Asian American Pop Culture as Resistance

Over the course of the quarter, while reviewing Asian American pop culture, I have become a more critical consumer of Asian and Asian American media. Given the history of stereotypical portrayals of Asian people in American media, I have come to view any any reasonable, fair representations of Asian people in media as counter-hegemonic. On the other hand, I now better understand how the continued stereotypical representations of Asian people in media is damaging. Applying this outlook to American pop culture and Asian media such as K-pop, it’s become increasingly clear to me how Asian American pop culture is important for building communities, breaking down harmful stereotypes, and forming a sense of Asian American identity.

Coming into this class, I was aware of the lack of Asian representation in American pop culture, but in many ways, I did not view this as a serious problem. Intellectually, I acknowledged that it was an issue, but I seemingly didn’t care enough to learn more about the issue or seek out Asian American media. My process of normalizing this lack of representation was undoubtedly related to my media consumption patterns and upbringing. Growing up as the token Asian at my school, it seemed natural that Asian representation in media would be proportional to my day-to-day life. Coming to Northwestern and being exposed to a larger Asian American community changed my perspective, but learning about the history of stereotypical roles for Asians in American media was a turning point in realizing the weight and importance of this issue. More specifically, the fact that many of the same issues from fifty years ago still exist in some form today made me think more critically about the structural factors responsible for Asian representation in media.

Understanding the way that capitalism and the political economy shape Asian representation in American pop culture, it’s frustrating to consider how these barriers prevent Asian Americans from creating their own art. Most notably with actors, we saw in class how it’s nearly impossible to survive in a capitalist society as an Asian American actor without succumbing to the pressures of the political economy. It didn’t seem like a hopeless situation though. With the advent of internet platforms such as YouTube and Soundcloud as a new way to distribute media, I believed that this would begin to change in the same way that American independent music has changed over the past few years by putting the power in the hands of content creators rather than corporations.

One way in which Asian Americans have been able to leverage the arrival of new technology is via YouTube. Growing up, I had a passing appreciation for Asian American YouTubers, but I now realize that YouTube is a thriving community for Asian American content creators. It has enabled Asian Americans to bypass the structural barriers that have historically prevented them from creating and distributing their content. This consequences of this shift of power are potentially enormous. Asian American YouTubers have not successfully crossed over into mainstream pop culture, but that doesn’t seem to be a necessity for success in the modern age. Moving forward, Asian Americans will be able to control their own careers in a way that has not been possible before in any form of media. Having a more comprehensive grasp of the barriers that Asian Americans face, the importance of YouTube as a platform is evident. In addition to freeing content creators from some of the hegemonic forces that traditionally stopped Asian Americans, millions of Asian Americans have been able to identify with YouTubers and feel a sense of panethnic community.

Despite the clear value of YouTube as an Asian American media platform, it is still an alternative form of pop culture. Pop music and big budget movies and television are the mainstays of mainstream American pop culture, and YouTube does not fill that void for Asian Americans. Personally, this is when I began to search for other forms of Asian media, and that’s how I ended up getting into K-pop. With my newfound perspective on Asian representation in media, I finally understood its appeal beyond the music. Being able to identify with pop stars is easy for most of America, but for Asian Americans, there aren’t many choices within dominant American pop culture.  Members of my family and some of my friends have told me in a variety of ways that K-pop is inherently appealing simply because it is Korean, and it’s now clear to me how having an all Asian production of high quality pop music is so different and exciting as an Asian American consumer.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with my 13 year old cousin about K-pop. She doesn’t speak much Korean, but she greatly prefers K-pop over American pop music. She told me that she felt a more personal connection to the music because of racial solidarity, and at the time, I didn’t quite understand why it mattered that much. I now recognize how her perspective and choice is a conscious act of resistance against the dominant forces that shape the American entertainment industry. Above all else, I have come to appreciate the power of socialization, and in that process, truly begun to understand why representation matters. Particularly in the world and society that people of color face today, resistance of all forms are vital. Pop culture is a powerful source of community and identity. Through these alternative forms of media, Asian Americans are able to form their own pop culture and sense of identity, and that in itself is an act of resistance worth celebrating.

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