HUMANIZING ASIAN PEOPLE ON SCREEN
“For as long as I can remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence,” writes Cathy Park Hong in Minor Feelings, an essay collection about the Asian-American experience.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Asian immigrants all over North America. They have to prove their right to exist here. They work exceptionally hard to gain minor recognition. But, like Hong says, they are shamed for having “minor feelings.” For her, these minor feelings are the disregarded and invalidated experiences of marginalization minorities face in Western society.
Asian people have to prove themselves into existence not only in the workplace and in social spaces, but also on the big screen. Historically, Asian people portrayed in the media have been superficial caricatures forced into stereotypical roles. Whether it’s the martial artist or the minority model, subjecting Asian people to characters that lack depth limits our humanity and renders us mere entertainment. It ignores the fact that Asian people have lived in North America for generations and the unique stories they have which deserve to be represented on screen.
Recent films like Minari and Everything Everywhere All at Once have made strides in Asian representation. Both films explore the divisions and resolutions between Western life and Asian values with their own nuance.
I remember relating to Joy Wang in Everything Everywhere — she had a hardened stubbornness and struggled to relate to her mother. The film reflected the inner workings of both my home and my mind. When I recognized this, I felt both accepted and understood by Western media. I felt as though my experiences were finally normal, and that the unique challenges faced by Asian-American children deserved to be represented on screen.
To reflect real representation, movies must show that the Asian-American isn’t simply a divisive identity, but one that is cohesive. They must preach that our immigration story is not just a cycle of conflict, but a story of resolution. By doing this, they will normalize the existence of first- and second-generation immigrant families and they will show the diversity of our struggles. They will humanize Asian people and allow us to feel validated in our cultural conflicts and plurality.
Asian children in North America must see themselves represented on screen to grow up with confidence. Many second-generation Asian immigrants struggle to understand where they fit in North American society. Film has the power to alter this by telling our stories and affirming our independence from the stereotypical roles imposed on us.
In a famous interview, James Baldwin tells us, “you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Today, film provides the consolation that books once did, and we turn to film to remember that we aren’t alone in our hardships. Film is a form of art that is always political, and only when people of colour are humanized on screen will the medium get closer to representing our collective humanity.