#RepresentationMatters for My Daughters – and Me

I’m not joking: I feel afraid. Of what, I don’t yet know.

I’ve only just been watching some of cultural savant Will Yu’s magical videos for #SeeAsAmStar. If you haven’t yet seen them on social media, they’re part of his hashtag initiative to help movie lovers envision legit Asian American leading actors and actresses in really prominent film roles. Will does this by taking short movie clips and replacing a lead character’s face in each with either John Cho’s, Constance Wu’s, Arden Cho’s, or Steve Yeun’s face. It’s quite seamless visually, and much more affecting than I anticipated, at least for me.

SeeAsAmStar Collage
Katniss, Major, and Silver Linings’ Tiffany like you’ve never seen them before. (Images: Will Yu)

I’d actually describe it as jarring, in a good way. Seeing Arden Cho as Katniss Everdeen, or Constance Wu as Major in Ghost in the Shell, or Cho in Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-winning role in Silver Linings Playbook, is startling. I think it throws me because I’m not expecting an Asian American in such a prominent role. Hollywood’s recent slight uptick in racially diverse characters has hardly dented my subconscious expectation, formed over 46-plus years of media consumption, that the leading characters in big shows will still be white.

I experienced a similar jolt when watching the super fun trailer for this summer’s Crazy Rich Asians. It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen a massive movie production with numerous characters that almost all look like me (an Asian American) and sound like me (an English speaker), without it being a martial arts thing. It was fantastic to take in! And simultaneously, it felt truly weird to behold.

But the #SeeAsAmStar video that most shook me was the one where Will makes it look like John Cho is Captain America, preparing to crash his plane while saying a final farewell to Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter:

Watching that bit of Will’s video wizardry made me think of one of his previous diversity campaigns, #StarringJohnCho. That thought, in turn, brought to mind times John Cho played a romantic lead opposite a white actress – for example, in the ABC show Selfie (opposite Karen Gillan, image at top) and in last year’s indie film Columbus (opposite Haley Lu Richardson).

Starring John Cho Crop
#StarringJohnCho. (Images: Will Yu)

Dear reader, are you ready for a psychoanalytic trip through my neural pathways?

Here’s why these things connect for me.

As a teen, I was mostly attracted to Asian American girls; as a young adult, I was mostly drawn to Asian American women. In fact, I married one; my wife and I have now been happily together for over 21 years.

But the times as a teen that I was attracted to white girls were always sad experiences for me. It’s not that they broke my heart, but that I never even tried to ask them out. Some of that grew out of my own insecurity and teenage awkwardness. But some of it, I truly believe, was influenced by portrayals of Asian American men I’d grown up seeing on TV and in movies.

Asian American dudes were universally depicted as nerds – obsessive about good grades, brainiacs with computers, and just not very cool. They were always, if not the butt of jokes, relegated to being the sidekicks of the cool white protagonists – think Sulu on Star Trek and Quincy’s assistant on Quincy, M.E. (See, I can’t even remember his name.) And they never got the girl, much less one who was white.

Quincy and Sam
From Quincy, M.E., which most of you have never heard of. It was sorta like the CSI of the late 1970s, with Jack Klugman (white guy) as a medical examiner and Robert Ito (Asian guy) as his assistant. (Image: Universal)

Combine this with my feeling highly uncool all the time and my nagging suspicion that I couldn’t really do much beyond academics anyway. Then throw on top of all that the reality of 1980s Texas, where there were, relative to today, very few dating or married couples consisting of an Asian American male and a white female. I only knew of one, an older married couple at my church. I never knew any such dating couples until after I’d gone to college.

Now, I never thought consciously, “I don’t have a chance with __________” (insert name of cute and classy white girl), but all of the above came together in my psyche so that I never even tried. I just assumed that I didn’t have what it took.

Looking back, that was more painful than I realized. Perhaps that’s why seeing John Cho opposite these white actresses takes me back to those memories.

Earlier, I said I feel afraid, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I feel exposed.

You see, I talk a lot about diverse representation in media, particularly of strong female characters. That’s because I want my young daughters to feel confident, strong, and capable as Asian American girls growing up in what’s still, essentially, a man’s world, and a white man’s world at that. I even frequently add #RepresentationMatters to tweets or posts because I’m thinking about my daughters. One example:

But suddenly, a question slices through my I-don’t-have-a-problem-with-this-anymore veneer: Don’t I myself also need stories with Asian American male leads, even at my age?

And in the blink of an eye, I’m exposed! I say that representation matters for my girls and other kids as they grow up. But truly, representation still matters for me, too, even at the age of 46.

It no longer has to do with crushing on white gals and thinking that I’m not good enough for them. It’s about my ongoing self-doubt about my ability to make it in a white man’s world. I myself still need to see Asian American male protagonists doing cool, and even heroic, things to encourage me to keep going and trying my best at whatever it is that I do.

At first, that sounds foolish, even to me. Shouldn’t I be past all that? But considering all the years of accumulated microaggressions with occasional incidents of overt racism, beginning in a childhood devoid of heroic characters who looked and sounded like me, and it makes sense. Of course I’m going to deal with feelings of inadequacy about succeeding in a white man’s world.

Jeremy Toronto
F … T … W!!! (Image: TSN)

Why else did I cheer so hard for Jeremy Lin when he first went nuts with the New York Knicks back in 2012? Why did I literally cry after he nailed the three at the end of the game in Toronto? Why have I checked box score after box score in the years since then, even when he wasn’t playing for my beloved Houston Rockets, to see how he’s doing?

Because I haven’t just been rooting for Jeremy. I’ve been rooting for me. Jeremy’s success in a space where Asian American men are outliers, where there are no shortage of folks looking at him and questioning whether he’s worthy of being there, inspires me.

As does #StarringJohnCho and now #SeeAsAmStar.

So I have two messages as I conclude:

First, Will Yu, my friend, bravo! Thank you for the work you’ve been doing.

And second, for storytellers and other creators who develop and promote diverse lead characters, thank you for believing that #RepresentationMatters! Please keep up the good work.

Because you’re not just inspiring my daughters.

You’re also healing me.