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The New Asian Activists

By November 28, 2018 December 18th, 2018 No Comments

By: Grace Francesca Foo

Growing up, I wanted to pursue acting. To many people, this dream seemed feasible; but to

an Asian girl like me, born and bred in Singapore, it seemed like a bizarre dream to have, a

dream too far-fetched. When my mum learnt about it, she said, “They would look down on

us, it would be difficult to excel in such an industry.” I was told to give up. My mum has

never failed to inform me about the racism shown towards Asians in America. She had

drilled the idea in me, told me that we were deemed as an inferior race, and that Hollywood

had no place for people like us.

We were deemed as an inferior race

I do not know how true it is, but I believed her words, for I saw little to no representation of

Asian females in Hollywood. If being Asian was an inferior trait, being Asian and female

made it worse.

 

Not until I saw Crazy Rich Asians. Alas, you can imagine the impact it had on me when my

friends and I left the theatre, partially in joyous tears. The two stars of the show, Constance

Wu and Awkwafina— both are women, of Chinese descent and identify strongly as Asian

American. My role models are here at last, in the form of a female rapper (Awkwafina) and a

feminist activist (Constance). Born and raised in America, both of them have unique

personalities and chose to present themselves in the media spotlight through very different

ways. They have put up a strong fight to negotiate their own identities in the harsh

environment of the Hollywood media despite being minorities. I did some research on them

and found, how they performed their gender and race as a celebrity really inspiring.

In 2012, boisterous Asian rapper Awkwafina made the bold decision to break stereotypical

norms and released her very first music video entitled ‘My Vag’, knowing very well that

there is a risk involved in doing so. Rapping about her vagina publicly on YouTube was not

something common among female artists, let alone Asian female artists. True enough, this

got her fired from her job as a publicity assistant. In an written article on The Guardian

(Sawa, 2018), Awkwafina explains, “The existence of someone like me…when YouTube was

a landscape where not a lot of people saw an Asian American woman being entirely

unashamed…is in itself provocative.” Point is, it did not matter what she was rapping about,

Awkwafina’s very presence as a female rapper on YouTube was already something

offensive.

 

If being Asian was an inferior trait, being Asian and female

made it worse.

 

Awkwafina is actively constructing her female identity through her various performances on

YouTube. She articulates them through repeated actions such as bold hand gestures,

animated facial expressions; making her look like a comedic, outgoing and loud Asian

woman. Her speech was no different; she raps in a deep, raspy voice, “My vag won best vag

/ yo vag won best supporting vag,” as she pulls inanimate objects out of a (unseen) vagina,

while plastering a smirk across her face.

 

Many people saw My Vag as a feminist anthem, empowering a lot of women, however

Awkwafina just saw it as something she could do with having a bit of fun. Born as Nora Lum,

being Awkwafina gave her just the amount of confidence and emboldened her to say things

Nora otherwise would not have dared to say.

 

Just like Awkwafina, Constance Wu, an Asian-American actress playing the role of Rachel

Chu in Crazy Rich Asians, also performed her gender in a strong and aggressive manner. She

actively speaks about women’s rights issues, unafraid to call out anyone in the industry who

mistreats women. She is happy to use social media to actively advocate for representation

of minorities and stands up against tokenism and whitewashing with her occasional

sarcastic tweets.

 

However, being so outspoken comes with a fair set of troubles. She was sent death threats,

was refused various roles in the entertainment industry; and despite understanding that her

openness might be detrimental to her career, her strong opinion on politics and criticism of

Asian representation in Hollywood has continued to stand strong. Constance retaliated in a

tweet, “I’ve been counseled not to talk about this for career’s sake. F my career then, I’m

a woman & human first. That’s what my craft is built on.”

 

Both personalities displayed their feminine strength in very different ways: Constance is

outspoken and wants to take this opportunity to change things within the industry,

portraying herself as a mature and respectful individual. Awkwafina embraces her Asian

heritage in her raps, where her provocative showiness, humour and wit has made ‘My Vag’

a powerful anthem of empowerment for women, celebrated by many.

