Imagine your only means of seeing yourself was entirely in caricatures. A boulevard of broken English, underground criminal lords and exotic fetishes. Images that are completely foreign to you in real life yet you experience them constantly on the screen as movies and television insist this is how people that look like you exist.
With a life destined for the background, POC yearned and continue to yearn for more accurate and more frequent media representation. A 2017 study by California professors and scholars found that 69.5% of TV series regulars are White, 14% are Black, 5.9% are Latino, 4.3% are Mono-racial AAPI (a person of single or multiple Asian or Pacific Islander heritage) and 2.6% are Multiracial AAPI (person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and non-Asian heritage). Although we have experienced a jump in numbers of POC in popular media, the quality of representation is still an issue to this day.
The instances of constant whitewashing of roles in television and movies, the posing of White writers as minority writers, and the hiring of a White curator for African Art by the Brooklyn Museum eliminate opportunities for POC to tell their own stories on their own terms; instead their culture and values are expressed by people that do not possess the same genuine experience and knowledge.
In this article, I asked POC their thoughts on representation, giving them the opportunity to tell their own stories.
What does representation mean to you?
Media representation is essentially anything that is on the screen but the question remains, is this representation accurate? Being a filmmaker myself, I believe there is a fine line between representation and accurate representation and many factors hinder what side of the line you stand on. Maybe due to budget cuts you cannot hire the most accurate representative of your character or maybe the most accurate representative of your character is just not a good actor.
As a child of Filipino immigrants, rarely ever seeing people who looked like me or my family in the shows and movies that filled my days certainly made me question things about the world and myself. For people like us, do we not get to be seen? Are there not more of us? Are we not normal? Are our lives, our stories, not worth sharing? It took me years to embrace the fact that just because you don’t see us, doesn’t mean we aren’t valuable.
I think we all crave acceptance and visibility in this world, so whenever the media makes a positive portrayal of someone I can relate to, I feel a sense of relief because by proxy, my story is becoming more normalized.
I did not realize media representation, especially in popular American media, meant anything to me until I realized how awful it was.
Media representation is something very important to me because media is a huge part of today’s culture and society. This is partly due to its easy and fast accessibility. Therefore I think that it is a big deal, and even a bigger deal that whatever is being represented, be represented correctly, or to its best ability.
I believe that media representation, in any medium, can help to shape one’s view of other people that they identify with and also, equally as important, it helps to shape their views of people that they don’t identify with. I believe it is important to share stories of all kinds, in all mediums, to help people build a sense of identity, compassion for themselves and others, and an understanding that diversity is abundant and beautiful.
A filmmaker should take an oath to strive to be as accurate as possible.
Media representation means portraying all people as people.
Growing up, I went to a predominately white school. The only black people I knew were my family members. Reading stories about girls and people like me was important for me to begin forming my own identity. It’s something I’m still working on and a process that’s difficult, but very enlightening.
Media representation means that I can see myself and connect to said media.
Media representation matters to me because I no longer feel complacent. I want to see Latinos/as in media because it’s not just about me but about all the others that may not have the patience to wait to see someone like them on tv or film. It’s important because it is empowering and comforting.
Representation is everything! Seeing something or someone in the media that you see reflected in yourself – someone who looks like you, talks like you, and/or has similar experiences as you – that’s really empowering. It’s so important to see media, arts, and personalities that represent different cultures, ethnicities, gender identities, economic backgrounds, and abilities in an authentic and intentional way. Whenever it’s done well and resonates with the communities it aims to depict, it means we’re really encompassing the multitudes of the human experience.
Is there a character or artist that you have resonated with?
Growing up I idolized Selena Quintanilla. I loved everything about her! She was Mexican-American, from a working-class family, she was proud of her roots and never denied her Mexican heritage. What made me love her more was that she was brown like me! She was brown and taking the main stage. I never seen that before. This is why media representation matters. It gave a young girl like me a sense that she can achieve great things. Selena made a brown girl like me feel beautiful.
