What a cool moment. I was drawing at my drafting table, listening to Press Play with host Madeleine Brand on my old analog radio when I heard my work mentioned in reference to Sanrio's new character Aggretsuko. You can listen to the segment here: http://kcrw.co/2iaKVNS
This is the old homepage banner from my website from 2001. I used to call my comic strip "Angry Little Asian Girl and Friends" before I changed it to "Angry Little Girls." Over the years, people have asked why I changed from the original title "Angry Little Asian Girl" to "Angry Little Girls." The reason is because I had tons of rejection when I was submitting my comics as "Angry Little Asian Girl." I made a splash in 1998 when I came online with that name, and it is the most accurate way to describe me. But, I also knew from selling shirts on a card table out of the trunk of my car, that ALL WOMEN were angry. Whenever I met women, they'd tell me they were angry too. It became clear to me that women are not allowed to be angry, and it comes out in different ways. Some women bury it and pretend everything's great. Some women internalize it and stay silent. Some women have a great sense of boundaries and can stop an angering situation right from the start. There were so many ways women were dealing with their anger. So that's why I changed the name to "Angry Little Girls." And the name change worked because in 2005, I finally got published. Now, some years later, I want to go back to focusing on the Angry Little Asian Girl. I'm doing so because I've never really shown her family life. Just snippets here and there. But there, in the family, is where my anger really stems from. I'll try to keep it light and funny, but I'm an artist and my job is also to make people think. I will still draw "Angry Little Girls" comics. But I've come back to examine the Angry Little Asian Girl's home life because I hope a shift can happen in the minds of the Asians that made me angry in the first place. I'll offend some and I'll resonate with others. Just stay tuned, because I got some things to talk about...
2 Years ago I had a public beef with an Asian male blogger who used to say I inspired his work. I'd always been cool with his voice that helped other Asians find a voice. But as his blog grew, he started to omit this fact of origin. He began to consistently say in public that he came up with it. People began to wonder who was first or if our work was related. I was first and we are not related. And I believe he saw the impact that my work that I self-published on my website was having and thus changed his name to catch the wave. He originally blogged under the url www.minsoolove.com and then he registered the url www.angryasianman.com in 2002, four years after my 1998 launch of the www.angrylittleasiangirl.com website. His blog had similar features and slogans. It irritated me, but I let it be because he was a hobbyist and we were already in the public eye and I still had years of "be a good Asian girl" beliefs I had to unlearn. This is why women are mad. Because we are socialized to be polite and nice. And while we are being polite and nice, someone comes and takes advantage of the expectation that "women should be nice" so we become the hidden figures whose contributions get overlooked. We get pushed around. It was evident in the sexist language used during the presidential campaign to put a woman candidate in her place.
I read the book "Men Explain Things to Me" and understood that what happened to me was #mansplaining. A woman will come up with something, but a man comes a long and takes credit for it. And then everyone goes along with him and heralds him the greatest.
Years later when it got to the point that I had to say something to the blogger, I spoke up for myself when he sent me a jovial email stating that his trademark application was rejected because my trademark was already registered. It was not funny to me, to my twenty years of building a brand by myself. I spoke up for myself and told him it bothered me. In several exchanged emails, he said he would change his name. Then I waited and he did nothing. He ignored me. (this is a man dismissing a woman's complaint--also a #mansplaining method). I emailed him again. He ignored me again. Then he gave an interview where he stated that he came up with the idea of "Angry Asian" because he was bored. I could no longer stand what he was doing to me behind closed doors. Telling me he'd change it. Then coming back with his lawyer bullying me and telling me he'd file a petition to cancel my registration if I enforced my trademark rights. THIS is what happens to women behind closed doors. I wrote about my frustration with him on my blog to expose his tactics. Then he went on his blog and painted himself as a victim. His Asian male writer friend wrote an article calling me "the man." Since when is an independent woman artist working out of her garage "the man?" And the hypocrisy is that he was trying to trademark it!? The trolls came out and bashed me. They bashed me hard. People told me to "let him have it." "Apologize" "You don't own "Angry Asian!" (That's not what I'm arguing, what I'm arguing is that he built his blog on all of my features, name, slogan and ideas. He is taking credit for my ideas.) "You're a crazy bitch!" they said. This is misogyny. And it is rigidly sexist in Asian culture. (Characteristics of the Traditional Asian Family) The Asian men and women who came to reprimand me, reminded me a lot of the ajussi Korean men and ajummah Korean women who tell us we have to defer to Korean men and sons because we're women. In an email I called him a Korean male prince because that was exactly how he was acting. I called him on Jan 30, 2015 and we had a conversation that I documented. He said I was "a mom who draws cute comics and doesn't your husband work?" (This I translated to "mom, stay in the kitchen and get your money from your husband.") He admitted he had talked to another Asian female artist who was going by a similar name as another trademark I own. He admitted they wanted to smear me but that he decided not to. He said he would change his blog name. We got off the phone. But then he didn't do the things he said he would. He ignored me again and now 2 years later he is still ignoring me. He has continued with no changes to his blog. His ignoring of me is another form of #mansplaining, it's called talking over a woman.