It is thus also quite fair to say that their female identities didn’t exactly fit into the

conventional idea of Asian femininity. The portrayals of Chinese women in Hollywood media

has reflected Asian women to be submissive and docile, or worse, as passive companions to

white men, companions who obey them and don’t talk back. There is also a stigma in Asian

culture against women who have deep voices, and Awkwafina said in an interview with

Today (2018), that people have found her to sound assertive, like a ’58-year-old divorce

attorney.’ She was not allowed to speak in this manner, she is not supposed to have tattoos

and a nose piercing that makes her look aggressive, not supposed to smirk in photos—just

because she is an Asian female. Being an Asian female rapper doesn’t help things. Can an

Asian female rapper be taken seriously in hip-hop, a genre that has roots in the black

community? Furthermore, it is usually acceptable when a man raps about his genitalia, but

why is that when a woman raps about her vagina, it is seen as crude and offensive? In the

harsh Hollywood industry, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished,

and being anything other than a passive, soft-spoken female is someone to be persecuted

for.

The portrayals of Chinese women in Hollywood media has reflected Asian women to be submissive and docile, or worse, as passive companions to white men

To avoid sounding biased, the Hollywood industry is indeed improving. It is much, much

worse in the past. Asians were cast in films and TV series not to be the lead character, but

to act as a ‘spice’ and give colour to the main white lead person’s life. They were cast to

be politically correct, to include diversity in cultural products, but seldom had proper

representation where a story revolves around them. White people were treated as the

‘default’ race, while minorities such as Asians and Blacks, were treated as the ‘Other’. These

minorities were used for the purpose of commodification, making films more successful

because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of

doing and feeling. Constance and Awkwafina are strongly against casting Asians and

minorities because of this reason. “No artist wants to be known as an ‘Asian American

artist’…they want to be known as an artist.” Awkwafina says in Elle.

Both of them are also as much American as they are Asian. Fortunately, none of them ever

felt like they needed to change their race in order to prove that they can fit in. However,

that does not mean that they are excused from the struggles and expectations of looking

Asian. Constance disclosed to Daily Trojan (Kuan, 2016) that there “was racism in casting

studios” and “this institutionalized racism unfairly stigmatized minorities.” She says, “there’s

nothing shameful about your heritage, but Hollywood has made it shameful.”

No artist wants to be known as an ‘Asian American artist’…they want to be known as an artist.”

Awkwafina may have been proud to be a dope Asian now, but it wasn’t always like that. She

was also punished in her love life, as she opens up in another video interview with Vogue

(2018), saying, “as I grew older I started to recognise what I believed was the ideal

girlfriend…and I knew that I wasn’t it.” Her feminine identity starts to evolve in relation to

how the opposite sex sees her. As she recounted to Vogue about her failed date with a guy,

she claims to have pretended to like things she did not like. She self-consciously watches

herself, surveying everything that she is and everything she does, because how she appears

to others, and how she appears to men, is of crucial importance at that point in time.

“So then there became two ‘ME’s,” Awkwafina explained, “and I remembered thinking,

‘Maybe I would have to negotiate these identities. Which me would come out?’” She is

trying to manage the different impressions she is giving and giving off to various people—

both in her public persona and personal life—and continually shifts between expressions

both in speech and in body, struggling with some sort of identity crisis.

Unlike Constance, who was eager to speak up and to represent females and Asians;

Awkwafina was not so keen, saying “I felt it wasn’t fair that because I was Asian-American,

I had to represent Asian-Americans. It’s good for them when I’m good, but when I’m bad,

then what happens? I’m only human.” As people of colour are always treated as a minority,

Awkwafina would indeed feel the pressure and responsibility of having to represent their

whole community. Asians like us long to be ‘just’ human. As Richard Dyer said, ‘The claim to

power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that –

they can only speak for their race.’ This is indeed true. With whiteness functioning as the

human norm in Hollywood’s entertainment industry, as we seldom see white people having

to represent white people.

 

Asians were cast in films and TV series to act as a ‘spice’

In conclusion, Awkwafina and Constance both have to embrace their intersectional identities

of being female, Asian and American all at the same time. This is no easy feat, but both of

them are strongly rooted in similar values: that Asians should embrace their identity and

fight for more leading roles in the industry, not to add ‘colour’ to the white-dominated

industry, but to truly represent humanity and function as a norm. They might be different in

performing their gender, but none of them are truly safe from the punishments in failing to

perform gender norms. Awkwafina is a satirical rapper and Constance an outspoken activist,

both of their archetypes are a far cry from the idea of the soft-spoken, passive Asian woman,

waiting on their husbands in every step. That is also what made them inspirational women to

the younger generation of Asian minorities, a generation who now has a voice and is moving

towards functioning as a human norm in Hollywood.

 

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