New Website Aims to Create Comprehensive Database of anti-Asian Media Stereotypes, But…

Actress Reshma Shetty plays Divya Katare in USA's "Royal Pains". (Photo credit: Williams & Hirakawa/USA Network)
Actress Reshma Shetty plays Divya Katare in USA’s “Royal Pains”. (Photo credit: Williams & Hirakawa/USA Network)

Negative, oftentimes racist, portrayals of Asian Americans have persisted in Western media for over a century. When we are not entirely absent from media representation, we appear mostly in exaggerated and stereotyped form: rodent-like subhumans; alien threats; hypersexualized objects of desire; buffoonish clowns; socially maladjusted nerds; martial artists; criminal gangsters. Too often, these performances are coupled with the absence of even an Asian American face: instead, non-Asian actors adopt these and other stereotypes to enact Asian-ess through yellowface.

A new website — Kulture — now seeks to act as a watchdog for Asian American representation in popular media by inviting crowd-sourced submission of stereotypical depictions for inclusion in their database.

From their press release:

Asian-Americans have been unfairly maligned by Hollywood over the years and the trend shows no sign of abating. Kulture monitors the entertainment media for offensive representations of Asian-Americans and documents stereotypes and denigration of Asians in movies and television. The site is easy to navigate, categorizing offenses by media outlet, by type of offense, such as “Reinforces Stereotypes”, and by media type, such as TV commercials.  Visitors to the site can also submit their own witnessed offenses through the “Report an Offense” feature.

…“Many Asians know TV shows represent them in a bad light. But they may think they’re alone in that view,” says Kulture’s Founder Tim Gupta.  “Kulture spotlights how Hollywood mocks and excludes Asian men while fetishizing Asian women.  Kulture helps Asians and those concerned about media racism stay abreast of how Asians are depicted, and we will eventually serve as a platform for them to take action against Hollywood offenders.” To view the list of media offenses, visit www.kulturemedia.org.

In general, I support projects that — like Kulture — might ultimately help engage Asian Americans (particularly those who feel they currently lack outlets for political expression) in deeper consideration of race and identity, particularly with regard to pop culture. In an age when the number of political AAPI blogs is on the decline, any new venture can make a pretty big splash in our otherwise shrinking pond.

I would be remiss, however,  if I didn’t mention that in the details, Kulture triggers some alarm bells for me.

In its current form, the site appears to be biased in its writing to favour those who believe that interracial dating and marriage (specifically, as occurring between Asian American women and White male partners) is a primary source of oppression for Asian American men. While such specifically racialized romantic tropes when they appear over-and-over-again in media can be endemic of Hollywood stereotypes, the political rhetoric that argues that an interracial relationship between an Asian American woman and her non-Asian American partner is de facto all about the absent Asian American man can also be used to rationalize the political shaming of Asian American women. When men are cast as victims of female sexual agency, the conversation becomes less about stereotypes and more about limiting women.

Too often, this perspective appears hand-in-hand with heteronormative language, while failing to more fundamentally criticize the basic tenets of mainstream toxic masculinity. To wit, the site places particular focus on heterosexual interactions while frequently describing them as the male partner “tagging” the woman. (If you need me to explain how this sort of language — which treats sex as a form of female possession while using imagery reminscent of dogs and fire hydrants — is sexist then you need to read this post.)

In one entry (that I clicked totally at random) from Kulture relating to two South Asian characters I know nothing about (Raj and Divya) appearing in a show I don’t watch (Royal Pains, although Snoopy does watch it so I’ll be asking him about this later), the author discusses Divya’s budding romance with a non-Asian romantic love interest (Rafa) before launching into this tangential tirade about how Asian American women perpetuate their own “abuse” by choosing non-Asian sexual partners:

Rafa scores with Divya repeatedly, then decides he doesn’t want to hang around. He leaves her pregnant & splits. Is it any wonder Asian women often find themselves in one-sided relationships with white men in real life and both parties view it as normal. They are too often viewed as a convenient, short-term sexual options for white men and Hollywood inculcates this idea. It sometimes even becomes a subconscious goal of Asian women to play this role, even if it doesn’t ultimately benefit them in the long-term.