Now, I want to bring up that he and I are both Korean. Culture and how we are raised is important. It is the frame of reference that informs how we treat others, because we've seen this in our culture, it is the normal by which we operate. He no doubt has seen Korean girls have to defer to men and brothers because our parents and elders taught us so. The son in a Korean household has to look good for the family. And I became the girl we all beat and blame. The girl who spoke out and the Asian community came out and bashed me for telling the truth. How dare I speak out of turn and speak out against the golden son?! After the bashing I received, I went and hid. It was so painful to know that when I was speaking out about something that was so fundamentally wrong and unfair, I was met with cruel punishment. I felt like a pariah and I wondered if I should keep fighting. But I was in too much pain and I was so deeply upset, so I kept quiet as I tried to get my bearings. I tried to resume my business and art, but so many of my followers disowned me, just like Asian parents threaten their Asian kids when they don't do as they're told. I was going to remain quiet, but I can't anymore. At this point, I'm already a pariah and if I remain so, so be it. But this shirt, him using this image on a shirt for his "subscription drive" infuriates me. What does he know about why an Asian girl would be angry? Asian girls are deemed worthless at birth. Asian girls are raised to be quiet and married off. Asian sisters have to cook for their brothers and serve everyone's needs before their own. Asian girls are not listened to by parents who favor their sons. Asian girls are angry that they have to apologize for speaking up. Asian girls are angry that they get bashed for not being a "good Asian woman."
The Asian community has so many problems that we are not talking about. Our community has a serious mental health and domestic violence issue and this situation is just a small example of what Asian women have to deal with. When Asian women who are victims of domestic abuse go to their relatives, ministers or community leaders for help, they are told to not bring shame on their family. They are told to go back home because it is their duty to uphold their family. Asian women do not get heard.
In my case, something was wrong. I did speak up and I was beaten up by a collective Asian mob. So while the Asian community abandoned me and left me to tend my wounds by myself, I had to wonder is this how Asians roll? They beat down the person who speaks out against their perfect collective face? Is this what happens to Asian women who are beaten? There is still a lot of sexism in the Asian community and the Americanized children of traditional Asian parents still have these traditional beliefs woven in the fabric of their being. It's what I learned is called #unconsciousbias. The Asians who are witness all stay silent and do nothing and go along as if nothing happened while the woman internalizes her anger that she is not allowed to express.
(this is a good article about the double pressure Asian girls face)
That Asian male blogger claims to want equality, but equality starts in the home, in our community and culture. His calls for justice ring hollow like a glory grabber, catching whatever social justice topic is trending - women's anger this time. He's talking about all the right topics, but he should look at himself and his own community first. But since Asian culture values his male gender, he has a privilege that blinds him to what would make an Asian girl angry in the first place. That's why his using the image of an angry Asian girl is so infuriating. Not only is it a middle finger to me and my work, but I'd say that as an Asian girl, I'm angry that an Asian man is using an angry Asian girl's likeness and image for his profit.
Sunday 11-13-16 I'm guest starring as parenting counselor Dr. Clayton on the TV show Shameless. It airs on Showtime 6pm EST / 9pm PST. Please watch!
Are Asian Women Invisible?
by Lela Lee
May 10, 2016
There’s a conversation that’s happening about the white washing of Asian female characters in lead roles of studio movies. Recently, Scarlett Johansen, Tilda Swinton and Emma Stone were cast to play Asian characters. Because I’m an Asian actress, I’ve taken an interest in this topic. I’ve read all the articles and I can’t tell if the problem is racial, economic or cultural. Do directors and executives do this because of economics? Maybe. Is it racist? Maybe. What I do know is that it feels like Asian women always get passed over. This larger conversation about casting white actresses to play Asian roles, has brought up a feeling that we’re invisible in the media. But then, something happened to me in my daily life that made me wonder, am I, an Asian-American woman, am I invisible in real life too?
I was shopping at Ross. (because like most Asian women, I like to bargain shop). I had popped in to look for flip-flops when I saw Prada sunglasses locked up in the glass case. Wooo! Prada at Ross? I had to stop and try them on. I waited by the glass case hoping that one of the two cashiers would notice me between ringing up their customers. I bided my time by looking at other items in the case. A few minutes passed and still no one noticed me. I saw a number ticket dispenser, so I took one. I waited, and waited. By now another 10 minutes or so had passed. I went up to the cashier and told the cashier I had been waiting a long time to see something in the glass case. She acknowledged me and called through the intercom, "Jennifer to jewelry." I went back to standing by the case where the sunglasses were. I saw a hispanic man and African-American lady had begun browsing the items in the jewelry case. After a few minutes, I finally saw Jennifer walk up in her blue shirt and name tag. "Hi," I said to her. Then the African-American woman intercepted my greeting and told Jennifer that the hispanic man at the end of the case was first and then her. Excuse me? Did she not see me standing there? Did she not notice that I said hi to Jennifer as if I was expecting her? Why did the lady not ask me if I was first? All these thoughts were going through my head. Then I said to myself, I have to speak up. Here is a black woman, being heard, taking her place, asserting herself and making her presence known. I respected that. But I had to let her know I was here, waiting, before her. I went against my cultural upbringing, the one that says Asian women should be demure. Growing up, my Korean immigrant parents always told me, “don’t make trouble.” Years of acculturation in America has made me aware that I have to conquer this internal conflict between my traditional Eastern values because I will get pushed aside when I live in a country with Western values.
