Rejecting the Mere Optics of Diversity: Why I Support AAPI Independent Media

A panel from Monstress, by Marjorie Liu, published by Image Comics.
A panel from Monstress, by Marjorie Liu, published by Image Comics.

2015 has been an interesting year for me.

I’ve always identified as a proud fangirl – a lover and connoisseur of all things in nerd and pop culture. I’ve routinely brought my fandom into my writing with pieces that explore the intersection of race and gender with film, television, and comic books. I’ve done my fair share of live-tweeting Walking Dead episodes, and I’ve geeked out with the best of them over comic book superheroes and their live-action incarnations.

But in the last year, I’ve grown disenchanted with mainstream media. I’ve grown to hate the hype. Above all, I’ve developed a frustration with mainstream studios, and our preoccupation as communities of colour with major studio blockbuster films as a backdrop for enacting social justice and racial equality.

The underrepresentation of people of colour (and women) in mainstream media is undeniable. Many have forcefully argued that this lack of diverse representation is damaging by its denial to mainstream audiences of images of people of colour (or women) being protagonists, which itself reinforces White normativeness. Indeed, the recent (and totally absurd) backlash over the casting of a Black actor as Hermione Granger in a stage play that serves as the eighth chapter in the Harry Potter saga would support the importance of diverse casting to challenge White ethnocentrism in mainstream audience members.

However, I also wonder whether we have set the bar too low in advocating primarily for what Marjorie Liu, writer of Monstress, might characterize as merely the “optics” of diversity or change. In our fervor to place more actors of colour in front of the camera in major blockbuster franchises in order to create more non-White images of heroism, do we run the risk of arguing that diverse casting, by itself, solves the problem of racial inequality?

The desire to see ourselves in mainstream media is understandable and compelling, particularly for the AAPI community, which has struggled with either overt stereotype or total invisibility. But, as Alton Wang recently wrote for his blog Unhyphenate.Me, the project of racial justice requires us to “construct ourselves in our own image, not in contrast to the image of others, nor in contrast to the image projected onto us by others.” To that end, we must remember that we, as Asian Americans, do not become legitimized merely by images of ourselves on television. Our community is already heroic. We are already our own protagonists.

Alton argues in his post that racial justice will not be found through our television sets. He writes:

Our obsession with media representation is understandable—but we must remember that representation in popular culture does not mean that we “have made it,” nor does a shift in the media and television signify some era of Asian American “arrival.”

For we have always been here. We have been here for centuries. We are not just “arriving” because we are now on television.

It is easy to believe that this is enough—but we must not forget that our political history, our political physical beings, deserve more than just screen time. In order to advance our communities, we must take the momentum newfound exposure has given us and synchronize with the growing political power we wield.

While I tend to agree with Alton’s thesis that the AAPI community is overly preoccupied with representations of ourselves in mainstream media as a barometer of our “arrival”, I also believe that media projects remain among the best vehicles by which AAPI can work to “construct ourselves in our own image”, as Alton suggests we must do.

I further argue that the work of telling our diverse stories is best done not through mainstream projects, but through independent works.

It should come as no surprise that the more closely tied to a major studio a film, the more diluted are the images of non-White peoples that we find contained within them. Given the ongoing lack of diversity  among writers and filmmakers, stories that include characters of colour remain too often created by White writers, directors, and producers who simply lack a personal connection to the subject matter of marginalized identities. The resulting media might present a character of colour or two, but when their inclusion is more about political appeasement and the winning of progressive brownie points than it is about creative investment, the change errs on the side of mainstream palatability and often lacks permanenceDiscussing this point with regard to comic books, Liu reasons:

“It’s great we have a female Thor, it’s great we have a black Captain America,” Liu said. “But those are just optics, it’s optics of change… Unless you have the structural diversity, the structural change behind the scenes — more women, more people of color actually calling the shots and editing these books — those optics won’t last.”

Even the very nature of mainstream media might itself preclude diverse storytelling. Consider blockbuster superhero films, which are frequently criticized for their lack of racial diversity: in an effort to appeal to a broad audience that includes both White and non-White audiences, major studios present a largely post-racial utopia where the “optics of diversity” are substituted for the discomfiting political messiness of its substance. The characters of colour introduced in these films exist within a world that lacks any concept of race. What results is a wholly inadequate framework for presenting the narratives of people of colour – which are, by definition, racialized stories — to ourselves or anyone else.

