Why Representation Matters

When I was growing up, I was a huge Charlie’s Angels fan. I remember watching the television show religiously. I was enamored by the beautiful Hollywood hair, the glamorous sexy clothes, and their smart investigative skills where each show ended with the crime effortlessly solved. My loyalty for the show was so steadfast that my friend and I often wrote scripts and acted out scenes from the show. I always played the part of Kelly. She was my hero. As a Korean American, how did this white movie star with wavy brunette hair become my first role model?

Even though I attended a large suburban high school in a metropolitan area, there were only a handful of people of color in my school and I can only remember five other Asian students. My circle of friends were all white. My best friend was white. I existed in and easily maintained a white culture. I walked through high school not noticeably affected by my race. There was a whitewashing that occurred and until I looked at myself in the mirror, I completely forgot that I was an Asian American.

It was during my twenties when I began to explore my racial identity by seeking out Asian American films and books. What I quickly learned was that Asian American female actresses were non existent and if they were in films, often times they played the stereotype role of the fetishized girl, the “dragon lady,” or “china doll” who is seen as the “other.” Asian American men, on the other hand, were completely reduced to either the caricature of the martial artist like Bruce Lee or the emasculated man like the awkward foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong from the movie Sixteen Candles. His character was intended to be the comic relief. Jokes were made at his expense while he spoke in broken English and gongs played in the background.

These are the images that I grew up seeing in television and media. These negative stereotypes impacted how I viewed myself and created my racial identity. Now as a parent who is raising an Asian American male, I wonder who will be his role models? Will he grow up seeing strong Asian American men in popular culture who fall in love, have successful jobs, and live complex “normal” lives? How will he internalize the absence of representation?

This past week I attended a show at Theater Mu. This theater company casts all Asian actors and seeks to represent the diverse stories from the Asian American experience. The show ended. The actors came out and bowed to the audience. As I clapped hysterically, I looked out on to the stage and all I could see was a group of talented Asian actors who looked like me. It was in that quiet fleeting moment where I felt validated. I existed. And that’s why representation matters.