I spoke up to correct her, "No, I was here long before that man and you." The African American lady retorted with attitude, "no, you weren't. I didn't see you. He was first and then me." Jennifer was already helping the man. I was so annoyed. "I have a ticket with a number and I was the one who asked the cashier to get Jennifer." The African American lady answered, "Oh I didn't see the numbers. Where do I get that?" Then she walked off to get a number. I was so mad and exasperated. This is not the first time I felt invisible or passed over as an Asian woman. I had a flashback of a Caucasian family who had cut in front of my kids and me as we waited in line for a ride at Disneyland. Was it because I was an Asian woman alone with my kids and they thought I wouldn’t say anything? Would it have made a difference if my husband were there? Another flashback of when I was seated at a conference table, making small talk as we waited for one guy who was running late. When the Asian man finally arrived, he shook the hands of all the other men, but not mine. When he found out I was the artist creator for the property that we were discussing, he shrugged it off and went about talking to the other men. These micro-aggressions happen to me often enough that I wonder if I am being treated like this because I’m an Asian woman? If it is, then I have to work against what I my Eastern culture taught me. I need to speak up. I called out to Jennifer, "Jennifer, I'm next" and gave the other lady a look as she walked back with her number ticket.
I told my girlfriend who is Korean about what happened. She became agitated. "Oh my God! That happens to me all the time! I swear, I could be a drug dealer and no one would notice me! I could walk through customs in an airport smuggling heroin and I bet you I would not get stopped!" We laughed at her exaggeration but we were still annoyed and wondered, is this a common experience for Asian women?
Asian daughters are taught by their parents and their Confucian-based culture to be subservient, obedient and quiet. We are taught that elders and males are more important than us. The stories of baby girls left on hillsides in China so parents can have a boy, that belief that makes parents do that is still with us. Asian women have to defer to anyone more important. Importance in Asian culture is determined by age and gender. When we are young, we must obey our fathers. When we are wives, we must defer to our husbands and when we are old, we have to listen to our sons. Asian girls and women are taught by our very own culture to do that. My parents scolded me when I complained about mean, racist kids at school. They’d tell me, "just be nice," "don't say anything." When my mom was mad at my dad about something, he’d ignore her by burying his head in his newspaper. She would give up with a sigh and say, "he is man. I am woman. I just have to do as he say." We are told it is our fate. We are taught to be polite, to accept misery and to not speak out. This learned helplessness and not being allowed to speak out is insidious. I believe it is our own culture that has made others think Asian women are submissive--that we are beautiful geishas who do not speak but giggle as we tilt our head and bat our eyelashes. Now in modern day, we've become the sidekick Asian girlfriend with two lines in a movie. And because we have this image that we’re quiet, that we don’t complain, we are being passed over for roles that should be Asian.
Asian parents would probably say that movies are a waste of time. Good Asian daughters should be studying anyway. The images of Asian women in movies have no effect in real life. But I would argue that they do. When we are invisible in the media, we are invisible in real life. And in real life, it affects our jobs, our pay, our lives at home and in our communities. It means the hard-working professional Asian woman will get paid less and passed over for a promotion because her bosses think she won't complain. It means at home, her opinions will be ignored by her father, husband and son. Asian women are expected to do the housework and child-care duties after they get home from work. Their pleas for help or understanding will not be heard. This treatment, time after time, diminishes our spirit and our self-worth.
I know from my own experience that learning to speak up was a huge internal battle. And often times when Asian women do speak up, they are met with criticism from their own family and community. The Asian culture does not like disharmony. Speaking out about anything is met with shame. But if we want to be seen, I mean SEEN, we have to start by saying something. So I implore my fellow Asian women, if ever some micro-aggression like this happens to you, say something! If someone speaks over you, takes credit for your work, takes something meant for you, or cuts in line in front of you, don't be a "good Asian woman" and say nothing. There is nothing beautiful about being walked on and passed over. It just means we'll eat last, be seen last, or get nothing. We have centuries of speaking up to do. We need to start complaining, we need to speak out. We need to be seen. Because otherwise no one will notice that we've been standing there all this time.
Lela Lee the cartoonist creator of "Angry Little Asian Girl." She also writes and acts.