As 2018 comes to a close, it is clear that the media will only continue to create a larger impact on the history and culture of Asian Americans. Ranging from the record-setting Hollywood blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, to influential leaders in their field such as culinary extraordinaire and media personality, Eddie Huang, to
our very own, Miss Asian Global Pageant and the Asian America Foundation -- the presence of Asian Americans in the media finally seems to be a relevant topic of discussion.
1. Catalyst for change
That being said, one may ask, “Why is this such a big deal?” It is a big deal because representation is a catalyst for change. It gives marginalized groups louder voices. It is a loophole to creating quicker change due to the use of technology and media. In order to understand this argument, it is beneficial to first look at this problem with a different perspective - through the lens of misrepresentation and underrepresentation. These two situations subtly perpetuate a cycle of inequality in our country. We have become so accustomed to this that it has almost become accepted or even undetected to the masses to see an Asian person depicted as the the “nerd” or the sexualized “girl next door”.
Technology and the media are tools that have the potential to change our world due to the speed by which an idea can spread, as they have made communication much faster and more convenient than ever. The media has the power to shape ideas or even create movements. For example, there was the Black Lives Matter movement which started through the media and expanded through the use of technology.
Art also has the ability to be a peaceful form of protest. We have seen this throughout history through films such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which essentially helped to shape the Civil Rights Movement. By casting White people to play Asian people in films, or by depicting Asian people as a stereotype, it creates this idea that Asians are “lesser than” and strengthens this racial hierarchy that has been in place throughout history. Therefore, when films such as Crazy Rich
Asians or people such as Eddie Huang, or even organizations such as Miss Asian Global stand up for the history, experience, and identity of Asian Americans, the narrative is shifted in a way that begins to even out the playing field.
2. Brings people together and creates cultural awareness
Representation can also bring people together and act as a tool to communicate to the audience. As the first Hollywood movie to have an all Asian cast since the Joy Luck Club in 1993, Crazy Rich Asians has created history with their unprecedented success.
According to the Huffington Post, this movie has been named the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade. This makes plenty of sense as even before being premiered in theaters, this movie naturally drew a lot of curiosity and excitement as one of the only movies in American history that features an all Asian cast. This brought not only Asian Americans, but also many people from all walks of life to the theaters, simply out of the intention to support the movie and the cause. This is important because due to the films portrayal of Asian Americans, it gave non-Asian people who watched the movie a more accurate idea of Asian Americans as well as their culture, ideology, and experience. This, in turn, destroys stereotypes or other racist thought and creates a better sense of cultural awareness.
Along with bringing people together, representation can also act as a means to connect people. It also goes without saying that this movie brought many Asian Americans into the theaters in support of the progress of their own race. This leads to a large influx of Asian people all packed into an intimate theater room where the experience of being Asian American could be shared.
Being in that room was truly a transcendent experience. I watched the movie in the theaters a total of three times, and every time, I would be left in tears, half the time from laughter and the other half, from an intensity of emotion. All of the little special moments in the film would fill the room with energy, such as where familiar phrases spoken in my native language would be comically said by one of the characters that triggering roaring laughter in the audience. I have never experienced such a reactive audience before.
Other moments where some of the struggles or expectations facing Asian American audience members would be highlighted by the film, leading to a sense of connection between audience members. An immediate connection is created, not only between the audience member and the film, but also between audience members themselves who are Asian American. I felt empowered and loved in that room, along with all of the other teary-eyed Asian Americans who were experiencing this movie. That was the best part -- representation connects
people. It does so through showing that people's deepest struggles, past experiences, and inside jokes are shared, and that they are not alone in how they feel.
4. Creates and validates identity
Last but not least and in my opinion, the most impactful reason, is that representation aids in the creation of and validates the identity of the represented. It is the seemingly unimportant moments where people see someone who look like them in the movie theater or on television, and are subconsciously influenced by this experience.
I can safely state that Crazy Rich Asians is my favorite movie because a movie has never made me feel so proud to be who I am before. It is through seeing people who look like you on the big screen who experience things that are unique to your culture that this feeling of validation is achieved. I was able to relate to the characters in a way that I didn’t even realize that I was missing out on before. I felt
empowered -- proud of my heritage and culture. It is absolutely shocking when you realize, after stepping out of the movie theater, what you have missed out on your whole life, that before watching this movie, your culture, identity, and history has been ignored and disrespected by the media and entertainment industry.
My family did not work so hard for so long so that they could immigrate into a country just for their identities to be disrespected at so great a level. It was a painful realization for me, a first generation native born American, to see all of my history, all that my family has endured, all the pain that my race has fought throughout history, to be thrown away with such insurmountably large, yet reckless decisions to cast a White man to play an Asian man or to use the Asian person as the butt of the joke on the big screens.
5. Shift in Culture
Crazy Rich Asians is a landmark film as it is the perfect example of how representation leads to a shift in culture, and therefore -- in history. On the individual level, it is crucial to the formation of identity. It is the collective identities of the individuals of a similar cultural or racial background and the formation of ideas and actions that result from these identities, that lead to cultural and historical change. Representation also empowers people by validating their lives.
On the grand scheme of things, representation is a catalyst for change. For example, by giving Asian women roles such as the character Astrid,
who are whole human beings with thoughts, experiences, and dreams, we can tackle issues such as the glass ceiling, the fetishizing of Asian women, stereotypes, and more. Decisions like these are timeless and truly have the potential to inspire an infinite amount of people. My favorite character in the movie, Astrid, is a movement - a symbol of who Asian American women are and who young girls aspire to become. This is why this movie has such a cult following. It is the first of its kind to create an experience such as this for Asian Americans. It is for these reasons, why the representation of Asian Americans in the media is absolutely critical. Together, these factors lead to a subtle, yet massive change of culture where diversity is embraced.