to stop being an issue for Asian-American films, there must be enough, where the variety and volume of films won’t warrant the discussion. But we can’t achieve that without supporting ALL works, regardless of what it’s about.
I simply disagree with this because "white" films well and truly do represent the white race on many levels. The industry's machinations seem set up to ensure that white actors land most of the meaty roles and production funding and hence the story-telling most often reflects all the good things that white America wants to believe about itself. Although it is certainly true that white movies show some white characters as evil, their negative qualities are always off-set by other white people who possess the "right" values that exemplify the awesomeness of white culture and its values. Surely, this is "representing" the white race.

Furthermore, discrimination, as well as societal chauvinisms mean that the American film industry is monopolized by predominantly white producers and investors who favour white actors and "white" stories. This results in discrimination against Asian actors - particularly Asian men - which is a well-established and accepted practice within the industry. So to claim that mainstream (white) film-makers do not, as a matter of course, positively represent their race is a dubious claim at best.

The same commenter goes on to say the following.....

.......I strongly feel that Asian-American films are not obligated to be responsible for representing our race. Their only obligation is the representation of the Asian-American artist making it. The VOLUME of Asian-American films is going to determine and represent our culture. Not a single film. The aggregate will create the culture we’re all so concerned about representing...
This  idea that the Asian artist has no obligation to represent their race is a point of view that I have heard voiced by several Asian artists (mainly writers and film-makers). The suggestion seems to be that works of creativity carry with them an implicit freedom that cannot and should not be molded into a pre-packaged framework that might limit the very creative process itself. Often this defence is offered in response to criticisms that the work of Asian artists often focuses on the negative aspects of Asian cultures and people (in much the same way that the mainstream media does) so instead of promoting an alternative and positive representations it simply reinforces existing stereotypes and characteristics created by non-Asians that limit the definition and concept of what it might mean to be Asian.

In some cases - many cases, perhaps - this is a valid and accurate assessment of the way that, what is termed "Asian-American arts" conceives of itself and its work in relation to the mainstream. It seems to me that there is often a drive to produce work that is palatable to mainstream America, and thus commercial considerations (i.e. the sellability of a product to mainstream America) play a major role in how Asian artists may seek to portray Asian people. Yet, this is something of a conundrum that I've never really heard anyone address. Allowing one's work to be defined by mainstream sensibilities - something that many Asian artists seem happy to do - is itself limiting and no less so (and possibly even more so) than the expectation that artists should represent the community. Surely the pressures of commercial aspirations are as much of a compromise of creative expression as is any obligation to represent the race?

Perhaps this is why Asian-American creative output has generally been somewhat irrelevent in the broader context of modern western artistic endeavour - it seems that it all too often chooses the path of least resistance which may also happen to be the most limiting compromise. A significant issue in discussing this subject is one of definitions. When we say "Asian-American arts", what exactly does that mean? What exactly does it mean to "represent the race" and why on earth would anyone do such a thing?

It is entirely possible (probable even) that the term "Asian-American arts" is meaningless, yet it is used routinely and habitually to describe something, or a group of things, for which it is hopelessly incapable of describing. It is a catch-all phrase that says nothing about a point of view or a worldview. There is no Asian-American stylistic character (except perhaps a rather droll penchant for a fatalistic angst and cultural self-flagellation) and "Asian-American arts" doesn't describe a "movement" devoted to an idea or point of view and driven by a group of like-minded thinkers. Certainly the term does imply some kind of Asian-American worldview (which without a commitment to represent the race may actually be an oxymoron), but ultimately the term is so all-encompassing in its vagueness that it has no meaning.

This is important when considering the the idea of "representing the race". Why Asian-American artists would seem to be so vehemently opposed to this idea is bewildering, and their opposition explains why Asian-Americans have a "roll-your-eyes" attitude towards their own cultural "elite". After all, few people within the community would deny that negative media representation and hostile stereotyping have caused immense harm for the Asian minority. So, the simple response to the question of why Asian artists should represent their race is that we are in dire need of being fairly represented. Isn't that reason enough?

Furthermore, much of the endeavours of Asian-American activism involves complaints and protests against the media, and the hostile-to-Asians celebrities it regularly produces, in which it is demanded that mainstream America portray Asian characters respectfully and fairly.Yet, why should the mainstream be obliged to represent the Asian race fairly, when many - and sometimes well-known - Asian artists themselves see no reason to? This attitude itself enables mainstream apathy and cynicism in tackling the issue of fair and balanced media representation of Asian people and is a contradiction of one of the most widely supported tenets of Asian activism - the struggle to combat the propagation of anti-Asian attitudes and xenophobic political rhetoric by a hostile media.

Is it surprising that there seems to be such distrust and cynicism towards Asian-American artists from within their own community? Even more surprising is that Asian writers and film-makers are themselves shocked (and indignant) that Asians react negatively to the news that they don't have a commitment to represent their community, and that they might, indeed, be supplying mainstream America with more ammunition for their prejudices.

I think that ultimately, it may all come down to this idea of what it means when we use the term "Asian-American" in relation any creative endeavour . To me it doesn't mean anything, and much confusion would be averted if we dropped the term altogether when discussing work produced by Asian-American artists. That way there wouldn't be the expectation of some kind of representation and the artist could assert their creative identity. Perhaps this simple act would initiate the beginning of actual creative "movements" informed by the Asian-American experience (perhaps), that reflects an autonomous worldview and historical perspective, that relies less on squeezing the Asian narrative into restrictive mainstream American sensibilities and more on the power of its own original creative value to attract a following.


  1. well said; except it's a bit too much of an academic jargon style to be easily readable.

    (that's why APA academics aren't more being read, because of the arcane language getting in the way of ideas)

    I always said if these APA 'filmmakers' want to make 'universal films' with negative characters then they should just make them white if they complain the APA audiences don't support them.

    after all, Justin Lin and John Chu are doing pretty good for making mainstream white people movies.

    the other thing is that there's always youtube. the quality is a bit lacking, but over the last two years we've seen more varied and positive portrayals than the last twenty from haolewood.

  2. Hi crazy

    I disagree about the language part! It's what is missing from the dialogue.

    But yes, it's hard for me to take filmmakers seriously who bemoan a lack of support but pompously deny their obligations to uphold the integrity of our image.

    If our own artists are not obliged to do that, then how can we demand that mainstream America do so?

  3. asians dont give a shit about each other. the end.

    1. I probably wouldn't agree with that. I would say the opposite is true.