A friend once asked me why I didn't like the TV show Friends.
As a young white woman who came of age during Friends's heyday, she only had rosy feelings for the show. I don't begrudge her those feelings, as we can't choose what triggers warmth and nostalgia in us. If we were to censor all our childhood memories, I suspect most of us would be left with none.
We can only educate ourselves and make new, smarter, rosy memories as we age.
But she couldn't understand why I didn't love Friends. It was hilarious, it had something for everyone, and, yeah, it was unrealistic and "Fat Monica" was horrible, but it was possible to see beyond that at the time. The times were different, right?
The times were different...but not all that different. This is more or less what I told my friend:
"I understand why you love Friends. You see yourself in it. As a young girl, you saw yourself being Monica or Rachel or Phoebe. I did not. There is a plethora of reasons why not to love Friends; there is a plethora of reasons why to love Friends. I can only tell you why I don't love Friends.
"I admit that when I was a teenager, I watched episodes of Friends, I laughed at parts, I knew the basic stories. But I never felt close to it. I looked at that band of privileged white people and I saw nobody like me. I saw a world where I didn't quite belong. Where there wasn't room for me on the coffee shop couch (unless I was somebody's girlfriend of the week). I couldn't relate on any level. As a Chinese American kid from suburban Dallas, a part of me was sincerely afraid that if that was the world of 'cool, hip adults making it in the world,' then was I doomed to fail? (Fail in the terms created by Friends-world.)
"I wondered if 'the world' [America] wasn't interested in people who looked like me?"
I might be making too much out of a sitcom with a haircut.
"Yes, Friends wasn't the only show like this, but it's the show that for some reason, people continually don't understand WHY I don't like it. The older I get, the less I like it. And yes, it's ENTERTAINMENT, it's television, but entertainment is how our culture forms its self-image. It is the conduit through which young people, more than ever, form a mental picture of normalcy.
"When you grow up not seeing yourself in the media (unless you're a soulless stereotype) you begin to question if you're 'normal.'"
My friend sat there staring at me. If there had been a record, it would have scratched.
I didn't want to be a buzzkill...but OK.
"You're right. I never thought of it that way. I get it," she said. And in that moment, I felt a teeny, tiny victory.
That question of "normal" in western media popped back into my head this week. Everyone and their Uncle Roger is playing that game on Facebook where they post three pictures of fictional characters that best describe them.
People are posting pictures of Mary Poppins, Liz Lemon, and Miss Piggy; Mr. T, Punky Brewster, and the Kool-Aid Man; Bridget Jones, Captain Planet, and Eliza Doolittle. Most folks in my feed are sticking to film and television in their thinking, so I am too (I figure it's because images of book characters just aren't as Googleable). I should add that most people in my Facebook feed are also American.
I've been moderately amused by some of the posts.
And while I don't normally play these reindeer games, I started thinking about my three characters this morning. Two things happened:
1. I immediately thought of myself as animals. My first thoughts went to Flipper, Garfield, and Mr. Ed. Or maybe I just want those characters to be MY Friends. (I'd watch that show.)
2. I could barely think of any Asian women characters in American film or television that I would say accurately reflect my experience as a human woman. A human woman Louise, nonetheless.
Yes, I know there are remarkable Asian women characters in books. But by the nature of it being FACEbook, the game asks for images. And where do most Americans primarily draw images of fictional characters from? Film and television.
This is not to say that Asian women characters do not exist at all in film and television. But the fact that I feel like I could name nearly all of them in one sitting, with very little help from Google, makes me sad. (I'm not talking ALL Asian women onscreen characters; I'm just thinking of the ones that aren't scratch-my-eyes-out offensive.) And frankly, while, yes, many of these women are as well rounded as women get to be in mainstream media, with such a narrow field to draw from, it's hard for me to say, "Oh, yes! There I am!"
Here is an incomplete list of Asian women characters from mostly television (because TV suckled me from its teat when I was a child, and that's where my brain goes):
Joan Watson from Elementary
Lane from Gilmore Girls
Margaret Kim from All-American Girl*
Agent May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
Mindy from The Mindy Project
Dr. "Deb" Chen from E.R.
