Asian-American Media Activism and Cultural Citizenship: An Interview with Lori Kido Lopez (Part One)

I recently announced the line-up of speakers for our Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment conference to be held at USC on October 21 (You can still register here).

When we were putting together the conference, one of the first people who I considered was Lori Kido Lopez, a young faculty member in the Communication Arts Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a recent graduate from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Lopez had been an original member of my Civic Paths research group and her work on the race-bending movement which grew up in protest of the white-casting of the feature film based on The Last Airbender was a key influence on our work around fan activism. She entered that project through her interest in the collaboration between these fans and veteran Asian-American media activists who had for decades been struggling with issues of representational diversity and industry inclusion.

When I was asked to serve on her dissertation committee, I came to see her work on fan activism in a much larger context, which included everything from struggles over hateful stereotypes and racist jokes, to the efforts of Asian-Americans to use consumer power to put pressure on the advertising industry, to the emergence of YouTube as a space often more receptive to Asian-American performers. And earlier this year, she published her first book, Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship, which is a first-rate contribution to our understanding of the current and historic struggles around diversity and inclusion in the media.

Unfortunately, Lopez can’t join us for the USC event, having commitments to speak at another conference on the East Coast that same weekend, so I reached out to see if she would be willing to provide me with an interview as part of the lead-up to our conference. We cover a lot of territory in the interview which follows, yet it gives us glimpses into only a few of the richly documented and carefully interpreted case studies that run throughout her book. It is essential reading for anyone who is trying to follow these issues, and there’s no question that the struggles over diversity and inclusion are one of the most powerful forces shaping the entertainment industry right now.

You begin the book with considerations of recent struggles over inclusion and representation within network television, focusing specifically on mixed responses from Asian-American audiences to Fresh Off the Boat and The Mindy Project.  Many in the television industry are watching responses to these programs, and others, such as Master of None, closely to see if they can figure out strategies for more diverse and inclusive programing that may nevertheless attract a “broader” audience. What insights would you like to see television executives take from the debates surrounding these and other recent programs?

 

Some of my biggest goals for this book are to broaden our view of what should be done to improve representation of Asian Americans in the media, and to explain what makes media activism challenging. At this point, Asian Americans are still lagging far behind other minorities in nearly every area. There are no hour-long shows focusing on Asian American communities, Asian Americans are never nominated for acting awards, and movies routinely whitewash Asian leading roles and leave Asian actors the sidekick roles. I watched the movie Pitch Perfect 2 recently and was not surprised at all to see that Asian cultures were the butt of far too many jokes, and the one Asian American character is a soft-spoken weirdo. But listing problems is the easy part—what’s harder is saying what we want the solution to be.

We are currently in a moment when we have more Asian American sitcoms than ever before, more Asian Americans in writers rooms and other production roles, more Asian American talent featured across alternative media platforms. Yet we still hear a lot of complaints and contradictory responses coming from Asian Americans. In this book I reveal the different stakeholders and participants engaged in the project of fixing these problems—including volunteer media activists, regulatory and advisory boards, advertisers, YouTubers, fans, and other online participants. Once we recognize who all is working for this cause, we can start to see why their responses end up differing. That’s a pretty diverse group of people, they’re not going to agree about every little detail!

 

After explicating all of the different forms of media activism currently being undertaken, I would hope that what emerges for television executives is a clarity and sense of urgency about how dire the problem is and how they should be doing all they can to hire more Asian Americans at every level. They should then feel at peace with the fact that all of the media activists identified here will continue to criticize and ask for more, because they are tapping into a vibrant, long-neglected, politically engaged core of viewers who know better than to be satisfied with any one role, episode, or movie focusing on them—the battle will always continue as long as representations continue to be made, because racism persists and is at the heart of media inequalities and injustices. So I would hope that television executives can be sensitive to how complicated this situation is, while certainly affirming that every step they make in advancing the representations of Asian Americans is vitally important and desperately needed.

 

You argue that differences between Asian-American media activists have to do with different models of cultural citizenship. Explain this concept and outline some of the underlying models of cultural citizenship which have shaped debates around these programs.

