Asian and Asian diaspora women in comedy from 2014 to present day use non-traditional forms of media to subvert stereotypes, reclaim their identities, and empower themselves and their communities. Not only does the intersection of racism and sexism block these women from traditional media forms, but these media forms also suppress and whitewash Asian identities. Traditional forms of media are defined to be media that is Hollywood, network or cable (for film/ TV) and Billboard Top 100 (for music). The images used below are from the original work created by Asian and Asian diaspora female comedians, other media content they are a part of, their social media posts, and online posts about them.
This is a still from the Buzzfeed video on Youtube “If Asians Said The Stuff White People Say”, featuring Jenny Yang. Yang is an LA-based Asian-American stand-up comedian who produces her own shows and does a lot of online content either on her own (Jenny Yang’s website) or through non-traditional avenues like Buzzfeed, Fusion, Funny or Die, etc. In this video, Yang takes stereotypes used against Asians (perpetually considered to be “the foreigner”) and throws them back at white people (perpetually considered to be “the default”) to create comedy. In this image here, Yang takes the stereotype that Asians have small eyes and turns it back at the white actor by physically opening her eyes up to make them bigger – a reference/ callout to the racist action of non-Asian Americans pulling their eyes back and pretending their Asian. In doing so, she calls out the ridiculous double standard of how white people versus Asian people are treated.
This is the cover of Awkwafina’s 2014 rap album Yellow Ranger. Awkwafina is an Asian-American Brooklyn rapper and actress who wrote and produced Yellow Ranger by herself in her bedroom, which is the very definition of independent. With this album and album cover, I’d argue she is reappropriating the racist stereotype that “Asians are yellow” to be a positive thing. The cover art invokes a DIY, sketched, dreamy, and cute feel (pastel-y colors, hearts, clouds, planets). Featured on the album cover are different shades of yellow and images of glasses (Awkwafina always wears her signature glasses), so to me I see it as Awkwafina putting part of her identity on this album cover. In the album Yellow Ranger itself, she raps proudly, with obvious comedic elements, about how awesome her vagina is (“My Vag”) and queefing like a G (“Queef”). “Yellow Ranger” is not just the name of the album, but also the title track in the album, in which she raps about how she’s a yellow ranger in the messed up corporate world.
This is the cover of Ali Wong’s Netflix stand-up special, Baby Cobra. On the cover, Wong stands in an aggressive and fierce stance while being seven months pregnant, in contrast to the stereotype of Asian women being meek and submissive. Wong is an Asian-American stand-up comedian, actress, and writer. Her identity takes center stage as she talks about sex, marriage, career, pregnancy, and more, all through the lens of being an Asian-American woman. Wong subverts stereotypes against Asians by directly addressing them in her comedy. For example, she tackles the racist idea that Asian men aren’t sexy by saying “Asian men are the sexiest. They got no body hair from the neck down. It’s like making love to a dolphin.” And she’s not being facetious. She goes on to talk about having sex with her husband, who is Asian-American. By putting this information out there, it stands in stark contrast to the traditional media’s tendency to make Asian men de-sexualized and undesirable.
This is a still from the comedic Buzzfeed India Youtube video “How To Cook Every Indian Dish Ever” featuring Srishti Dixit, who is an Indian female writer at Buzzfeed India. This video is full of Dixit using her identity to reclaim stereotypes, and it’s clear that she’s coming from a place of love and home. The most obvious example of that is her accent and use of native tongue. A lot of times in traditional media, an Asian accent or use of an Asian language is racistly used for comedic effect. In contrast, Dixit uses it matter-of-factly (she naturally has an accent) and purposefully (when there are certain words that she probably says a lot in her native language or when she’s having strong emotions). In the video, she is less concerned with making the English audience comfortable, audio-wise, in way that says “ you can’t understand what I’m saying? Well there’s also subtitles, so don’t use that as a way to make fun of me.”
This screenshot is from the YouTube video titled “A Geography Class for Racist People” and published in 2017 by IISuperwomanII, also known as Lilly Singh. Singh is Canadian-Indian, and frequently makes comedy videos about her experiences as a Punjabi woman. She uses satire to address issues such as how South-Asians are told to “go bak to [their] country,” as said in a comment on one of her videos, and the general lack of knowledge about South-Asian countries. Singh unapologetically embraces her culture, as seen in this video and her video series which features her portraying fictional Indian parents. This can be compared to other South-Asian representations in mainstream media where Indian culture and issues are downplayed, such as The Mindy Project (2012-2017) where Mindy Kaling is “an honorary white” (Smith, Thakore, 2016, p. 100).
This photo was taken from Jenny Yang’s Twitter, the same Jenny Yang from the Buzzfeed video “If Asians Said The Stuff White People Say” mentioned earlier. Yang’s t-shirt was created by LA comedy group Asian AF to call out the whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood. The names on the shirt correspond to white actors and actresses who took roles meant for Asians. The mentioned actors and actresses are Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell, 2017), Emma Stone (Aloha, 2015) Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange, 2017), and Matt Damon (The Great Wall, 2016). Jenny Yang tweeted this photo after she added Zach McGowan (Ni’ihau, 2018) to the shirt. The continued whitewashing of Asian roles is a major barrier to Asian-Americans being seen in traditional productions, and why they often resort to non-traditional forms of media to tell their stories.
In 2016, Twitter users stood up to the whitewashing of Asian roles in major films by trending the hashtags #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu. The grassroots movement involved photoshopping the faces of John Cho and Constance Wu into movie posters of major Hollywood films. This photo shows actress and comedian Constance Wu of Fresh off the Boat (2015-) instead of Jennifer Garner as the female lead in the 2009 romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past with Matthew McConaughey. The fact that Asians have to be photoshopped into movie posters to be able to see themselves in Hollywood films reflects how underrepresented Asians are in popular media, but this non-traditional movement also reflects how the Asian community is not accepting the racism of Hollywood.
The official movie poster of the highly anticipated film Ocean’s 8 (2018), shows how Asian-American women who do make it into mainstream media productions are still sidelined. In this image, the three women of color are physically marginalized by being placed in the back half of the image, with Asian-American comedians Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina being in the smallest slots of the movie poster. They experience the intersection of both sexism and racism against Asians: the “glass ceiling” and the “bamboo ceiling” respectively (Li, 2014).
Traditional media white-washes, sidelines, and sometimes flat out ignores the identity of Asian and Asian diaspora women, leading to their symbolic annihilation. Focusing specifically on comedy, Asian and Asian diaspora female comedians have consequently turned to non-traditional media forms such as Youtube, Netflix, Buzzfeed, etc. as places where their identities can be freely expressed and explored. Asian Americans and the media speaks to this phenomenon of Asian-Americans creating their own body of independent work outside of mainstream media by saying that “the strength of this independence is embodied in self-aware producers working within the interstices of the independent and the mainstream and challenging traditional representations (Ono, Pham, 2009).” Through harnessing non-traditional media forms, Asian and Asian diaspora female comedians have been more able to fight stereotypes and embrace their identities more recently.
Li, P. (2014). Hitting the Ceiling: An Examination of Barriers to Success for Asian American Women. Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just., 29, 140.
Ono, K. A., & Pham, V. (2009). Asian Americans and the media (Vol. 2). Polity.
Smith, J. A., & Thakore, B. K. (Eds.). (2016). Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century US Media(Vol. 6). Routledge.
By: Avni Kantawala and Kim Tran