Inside ALIST: Debbie Choy Grage

Inside ALIST: Debbie Choy Grage
4 comments, 07/09/2012, by , in Inside ALIST

Photo by Eric Bothwell

Hollywood’s Long Shadow

Today, Hollywood’s influence around the world is so ubiquitous that I dare say tens of millions of non-Caucasian kids around the world have wished at one point or another that they had a different hair color, different eye color, higher cheekbones, and narrower noses. I remember spraying lemon juice in my hair as a teenager to get brown and blonde highlights, per the instructions in Seventeen magazine.

Fortunately, because I grew up in Singapore, I had the tireless Singaporean media showing me people who look like me, playing characters ranging from heroes to villains. My idols were as much Andy Lau as Tom Cruise, and I am proud of my heritage and culture. For our children growing up in the U.S., they may not have that balance.

More disturbing than Hollywood’s narrow and stereotyped portrayal of Asian Americans is the phenomenon of ‘whitewashing’ Asian roles. Shockingly, white actors are wearing make-up, pretending to be Asians, like in the upcoming movie Cloud Atlas. I thought the days of The Good Earth – a 1937 movie about a Chinese farm woman in China, with an all-white leading cast – were behind us. Maybe not. Alternatively, Hollywood is re-writing scripts to change a lead Asian character to a white American one, like “We Mortals Are”. The implicit message that Hollywood is sending to me seems to be some part of, or all of the below:

Andy Lau photo by Bread Pete

  1. We do not care about you, the Asian American customer;
  2. We do not think that an Asian face is attractive enough to be on screen;
  3. We want to make this movie accessible to all Americans, and an Asian face is not ‘all-American’ enough.

Whether these messages are true or not, intended or not, they cast a long shadow on our Asian American youth growing up today.

‘Yes, you can’

When I read Wesley Yang’s “Paper Tigers“, I was saddened by the level of discontent, alienation, and even self-loathing, described in his refreshingly honest essay. I do not want our children to grow up feeling inadequate, alienated, and unloved by their own country. As parents, we do so much to protect our children and to give them the best opportunities in life. Yet, what are we doing about the stereotypes and racism in our popular media that eat away at their self-esteem? Our self-esteems may be mature enough to withstand the constant onslaught of negative perceptions in the public media. But our children suffer the consequences of our silence.

Original Film Poster The Good Earth 1937, distributed by MGM

I remember when I decided to write my senior thesis on the European monetary union, nobody at my progressive East Coast liberal arts college ever once said to me, “An Asian woman from Singapore writing about the European Union? How interesting!” I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have had many supportive and open-minded people in my life. People who see me for my strengths and weaknesses, beyond my skin and hair color.

I think messages of ‘you can’ are very important for developing a healthy self-esteem. That is why I am concerned about the popular media’s stereotyped portrayal of Asian Americans. I joined ALIST because I think there should be more positive Asian American role models on the public stage. I am disturbed by the media’s de-masculinization of Asian American men and the fetishization of Asian American women.

Speak up

ALIST provides a different option. As a Managing Editor and founding member of ALIST, I am proud to highlight stories of Asian American success, especially role models in fields other than medicine, law, and engineering. I am delighted that ALIST is a colorful, stylish-looking forum for Asian Americans to voice their opinions and concerns.

My hope is that by continuing to speak up, we can simultaneously dispel the stereotype that Asian Americans are too polite to complain. We should complain vociferously and not apologize for it. We should loudly and confidently demand fair representation in the media. Why? Because we are over 18 million consumers with over $600 billion in purchasing power, and we are not going away. Besides, here in America, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’.

Join me and my team mates on this journey. It will be fun, we promise.

 

About Debbie Grage

Debbie Grage
Debbie is an ALIST founder and Career Section Editor. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her past community roles have included serving as CFO of the Asian Society at the Stanford GSB, and as a board member with the Association of Women MBA (SF). Debbie is also founder of the MenMuu Leadership Institute and specializes in helping professionals who want to manage their careers proactively. Her career blog can be found at www.MenMuu.com.
  • ChuanTsay

    Thanks for giving us that amazing insight, Debbie! I love hearing about the motivation behind ALIST.

    On the point about “white-washing” or “yellow-facing”, (I haven’t heard this yet, but) I think some people could counter that other countries are guilty of the same thing. Bollywood, for example, remakes non-Indian films using Indian stars. But the difference is that we have a diverse population in North America. I’m sure there are lots of Asian American actors and actresses to fill the roles and consumers to fill the seats. So the question again is why do the studios keep doing this so blatantly? As a country that thrives off diversity, we seem to take it for granted.

    • dgrage

      Agreed, Chuan. Remakes happen all over the world using local actors. Another difference between Hollywood and Bollywood is the worldwide reach. Children all over the world watch shows / movies from America. Sad to say, but the concept of beauty – around the world – is defined by a select few in Hollywood and in the fashion media.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robinlung Robin Lung

    Hi Debbie: Thanks for highlighting the continuing problem of whitewashing in the mainstream media. I’m glad you’re taking steps to create alternative media stories. You might be interested in the documentary I’m producing called FINDING KUKAN about a Chinese American woman who was the uncredited producer of a 1941 Oscar-winning film. See http://findingkukan.com Most people are not aware of KUKAN or Li Ling-Ai, so we could use help building awareness. aloha, Robin

    • dgrage

      Robin, Finding Kukan sounds like a very interesting project. Keep us posted on your progress, and best of luck to you and your team! We need more projects like this.