I remember as a young girl watching The Joy Luck Club for the first time and remembering how much it resonated with me and watching it over and over as I grew up. And I believe it stayed with me because of the accurate representation of these Asian women. There is something truly profound about the storyline and til this day this film leaps and bounds far beyond our current media.
It isn’t a wonder why my favorite Disney films growing up were Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan. In these films, I finally saw something that was made for me, with characters that looked so much more like me. As an adult now, I realize how flawed and problematic these films are but each one made my young, impressionable self feel that maybe there was room for more of us on the big screen. Room for us to be accepted for what we are. I remember how proud I felt watching those films, and watching any worthwhile film since that featured people of color in ways that are complex and real.
I don’t remember seeing movie characters who specifically looked like me that weren’t Lucy Liu, so I think I resonated with anyone who was simply not White.
Sang-Young Shin, the artist otherwise known as the drag queen Kim Chi. Her work is innovative and conceptual, but I love her most because she blatantly called out the negative biases of being “fat, femme, and asian” in the gay male community (and society, in general) by confronting the phrase in the season 8 finale of the ever-popular RuPaul’s Drag Race. She’s going against the Asian tropes that the media has popularized on her own terms. It makes me hopeful that more artists will call out fucked up stereotypes and defy the boundaries of “Asian-ness”, especially when it addresses intersectionality in the media.
Denise from Master of None, Poussey from Orange Is the New Black are good examples of Queer people of color and and Janelle Monáe is a woman of color who wears tuxedos and loves all things science fiction.
Perhaps one of my greatest heroes is Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garçons. Beyond her amazing work and contributions to fashion, her story/the CDG history is so inspiring to me. Her constant pushing of boundaries, her work ethic, her support for new artists and her refusal to not let industry pressures stop her is everything to me.
The power of seeing Kelly Marie Tran play Rose Tico as a fully realized, heart-faced, no-accent speaking, genuinely bad ass character in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”…had me laughing, crying, and feeling all kinds of ways inside. I truly did not realize how much it mattered to me to have a character that literally looked, sounded, and felt things like me to bring my 31-year-old, grown ass lady-me to tears at having never felt that before in a movie theater.
What I didn’t realize as a child was that I chose to play Chun-Li all the time because I thought she looked like me. Now I choose to play her because I realize that I’VE BECOME Chun-Li, a strong, independent Chinese woman that doesn’t take shit from anyone.
When I stumbled upon the artist Cheyenne Randall I was pretty in awe. He’s a native guy with a Native dad and a white mom. He’s got tattoos and makes bad ass art and is immersed in city life. I really relate to his art style. When I was young I was drawn to shows with people of color in them but no one really represented me.
Sarain Fox. She is a Native American Activist from Canada. She really resonated with me because she isn’t just a TV host. What she believes in, follows her in everything that she does. Not only does she speak up for her own native people, but for other natives, such as Hawaiians or Brazilians, going through the same thing. To me, that is what truly matters. She once said in an interview “Everyone wants to be native until it’s actually time to be native”. She is a strong woman who truly believes in what she believes in, does what she needs to do, spreads the word and that makes me feel inspired.
The one character growing up that I identify with most is actually Chun-Li from Street Fighter ll. In the original game, the selection of characters to play are mostly male but she stands out as the only female character and equally as bad ass. Being a female Chinese-American, I naturally gravitated towards her. I am reminded all the time that I live in a man’s world (being surrounded by male characters in the game and IRL) but ultimately, I know I make my own place in this world, regardless of the societal nonsense around me.
I recently read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The main character Starr is a black girl at a predominately white school and I saw a lot of myself in her. The way she interacts with her school friends vs. home friends (or in my case, my cousins). Feeling comfortable to be herself and not put on an act, whether she realized it or not. Our similarities end there as Starr witnesses her friend being killed by a cop, but I realize that reality is not far from what so many others have gone through, or fear.
Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. I’ve experience many situations that he’s explained in interviews and his lyrics. I feel his anger, frustration, and motivation. As a teen, I liked him as an rock n’ roll artist but as an adult, I appreciate him as an activist.
Because of Selena, my destiny was no longer a life worthy of only being in the background, and never taking main stage. My destiny was whatever I wanted it to be.
At the age of 8 or 9, I was hearing Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nine Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and thought they were the baddest, raddest women ever. I didn’t feel so lost and concerned about how others saw me when I was listening to this..I was learning from the best women and while they were not the same skin type as me, I found inspiration and deep humility in learning about their experiences and internal struggles. I was so moved and encouraged, they were the first artists I truly found guidance into my soul and evolving (and less crumbling) foundation of my understanding of my self. With this, I started to look for more artists/actors who, if not looking like me, had the performance style or work ethic or personality I wanted to aspire to.
Chloe Kim, the Shib Sibs, Mirai Nagasu – it was so awesome seeing them compete and representing the US in this year’s Winter Olympics in a time where division and fear of the Other seems to reign supreme. I really related to Chloe and Mirai – they’re both children of immigrants, are bilingual in English and their parents’ native language, and are so strong and powerful in each of their sports. No dainty butterfly Asian girls here, they kick ass! I was especially moved when I saw Chloe Kim’s parents supporting her during the events and when she finally won gold. It reminded me of my parents and their unwavering support no matter what kinds of crazy arts projects I take on that they don’t always understand.
What do you hope to see in the future?
More inclusiveness and more diversity. I hope that other people have that moment of realization that they matter in the world the way that Selena gave it to me. I’m sure there are people who have yet to feel that their experience and the existence are important.
We need more INTERSECTIONAL Asian heroes.
I hope to see more portrayals of mixed race people with a white parent. More QPOCs on television and in the movies would be great too and more stories of Native people portrayed in a non-stereotypical way.
I want to see Asian actors portraying normal roles, not just be brought on for “the token Asian” role. But on the flipside, I want to see Asian movie roles be filled with an Asian actor. I want people to think of Asian artists, not just as Asian artists, but as artists who contribute to the zeitgeist.
I hope to continue to see Asian-Americans, not just as sidekicks or sex symbols or foils, but as fully realized characters who look as diverse as the Asian-American community in fact is, and pushes the envelope on what it means to be more than a “model minority” or “triad member #1” or “martial arts guy #3” or “female sidekick with the nerdy glasses who happens to conveniently end up with the white sidekick”. We can do so much better because representation matters, and it continues to matter.
I think what matters is that you stand up for whatever it is, whether it be large or small, and that’s how you truly can represent yourself.
I would very much appreciate seeing more Asian characters cast in non-typical Asian roles in film in the future. In general, Asian people are cast as martial artists, submissive Asian women, and Asians with broken English speaking roles, etc. And a lot of times, Asian people aren’t even cast to play as other Asian people! It would be great to see more Asian representation in media because Asian people are much more than stereotypes surrounding us and we have many stories to share that may surprise you.
I’m currently basking in the glow of all things Black Panther and am so proud of that film. I’ve seen it twice, that’s NEVER happened with any film, let alone a “superhero” movie. It made me really emotional seeing little boys and girls in the audience and hope that this exposure will provide them examples outside of sports heroes to look up to (although there’s nothing wrong with that, and yes a superhero isn’t really attainable, but still…). I’m especially pumped to see a bunch of little Shuri’s in the tech field.
For too long, underrepresented folks have been relegated to the perspectives and narratives of majority cis white men. However, we’re tired of it and want something more, which is why films and series that are doing that work are finally seeing the attention they deserve. It’s time that our stories are seen and heard and celebrated, and white mainstream culture’s turn to relate to our narratives.
I want to see a burst of vibrancy on the scene, where the masses are caught off guard. When the under represented breathe a breath of exhale and whisper, this is what we’ve been waiting for. This is what the media should be HEAR for.