 

We usually think of citizenship in legal terms, focusing on who is legally recognized as a member of a nation. But the idea of who belongs is also deeply cultural, and “cultural citizenship” is the idea that we also feel more or less like we belong within a nation depending on how we are treated, and how our identities and cultural practices are recognized. Asian Americans often are searching for a sense of belonging in the U.S. because they are always seen as outsiders, even though they were born here or lived here most of their lives. I connect this to media activism, because I think that when we are arguing about what kinds of representations we want to see of Asian Americans, we are really saying that we want the media to play a stronger role in contributing to Asian Americans feeling like they are cultural citizens.

 

But the concept of Asian American cultural citizenship means different things to different communities, and that causes disagreements even among activists. Some think that if we are cultural citizens then we will be treated “just like everyone else,” not seen as different in any way. Others want to be recognized as a powerful group that deserves attention, particularly in terms of being able to wield economic and spending power. Others want to be able to control their own representations and make media on their own terms, no matter what that might look like. These different views on how cultural citizenship should be realized lead to different strategies when it comes to media activism.

 

You make the point in the introduction that a key difference between producers and activist is that activists see representation as a collective issue, whereas most of the mechanisms for thinking about media audiences within the entertainment industry stress individual consumer choices. Can these two perspectives be reconciled? Why or why not?

 

One way that the entertainment industry stresses individual consumer choices is through the idea that we have such a diverse range of media available, every individual can pick and choose a media diet that is particularly suited to their tastes. But at a very basic level, discourses of individualism are at odds with the fight for social justice. We have to be able to think beyond ourselves and our own desires in order to identify those who are being systematically disenfranchised, and do something to rectify that inequality at a broader level. This applies to Asian Americans media activists too—they recognize that there is a widespread problem when it comes to representations of Asian Americans, and that we will have to work together in order to combat it. This often comes in two forms: encouraging media industries to cast more Asian Americans, and encouraging audiences to support works that represent Asian Americans well. If this is all there is, then the focus on individuals could be deployed by convincing individual producers it’s in their best interest to shift their casting practices, and convincing individual viewers it’s in their best interest to support Asian American media.

 

But one of the things that I work to reveal in the book is that there are a lot more ways we can impact change than just those two things, and there are a lot more people involved in media activism than just media producers and media consumers. For instance, we also need to consider the policies that are encouraging or discouraging media industries to shift their practices, the advertising agencies who work with corporations to identify consumer audiences and their needs, the wide array of producer-consumers who participate in the online arena. Once we expand our view of media activism to include these other sites, it becomes even clearer that media activism needs to take place at the level of the collective, rather than the individual. If we focus too much on the individual, we lose sight of the collective politics that have always animated antiracism on the part of Asian Americans.

 

What are some of the factors that led to the earliest forms of Asian-American media advocacy? How do these campaigns relate to the larger history of politics around race and representation in American media, going back to The Birth of a Nation, if not before? To what degree are the issues today the same as they were in the 1970s? What has shifted in terms of the models of change activists deploy to lobby for their cause? What has shifted in the industry’s responses to such campaigns?

 

The history of Asian American media advocacy aligns with the rise of the Asian American identity itself. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, different Asian ethnic communities started coming together to protest the routine discrimination they collectively faced. In an act of self-determination, they called themselves “Asian American” (marking “Oriental” as pejorative) and fought racism alongside Black, Chicano, and Native American activists. Issues of representation were always foundational to the Asian American Movement, in relation to both media and theater. In the 1970s we saw the birth of Asian American cinema, with independent filmmakers collectively documenting stories in Asian American communities and screening them at the very first Asian American film festivals. This was also the time when Asian American actors came together to fight against “yellow face” and gain more roles in plays and movies, to resist harmful stereotypes, and to remove the use of slurs like “chink.”

So we can see that as long as there have been “Asian Americans,” there has been activism surrounding representations and media images. But if we look at the activist strategies deployed in these early days, we can trace a precedent all the way back to the African Americans who protested the racism of Birth of a Nation in 1915. And as you allude to, the general shape of media activism has remained the same since then: activists target the image’s creators, funders, or audiences. Sometimes they can push for legal repercussions. These are the same things that activists do today, largely because the same issues still exist, such as whitewashing, stereotypes, harmful depictions, a failure to hire minorities. But hopefully my book shows the way that even though this exact same form of activism is still around—and plays a vital role in shaping media industries—there are also other forms of media activism available, and we need to recognize those as well.

 

Lori Kido Lopez is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship and a co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media.