Uhmmm, okay then.

In another entry, “The Interview” — that seethingly anti-Asian Seth Rogen / James Franco travesty that included pretty much every anti-Asian stereotype in the book including several misogynistic depictions of Asian women — is rather puzzlingly categorized as having committed the primary offense of casting Asian men as “unmasculine and effeminate”. An orgy scene from The Strain that includes an East Asian actress uses the basic logic of misogylinity to render an Asian American woman voiceless while her sexuality is appropriated to enhance the virility of the male protagonist; but, to Kulture, the scene is problematic because “Asian men are omitted”.

Uhmmm, okay then.

It would be safe to say that Kulture — in its current form —  appears to lack much of an Asian American female (or feminist) perspective. Instead, it appears to be written from an implicitly male and heteronormative point of view — one that is also deeply rooted within fundamental notions of toxic masculinity. This leaves me — as an Asian American woman and feminist — once again feeling both generally unsettled, and politically marginalized by a site that otherwise seeks to engage me as an ally. I think we can do better.

However, if Kulture’s mission and approach speaks to you, I invite you to learn more by visiting KultureMedia.org.

Update (October 1, 2015): Earlier today, Tim Gupta (founder of Kulture) reached out to me to address some of my concerns in this post. I very much appreciate the email I received from him, and his interest in participating in what I hope can be an ongoing debate not only about challenging anti-Asian stereotypes in pop culture, but also how our community can bridge the rhetorical divide between Asian American feminists and others in our community.

Here is what Tim had to say in an email to me (reproduced with his permission):

Jenn,

First, I appreciate the coverage of Kulture.  I know you have mixed feelings about the site and I don’t disagree with some of your observations.  The reality is our staff is mostly men and they bring their worldview and perspective to how they interpret the TV shows and movies they watch.  People all see through the prism of their life experiences.  So I’ll be self-critical and admit that it’s true we may suffer a bit from the same dynamic we observe in white Hollywood directors and writers.

I do disagree with your characterization of the site as “toxic masculinity” and I think that description is too harsh for our content. Both Asian men and women are given false roles by our media, and suffering from internalized racism is not the fault of either.  But we all owe it ourselves to be aware of how that subtle influence affects our decisions.

We’ve begun to correct our leaning towards the male perspective by adding our first woman writer- you can see her post here .  It’s our hope that this issue – of negative portrayals in our culture – is something we can unite on and combat together.  To that end, I invite anyone from Reappropriate and its readers to participate in Kulture.  Anyone can submit an offense report  with their perspective on what they watch.  We invite people to volunteer by emailing us at kulture@kulturemedia.org.

Best,

Tim

(For clarification, “toxic masculinity” is an existing term in feminist circles to describe how (White) patriarchy asserts a brand of masculinity that is harmful to men; I argue it to be particularly harmful to men of colour, and therefore particularly baffling for communities of colour to embrace. If you are unfamiliar with the term, I invite you to click through to the wiki to learn more.)

As I prefaced in this post and as I reinforced to Tim in my return email to him, I am generally in support of the premise of Kulture (as a crowd-sourced site to track media stereotypes) even while I have criticisms about Kulture’s current manifestation. I think that if Kulture can find a way to present a more inclusive (and therefore hopefully more feminist, more ethnically diverse, and less heteronormative) perspective, it might evolve into an important forum for expression for AAPI youth. In particular, I think it might be able to speak to some AAPIs who are currently disengaged from the political conversation and maybe also be a tool for a blogger like myself.

As I concluded above, I currently find Kulture disappointing and exclusionary, with little that speaks to me as a woman or a feminist. As it stands, it is not for me. However, if it is a venture you are interested in participating in, I continue to invite you to check the site out at KultureMedia.org.

