As both a journalist and entertainment junkie (I’ve got box sets of everything from My So-Called Life to Veronica Mars to prove it), I am an avid consumer of media. But even as I enjoy certain aspects of American popular culture, I’ve also felt at times that it is somehow separate from me. Especially when growing up, I still remember that strange mix of emotions—excitement, suspicion and hope—at the pit of my stomach whenever I saw an Asian face on the screen. Looking back now, I think I was always hoping for an Asian American character that was relatable, or at the very least multi-dimensional, but usually found myself disappointed (the closest thing I got was Lane from Gilmore Girls).
The situation is different today with the emergence of new media like the user-generated content platform YouTube and a call for more complex representations of Asian Americans within popular culture. While I had previously equated more accurate and diverse representations with progress, this course challenged me to question what exactly “representation” entails and whether or not it is a means for effective change if still operating under white hegemonic neoliberalism. My blog posts aimed to explore these considerations and delve deeper into the issue of representation for Asian Americans, using music by Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead, Karlie Kloss’ yellowface photo shoot for Vogue and the YouTube videos of comedian SJ Son as examples.
Throughout the course, we discussed the concepts of ideology and hegemony and how they work together to maintain structures of power. For example, neoliberalism emphasizes market fundamentalism and causally links policies that revert power and wealth to a select few with industriousness and individuality. Inequality is thus recast as virtuous, reinforcing the myth of merit known as the American Dream. This awareness of a neoliberal political economy adds another depth to the issue of Asian American representation in the media. White hegemonic powers use the model minority myth—which portrays Asian Americans as docile, submissive and hardworking—to promote an ethic of “personal responsibility”, and cultural gatekeeping perpetuates these stereotypes and images in the media. In my first blog post, I examined how Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead uses hip-hop to resist the model minority myth and hegemonic constructions of race. From its early days on the streets of South Bronx, hip-hop has long acted as a form of counterhegemonic art that gives voice to marginalized groups and experiences. Dumbfoundead’s recent release “Safe” directly challenges the model minority myth, raising his own voice in anger through lyrics such as, “You took me as safe, that was your first mistake, who said I was safe.” Dumbfoundead calls upon listeners to “stand up” in resistance and raise questions like who benefits from the internalization of stereotypes like the model minority myth.
Neoliberalism is also “multicultural” because of the globalization intrinsic to free-market expansion. What does diversity mean under neoliberal political economies and does this kind of diversity actually recognize, empower and include people of color? I argue that neoliberalism promotes a “colorblind multiculturalism” when what we really need is intersectionality and the recognition of different identities, histories and experiences. The more we learned in class, the more I realized that Asian American representation is not only about seeing more black, yellow, brown faces in the media. It’s also about what roles people of color are playing and who’s writing those roles for them. We need more diversity in production, and Vogue’s recent yellowface photos shoot, which I wrote about for my second blog post, really highlights this inadequacy. Vogue’s idea of diversity, ironically for its diversity issue, was superficial at best, and aside from the fact that white model Karlie Kloss was in yellowface, its “geisha-themed” photo shoot relied completely on the Western orientalist gaze. This isn’t surprising given its predominantly white editorial staff and long history of using cultures as costumes. For Asian Americans and other people of color to gain power and representation, structural changes need to happen.
Even YouTube, which has often been championed as a more grassroots and democratic form of new media, isn’t independent from mass culture. I explore this idea in my third blog post while writing about stumbling across comedian SJ Son and how she was a refreshing change from other popular Asian American YouTube content creators. YouTube is becoming more and more of a corporate, “top-down” platform, which can reinforce the hegemony of traditional media by replicating its exclusivity and standards of quality. It’s harder for newcomers to “make it” on YouTube today, and so chancing upon Son and her videos like “Quiet Tiny Asian” that focus on comedic storytelling rather than viral buzz or production value was a nice surprise for me.
After ten weeks of analyzing textual evidence, considering political economies and questioning the status quo, I leave this course with a better understanding of how larger structural forces like white hegemony affect the everyday realities of Asian Americans and other marginalized peoples. I know that I will continue to participate in American popular culture and watch at times problematic movies and television shows—but now, I’ll be able to do it with a more critical eye, sense of awareness and ability to call out garbage as I see it.