Underneath my yellow skin

Stereotypes and Representation in Popular Culture

In my quest to find a game I can enjoy as much as Dark Souls, I tried a game called 1954 Alcatraz. It’s a point-and-click adventure game set in–guess which year!–1954 and centers around an African American man who is in Alcatraz for a heist he committed. You can control him and his (white, beatnik) wife who is on the outside trying to figure out what happened. It has all the trappings of a point-and-click, both good and bad*, but there was something there that kept me playing. Until I met the landlady, Vivian. She’s Chinese and owned a restaurant. Now, I don’t mind that she owned a restaurant as many Chinese people did back then. What I do mind is that she spoke in that cringe-worthy pidgin English accent that people who don’t speak Chinese attempt when trying to imitate a Chinese person. The minute I heard it, I gritted my teeth and cringed, but I tried to play through it. She gave me a ridiculous request of bringing her winter melon soup, which only increased my dislike of her.

Side note: This is one of the worst mechanisms of point-and-clicks, and I have to describe it to you in full so you can realize how truly terrible it is. I went down to the kitchen and found the soup on the stove. I brought it up to her, and she asked in that horrid accent for some winter melon. I went back down to the kitchen and started clicking on everything in the environment. I found herbs and spices on one side, and when I clicked on it, it told me that it’s in Chinese. Stumped, I started clicking on everything else in the room. Nothing. I went back up to Vivian and suffered through her horrible accent some more but no further information, I went back into the kitchen. Nothing. After a few more minutes, I looked for a walkthrough and found out I had to go into the dining room, pick up a menu, read winter melon in English and Chinese, and receive the Chinese symbol for winter melon. Then, I had to go back to the herbs and spices and place the symbol on the area to receive the winter melon. Then, I had to combine the winter melon and the soup before bringing it up to Vivian.

That’s utter bullshit. If I reach the point in a game where I’m referring to a walkthrough more than I’m actually playing the game, I know it’s not worth my time. For whatever reasons, point-and-clicks revel in their enigmatic puzzle-solving, and it’s my least-favorite part of the genre.

Anyway, I know it’s not as if there aren’t women like her in the real world. One of my favorite pho places is run by an older Asian woman I call with affection Crazy Auntie. If I were to do an imitation of her, she would sound an awful lot like Vivian in this game. I have two rebuttals to this point. One, in the real world, I know many different Asian women with wildly varying personalities, so the one or two I know who are more stereotypical aren’t representative of their respective races. More to the point, if I were to do an imitation of Crazy Auntie, it would be a caricature and not a complete portrayal of her. That’s what stereotypes are. They may have some basis in reality, but they’re not the whole truth. If I had been introduced to this Vivian character and she was forging metal or playing golf and didn’t have that terrible fucking accent, she wouldn’t be an instant stereotype.

This is the problem when representation of Asians in popular culture is so sparse: Any stereotypical image grates twice as much than if it were only one portrayal among thousands. In addition, I don’t know why the stereotypes of Asian women (either dragon lady or geisha) continue to stubbornly persist. Yes, there’s a tradition in Asian culture of not airing your dirty laundry in public and of being respectful of other people, but that is not the same as submissive. In addition, most Asian American women I know are not shy about voicing their opinions, even in public. We are some of the mouthiest bitches (and I say that in a good way) I know, so why this refusal by Americans and Hollywood to fucking change their antiquated ideas of who we are?

I’ve been getting more and more bitter lately about the fact that Americans don’t give a shit about Asians in this country. We are the second most invisible minority in this country, only surpassed by indigenous people. Any time race is talked about, we are ignored. It’s 2017, for fuck’s sake. We have the highest number of immigrants, and we’re coming to take over the world! OK, maybe not that, but we are a sizable minority in this country, and it’s frustrating to be consistently passed over. Any time I hear about race in this country, it’s only black and white with maybe Latinos thrown in for good measure. Then, it seems churlish to be the one holding up my hand and saying, “Excuse me, I’m right here.”

It makes me feel as if I’m unwelcome in my own land, and I know I’m still viewed as a foreigner by some Americans. It also makes me side eye everyone who talks about intersectionality and diversity. I hear all these clamors for solidarity from people who aren’t inclined to make it reciprocal. I hear it as, “Care about me and my issues while I evince absolutely zero in you and yours.” For example, the movie Dr. Strange in which Tilda Swinton played an the Ancient One, traditionally an Asian male character. There was some outcry when it was first announced, but not nearly as much as there would have been if it had been a, say, black male character played by a white woman. People went and saw the movie and didn’t seem to care about that aspect of it.

