Luce: Welcome back to this edition of Ink and Luce Talk About Racial Issues—can I just say that your username being Ink brings up a lot of issues?
Luce: Like, Ink is a black person, of course he is. But let’s get back to Rostad’s video.
Ink: Okay, last post we made a bunch of decisions about the whole piece, except for the last two paragraphs. Frankly, I find them to be the most interesting—they’re not about just Cho Chang, JKR, Harry Potter anymore—now we have this whole issue of what the Asian female-white male relationship looks like. My impression is that there’s this recurring trope of a white male and an Asian female—really, there’s a recurring trope of a white male and every kind of other ethnic female in fiction and popular culture, particularly film, and in a lot of ways that’s because we respond to that much better than the other way around—
Luce: Hold on. You say we respond to it better—but I don’t think that’s the case. I think writers and producers of media think we respond to it better, so that’s what they write. I do think that people would accept, for example, the idea of a protagonist being gay, if only they were given the chance. It’s the same thing with the idea of an Asian male and his white female love interest.
Ink: I think it’s a bit of both actually. First off, let me clarify that when I say “we,” I’m referring to our culture at large—I do believe it’s true that we respond better to a white male and an ethnic female, but let me explain why.
Ink: So, there’s a fantastic guy who teaches out at UC Santa Barbara. His name is Kip Fulbeck, and he’s Hapa (of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander heritage). He made this film called “Some Questions for 28 Kisses” (preview here). The video basically gets at the question “Why are we always presented with the image of white males and Asian females and never the reverse?” And the questions just sort of roll across the screen—are Asian men inherently socially inept? Is it that Asian men are inscrutable and white women can’t relate to them? Is it that white women are intimidated by them? There’s a politics of the exotic as an object for consumption which is explored in the film. A good example is—well, if you’ve ever seen an advertisement for “Visit (insert country here)”—there’s always an image of a lush jungle scene or a beach or a palm tree, along with some attractively-clad woman of the relevant ethnicity.
Luce: They romanticize the whole thing for you because sex sells. Obviously, it depends on your audience, and let’s assume your audience is heterosexual, because that’s 90% of the population—if you want men to come to your island, you’re going to put women in your ad. It’s the same reason you put scantily-clad women in beer advertisements, because the idea is that a lot of manly men drink beer, and if there are women in the ad, men will watch it and presumably buy more beer. It sells.
Ink: And that’s my point, the thing that Fulbeck’s video is trying to get across is that he also believes people won’t put as much money into the the other possibilities—consumers will purchase things, put money into representations of romance between white males and Asian females, because it makes sense to them. That’s their world, that’s what they understand, that’s why they’ll spend money on it. And conversely, he believes that fewer people would see movies with an Asian male lead and a white female love interest because that contravenes our expectations on the sexuality of Asian men and on appropriate dating practices of white women. If it’s problematic in certain ways, it’s assumed that it won’t sell as well, and then we have to ask why it doesn’t sell.
Ink: So I think that’s what Rostad is getting at when she says “we were just following the plot”—if culture is shaped by the stories you tell, the art you consume, the films you watch, the books you read, then understandably, from her perspective, it seems to be that she thinks that this pigeonholes her relationship—that she can’t have a relationship with a white man that is not in some way influenced by this artistic history of the white male and Asian female. I think the idea of “following the plot” echoes something about my life—like I go through the world and some percentage of the time, I think about what is expected of me not just as an individual but as—
Luce: —as a representation of the black race, right.
Ink: I think that’s the part that gets to me. Everything else in the video we can address as untrue, fair, unfair, etc, but you know what? I kind of want to ask her to tell me about this—
I met a boy who spoke like rain against windows—
He had his father’s blue eyes.
He’d press his wrist against mine and say he was too pale.
That my skin was so much more beautiful.
To him, I was Pacific sunset,
almond milk, a porcelain cup.
When he left me, I told myself I should have seen it coming.
I wasn’t sure I was sad but I cried anyway.
Girls who look like me are supposed to cry over boys who look like him.
I’d seen all the movies and read all the books.
We were just following the plot.
Luce: I understand what you’re getting at—there’s something in her speech, there’s something in that anger that resonates with the audience and especially with people of color—as people who go through this largely Caucasian world, because of the way society is structured, we expect people to look at us and think, “Okay, if you act that way, then all Asians must act that way, all black people act that way.” And, you know, we think we have to act in certain ways in order to defy these sorts of pre-set stereotypes. There’s a kind of anger in that—why are we the ones who have to fight against them? And the angry, impassioned delivery of Rostad’s speech that put some people off so much, that’s what other people liked. Because they’re angry about it too.
Ink: Where Rostad says “ignore the fact that your books have sold four hundred million copies worldwide”—what she’s saying is that JKR’s work is so influential to how people think that she is more accountable for how she presents a PoC character. Her portrayal of Cho, the argument goes, contributes to stereotypical perspectives of Asians. We should talk about that. What are the artist’s responsibilities about appropriately representing persons of color? Also, what does “appropriate” mean in this case?
