It was late in 2006 when Google purchased YouTube for 1.6 billion dollars. YouTube was only beginning to enter the mainstream audience’s attention, but it was still primarily a place for “home-made” videos by amateurs and had no trace of the commercialism and professionalism it was to embody. I was attending 4th grade, and during Christmas vacation, my older cousins introduced me to YouTube. One of the videos I still remember fondly to this day was humorously titled “HOW ASIAN PARENTS REACT WHEN JUST A B+ ON REPORT CARD.”
Behind its 240p(oh the horror), grainy glory were two Chinese-American high school kids, one dressed in an older Chinese lady’s garb clearly channeling the tiger mom. I remember laughing so hard at their exaggerated portrayals because even in 4th grade, my parents had already instilled the pressures of academic performance within me. It was the first time I saw an Asian American kid like myself in any sort of media. Later on, I shared the video with my predominantly Asian American friends and they all burst in laughter. Even then I could see it in their eyes; this video’s depiction of an Asian American family resonated with their own experiences as Asian Americans, which made the video even funnier.
Then came guys like KevJumba and Nigahiga, and I was slowly noticing more Asian Americans like me on YouTube. I initially thought it was a coincidence, but the viewership and subscription counts didn’t lie. In hindsight, I should have realized that YouTube was doing something YouTube has allowed for the Asian American community to express its unique culture and forms of representation that Hollywood has lacked.
My gripe with Hollywood is that even when they do cast Asian American actors, they put them in either weak, meaningless roles or pigeon-hole them in stereotypical roles like the nerd or scientist and martial artist. I think of a long history of Asian women being typecast as dragon ladies or submissive geishas that fetishized Asian women as sexually desirable objects. On the other hand, Asian men with rare exceptions like James Shigeta have never appealed to the standards of heteronormativity. Only the white guy can play the hero and find romance with the lead girl. Ultimately the lack of representation contributes to Asian Americans being diminished into stereotypes that made them the “forever foreigner” in the eyes of Americans, while simultaneously limiting the imaginations of what the Asian American community could achieve. And so, even with more Asian faces in modern media, those roles don’t give Asian Americans the meaningful representation they deserve.
Thus, YouTube enters as a space of Asian American representation. From beauty gurus like Michelle Phan to VFX genius Freddie Wong to comedians like Wongfu and Nigahiga, and the endless musicians and artists, Asian Americans have been able to showcase their talents and passions within the scope of the Asian American community and to a wider audience.
YouTube has been absolutely influential in breaking down the traditional hegemony of modern media by allowing Asian American to engage in neoliberal political economies. Most notably, the channel KevJumba, run by Kevin Wu, received widespread popularity on YouTube in 2009, and his notoriety led to him and his father’s participation in The Amazing Race Season 17. The producers used KevJumba’s stardom to gain more viewers, while KevJumba simultaneously exposed himself to a wider mainstream audiences. Unfortunately, the duo’s portrayal quickly devolved into focusing on the intergenerational gap between the two and a particular emphasis on their model minority status (references to their brains over brawn). However, KevJumba was able to reassert control over his narrative by posting YouTube vlogs remixing clips from each episode, and in reality he is much more humble than the show’s portrayal. On his channel, he could show the humorous, loving side of his relationship with his father than the show completely missed. That bond between father and son is something we, particularly as Asian Americans, seem to lack and I’m glad KevJumba could help dispel that narrative.
Furthermore, Asian YouTubers like Michelle Phan have illustrated how Asian Americans can influence beauty standards by introducing transnational kinds of beauty while also problematically perpetuating racial hierarchies. Her channel has been instrumental in introducing beauty trends and products, like circle contacts, from Korea and Japan to Asian American women audiences and women in general browsing YouTube. YouTubers like Phan have been able to capitalize on their expertise with numerous sponsorships and innovate new beauty trends within the Asian American community. Despite her success as a beauty guru in catering to Asian-American beauty, fans have also criticized her for perpetuating predominantly “white” standards of beauty, particularly for changing her hair and eye color to look more Western. Thus, she stands at the intersection of political economy and beauty standards. While Asian American women are subject to heteronormative beauty standards that will objectify them for their look, Phan has helped make the Asian American women community more visible to beauty product vendors and producers as a legitimate market, and she has ultimately made strides in making beauty more racially inclusive.
Growing up, I never really considered Asian representation in popular culture as problematic because I was surrounded by it in a predominantly Asian American community. Furthermore, I was always a huge fan of Asian culture, like manga and anime, so I never felt lacking in “Asianness.” It was only after I came to Northwestern did I even consider topics that affect Asian Americans like the model minority myth, the fetishization of Asian women, or even yellow-facing in media. Taking this class has made me understand that diversity in pop culture is nowhere near close to true representation and how these negative stereotypes of Asians historically continue to perpetuate racism against Asians in media today. But as the professor constantly asks of us: what can we do going forward? I found it fascinating to learn how prominent Asian Americans are in the entertainment industries as writers, artists, or technicians but when it comes to the final screen, they completely disappear. Youtube in that sense is my answer. YouTube has been crucial to the dispelling of common stereotypes associated with Asian Americans and introducing the general audience to a widespread, vibrant Asian American culture. My only reservation would be that YouTube has exceptionalized the Asian American community too much. Asians have always been stereotyped for their brains or kungfu ability but are they now mystified by their dance skills or spelling proficiency? When can we be seen as “mediocre” or are we always expected to perform above and beyond. Reservations aside, YouTube is a platform for Asian Americans to amplify their voices and make sure their narratives aren’t whitewashed or simplified by traditional media.