Independent media are developed under no such creative constraints. In independent film or comic book writing, filmmakers and writers of colour are able to bring their visions from script to screen freed from the artificial limitations placed upon them by uncourageous studio executives who are more interested in appealing to a “mainstream” audience than they are motivated by a moral interest in amplifying our unique stories to our own community. Reports MTV in their interview with Liu:

Liu first got her start as a novelist, but eventually found her way into the world of comics around 2008, writing predominantly for Marvel — including critically acclaimed runs on “Dark Wolverine,” “X-23″ and “Black Widow.” [Monstress] is her first independently-published comic, and she can’t imagine returning to Marvel (although she still has one more commitment to the company in the form of a short mini-series) now that she’s tasted the creative freedom she gets at Image Comics.

…While Marvel and DC might dominate public consciousness when it comes to comics, Liu says that it’s the independent scene that’s really changing the game — specifically because there are more opportunities for women and people of color to create their own stories, whether via smaller comics press or by publishing their own work directly online.

In that same interview, Liu speculates that it was only by publishing independently that she was able to bring a comic about an Asian female protagonist set in an alternate history Asia where female characters outnumber males five-to-one to life.

In the past year, I’ve been struck by the incredible quality of independent AAPI film, television, and comic books. From the science fiction drama “Advantageous”, to the incisive mockumentary “East of Hollywood”, to the thought-provoking documentaries, “9-Man” and “Twinsters”, the AAPI community produces astounding works of narrative fiction and non-fiction through the genre of film. YouTubers like Jason Chu make poignant, timely and politically relevant videos. Musicians like producer Scott CHOPS Jung blow us away with their creative use of sound. Some of the best examples of AAPI comic books are published independent of DC or Marvel, including Marjorie Liu’s Monstress and Gene Luen Yang’s collected works, as well as crowd-funded storybooks like Greg Pak’s ABC Disgusting and webcomics like Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes. Want a compelling deep-dive into what it means to be AAPI? Spend just an afternoon exploring the lineup at AAPI film festivals like the Boston Asian American Film Festival or the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival that showcase independent AAPI films.

In every way, AAPI independent media offer not just the “optics” of diversity, but also the structure and substance of it.

It is not enough for my film, my television shows, and my comic books to validate the mere fact of my existence. I want my media to explore the complex intricacies of who we are as AAPI people. I want the dollars I spend consuming that media to go directly to benefit AAPI creators, with the encouragement to do more of this great work.

The problem with independent works, of course, is the reduced reach. Can a work with limited distribution, as is true of most independent media, really cause a splash? It can, I think, if we as a community pull our own weight, and engage in a more concerted effort to actively support our independent arts.

I’m blessed to have this blog as a platform with which to express my thoughts and, on occasion, to promote worthwhile projects. Those of us similarly privileged to be able to create hype and buzz around media works often expend the vast majority of our time parsing and processing AAPI’s infrequent appearances in mainstream media as part of a larger activism demanding more visibility; myself included. This is valuable work, but in the end, there is no project coming out of the media conglomerates that are Disney/Marvel/ABC or Time Warner/DC that will be meaningfully impacted with regard to their consumer advertising or ticket sales based upon whether or not I write about it. I haven’t talked about Star Wars VII on this site: chances are you’ve still managed to hear it opened in theatres last week.

On the other hand, independent works depend entirely upon word-of-mouth advertising and organic buzz. Whereas fans have virtually no power over any part of the production process in mainstream media, our support of independent works through social media promotion and crowd-funding is meaningfully felt by creators at every step of the production process. At the distribution step, where independent artists rely upon community members to view and share their work, our efforts to raise the profile of these projects can have a profound effect.

The independent AAPI arts are our arts. Our independent AAPI artists are our artists. Think what the impact might be for independent AAPI artists, as well as the larger community, if we redirected just a fraction of the energy we use obsessing over mainstream media towards promoting the work of our independent AAPI filmmakers and writers.

These creators already do such great work. They deserve a little more of our attention and our love.

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