SAPAHM Guest: Lisa on The Importance of Diverse Representation in Media

Hi everyone! Yes, APAHM is still going on, and today we welcome back Lisa!! I think this is a really interesting topic, and I hope you will too. 🙂 Without further ado… 

The Importance of Diverse Representation in Media

First of all, I want to thank Limecello for giving me the opportunity to guest blog and commemorate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! I decided to talk about my favorite Disney movie, and Asian representation in media more generally.

The year was 1998. The new Disney movie Mulan had just come out. To say I was beyond excited would be an understatement. For the first time, there was a movie coming out that represented my culture, people with faces that looked like me. (Yes, The Joy Luck Club came out five years prior, but I was too young then, and hadn’t read the book yet). When I finally saw the movie, it lived up to my expectations, and more.

For those who are unfamiliar, Mulan is the story of Fa Mulan, based on the Chinese legend of a young woman who takes her ailing father’s place in battle in disguise, and achieves fame and glory. While the original storyline reinforced Confucion values of family duty, honor, and filial piety (at the end of the story, Mulan goes back to her life, having done her duty for her father and family), the Disney version was decidedly feminist and kick-ass. The movie shows Mulan not just holding her own amongst an army of men, but coming out on top and earning their respect, loyalty, trust, and affection. In fact, she is the one who uncovers the secret plot against the Emperor, faces down Shan Yu at the end, and defeats him. Not only does she save China, and has citizens bowing down before her, she gets recognized by the Emperor himself. And cherry on top, she gets the guy. But most importantly, when she finally comes home and faces her father, she presents him with the Emperor’s gifts. He tells her the gifts don’t matter. “The greatest gift and honor is having *you* for a daughter.” That scene gives me a lump in the throat every time I watch it.

For an Asian American girl, seeing a positive portrayal like that meant the world. Back then, there were not a lot of Asian faces and voices in the media. Mulan was one of the first times I remembered seeing a positive, real representation. Mulan wasn’t a stereotypical meek submissive Asian female-she was fierce, followed her heart, and stood up for what she thought was right. Unfortunately, in that era, movies like Mulan were the exception, not the rule. There was no real significant portrayals of Asians in media to speak of, no TV shows with a majority Asian cast. There were maybe a few stray guest starring roles, but nothing of substance, certainly no show with a significant Asian cast. Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was cancelled after one season. A few stars with name recognition got roles-for example Ming Na Wen was on E.R. and B.D. Wong joined the cast of Law & Order SVU, but again those types of roles were rare.

Now things are different. Today, we have shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Hawaii Five-O, and Dr. Ken. Fresh Off the Boat tells the story of the Huang family living in Orlando Florida in the 90s. Based on the life of restaurateur and chef Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat delves into the complexities of the immigrant experience, the struggle between assimilation and respecting your roots, the culture gap, and the sense of displacement, feeling like you don’t quite fit in anywhere. As a child of immigrant parents, and an immigrant myself, I related deeply to Louis, Jessica and their boys. The things they went through in the show were similar to what happened with my family. For example, Eddie and his brothers suffered through CLCs (Chinese Learning Centers) that reminded me of being packed off the Chinese school every Saturday morning. The scene in the pilot where Eddie gets teased about the weird looking and weird smelling food his mom packed for his lunch struck too close to home.

Dr. Ken stars comedian Ken Jeong who plays a doctor working at an HMO with his therapist life. Jeong, who is a licensed M.D. in real life, uses his experience for inspiration for the show. The show is wonderfully diverse in its cast and storytelling. There is a Thanksgiving episode where he and his wife Allison (who is Japanese American while Ken is Korea American) clash because both of their families are coming over, and struggle to incorporate both Korean and Japanese culture and traditions for the meal. I really appreciated this episode because it addressed a serious issue in a humorous way. How many times have we heard quips and stereotypes about how “All Asians look the same” and “Isn’t Japanese and Chinese the same? What’s the difference?” No, we are *not* all the same, thank you very much!

Hawaii Five-O is a reboot of the CBS show from the late 60s, and makes a point of highlighting Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and Hawaiian culture in general. It is filmed on location in Hawaii, and accurately depicts life on the islands with its diverse population. Just like Fresh Off the Boat, both shows strive for authenticity when telling stories of the Asian American experience. They don’t rely on lazy and damaging stereotypes. On Hawaii Five-O the Asian characters are both the heroes and villains, just like in real life. There is no “model minority” nonsense going on here. And Fresh Off the Boat shows Eddie and his family navigating the murky waters between two cultures in a realistic way. There are no right or easy answers. All of the characters get shown in their full complex humanity, reinforcing the point that regardless of skin tone and differences in language, ethnicity, and culture, at the end of the day, there is more that unites us than divides us, and we all want the same things. With these shows, we see how the valuable contributions Asian Americans have made to America, and show how deeply we are woven into the fabric of America. Their stories are our stories, but they often times don’t get told.

