Look Around, Look Around: Representation Matters

I actually got really lucky in this aspect. For most of what I remember of my lifetime, I’ve always gotten to see people like myself on the screen.
When I was really little, I had Mulan, a badass Chinese woman depicted in classic Disney animation and voiced by two badass Asian actresses, Ming-Na Wen and Lea Salonga. By the time Mulan wasn’t enough to satisfy my media consumption curiosities, I had moved to China and was surrounded by people that looked like me. Chinese television and movies are, unsurprisingly, filled with Chinese actors and actresses. 
Not that I consumed much television or movies. My dad preferred me reading books, but sometimes I got to watch TV with him. Most of the television he watched was about the war efforts in China during WWII or had some aspect of kung fu in it. Subsequently, my two favorite TV shows that I remember are The Return of the Condor Heroes [神雕侠侣], a show about martial artists engaged in a forbidden romance, and Number Five Secret Service [五号特工组], a show about a five-person Chinese spy group that takes down their Japanese counterpart.

Top Left: Jianping Ouyang [欧阳剑平], from Number Five Secret Service – she was the head of the spy group and she was always able to take down the bad guys while looking fabulous in a qipao.
Bottom Left: Han Gao [高寒], from Number Five Secret Service – she was the “little sister” of the group but never let any of the boys give her any shit. She was awesome. They were all scared of her.
Right: Xiaolongnü [小龙女], from The Return of The Condor Heroes – she was the best martial artist around and she was empathetic and beautiful and my tv first crush ever. I also wanted to be her. I still kind of want to be her.
Because of this, I got to grow up with three-dimensional, awesome Chinese women as characters to look up to in my television shows. While the movies I tended to watch were made in Hollywood, the lack of representation in the movies I watched was offset by what I saw in my television shows.
When I moved back to the US, I didn’t immediately notice that all the people that looked like me had disappeared from media I consumed. I didn’t watch much television at first, being more preoccupied with the magic of Youtube, and more worried about classes and living up to the expectations of my family and my peers that required me to excel. 
My family wanted me to succeed because I am their daughter. My peers expected me to succeed because I am ethnically Chinese.
I started watching a lot more television when I was at MIT. It was a byproduct of being cooped up in studio all the time – building models can get quite mindless, sometimes, and watching television helped keep me awake during long nights. Television also helped give me an escape when my school-related anxieties became too overwhelming. 
It took a while before I started noticing how little representation there was in my media. I started out by watching a lot of the classic nerdy shows – Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Supernatural, three shows filled with an overwhelming number of white people, white men, where women were diminished and one-dimensional and used to further the mens’ stories instead of having their own, especially in the latter two shows. 
And then I branched out and watched other shows, shows that were supposedly similar but better. There was Sleepy Hollow, a show about a multiracial duo that depicted strong companionship and friendship between opposite genders, but then Abbie Mills was killed off to further Seneca Crane’s story even though she was, by all accounts, the more compelling and exciting and relatable character. 
There was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where a Chinese-American woman plays a central part of the team and is all-around the most badass character on the show. She’s great and I love Ming-Na Wen but she never got enough scenes and the storytelling kept getting worse, and I never really forgave the writers for killing off the one black character just to replace him with another black character (Sorry, Mack, you’ll never replaced Trip in my heart), because as long as there’s one they can be heralded as a diverse show, right?
Then there was all of my DC television that I had somehow gotten into. Arrow was mostly boring. Flash had a typical nerdy white boy who became a superhero, but was worth watching because Iris West, beautiful Iris West, was black and intelligent and a journalist and incredible. Supergirl was a woman protagonist and had a plethora of powerful and vulnerable and awesome three-dimensional women other than the superhero, albeit most of them white.
The other day I got excited because I saw an Asian extra on Supergirl. He played a police officer. I can’t remember if he had any lines.
That’s how thirsty for representation I am. There are literally so few Asian characters in mainstream media that I get excited about a nameless, speechless Asian extra character that ends up needing to be saved by the (white) superheroes. 
How bullshit is that?
And don’t even get me started on movies. Just look at The Great Wall – a movie I really tried to get myself to go watch, because I like the director, but couldn’t because three out of five of the people on the poster are not Chinese. But at least Matt Damon’s character is supposed to be white. Then there’s Ghost in the Shell. 
It’s nauseating to me that yellow face is somehow still almost acceptable in 2017.
Sometimes though, sometimes America does okay. Sometimes America gives people of color a place to tell their story. That continues to be incredibly exciting to me. 
In January, I went to go see Hidden Figures with my roommate. For those of you living under a rock, Hidden Figures is a cinematic depiction of three black women that worked at NASA and were the reason America won the Space Race. Without these women, America would not have succeeded in inventing and calculating the necessary formulas to send men into space.
I watched the movie in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall movie theater. The majority of the moviegoers were black – bringing their children to see the inspiring achievements of other people of color that have stayed hidden for so long. It was an incredible experience. Everyone was excited over every little win the characters fought for, clapping and cheering when Katherine Johnson (played by the incredible Taraji P. Henson) called out her white male coworkers for their outright racism towards her.
I think everyone cried when her (white, male) boss struck down the sign for the Colored Women’s restroom. I thought it was a statement about how important being an ally is. I was heartbroken when I learned that detail had been fictional.
And in February, just a few weeks ago, I went to see Hamilton. 
It was incredible.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for musical theater. The magical thing about musicals is that to me, it has always been a vessel to help tell the stories of the disenfranchised. Les Misérables is about a people’s revolution against their oppressive government; Rent is about LGBT+ artists trying to find their paths in the world; Sound of Music is about people fleeing the Nazis; Annie is about an undesirable orphan who climbs her way out of the system; Wicked is about unlikely friendships and fighting against a corrupt government. 
Then there’s Hamilton. Hamilton not only tells the stories of the disenfranchised, it is performed by the disenfranchised, and there’s something incredibly powerful about that. It takes a story about crusty old white men and transforms it into something that is tangible and relatable and colorful and beautiful in a way that it would be less so if it were not performed by incredible actors of color. 
I still remember the elation I felt when I learned that Phillipa Soo, the original cast’s Eliza, is half Chinese. I can’t imagine how other people of color, people who likely saw less representation than I did growing up, felt when they knew they were being represented by actors and actresses in what is possibly the most popular musical ever to be made and performed.
The cast that I saw with my friends did not have an Asian actor, but it didn’t matter. My cast was just as incredible and beautiful and colorful. 
The subsequent stripping of Chinese representation in the media I consumed after moving away from China has shown me just how much people of color are missing. I don’t need to see three-dimensional Chinese women in media for me – I know where to go to find it. But there are little Chinese-American girls who don’t get to see themselves on screen, and they deserve to know that they are badass and strong and vulnerable and sensitive and beautiful.
The world is a beautiful place because of its diversity. We are diverse in color, in orientation, in identity. The majority of our media makes us believe that cisgendered heterosexual white men are the only people who’s stories matter, and how boring of a world would it be if that were true? 
Besides, in today’s world, it’s a lot more believable and exciting and relatable when it’s people of color who are cheering that “Immigrants! We get the job done.” 

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