Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Julie Chen's New Eyelids

Did She Sell-Out Her Epicanthus?

Most readers will have heard by now of Julie Chen's revelations on the television show, The Talk, in which she discussed her eye-lid surgery. The link to the video is here.

In short, Chen revealed how as a young television reporter in Dayton, Ohio, her world was turned upside down when her boss informed her that she would never anchor on that station because audiences wouldn't be able to relate to her because of her race and racial characteristics. In addition to that, she was told that the shape of her eyes made her appear disinterested and bored when conducting interviews. Insulted, hurt, and with shattered confidence, she resolved to leave her job, and so she consulted with a "big-time" agent who promptly reiterated what her boss had said, insisting that he would not represent her unless she undergo eyelid surgery to make her eyes "look bigger". After much soul-searching, Chen decided to go ahead and have the work done, after which she relates that her career took off.  Of course, the response to the news has been mixed with some commentators labeling her as some kind of sell-out, or traitor to the Asian race, but I think this reaction is without nuance.

I applaud Chen's revelations because she spoke about anti-Asian racism on a mainstream television show, and she did so in a way that clearly showed the emotional and psychological pain that it can cause. A television show presenter of Chen's stature - and perhaps popularity - speaking about the pain of racism, makes anti-Asian racism personal. This is important because one aspect of anti-Asian racism is about denying personhood of individuals and applying stereotyping so that any Asian person's given racial characteristics become associated with negative and demeaning qualities that block empathy or commonality with Asians.

Most importantly for me, is that Chen made mention of racism she experienced at the hands of other children in the school environment. As I have written in several places previously, it may be possible to gauge how ingrained anti-Asian prejudices are in the US by observing the degree to which these attitudes find expression amongst children. My guess is that almost all Asians who have been raised in the US and go through the American school system have experienced racial harassment, bullying, or violence, at the hands of their peers at some point in their childhood. It's difficult to deny racism when it manifests through the children.

Yet, despite the fact that anti-Asian racism is so ingrained that even the children express it, the phenomenon is rarely discussed or even acknowledged in the mainstream. Asians themselves seem reluctant sometimes to speak candidly about anti-Asian racism. But Chen has done just that, and while watching the video, and observing the discomfort of the other presenters - save the two African-American ones, perhaps - as well as the hushed anticipation of the audience, I rather fancied that there was embarrassment and a sense of "we're busted", kind of like when you shine a light on cockroaches.

I think that it would be too easy to say that Chen should never have had the surgery because it was somehow "giving in", but I think this is ungenerous in the extreme. One of the reasons racism is so potent is that there is no easy defence against it. Racial violence is the one exception to this rule - if you are the target of violence, it is natural to defend yourself physically and so the response to racist violence is obvious. Non-physically-violent racism, on the other hand, has no natural response but it leaves emotional and physical scars that are hard to even identify let alone heal because they become so much a part of a person's worldview.

Because of this, it is highly unfair to judge Chen's actions because no-one truly knows how they would or could react if they were in the same situation. Should she have slapped her boss and stormed out? Should she have made a complaint? Should she have brought legal action? The problem with these is that to do any of these things could have made her a pariah in the industry, but it has to be recognized that her determination to succeed has put her in a position in the mainstream media where she can speak directly and honestly about anti-Asian racism. In that light, it seems self-righteous - and perhaps a little petty - to judge her surgery as some kind of affront to Asian racial identity. The fact is, that Chen still looks Asian - very Asian, in fact, and even though you may be able to see more iris, she in no way looks "more Caucasian".

And this brings me to the only caveat I have about this subject. Chen seems to suggest that the surgery was a significant factor  in her rise to success, but I'm a tad skeptical. But if you compare the side-by-side photo below of a before and after surgery, there are several things that stand out that give me pause. Firstly, in the before, Chen looks dowdy and somewhat old-fashioned. Her hair is an 80's cut, her make-up is not very sophisticated, and even a little heavy-handed. On the right, the make-up is refined and sophisticated, and the hair is contemporary and stylish. Secondly, Chen mentions that her confidence was shot (of course!), and this is apparent in the photo - the face on the right is confident and open, the face on the left is open, but not confident.


The point is that there are other factors that could account for Chen's success, that only coincide with her having surgery, and that she could have achieved similar results just in the way she applied her make-up. Granted, her agent only became enthusiastic about her after she had the surgery, but who can say that if he had shown similar enthusiasm for her prior to the surgery that she wouldn't have succeeded anyway? So my caveat is that Chen is inadvertently promoting a surgical procedure by believing it to have more transformational power than it actually possesses.

At the end of the day, she made a personal decision that no-one really has the right judge. Granted, it brings up issues of upholding beauty standards that put unfair pressure on minorities to emulate, but the process has brought her to a place where she is willing and able shine a light on anti-Asian racism, and that is the thing we should focus on, and not personalize her decision as though it was intended as a personal insult to Asians.


  1. Pretty disappointed white media focused on Asian's negative response with cries of sellout to deflect the issue of institutionalized racism.

    Her before picture really does look like an 80's Asian reporter. I guess the lack of Asian role models led her to that look. Weird thing is it doesn't look like her eyes are particularly bigger after surgery. Maybe she could have achieved the same result with just make up, but isn't that nearly the same thing? Changing yourself to look more relatable to a white audience? In the end she's doing something for what is perceived as the sake of a group of people that refuse to emphathize with someone because of a piece of skin on the eye.

    1. I also noticed - and was not surprised - that the media focused as much on the backlash from some Asians than the actual accusations of anti-Asian racism.

      I'm disappointed in the backlash against her because as a community we are always talking about needing "Asian people in the media" to speak about Asian issues, and then we get someone who is willing to do it, and we focus on whether she sold out.

      She may well have sold out - or not - but the value of her speaking about racism over-rides that consideration. The sad part is - as you pointed out - instead of leading to reflection in the media, the focus has turned onto the Asian reaction, and probably the reaction of just a few Asians at that.