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what's next for asian representation, then?
eeaao, mindy kaling, and making stuff in a white system
At the end of 2022, the internet erupted in fury that Everything Everywhere All At Once did not make it onto the Academy Awards’ Visual Effects, and Makeup & Hairstyling shortlist.
The film, following a story about the relationship between tired laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), quickly became the darling of the internet, and a rallying victory for many East Asian Americans who have been disappointed with the representation we have been given thus far.
Everywhere you looked online, there was discourse about the movie. How brilliant the acting was. How incredible the set design, the directing, the art was. How Stephanie Hsu was, in The New York Times’ words, the “dark horse” of this year’s awards season. We cried when Michelle Yeoh won a Golden Globe, and cried again when Ke Huy Quan stood to accept his. And most recently, we have celebrated again for the eleven Oscar nominations it did actually receive (which, if you ask me, feels like a real direct response to the outrage in 2022).
I don’t disagree with all the fanfare. I loved EEAAO. I thought it really felt, not to steal words out of Harry Styles’ mouth, like a movie — it wasn’t a film you leave the theatre thinking, this shit could have been an email. As someone who struggled to come out as queer to her mother, and experienced that same arc of misunderstanding and reconciliation (though my catalyst was therapy, not an interdimensional murder spree), I did feel represented. I did cry in the middle of the theater! And it was directed by the guys that made the masterpiece, Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” music video, which meant the creative direction odds were stacked in its favor from the start.
Running parallel to this was the launch of several Mindy Kaling shows, The Sex Lives of College Girls and the rebooted Velma, that sparked major backlash against Kaling on several counts of internalized racism and romanticization of the white male love interest. Jokes about being an Indian nerd or having body hair or wanting some average white guy that doesn’t want you back are rampant throughout Kaling’s work, and she uses those jokes like they’re the only ones she’s got. But the backlash landed squarely on Kaling’s shoulders, and that’s when the criticism lost nuance.
You can’t blame Kaling for getting a check. If HBO came to you to buy out two of your shows, and you have two kids at home and probably BJ Novak to feed, would you turn that down? The problem that is when you hire the same woman to make all the big budget stories, that’s exactly what you’re going to get: all the major motion South Asian characters dipping from the same pot of millennial insecurities.
It feels like the conversation is not even about representation anymore, but the level of artistry that major film and television studios permit for Asian writers. What we’re adjudicating has nothing to do with getting faces on screen for the sake of seeing them. I’m sick of Simu Liu always flatly pushing his love of Pocky and bubble tea onto us. I think Jenny Han’s body of work, solely featuring lazy YA tropes and Wasian leads pining for plain white boys, is corny as fuck. And the backlash shouldn’t be towards Kaling for having those insecurities, but towards producers for refusing to hire another Tamil person who is like, less corporate for a change. Culture writer Terry Nguyen, in Lychee Martinis, wrote this that I really loved:
Representation, or to borrow Taylor’s phrase, “racial theater,” is such an arbitrary metric to assess films and books and art. Why do we so visibly place this bizarre burden — which determines a work’s worth or its artistic merit on the basis of racial, gendered, or sexual identification — at the heart of the contemporary stories we tell and consume? Representation can be meaningful and moving, but it shouldn’t be a work’s sole function. Instead, it risks defining the subjects and stories by their other-ness, at the expense of reinforcing existing paradigms of whiteness.
We have, however, grown so accustomed in assessing art through this framework. We fail to recognize the whiteness inherent in this thinking. The representation discourse that centers Hollywood and reigning white institutions upholds the racial status quo, and demands that “non-white” works be juxtaposed as different, to be judged on the merits of diversity.
It’s true. Representation is a cheap consolation prize, because it inherently means very little in practice. And when representation becomes the main vehicle for someone’s body of work to stand out, the actual artistry of communicating why it was ever a topic in the first place is lost. That’s also why the framing gets meme’d, because the meaning of the word is malleable. Kimberly Finkle in Sex Lives of College Girls could be representation for white girls with no rizz who somehow manage to still pull. Ted Cruz could be zodiac killer-to-politician representation and also an icon for butter cow fan lovers. What the fuck is the point?
But here’s an example of its implication in real time: I went to a Lunar New Year party in Bowery, which was beautiful, and as soon as I stepped in the door, also realized was overwhelmingly filled with white people. Burlesque performers appeared, donning Sriracha costumes and Beijing opera masks, as white people looked on and filmed them for Instagram. I watched these performers shaking their titties to a sea of slack, pasty faces and their flashing cameras. One onlooker asked me what my ethnicity was, before quizzing me about what I knew around Lunar New Year.
Our representation means nothing to our oppressors, and they can pat themselves on the back for attending an Asian event created by Asian people where they watched Asian performers in a show whose art form has a history literally entrenched in minstrel and caricature, but Asian people can still experience casual racism and erasure in the same breath.
To desire a higher form of art that actually has something to say means creating something while looking outside the imperialist lens of, what visibility can I make inside this system? What am I allowed to say that will still let me get white recognition?
It’s almost depressing to envision a utopia of nonwhite Diaspora art that thrives within our communities and isn’t subjected to the ultimate gatekeepers of sales and views and cashflow, because it feels so unrealistic in this lifetime. I want to believe it’s possible. But we’re dealing with the ultimate predicament: we have less money, because white people took it. White people have most of the money, and they don’t want to spend it on us. And the world goes round.
Bong Joon-Ho called the Oscars a “very local” ceremony, before making his Oscars kiss. He’s right — I do believe it’s changing. And I want the Asian people who made EEAAO to have everything they ever wanted, if it’s an Oscar, or a Golden Globe, or another Substack post from a young East Asian person saying they cried in the middle of the theater. Do I think they were nominated eleven times because the Oscars saw value in an interesting visual Asian story? No. Do I think they were nominated because the Oscars are teetering on irrelevance, already got preemptive backlash over it on Twitter, and they want to recapture our attention? Yes. Things are changing not because these systems want to, but because they have to.
I have little faith that EEAAO will actually take home eleven Oscars, because I’m jaded, so I know better. BTS is the biggest band in history and has still not won a Grammy. Bad Bunny is one of the most famous and exciting artists on the face of the planet right now but has not won in a major category. Groundbreaking Telugu film RRR became the first Asian song to win a Golden Globe, but was majorly snubbed at the Oscars this year. Of course I want them to be acknowledged, for the same reason you sometimes feel the compulsive urge to stunt on people at a middle school reunion for literally no reason at all. But more importantly, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to wait for white systems to declare us as artists, and hope to be fulfilled within a system that does not care about our own fulfillment. There are a multitude of ways to define our own success, in the same ways that there are a multitude of ways to define and redefine our personal valuations of representation.