One of the hard things about growing up Asian in this country is finding some semblance of yourself reflected in pop culture. I think things may have gotten better, but how much? It still seems like Asian kids today end up settling for “whoever’s Asian” on TV or in the movies or in a band rather than that totally rad person who seems like them–and who also happens to be Asian–who’s on TV or in the movies or in a band.
When I was a kid, pop culture role model pickings were slim. In fact, I had to improvise a little when it came to my choices. Probably the earliest role model I can remember having was–are you ready for this?–Marie Osmond, in doll form:
Alright, alright. You can stop laughing now. But seriously. There was a little part of me that believed–wanted to believe anyway–that Marie Osmond in doll form was Asian. (I had enough sense to know that Marie Osmond IRL wasn’t, in fact, Asian.) With her jet black hair, she was certainly more Asian than my Barbie. And instead of just standing around on her tiptoes all day long, she also rocked the mic! Even as a young girl, I understood the value of cool points.
Jump ahead a few years, a few long, sad, dry-spell years of having no one to look up to and call my own, to when Karate Kid II comes out.
Tamlyn Fuckin’ Tomita as Kumiko, y’all. Game-changer.
Well, I mean, sort of. Of course Kumiko was sooooo pretty. And she had this awesomely weird swirly bun hairdo that made you hold your breath a little because it always looked on the verge of collapse though somehow it just didn’t. And man, did she look cute in suspender pants.
But all this was counterweighted by the suckage that was the movie itself. And by the fact that Kumiko was so passive and damsel-in-distressy. And, most of all, her role model potential was severely compromised because she did it all for the glory of love…for a dork with the unsexiest karate moves. So there was that.
I think the closest I ever got to seeing myself somewhere in pop culture when I was a kid was in The Wonder Years’ Winnie Cooper. Again, not Asian. Or was she? I mean, LOOK at her:
The bangs, the braids, the glasses? How are you going to tell me Winnie Cooper wasn’t Asian? I’m sorry, I just knew in my heart she was. But it wasn’t just her look, which skewed smart, shy Filipina–it was her Winnie-ness. She was quiet but cool. She was a nerd but she wasn’t. She was pretty but she was no Barbie.
And yes, later, when Danica McKellar, the actress who played her, turned out to be a math genius, I felt all of my suspicions–that Winnie was Asian, that Winnie was The One, that Winnie was ME–were confirmed. (Though I’m bending the rules here a little since I’m really no math genius, not even close.)
I was reminded of my own struggle to find a version of myself out in the world when I recently read “Claudia Kishi: My Asian-American Female Role Model Of The ’90s,” by Yumi Sakugawa in Sadie Magazine. By the time Baby-sitters Club became really popular, I was a little too old for teen idols, but I get the obsession with Claudia Kishi, which Sakugawa so beautifully illustrates, literally:
Claudia wasn’t good at math. She couldn’t spell. She had a mean older sister, Janine, who excelled at those things, and Janine was a tool. Claudia was creative, and she was the best-dressed girl in school.
Sakugawa points out the imperfections of her role model–what she calls the character’s “Orientalist overtones”–but as we’ve established, role model pickings for young Asian American girls–and boys, of course–have always been slim.
So the question remains: Have things gotten better? Who do kids and tweens and teens see themselves in today? Are their idols better than the Winnie Coopers and Claudia Kishis of yesteryear?
[via Angry Asian Man]
Filed under: Asian American Girls, Asian American Role Models, Baby-sitters Club, Barbie Dolls, Claudia Kishi, Feeling Invisible, Karate Kid II, Marie Osmond, Pop Culture Role Models, Representation, Role Models, Tamlyn Tomita, Teen Role Models, The Wonder Years, Winnie Cooper
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