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.