Update (October 2, 2015): First of all, let me say I had no idea this post was going to garner as much attention as it has. But, now that it has, I think it’s important that everyone with clearly impassioned opinions on the subject of Kulture be able to use this space for expression. That includes elevating all important perspectives I’m receiving with regard to the site.

I received an email from a reader this morning that I think adds necessary context to this conversation. This reader — who wishes to remain anonymous to avoid misogynist harassment — directed me to the circumstances of Kulture’s founding, and which I think is crucial for understanding why women and feminists might feel excluded by Kulture’s end-product. Kulture was founded by members of the sub-reddit r/AsianMasculinity, and in this post, Kulture is explicitly described as an “Asian Masculinity inspired initiative” — the capitalization here leads one to presume the writer is referring to the subreddit, not the generic concept of Asian masculinity or male gender identity (which is, itself, a totally fine notion to build a site around). In a follow-up post, Kulture’s founders solicit volunteers to launch Kulture; in it, they establish a requirement that all volunteers “have at least one month’s posting experience on [r/AsianMasculinity]”. How can Kulture incorporate female and feminist perspectives if it requires that site volunteers participate in a forum that discourages female and feminist posters?

I also struggle to understand what all this means with regard to the site’s politics. It is unclear to me whether or not this posting requirement remains in effect for volunteers — my emails with Tim have not disclosed such a requirement, and indeed many of the site’s volunteers have appeared in the comments section soliciting volunteer participation without mentioning this prerequisite. However, the blurred line between Kulture and the r/AsianMasculinity subreddit is troublesome because according to my reader this subreddit has been notoriously hostile to Asian American feminism and women — the subreddit’s official rules treats feminism as a form of trolling, and its FAQs discourages (and would appear to even disallow) female posters from participating in the discussion. Another reader who commented in the thread below, and who appears to be supportive of Kulture, characterizes r/AsianMasculinity as “woman hating” (a characterization I can neither condone nor refute since I don’t spend any time there).

On the other hand, in a thread on r/AsianMasculinity discussing the post I am currently editing (oh my god, so meta!), some r/AsianMasculinity posters appear to be generally sympathetic to my criticisms, and supportive of infusing feminism into Kulture. Kulture’s site organizers are also on the thread clarifying their position on interracial marriage and issues of patriarchy — and frankly, there is a part of me that believes that sparking a serious consideration of patriarchy in a forum like r/AsianMasculinity is, itself, a positive step. This comment (the most upvoted in the thread) from r/AsianMasculinity summarizes my position on Kulture perfectly:

Kulture could deliver almost the exact same content without some of the editorialization. I.e. let the media offense speak for itself.

Agreed. Upvoted, if I weren’t too lazy to dig up my Reddit password so I could sign into my Reddit account.

Of course, scroll a little further down, and it becomes an anti-feminist insult-fest with regard to Asian American feminism in general, and me in particular. That sort of behaviour provides ample evidence to support my anonymous reader’s feminist concerns with the subreddit. But also to be fair, a lot (but not all) of the worst stuff is also being down-voted.

I’m not a Redditor. I personally know nothing about the inter-subreddit politics of Reddit’s Asian American community (which I know exist and are pretty influential). I personally have no meaningful opinion on r/AsianMasculinity, and will defer to my feminist allies on Reddit for a more informed opinion of the space. But, I find it disappointing that Kulture proudly emerged out of a subreddit which at the very least includes elements in its rules and regulations that are structurally hostile to feminism and female posters. This information helps to contextualize why Kulture might struggle to address stereotypes from a female and/or feminist perspective: apparently, it originated out of a space that itself struggles to address and include a progressive female and/or feminist perspective. For the sake of Kulture’s future prospects, I would sincerely urge Kulture’s staff to (or continue to?) take steps to distinguish itself from anti-feminist rhetoric, and to invite more feminist writers to participate. That alone will go a long way towards being more inclusive to all members of our community.

I reached out to Tim for further comment, and have invited him to add an addendum addressing these points if he so desires and that I will happily republish.

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