Ensign Sato from Star Trek: Enterprise
Dr. Cristina Yang from Grey's Anatomy
Jessica Huang from Fresh Off the Boat
The women of The Joy Luck Club
Dr. Park from House
*All-American Girl was hugely problematic, and Margaret Cho knew it. However, I feel the need to include it because of the seeds it planted, how THRILLED I was to have ANYTHING like it on TV when I was a kid, and because Margaret Cho was and is very influential as to how I learned to own my Asian woman identity. But, yeah, that show was cringeworthy.
I know this list is not complete or perfect. Many of the characters on there are controversial and/or are still slogging through the outer suburbs of Stereotype City. I feel like we're slowly zeroing in what an "Asian woman" is, but it's a long, slow spiral.
And, yes, I also know I'm making a big deal out of a dumb Facebook game. A friend of mine pointed out that my three fictional characters don't have to be Asian or female (as evidenced by other women posting as a mishmash of men, cartoons, animals, etc.).
I proceeded to tell her about Flipper, Garfield, and Mr. Ed. (Because I'm enthusiastic, because I'm hungry, because I'm wise in a surprising kind of way, in case you're wondering.)
But that's the thing: Why should I have to relegate reflections of myself to abstract images of cartoon cats and talking horses? Or men? Or cartoons (of the drawn kind or the racially stereotyped kind)?
As a woman, an Asian human, and a Chinese American woman, it saddens me that in a country as diverse as the one I consider home, I still have to pick through the bargain bin of characters that mainstream media deems "accurate enough." Yes, it's getting better, but when better is simply being acknowledged as existing in the first place, excuse me if me and the other Dragon Ladies don't do a kick line — er, I mean, a fan dance? Wait, do your surgery? Be your ninja sidekick? Sorry, Hollywood, which one is the one we do?
(And P.S.: If being acknowledged as existing means that parts written for women of Asian descent go to white movie stars because "EGADS! An Asian woman can't carry a movie written for an Asian woman! But at least we're making this movie with this character-san!" then I'd like to rescind the above-mentioned "It's getting better" and replace it with "It's getting the same.")
Look, I do not and cannot expect to see a spot-on depiction of LOUISE in film and television. Film and television are not reality. Hell, THE PUBLISHED INTERNET WORD IS NOT REALITY. I know that and you (I hope) know that.
But even though we know it's all not real, we still reference film and television as touchstones for our reality. We can't help it. What we see on the screen has become so interwoven into our consciousness that we cannot help but regurgitate aspects of it into our lives. Blerg! I'll have what she's having!
This post was brought to you by a dumb TV show, a dumb Facebook game, and the simmering rage I so rarely publicly express over how Asian people continue to be ignored, erased, and generalized in film and television (Chinese is Japanese is Korean is Vietnamese is Hawaiian is Indian is...).
AND I LOVE FILM AND TELEVISION, DAMN IT!
It's like the whole industry is saying to Asian people, people of color, "We're just not that into you!" (SEE! More media references! By the power of Grayskull!)
I've said this before, but as Americans we are standing on a precipice above a giant, bubbling shit-cauldron of normalized hate. Maybe we'll find a bridge across it, but there are a scary amount of people who are like, "Come on in, the water's white!" (Oh, wait... But not you... You can't come in...)
When faced with the normalization of such hate, how can we hope to live in an accepting, non-violent society if we are fueled by imagery that only shows one side? One life experience? One "normal"?
If what we see on American film and television screens depicts characters "for everyone" what about the "other ones" who aren't shown?
The "other ones" are being told that they don't count, and the "everyones" are being told that they count more.
So 1,670 words later (oops, this was supposed to be a "short post," sorry Jamie!), the reason I'm not going to play Facebook's game is because it wasn't really meant for me, as an Asian American woman.
My experience is still a little too far outside of the realm of "normal."