Asians in the media or why my 9-year old self identified with Pocahontas
"6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented."
"26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race."
(Peggy McIntosh: "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack")
As a young girl, I used to spend hours flipping through clothing catalogues. The internet wasn’t really a thing yet and we lived far from the next big city, so these mail-order clothing companies were one of the most common ways to shop clothes – at least for my family. Once a catalogue was out of date, I would sometimes sit down and cut out my favourite pictures. As a young teenager, I used to glue them to a white sheet of paper and put them into a folder where I collected all sorts of things I liked. Pictures, poems, articles, postcards, and various pictures and texts I cut out from magazines, catalogues, and newspapers.
Only recently I realised that these pictures commonly depicted Asian models presenting the newest fashion collection. It’s one of these phenomena that I had to read about before the scales fell from my eyes: because Asians are so rarely depicted in the German popular culture and media, I hardly had any idols or role models I could identify wih. So I clung to whoever was out there resembling me in the faintest way. At the age of nine, I adored Disney’s Pocahontas and compared the shape of her eyes and the colour of her hair to mine. It sounds ridiculous, but although she was a cartoon figure, I identified with her simply because of that. What an irony that more than a decade later, some people would actually call me Pocahontas because I wore long skirts, furry coats, wooden jewellery, and pearls in my hair. I also was a voracious reader of the books of Swiss author Federica de Cesco whose stories oftentimes were set in East Asia and had strong and rebellious girls as protagonists.
When I was a bit older, I loved Vanessa Mae although I wasn't even such a big fan of her music, just for the fact that she played the violin (which I did), looked Asian (which I did), and was so cool and famous and beautiful (which I definitely wasn't). So the fact that we had the former two characteristics in common motivated me a lot to strive to achieve the latter as well.
But I cannot recall a single east-Asian looking girl on any of the covers of the girly magazines I read. I wasn’t a fanatic reader of these magazines, so I might have missed just exactly those few exceptions – but I doubt it. Just as an example: look at this list of Mädchen covers from 1976 until 2012. There was never an actress or a singer or any artist for that matter that I could identify with on a visual level.
The lacking representation of Asians in popular culture is wide-spread but, fortunately, it is increasingly addressed by artists and journalists. Last year, the awesome Margaret Cho (together with other Asian-American actors) initiated a Twitter discussion with the hashtag #whitewashedOUT, speaking out againt Hollywood's whitewashing of Asian characters. Famous recent examples are the cast of Tilda Swinton for Dr. Strange, and Scarlett Johansson who was casted for the role of “The Major” in “Ghost in a Shell”. This is an ongoing Hollywood issue, and although the pitiful attempts to turn white faces into Asian ones (for instance John Wayne as Genghis Khan (1956), Mickey Rooney as Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1971), or Kathryn Hepburn as Jade in Dragon Seed (1941)) have become less pitiful, the problem persists. One could think that the most natural answer to “yellowfacing” is to simply cast Asian actors. But no. Instead, a Tibetan monk is turned into a Celtic sorcerer, and Scarlett really does look kinda Asian with her black bob, don’t you think? So if there is so much space for artistic re-interpretation, why were people so outraged about a black Hermione? And that wasn't even remotely the same since it was never mentioned in any of the Harry Potter books that she is white - in contrast to Ghost Shell or Dr. Strange (although the producers of the latter argued that the original character is not clearly identifiable as Asian).
The German blogger Thi Yenhan Truong wrote a funny and spot-on article about Asian representations in German TV. She started her mission assuming there would be a lot to criticise about misrepresentation and stuff but ended up even more frustrated: there wasn’t much material to analyse – due to the vast underrepresentation of Asians (no matter from what part of Asia) in German TV. Her conclusion: if you want to see Asian faces on your TV screen, you mostly have to stick to watching documentaries. Another article about the lacking diversity in the German film compares the high awareness of racism in the US to the neglect and ignorance of diversity issues in the German film industry. The author draws attention to the fact that except for a few actors and film makers of Turkish descent, no other ethnic minority has ever been noticeably successful.
The same goes for the fashion industry. Nothing really new, either. Jezebel’s Fashion Week analysis and other surveys show that the percentage of non-white women in international high fashion shows is still ridiculously low. Whereas Blacks and Asians at least form separate analytical categories, ALL other ethnicities are summed up under Others. In 2013, the Italian VOGUE was celebrated for putting an Asian model on its cover for the very first time. Three cheers for “pushing beauty boundaries” and welcome to the 21st century! Actually, just this week, model Karlie Kloss apologised for her VOGUE photo shooting which depicted her as a Japanese Geisha in the magazine’s issue that – oh heavenly irony – celebrated the diversity of American Woman.
As my own experiences and childhood memories demonstrate, lacking diversity is not only an issue for luxury brands and high fashion. However, times are changing. This article in The Guardian reflects on diversity in H&M adverts and states both enthusiastically and cynical: "You may even see someone on screen that you, a modern woman in a multicultural world, can identify with!" That really made me smile. However, the author continues, one should be extremely careful not to mix up marketing strategies and representation of diversity with an actual increase of diversity and equity behind the scenes.
This, I think, leads to a key point. It's important to raise awareness about lacking diversity and representation in the media but it is even more important to ask: Why is that diversity lacking in the first place? And I guess the answer is: because the people "behind the scenes" are predominantly white. And as long as that is the case, what we see will always only be a representation of diversity instead of true equality. If the editors of the VOGUE (or the photographer) were Asian - would they have picked Karlie Kloss as the model for their spread? If the juries of film festivals and film awards was more diverse, would there be better chances for non-white actors and movies to win? If there were more non-white directors, screenwriters, and producers, would that increase the diversity of the cast and reduce whitewashing? Would the roles of non-white characters move away from stereotypical portrayals? Would it decrease racism and prejudice if we would see people of color more often in their roles as teachers, artists, nurses, professors, judges, carpenters, nurses, social workers, and so on?
So these question lead to even bigger questions. Whose voices and stories are heard? Whose voices and stories are perceived as legitimate to be heard? Who has access to resources and cultural capital? Who has the power to control diversity and representation in the cultural sphere?
Growing up in a very homogenous (i.e. white) environment, the lack of Asian role models, or any Asians as persons of reference (both in the media and my social surroundings) had certainly strange effects on me. Not only did I identify with a deeply problematic depiction of a Disney princess who was not Asian but Native American. I also started to think of "Asians" in the same generalizing and undifferentiated way that is so common to Western culture. I even internalized certain Asian stereotypes that I had to unlearn as an adult. Is it just me who thinks something is clearly going wrong when you internalize white stereotypes about your own race simply because that is the only media discourse you have access to?