As representation continues to be a hot-button issue across all mediums, it can be difficult to see the non-politicised side of the picture. While we distract ourselves with, and maybe even avoid, the ongoing debate surrounding the topic, we neglect the raw emotions that humanise and simplify the conversation. Joanna Nam shifts our focus to the reason why representation truly matters.
As a child, I always gravitated more towards the Asians that appeared on Australian television. These instances, though few, were nonetheless cherished by a younger me. I remember the eager wait for Filipino-Australian Kathleen during Channel Nine’s Hi-5 program and favouring Chinese-Australian member Jeff from The Wiggles cast. But as I grew out of these broadcast children’s programs and found no particular interest in Australian soapies I gradually stopped watching TV on a regular basis. In the few glimpses I did have of any Australian channel however, I noticed a pattern. With every show or ad that omitted a person of similar ethnicity to mine, a cold truth began to slowly form; Asians appearing on-screen was a rarity because frankly, we weren’t wanted.
Hollywood crystallised an even sadder truth; that Asians weren’t just excluded in cinema but they were entirely erased from their original narratives. One of the most tragic instances among many was the film The Last Airbender. The 2010 live-action film, featured the ethnic main characters of Aang, Sokka and Katara from the Nickelodeon series, Avatar, as white people. Hollywood picked apart the original characters that I had fallen in love with and I watched helplessly as they were rendered entirely unrecognisable.
The exclusion of Asian profiles from the entertainment landscape became an all too predictable pattern, generating the term ‘whitewashing’. And it remains just as prevalent today. Last year for example, the film, Ghost in the Shell, cast Scarlett Johansson as the main protagonist, despite the original story featuring a Japanese woman. The film went so far as to commission the trial use of computer graphics to tweak Johansson’s appearance towards a ‘more Asian’ look. This was eventually scrapped but nonetheless contributed to that same message: Asians weren’t wanted on-screen. It was then that I resigned myself to knowing that I wouldn’t see characters who looked like me on the big screen.
Amid this blatant cultural ostracism emerged an outcry from those who were both furiously passionate and deeply hurt. Their rumble spread internationally, contributing to the birth of movements such as the 50/50 by 2020 initiative. I admired their determination, but only from afar. A step too close and I was dazed by the politically charged arsenal that barraged across the front lines. Counter-arguments would tirelessly extend the discourse surrounding the lack of diversity, implying that casting issues were really a matter of talent and not the colour of one’s skin, that Asian-centric stories would be uninteresting and therefore unprofitable, that we people of colour were playing the ‘race card’, and so on. I concluded that if people were so intent on shutting down people’s attempts to just see themselves on-screen, I didn’t want to bother with emotional investment in the cause. I’ll admit I was a cynic but I had convinced myself that it would be better to be cynical than be hurt.
So I wore a cloak of indifference. I heard myself saying “I don’t really care,” or “It’s just a movie,” thinking it would persuade me to believe I truly wasn’t troubled by the cultural exclusion on our screens. As I watched myself be a bystander amid the heat of trending Twitter hashtags such as ‘#RepresentationMatters’, unable to form any opinion on it, I thought I had myself well persuaded. But this configured facade began to deteriorate when my friend tagged me in a Facebook post. It linked to a TimeOut article: Single Asian Female is Australia’s first mainstage play featuring three Asian leads. A quick scan of the article triggered that same childhood gravitation. Within minutes, my friend and I had bought tickets to the play.
The prologue opened with a dinky Chinese restaurant on the Sunshine Coast, the Golden Phoenix. Its interior, stippled with red paper lanterns and wide opening ornamental fans, piqued nostalgic memories of the interiors of Asian restaurants I dined at with my family. The smaller details like the ceramic koi, the maneki-neko figurine swinging its paw back and forth further softened the staged-aura to warmer tones of familiarity. I found myself shrouded by a sense of warm welcome, able to latch onto the play’s many touchstones that reflected my life experiences. At the most tactile level, I was able to personally identify with the physical props such as the pair of sparkly jelly shoes that were a classic for most Asian girls, including me. Beyond the tangible set, I was able to closely relate to the sprinkled nuances of family life that the Wong women shared; Zoe’s joy from having her mother’s cheung fun for breakfast, as opposed to the more Western option of cereal and toast, reminded me of my joy in waking up to the soft wafting smell of mum’s soy bean soup.