For me, shows like Hawaii Five-O and Fresh Off the Boat are important because representation matters. When we see ourselves erased from history, from media, from the narrative altogether, it is incredibly painful, ostracizing, and lonely. Asian Americans have made huge contributions in this country, and I don’t mean just providing you with all of the fried rice, kim chi, pad thai, and sushi you can eat. Asian American helped settle the West, build the Continental Railroad, were part of the suffrage and civil rights movements, and made their mark in the entertainment industry. We are a diverse vibrant community, and for too long we have been white-washed and ignored in the media and the political arena. For example, the movie about the Great Wall of China starring Matt Damon (The Great Wall), or Scarlett Johannsen starring in Ghost In the Shell, which is based on Japanese manga (and anime too). Even worse, what little representation we got ran the risk of being based on harmful negative dangerous stereotypes, as in Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With shows that finally have significant Asian American casts, our stories are finally being told. Little Asian boys and girls today can watch media and see someone that looks like them, that they can relate too, unlike me. The importance of that can’t be overstated.

Along the same veins, the importance of representation is why I’m proud to support diverse books and authors in romance. I applaud the work authors like Courtney Milan, Beverley Jenkins, Alisha Rai, Suleikha Snyder, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Alyssa Cole, and countless others have done to expand the genre, support authors of color and diverse romances, and show that HEAs belong to everyone. We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go. But the optimist in me says someday we’ll get there.

Thanks so much, Lisa! I do have to say, while things are definitely better ” ” than they were, it’d be nice to see more – and more importantly, we’re nowhere close to things being “good.” What with all the white washing, that Netflix guy saying he couldn’t find any Asian actors that could speak English … And I’m curious about Dr. Ken. A Korean-Japanese couple is of course possible but it is … well I can’t imagine it’s common. I wonder if the show addresses that at all. Definitely lots of fodder for discussion.

What are your thoughts? Do you watch any of these shows? Have you noticed Asian American characters and/a a change?

5 thoughts on “SAPAHM Guest: Lisa on The Importance of Diverse Representation in Media

  1. eilisflynn

    As a Japanese-American editor/writer, I applaud this post and love the message! I really enjoyed Dr. Ken – canceled, sadly – and the Korean/Japanese marriage. Maybe not common, but I have heard of such!

    1. Limecello

      Hi Ellis!

      I love the Heritage Month Posts – in the past I’ve had a lot like this but …. this year is a wash. [They’re all tagged though if you care to go looking.]
      Definitely it happens – but I wouldn’t say it’s *common* – in fact, someone I know who (apparently looks Japanese) had a Korean dry cleaner she went to for 6-7 years and they always ignored her. Took her clothes, gave it back, never greeted her. Then once her boyfriend (who is white) went for pickup, and they said something about “your Japanese girlfriend.” He was like “um, she’s Taiwanese.” And after that, they started talking to her. While this is *also* more extreme, it happens a lot too. In college one of the Chinese restaurants automatically brought you water if they didn’t think you were Asian, and if there was a table with a Chinese person they only spoke to him/her.
      It’s tricky, isn’t it.

  2. dholcomb1

    Great post!

    Before your time, there were Asian characters in TV series, many times in stereotypical roles, but they did exist and are credited with many episodes: George Takei in Star Trek, Miyoshi Umeki in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Pat Morita in Happy Days, Kellye Nakahara in M*A*S*H, Victor Sen Yung in Bonanza, Kam Fong in the original Hawai’i Five-0, Don Ho on The Don Ho Show, Jack Soo in Barney Miller, etc…

    Flower Drum Song was nominated for five Academy Awards and is considered culturally significant by movie preservationists and has a large Asian cast.

    While we have a long way to go, there is history worth remembering which paved the way for current achievements.


    1. Limecello

      Oh my gosh! Denise, you just reminded me of “Martial Law” with Sammo. XD … Although that’s kind of another stereotype too – the Asian male that either a) is effeminate or b) knows martial arts. [And somehow some people manage to merge the two.] I never watched Star Trek but I quite like George Takei.
      I wonder how Joy Luck Club did in theaters… I know it got semi regular play on TV in the … 90s? 00s? Anyway that’s how I first saw it …


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