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All ‘Representation Matters’

This spring, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a lot of Asian-centered entertainment projects. By “a lot,” I mean two upcoming movies—the Pixar short “Bao” and the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians.” These movies’ trailers have been exciting for me to watch and to discuss with friends.

As the saying goes, “Representation matters.” Representation in this context means seeing someone on the screen who looks like you. It can provide validation—seeing little recognizable details from your life tells you that other people have made the same observations, that those details are worthy of being told in a story. Representation can also expand the imagination—you may not know you can be something until you see someone just like you doing it, even if in a work of fiction.

Like its close cousin “diversity,” however, “representation” is no magic word—just a buzzword. More of it is better, but it should not be the main focus of a work of entertainment. Prematurely judging that work in terms of its representation only leads to dissatisfaction, and in the end, such a metric says little about the work’s long-term reception.

Nobody can be represented perfectly, as the criticism surrounding “Crazy Rich Asians” illustrates. Before filming even started, people criticized the casting of a half-Asian man as the film’s romantic lead; within hours of the trailer’s release, others criticized the lack of dark-skinned Asians. I think these people are working themselves up, months before the final product will be released for judgment, because they are too concerned about Asian representation.

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Their concern indicates how incoherent the concept of “Asian representation” is. Asia is a continent with 48 countries and countless ethnic groups. So how could any actor, storyline, or movie represent Asia? Is casting token actors from multiple ethnicities really better than casting actors from mainly one? I don’t think there’s a right answer; I think the question is irrelevant and unfair.

Because regardless of what one claims is or is not representation for oneself, the mere presence of representation in a work of art should not be its selling point—and really cannot be, in the long run.

I see this in my own reaction to the Chinese-American family sitcom “Fresh off the Boat.” I dutifully started the show from its premiere, and I appreciated the observations—perhaps stereotypes—that rang true for me, like taking shoes off in the house or cutting coupons obsessively. But before long, I found other things to do on Tuesday nights, because I just didn’t find the show funny. Representation piqued my interest but did not keep me around.

Meanwhile, some of my favorite shows do not fare well in terms of representation. In “Doctor Who,” a drama about a time-traveling alien, I cannot remember a single East Asian character, despite the hundreds of planets that said alien visits. In the pirate drama “Black Sails,” I do remember the one Asian pirate, but despite appearing in most episodes, Joji never spoke a single line of dialogue and I didn’t realize he had a name until I halfheartedly Googled “Black Sails Asian pirate.”

In the end, representation says very little about whether I will end up recommending a work of entertainment to everyone in two years or whether I will watch it over and over on a night in. And that’s just fine with me. Good entertainment is good entertainment. Good entertainment does not allow me the brain space to worry about its level of representation.

In fact, I have never really devoted brain space to thinking about representation before the last few years. Maybe that is sad—it means that from a young age, I resigned myself to knowing that I would not see characters who looked like me on the big screen. But I don’t think that resignation messed me up too badly. I was looking for characters that I connected with and stories that stayed with me days after finishing. That search is how I’ve ended up identifying with and singing the praises of, for example, the time-traveling alien in “Doctor Who” and Captain Flint in “Black Sails.”

But in retrospect, I did not think about representation because I did not have trouble finding a version of it. I do see people who are like me onscreen, just not physically. Physical representation will always have its perks. I enjoyed the initial rush of excitement from “Bao” and “Crazy Rich Asians” because I consider them good physical representation. But I hope that my excitement remains long after for other reasons—for representation that is more than skin deep, for the kind of representation that has always been available.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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