More Than Mulan: Why Representation Matters
Ailsa talks about how lack of representation affected her and why diversity in media is important.
When you only see white folks being glamorous, beautiful and sympathetic in media, it is all too easy to internalise the message…
Mulan was my heroine growing up. I always assumed that this was because she was badass and awesome (leaving aside the inevitable Disney marriage ending) and those things remain true. However, a few years ago, when I began to think more about my race, it dawned on me that perhaps the main reason she was my role model was because she was the only East Asian character I ever saw in all of TV, film and books.
I don’t remember being aware of looking different when I was a kid. A teacher pulling me up to the front of the class to demonstrate my ‘beautiful almond-shaped eyes’; other kids mentioning my chubby cheeks and flat nose; disbelief over my dad being so white and ginger: all these things passed me by. In the same way, I was oblivious to how unlike me all of the other Disney princesses looked. And so I got older, grew into my cheeks and fell into Mulan’s shoes happily.
I had internalised the message that when East Asian women are shown in media, they are always thin.
Then I got older still (as children are wont to do) and puberty hit. Along with it came a flood of insecurities, existential crises and an eating disorder. Many factors fed into my eating disorder but it certainly didn’t help that by fourteen I had internalised the message that when East Asian women are shown in media, they are always thin. And in order to have a beautiful face, that needs to be thin too: angular, delicate nose, good profile. In other words, white. I vividly remember standing in front of the mirror pulling my cheeks back, fantasising about how much ‘better’ I would look with a thinner, more European face.
It is only in recent years that I have realised these ways lack of representation has affected me. Many of those ways are still undiscovered, few are unlearned. I have made progress though. One action which has helped hugely with my race-related body issues has been to surround myself to images and films featuring people of colour. I remember watching Li Gong in ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ for the first time and thinking she looks kinda like me. And she’s beautiful. It may sound ridiculous and/or egotistical to you, but to someone who had barely seen any actors with the face shape and features they have it was a powerful revelation.
The trailer is full of references to different East Asian cultures, from aesthetics, to religion and philosophies.
But whilst mainstream media is happy to disregard East Asian people, it’s a different matter when it comes to the accoutrements of our vast and varied culture.
Last week the trailer for Marvel’s Doctor Strange dropped. And with it, my expectations of Hollywood (once again).
The trailer is full of references to different East Asian cultures, from aesthetics, to religion and philosophies. What it is not full of however, is East Asian people. Hollywood is telling us that it wants, and can, take its pick of our diverse cultures, mash them all together to get a desired effect, all without reference or regard to their significance or a nod to the peoples who created them. It is a subtle message at first, but after seeing it again and again growing up in the Western world, it leaps out at me from this trailer: we want everything your culture has to offer except you and its burdens. Perpetuating tropes of the mysterious, exotic and spiritual East, is Orientalism at its finest. There is a clear line between appreciating cultures and exotifying them but it is a line that so often seems both invisible and unimportant to Hollywood. Exotification may seem harmless, but when that objectifying, incomplete view of societies passes over into the dehumanisation of the peoples who are associated with them, the hurt is very real.
The latter of these two is compounded by the few roles given to people of colour often being tokenistic at best and tropey and racist at worst.
Asides from the body image issues mentioned, there are many other ways in which whitewashing -the erasure of visible people of colour in media – affected and affects me and many other people of colour I have talked to. From the books we read to the films we watch, representation matters. When you only see white folks being glamorous, beautiful and sympathetic in media, it is all too easy to internalise the message that you have to look white in order to be attractive. The latter of these two is compounded by the few roles given to people of colour often being tokenistic at best and tropey and racist at worst (emasculated Asian sidekick, angry black woman, over-sexualised Latina, submissive East Asian woman, etc).
Even if you are white, and lucky enough to see your reflection in your screen, BAME representation is important for you too: being exposed to different lives through characters is a key way we learn to empathise with those outside our bubbles of experience. A lack of diversity in media contributes directly to inequality of empathy where privileged groups empathise far less with oppressed groups whilst those with less privilege are able to empathise with peers and those above them in social hierarchies.
Even if you are white, and lucky enough to see your reflection in your screen, BAME representation is important for you too
Watching more East Asian films (and more films featuring people of colour generally) has helped me enormously with beginning to accept myself in all of my chubby cheeked, monolidded glory. I believe it is important too, for people from all backgrounds to expose themselves to the experiences, faces and cultures of others. It is very easy to never push yourself to identify with those outside your experience, particularly when you have never had reason to.
But it is important.
And there are a lot of great films out there with which you can do so.
Here are some of my top recommendations which are packed full of action along with all the aesthetics, spirituality and East Asian culture you could ever want because they are written, directed, produced and acted by East Asians.
The classic. The film that brought wuxia to Western audiences, and rightly so. If you haven’t watched it already, get on it.
This list will contain quite a few of Yimou Zhang’s films because he is a brilliant director. ‘House of Flying Daggers’ is one of my favourite films because of the feminist plot, beauty of cinematography, angst, wonderful soundtrack and physics-defying fight scenes.
This is the first of Park Chan Wook’s revenge trilogy. It is dark and does it well. Despite missing the visuals of certain scenes due to my fear of torture, I still enjoyed it hugely. It is clever, brilliantly acted and beautifully shot.
This is a beautiful film, with particular emphasis on use of colour tied into the unfolding of the narrative. It has some of the best fight scenes I have seen in cinema, coupled with brilliant cinematography. Please watch it. And then come and gush about it with me. It’s available on netflix.
The tension in this film is all the more palpable for being set against the unapologetically rich backdrop of gold, gold and more gold.
You know how Disney are making a live action version of ‘Mulan’? Well, it’s already been done. And this version is darker and more engaging and heart wrenching than the animation or anything Disney will ever do with this Chinese legend. Also available on netflix.
Have you got experiences of representation or lack thereof that you’d like to share? Comment below or tell us on facebook or twitter.
The Unity Youth Forum is a great space for BAME voices to be heard.