Media and Identity: A Movie is Just a Movie, Right?

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In Leslie Bow’s Betrayal, she touches on the idea that conflicting definitions of community lead to confusion and loss of communal belonging. In the United Stated, these conflicting definitions come from the hegemonic rule that media has over society and their ideologies. For the sake of brevity, I’d like to focus specifically on movies’ misrepresentation of Asian Americans and how that affects the minority identities. Stuart Hall has an excellent explanation of why media has a direct impact on how society thinks and feels towards a certain race or gender in his piece, The Whites of Their Eyes. He says on page 18, “The media’s main sphere of operations is the production and transformation of ideologies. An intervention in the media’s construction of race is an intervention in the ideological terrain of struggle.” By analyzing three personal essays, I will elaborate on how the media’s production of ideologies blurs the identities of Asian Americans and leads to a loss of communal belonging.

Michelle Chan, a writer for an online forum called “Her Culture,” writes about how Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian Americans produces a false image, especially for Southeast Asian Americans. In her essay, “Asian American Representation in Media,” she describes how, although the number of Asian Americans in media is already limited, the representation of Southeast Asian Americans is practically non-existent. As well, she comments on how simply highlighting one or two people of color in the media does not satisfy the definition of racial representation. Instead, it is highlighting those one or two people of color accurately. “And, no, stereotypes do not count,” she writes. She points to the recent movie Aloha as an example of misrepresenting Hawaiian culture. Not only is the main character (played by Emma Stone) supposed to be half Caucasian, a quarter Hawaiian, and a quarter Chinese, the movie also features two white main characters and a majority white environment—even though it is set in Hawaii, where 60% of the population is Asian American Pacific Islander. One of Chan’s final comments on Asian American representation is, “Its importance is not to be politically correct, however, it is to give minority races an identity in society.”

Irene Ly offers another personal essay, “Asian Misrepresentation in Media Propels Stereotypes” for her school newspaper, in which she argues that, when Asian Americans are not fairly represented in media, it can be hard for them to find their identity within society. Ly grew up watching Hong Kong Kung Fu movies, where the Asian actors were diverse and had depth. However, when she started watching American media and its representation of Asian Americans as one-dimensional, stereotyped characters, she understood how it would be hard to find an identity. “It’s easy to say, ‘It’s just a movie.’ But so much of art imitates life. If your identity is presented with the same stereotypes over and over, it can become easy to believe those stereotypes must be true,” she writes. Not only do these portrayal affect how Asian Americans feel toward their own identities, but it also leads people on the outside to believe these stereotypes and look at Asian Americans as one-dimensional outsiders. Ly feels lucky that she was so enamored by the movies from Hong Kong because if she had not seen Asian Americans accurately represented on screen she may have not been comfortable with her own identity. She hopes that one day people will realize that Asian Americans will be acknowledged for all of their complexities and uniqueness so, not only will Asian Americans be able to grow up confident in their racial identity, but also that “non-Asians can know there is more to us than our chopsticks.”

Michael Liao, a student at San Jose, offers his own take on Asian American representation in the media in his essay, “The Asian American Experience.” He describes his conflict between upholding the values that he was brought up with and conforming to the dominant culture further emphasized by media. Due to the stereotypes upheld by movies and popular media, the other students at his school saw Liao’s childhood values of respect, reservedness, and resilience as an eagerness to please, timidity, and weakness. He explains that the confusion and conflict of identities that resulted from these opposite views often lead Asian Americans to either join a gang to feel apart of a community, or break down from the pressures of a dual life. He describes his experience as a break down from social isolation and the false sense of fulfilling his responsibilities by keeping his family and social life separate. He grew apart from his family in his pursuit of distancing himself from his native Asian identity. He describes, “The put-downs from the popular crowd created in me a vicious cycle of self-loathing. All I had wanted was acceptance, a misguided notion of embodiment.

All three of these personal essays share a common theme: the misrepresentation of Asian Americans in media. In all these cases, the false representation leads to conflicting identities and loss of communal belonging—just as Bow described. It is important to recognize how media, specifically movies, misrepresent Asian Americans because, as we see in Liao’s piece, the outsiders also fall victim to these false representations. As Hall stated in his piece, it is so difficult to realize that the media is portraying and transforming these ideologies onto us because it is done unconsciously. By consuming mass media and Hollywood’s movies, we are all naturalizing these false stereotypes of Asian Americans, and creating their internal identity struggle.

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