Yesterday, I found myself on YouTube at 3 a.m. in the morning, as I usually do during reading week, and stumbled upon videos by Soojeong SJ Son, one half of the NYC-based comedy duo SJ & Ginny. SJ creates some pretty cool and independent content, many of which speak to her experiences as an East Asian American cis woman. In her most recent five-part series “Quiet Tiny Asian”, SJ teaches her three-year-old niece what it’s like growing up as an Asian woman in America. It was refreshing to see a narrative to which I could so closely relate, something I don’t often experience when watching television or going to the movies. Web 2.0, especially user-generated content platforms like YouTube, holds potential for marginalized groups in terms of more positive and complex representation but whether it has been able to create an effective change in American media is questionable.
As I watched “Quiet Tiny Asian”, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was enjoying the short and inevitably surface-level series precisely because I haven’t seen much comedy like it anywhere else. The series packages a wide range of microaggressions that Asian Americans have to deal with all the time—for example, the assumption that all Asians know each other or that Asian problems are less significant (e.g. Asians can’t complain about cramps because they have the “lightest periods”). Son told Kollab New York that she wrote the series to reveal how racism can be so casual.
In episode four “Twins”, a stranger asks Son and the Asian woman sitting next to her, first, if they’re related (i.e. twins) and then, after they don’t respond, if they’re in a relationship (i.e. lesbians). Catcalling and the hyper-sexualization of Asian female bodies is a reality for Asian American women like myself. While Son’s character seems to put up with these microaggressions—perhaps because the goal of the series is simply to show the ridiculousness of these remarks and actions—it also reveals the everyday negotiations made by Asian Americans. Watching the episode reminded me of my summer nights at Wicker Park or Logan Square where some guy would shout out to me “ni hao” or “konnichi wa”. Sometimes, I would stop to tell him that I’m Korean but more importantly that I can speak English and their smattering of any Asian language did not impress me. But other times, I would just feel too fed up to answer. YouTube provides creators like SJ the space to share their creativity as well as highlight the complex identities of Asian Americans—stories that don’t get picked up by the mainstream media.
While YouTube can give Asian Americans increased access to means of production and cultural visibility, it is also not entirely independent from mass culture. YouTube itself is shifting into a more corporate, “top-down” platform for the distribution of popular culture. As discussed by Grace Wang in “A Love Song to Youtube”, this transition not only makes it more difficult for newcomers to be seen on the platform but can also “reinforce the hegemony of traditional media by replicating its exclusivity and standards of quality” (Wang 114). The emergence of revenue-sharing programs such as YouTube’s Partner Programs or management companies for YouTube personalities challenges the platform’s image as grassroots and democratic. For me, finding a new Asian American comedian like Son on YouTube (by accident, no less) was a welcome change from another beauty guru—not because the content is any less valid or significant but because there tends to be a hypervisibility of Asian women in certain subgenres like beauty and fashion within YouTube. As YouTube continues to operate within a neoliberal economy, its potential as a force for change in American media remains compromised.