It’s the same with Ghost in the Shell. There are people upset about it, but I’m guessing that people will still go to see it. I also saw some liberals saying, it’s just a cartoon, who cares? Or, she’s a brain in a different body, so it doesn’t matter that the body is white. Or, mimicking the director, it’s an international story, so that’s why it’s OK she’s played by Scarlett Johansson. Now, imagine if the character was Storm from X-Men played by Scarlet Johansson. Do you think the same people would be as complacent? When a transwoman is played by a man, the outcry is pretty fierce. When it’s an Asian woman played by a white woman? Crickets.

I struggle to explain just what is so upsetting about Major Motoko being played by a white women to people who should know better. The fact that some of the creators of GitS are OK with the casting is a different post for a different day**, and it doesn’t get at the reasons why Asian Americans are so upset about it. I’m pretty broken on this topic because I can’t find a way to make people give a shit about it. I’ve written countless posts on how alienating not to have any reflection of myself in popular culture in my very own country, and it means jack and shit at the end of the day.

I feel that when I tackle any one argument about GitS, I’m doing the topic a disservice. I don’t know how to tackle it otherwise, though, because the people with whom I’m arguing don’t have the same framework I do in viewing the issue. I can talk for hours about how GitS is an essentially Japanese story and how making her white strips the heart away from it. I can pontificate on white superiority means deciding that a white woman is the standard for an ‘international’ story. I can decry the mentality that white people won’t feel comfortable watching a story centered around a Japanese woman even as I wonder if it’s true. I would hope not in 2017, but I could be wrong. The problem is, I am exhausted by this issue. I’ve been fighting it for the last twenty-five years of my life, and we aren’t making much progress on it. I’m beating my head against the wall, and I’m tired of it.

I’m just going to be blunt about it. It’s fucking mean to take away something from people who have so little. Like David who killed Uriah so he could have Bathsheba, taking away GitS is a case of the haves spitting once again upon the have-nots. Asian people have so little when it comes to representation in popular culture, why the hell would Hollywood want to take away the little that we do have?*** Taking them at their word that it’s an international story, why can’t the main character of that international story be Japanese? I really don’t believe that the people who love GitS would be freaked out by a Japanese woman in the live action film. To me, that means the movie is not meant for the fans, but it’s an attempt to lure a wider audience–thus, Scarlett Johansson.

By the way, I’m not mad at Johnasson herself for accepting the role, though she’s big enough that she could have said no. She’s been evasive in interviews about it, which is understandable. She’s said (as have so many others) that she doesn’t want to be offensive to anyone, but she can’t accept that she is. She’s not the problem, however. Hollywood itself is. In a rare moment of candor, Steven Spielberg said he couldn’t get the film made without a big name attached to it. At first I was incredulous because Spielberg is one of the biggest names you can have, but I’ve read that he’s not far off in saying that. If it’s true, then the whole system is broken and should be scrapped. Also, Rinko Kikuchi would have been perfect. I’m just saying.

My best hope for the movie is that it’ll be a flop. I’m not hopeful, though, unless it’s utter shit. Even if it does fail, I doubt Hollywood would learn anything useful from it. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting in my corner, bitter and broken, wondering when people will ever give a shit about Asians.

I’ve included videos by Vienna Teng in this post because she’s Taiwanese American, and I love her music. Alex Wong is her longtime collaborator. 



*Here’s a banana, a roll of tape, and four hair clips. Make a key out of it and sucks to be you if you missed the banana in the first area and didn’t pick it up when you realize by reading a walkthrough that you need it an hour later.

**Trying to explain the difference between being Asian and Asian American is a post in and of itself, and I wouldn’t do it justice by making it a paragraph or two in this post.

***Yes, I know it’s business and they think they can make more money with a famous white woman in the role, and they might not even be wrong, but it’s still fucking mean.

2 Responses to Stereotypes and Representation in Popular Culture

  1. One of the true ironies of the situation is that both the computer game industry and Hollywood ought to be able to recognize Asian Americans because they’re centered in California, which has some of the most vibrant Asian American communities in the country. I guess they’re so inward looking they can’t see what’s literally just outside their door.

    • Hey, Roger! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You bring up a good point, one I hadn’t thought of, especially pertaining to Hollywood. LA is teeming with Asians and Asian Americans, so the dearth of good roles is especially dismaying. Either the industry is so isolated, they can’t see the forest around them, or they really think this is what Americans want. Both choices are equally dismal.

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