Luce: That relates to the last point we were talking about—she says JKR’s books have sold so many copies, but there’s this one Asian character who, Rostad thinks, is really lame and stupid. And so I think Rostad feels that same burden of representation which we were talking about—she seems to feel that JKR should have done better, because now all people are going to think all Asians are like Cho Chang. She was basically saying “if you were going to have an Asian character, why couldn’t you make her cool so that everyone would think Asians were cool?”
Ink: Someone once said to me, “It’s more dangerous, in terms of incurring wrath, to ever include people of color.” I think that’s not true. I don’t really think that it’s more dangerous in terms of incurring wrath, but it is more work to do it right. Do I think it’s worth the effort? Yes, because I think people—if people decide they don’t want to put in the effort, and white authors only write white characters and black authors only write black characters, that’s not interesting because that’s not the world we live in. Chinua Achebe, the late author of Things Fall Apart, wrote books about black people interacting with black people in Africa, and he had an audience for whom that was relevant. But for most of us, for me and for you, that would not describe our life experiences at all. I think inclusion is usually a good thing—but if JKR didn’t do it well, then we should say so. That’s the point. There’s supposed to be this dialogue. We’re supposed to speak up about what we do and don’t like, in the hopes we can influence the literature that we consume. Rostad’s piece is a good thing, even though I may disagree with some of her conjectures. It’s not enough to just be inclusive. Authors have to do their research, because a book doesn’t exist in isolation. Maybe there’s something to the idea that if Cho appears weak, or unfavorable, or simpering, it’s just the latest in a long series of Asian female characters who appear that way.
Luce: See, I was very—as an Asian person—I was very happy with Cho’s representation in the books, and Rachel Rostad, who’s also Asian, was obviously not happy with it. The problem with thinking of this issue in terms of how Cho’s character might have satisfied the vast international Asian diaspora is that it can’t be done. Every Asian and Asian immigrant is going to have their own personal experiences, and one character can’t represent that many points of view. But the thing is—it might be difficult and you might get a lot of flak for it, but it’s better to be inclusive than to be exclusive. Doing so might be more dangerous, but—fuck it, you know, just do it. Obviously do your research, which we can argue JKR didn’t do or didn’t do enough of, but in the end I’m always going to believe it was better that Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, went out with Cho Chang, than not.
Ink: Okay. So what’s next?
Luce: A lot of people probably had this same conversation about this video and that’s great, but like you’ve said, it’s more important that the producers of media—JKR, the writers of Supernatural, the writers of Doctor Who—who are all men right now, so thanks for that—that the producers of popular media will someday also be having these conversations. And if we have more agitators, like Rachel Rostad, to bring up the topic, who knows? Maybe JKR will see it and will think “Oh, I should have thought of that, and in my next book, I’ll consider these issues more carefully.”
Ink: Well, I think we’ve done a lot of defending JKR, but you’re right, maybe the result of dialogues like this one is that the author becomes aware, and can improve. There was a similar explosion in certain communities about the sort of off-handed-ness with which JKR tossed out “oh, by the way, Dumbledore’s gay,” without really engaging with his sexuality in the text of the books. So, if you’re an author, maybe it’s wrong to presume that you’re doing a good thing by including a PoC character, an LGBT character, or a differently-abled character without engaging with their identity and the context into which that character fits. It’s not enough to just try—how do we say it on the internet? “Intent isn’t magic”?
Luce: “I tried, and therefore no one should criticize me!”
Ink: Right. Exactly. In fact, we should include that gif.
Luce: So in conclusion, be inclusive, but don’t be a dick about it.
Ink: Yeah. That’s a good definition of being a dick—presuming that you don’t have to engage with cultural context. I think that makes it a privilege thing, and it brings up a point that we and Rostad have touched on: if you’re a person of color, or a member of any sort of underrepresented group, you don’t have the luxury of not considering yourself in light of the history and context for people like you.
Luce: And I want to bring up this idea—a lot of the first responses I saw to the Rostad video were people saying “I’m an Asian-American female and I disagree.” There’s this idea that the only people who can offer an opinion on Rostad’s video, or on any minority issue, for that matter, are the people who are of that same ethnicity. But if you’re going to have a discussion about race and you pre-emptively cut out all the non-Asian people, it can’t really be considered a conversation. In the beginning of our first post, we brought up our races and genders, but it annoys me that that’s even necessary. As long as people are aware of their privilege and can discuss an issue respectfully, I don’t see a problem with them offering their opinion.
Ink: Right. It shouldn’t be sacrilege to disagree with us.
And with that, let’s turn this over to the readers. What did you all think of Rostad’s video and of our discussion of it? Let us know in the comments!
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Y’all brought up a lot of good points about Rostad’s video. I could relate a lot to her frustration because I didn’t like how Cho was portrayed in the later books and thus stopped cosplaying as her, and yet people would ask me why I’m not dressed as her or would assume I’m cosplaying her (despite the blonde wig and upside-down Quibbler). I was happy that there was a Chinese character, but it was disappointing to see her get reduced to someone who was defined by her relationship with guys. Then you have the other female Asian students, the Patil twins, who also aren’t portrayed very positively in the scenes where they are featured the most prominently.
Rostad’s error about the name definitely jumped out at me, but I also saw the underlying message of how fans were drawing meaning from Japanese and Thai, as if all Asian languages are interchangeable, to deconstruct the name.
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