Representation in the play was more than skin-deep. I didn’t just see Chinese women; I saw multi-dimensional Chinese women. The Wong women weren’t forcibly moulded into token archetypes. They weren’t just nerdy, awkward, antisocial, submissive, or eroticised. They were simply human; flawed, complex and going through their own unique struggles. And for me, it was these individual struggles that struck home most. I was able to empathise, almost painfully, with Mei’s inferiority complex being an Asian girl. In one scene, we see her embarrassment eating Chinese food. She rejects her mother’s dumplings, asking “what about just normal food like pies and sausage rolls?” Her shame paralleled my humiliation of packed Korean lunches after being teased for the different look and smell of my food. During Zoe’s desperate search to secure a job she complains, “[white people] only have to do half as much to get twice as far. And I have to work my arse off to even be seen.” This echoed what my co-worker had advised me: to “stand out” and not be a “cookie-cutter Asian”.
As with Pearl, her bitterness towards ‘gwei los’ (white people) reflects how people of colour have internalised Australia’s discriminatory history, from the White Australia Policy which was only phased out in the 1970s to Pauline Hanson’s infamous 1996 maiden speech where she said that Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians.” In seeing my own struggles in these characters, I was able to take part in an emotional communion. And from the audience’s unified laughter and tears, I knew I was part of a larger mass ceremony.
As the curtain call signalled the end of the play, there was a sense of uplifting liberation. It was as if I had been holding my breath, and the play was the long-awaited exhale. It felt like finally catching a reality I had been chasing. In that moment of hoarding all this immense pleasure, my unknown catharsis became apparent. I could see the root core of why representation mattered: it felt good. I was in awe of the simplicity of the answer I had been longing for.
But as if some built-in knee-jerk reaction had been conditioned by my fear of being shut down, I began to doubt the straightforwardness of my answer, so I looked to academic sources hoping to reconcile my worry of those counter-arguments with some theoretical grounding. It wasn’t long before I found the term, ‘symbolic annihilation’. Coined by George Gerbner, it describes the absence, condemnation or trivialisation of a particular group in the media. He said, “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation”. Though chilling, his words ring true, highlighting how ethnic exclusion directly correlates with a weak sense of social worth. A study by two Indiana University professors offered more insight, revealing that the mono-cultural nature of entertainment lowers the self-esteem of children from ethnic backgrounds.
From wider film studies on emotion, Norbert Wiley reports: “We enter the movie troubled in some way, we watch it, and this watching temporarily lifts our burdens.” The idea we seek entertainment for emotional solace, or what he calls a “temporary and escapist satisfaction of living in a better world,” blends with our desire to be represented. When we see ourselves represented, we see not only a better world, but a better world that we are part of. From this vast array of sources I felt a cushion of support, and with that my residual fears began to slowly evaporate.
Michelle Law, the writer of Single Asian Female talks about her motivations for the play in her writer’s note. She says, “People of colour. Women. Migrants. Outliers. The Other. This show is a love letter to them.” Having been on the receiving end of her love letter, I wanted to respond with gratitude but also flesh out this catharsis she had ultimately guided. Despite Michelle’s busy schedule I was lucky to have a conversation with her. A few of her words stayed with me most: “It was really lonely.” Lonely. It was possibly one of the most accurate words to describe my own experiences. In that moment, I was saddened by the fact this loneliness was inevitably shared by many others. Yet, in talking to Michelle I noticed she dissolved many of the counterarguments that had once made me feel vulnerable. “How do you respond to someone when they say representation is just a political issue?” I asked. She explained that without choice, our personal lives had become a matter of politics, but this didn’t make it any less personal for us. “The political is personal for us,” she said flatly, as if she’d heard that argument too many times. There was indeed a silver lining in being part of a collective struggle – the privilege of having a support network.
So, I arranged to speak to Mabel, a friend who currently attends the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. I knew Mabel had been devoted to pushing for inclusivity in entertainment, and was curious to hear her views. “It made me feel invisible,” she said when I asked what the emotional impact had been from lack of representation in entertainment. “It made me feel like I didn’t know who I could be or become,” she said, adding that it often dismantled her confidence before an audition. We bonded over this shared experience, feeling proud of our ethnicity in a world that exclusively portrays stories through the prism of a white gaze. She said she hoped it would be different for future generations: “It’s important because there are children that don’t know their potential and don’t have role models. And I know it’s important. Because I was that little girl once.”
The point I’m making may appear unrefined or emotional at best. It is simple but also true. Representation matters because it feels good. There’s no need for an intellectual argument that justifies our desire to be represented. It implies we must deserve to be seen. Representation validates the realities shaping our pluralist society, it heightens self-esteem and it normalises identities that have been pushed aside as the Other. It reminds us we are equally important and that we too are seen, and seen to be able. Yes, it boils down to talent and telling a good story but when someone asks, “why does representation matter?” these points are irrelevant. And as we begin to see plays like Single Asian Female it appears we are slowly heading towards cultural inclusivity. While still far from post racial entertainment, conversations about representation will serve as a launch pad for incremental movement towards this goal: people of colour; members of the LGBTQ community; those with disabilities; and women. The struggles and emotions are real for the underrepresented, and it’s time we give them the attention they deserve.