Guest Blog: Representatives Are Not Representation

Asian Representation in Media Interspectional

A note from Latisha:
I met Jer the way a lot of us meet new friends these days, passionately discussing topics on Twitter. What has always impressed me about Jer is how thoughtful and insightful they are about the topics that they care about. This also seems to be a family traits because Jer’s sister, Jezzelyn, has been a guest on my podcast twice and has shown a similar understanding of complex topics just like her beloved sibling. The Interspectional episode, “Asian Representation in Media” was release on April 9, 2021. I’m honored that Jer agreed to write this piece for my blog so we can go deeper into that conversation. You can find more information about them at the end of this article.

“Representatives Are Not Representation”

by Jer Torres

Wanting to be an actor used to be a deeply embarrassing secret of mine for years. Part of it was because I had absolutely no idea how to act. The other more important part was that the possibility of seeing someone who looked like me telling stories about people like me, a non-binary Filipino lesbian, in mainstream media was so unlikely that it was laughable. It still seems quite unlikely as I have yet to see such representation today, but I am actively pursuing an acting career. I finally chose to make this embarrassing secret into an explicit goal of mine because I was tired of feeling inhuman.

I’m from a small town outside of Toronto, I grew up in the mid 90’s-early 2000’s, so Neopets and RuneScape was about the extent of my internet capabilities at the time. It definitely was not scouting out good Filipino or Asian representation in media. I was surrounded by a lot of white people and almost everyone I saw on tv and in movies in my formative years was white as well. I was unaware that I didn’t see people that looked like me just living life; going to school, teaching, driving the buses, working at the mall or any restaurants, the pharmacy, the banks; they weren’t walking around town or up and down aisles at the grocery store; they just weren’t there in my real life. Asians, and specifically Filipinos, were hardly there on screen and on the rare occasions they were they didn’t feel life-sized. It took me until my early 20’s to understand that bad representation and no representation had erased me from myself.

When I say bad representation I mean the obvious things like Yellowface, Speekee Engrish, the Silent Asian, The Interchangeable Asian, The Mystical Asian/The Yellow Peril, The Hairstreak Asian, etc. I also mean the way Asian identities and cultures are flattened to exist in relation to whiteness on screen. Whiteness at the center of a story reduces any characters of colour down to representatives, especially because there can only ever be one or two (tops) of them at a time. The one has to be easy to identify without being too ethnically different or specific. Representatives are not representation because they’re not people, they are white liberal ideas of inclusion. Characters like Arthie Premkumar and Jenny Chey in GLOW or Tina Cohen-Chang and Mike Chang in GLEE for example, are just peripherals. They’re meant to showcase diversity without actually committing to making them more than just a non-white face in a crowd. Giving them storylines felt like an afterthought once the white characters had established the world and the main attraction. 

Now they may be few and far between, but I’ve seen that with a cast of all Asians or specifically stories that center people of colour, no one is responsible for carrying the weight of The One, because they’re not the only one. When we remove that responsibility and get more specific, we humanize; we see people living and experiencing a human life. 

Saving Face is about Wil Pang, a Chinese-American closeted lesbian whose widowed pregnant mother, Hwei-Lan, moves in with her. Not only is Wil not out to her mother, but also Hwei-Lan refuses to reveal the father of her baby so their relationship is tense and their living situation complicates Wil’s budding romance. It’s a unique plot that shows how life can change in ways that you never expect. The story focuses on mending the relationship between a mother and daughter and reckoning with the impact of hurtful family decisions. In the script, neither Wil Pang nor Hwei-Lan are asked to represent all Chinese-Americans. We just zoom in on their relationship and see how secrecy, ambition, first love, forbidden love, and second chances all play a part in how we did or did not show love in the past and how we will choose to express our love in the future. 

Michelle Krusiec as Wil Pang and Joan Chen as Hwei-Lan in the movie, Saving Face

In Turning Red we follow Meilin, a 13 year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, as she is thrown into puberty and a generational curse. It is a coming of age story that explores the absolute chaos of being a teenager and how the relationship between a daughter and her mother changes as she grows. From the fact that Meilin turns into a red panda to the community she grows up in and the relatives that play a huge part in her life, so many aspects of Chinese culture and heritage are just normal realities of Meilin’s life. The normalcy of Chinese culture in her world allows us to see the world as she does without demanding that the story of a 13 year old girl be everything to everyone. We follow Meilin in her journey to become an individual and how that journey can heal generational hurts, be supported by friendships, and allow all of us to accept and celebrate the parts of ourselves that are supposed to be “ugly” or “unwanted”. 

Meilin shows her friends that she can turn into a giant red panda in Pixar’s Turning Red

Everything Everywhere All At Once is about Evelyn Wang, a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband as she cares for her elderly father. Her relationship with her daughter is strained, they keep trying to reach each other but just can’t seem to make it work. In this movie, we again have a story of individuals centered in their own story battling the hurts, traumas and difficulties that come with life. These characters define themselves for themselves in all of their messiness and that is a beautiful thing. With Everything Everywhere All At Once, we experience a story about lovers, generational trauma, loneliness, nihilism, failure, reconnection and hope. 

Eleanor (Stephanie Hsu), Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Gong Gong (James Hong) deal with complex family problems (as well as the end of the multiverse) in Everything, Everywhere All at Once.

These stories are so special, not because I came away from them thinking “Wow, Asians can be in movies, too!” or “Whoa! There’s a market for us out there!” They’re special to me because they tell incredibly human stories. We tell stories and we consume stories to communicate, to understand and be understood, to learn, to gain vocabulary for our experiences, and to connect to one another. Decades of being told stories that exclude specific identities has manipulated us into believing certain people cannot participate in the human condition. But these movies suggest otherwise. Media that is hyper specific about cultural identities invites everyone to experience life and the human condition through people not ideas or quotas. That is what representation is to me.

About Jer Torres:

Jer Torres (They/Them), a non-binary Filipino-Canadian lesbian, is an actor, tv binger, sometimes writer, and confetti cannon full of tears. They began doing background work for Toronto film productions in 2018 and started taking acting classes in January 2021 with Winnie Hiller. Jer is currently in their second semester studying drama at Seneca College. They have a passion for writing poetry, short scripts, and they hope to one day create the representation they’ve been longing to see in mainstream media.

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