20 years of Angry Little Asian Girls

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Today, I found out that Angry Little Asian Girls, or ALAG, a character created by Lela Lee (@LelaLee), has turned 20 years old (check the link for a gallery).

That’s right, ALAG (the Asian American version of Aaron McGruder’s Huey Freeman) — the forever eight-year-old, pig-tailed, stubby-legged, perpetually-pissed-off ALAG — is in her junior year of college. She’s just gotten out of her Introduction to Asian American Studies course, where she no doubt ran up to the front of the lecture hall, Edward Said clutched in one hand, to snatch the chalk from her horrified teaching assistant and rattle off a tirade against How I Met Your Mother between double-fisted middle fingers raised to the White Supremacist powers-that-be. Her rage momentarily quelled, our favourite ALAG powers up her iPod for a quick listen to some old-school Yellow Rage as she makes her way to the multi-racial Feminists of Colour meet-up at the campus student union; there she’ll be leading her fellow Angry Little Girls in an organizational meeting for a take-over of the campus president’s office over renewed demands over intersectional feminist and women’s studies courses. Later, some White dude with an Asian fetish will tell her he’d love to invite her over for some take-out sushi and to show her his manga collection, and she will knock him the fuck out.

I discovered ALAG when I first created this blog back in 2001, and instantly I was hooked. ALAG is everything that Asian American women were not perceived as, and everything we actually are. She is loud, profane, and irreverant; but, also, at moments, capable of profound sadness and self-reflection over her anger. ALAG is both a caricature of the angry Asian American woman, and a humanization of us: one that reflects the seething rage that we all feel at finding ourselves in a constructed box that would have us be meek, invisible, and unassuming.

In the first several years of Reappropriate, ALAG was an inspiration for me as I founded the site and wrote pieces for it. In the darker moments, when my blog became a target for some of the ugliest misogyny the Asian American community has to offer, ALAG was a tacit reminder that I was not overly-sensitive, that I wasn’t crazy, that I had the strength to do this, and that I wasn’t alone.

In fact, on my old desktop computer from which I created Reappropriate — the one with the boxy monitor and the corded roll-ball mouse, and that connected to the Internet using a dial-up modem — I placed only one piece of ‘flair’ as a source of motivation.

It was this sticker.

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ALAG was popularized in the midst of the digital “grrrl” movement of the last decade. She was our adopted mascot.

And while she may be the most adorable of us, she is not — by any stretch of the imagination — the only one of us. When ALAG arrived on the American scene, she arrived with an army of Angry Asian American Girls behind her; and I remember America was not prepared for us, and for the overwhelming force of our anger.

I remember attending conferences and participating in the online community where I met hundreds of real-life Angry Asian American Girls, confidently building a counter-narrative to the stereotype of the AAPI woman as meek, submissive and weak-willed. I met community organizers and spoken word artists, teachers and bloggers: all of us united by this internal anger — an anger few of us could articulate, an anger yearning to be set free.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXSyP545gtc

(BTW, if you get a chance, you should also check out  “I Was Born With Two Tongues” — particularly the “ALAG” track — for another great example.)

But, today it also gave me moment to pause in contemplating the fact that ALAG has grown up. And so, too, has my own rage mellowed over the years. Rage can be an intoxicating emotion, but it is also exhausting.  Anger is a struck match, a shoulder-demon that eggs us on to light the kerosene and watch it all burn in an orgasm of fury and destruction. But, when all we have is rage and nothing else, all that we are left with is ash.

(image loaded from Angry Little Asian Girl)

For all of us grown-up Asian American ‘grrrls’, ALAG’s caricatured fury is a heart-felt reminder that we need to “Stay Angry”, but that we also can’t afford to take ourselves too seriously. For ALAG, anger is an isolating emotion; but for us real-life Asian American women, it doesn’t have to be.

(image loaded from Angry Little Asian Girl)

Over the last twenty years, the most amazing thing about the ALAGs of America is how we have been angry and Asian American, but also how we have used our anger to fuel positive, constructive engines of community-wide change. The ALAGs of America are teachers, writers, and community organizers, who have repurposed our internal rage into something beautiful. We are angry, yes, but angry with a purpose.

In the last twenty years, ALAG has also matured. Although she continues to inspire the next generation of ALAGs, the intensity of her rage seems to have changed. She has found a group of friends, and even gotten a boyfriend (although I’m not sure that worked out too well for her). She has gone from a niche web-comic to one of the most recognizable pop culture images of the Asian American online feminist movement. She is a cartoon, and a book series, and a plushie. She’s sold in Hot Topic and Sanrio stores. And, as a caricature of Asian American female rage, her presence there has offered a much-needed counter-point to all the stereotypically submissive images of Asian American women that came before her. ALAG  has helped to expand the spectrum of who Asian American women are perceived to be, and thereby given us the space to be somewhere in the middle; to be what we really are; to be human.

So, from one ALAG to another, happy birthday and thank you for the last twenty years of righteous fury.

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