Last Reflections

What I loved most about this course was not necessarily the new information I was exposed to, but the new mindsets. As a 20-year-old woman, by now I think that I’ve pretty much solidified my own beliefs and opinions about most things that I am constantly exposed to: Food. Family. Friends. Social Media. TV shows. In fact, on most things, I think it’s safe to say that I already have some kind of opinion, with some sort of mental justification as to why I think what I do.

As the quote goes, however, I believe that “opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.” Anybody can have an opinion. It’s easy—I think it’s almost human nature. But this class taught me that everybody has different opinions and different viewpoints, and being exposed to those differing mentalities, coming to terms with them, debating them, coming to agreements (or agreements to disagree) can help us to learn and to grow as individuals. I know that when we read or listen to things, most of the time we are already reaffirming our own beliefs. Coming to this course three times a week to listen to what other people have to say and challenging my own way of thinking has opened up my mind to worlds of possibility and inquiry that I have never considered before, whether it was from the scholarly literature of media and cultural studies, the discussion of my peers, the thoughts of the professor, or my own personal research.

Before, I thought that Barbie was an example of unrealistic beauty ideals for women, until Mary F. Rogers talked about Barbie as an icon of drag. I liked that Ellen didn’t talk about her sexuality in her show, but didn’t know why until Candace Moore interpreted Ellen’s interpretive dance. I knew that reality TV shows were an artificial and unrealistic reflection of reality, but I didn’t know what that meant for class and gender until Michael J. Lee and Leigh Moscowitz analyzed social and economic division in the Real Housewives of New York City. I hated the new The Last Airbender movie as a diehard fan of the animated show, but hadn’t considered how race and Asian culture played into it until Lori Kido Lopez factored it into conversation.

Mostly, I loved this course because at the end, it reminded me of my own family—sitting around a dinner table as we all settled into a safe place for discussion, with people I truly grew to care about. I honestly think that this is the way we can solve most of the world’s problems—through productive conversation in places where we feel safe enough to voice our authentic opinions and thoughts and where nobody is targeted for their beliefs. I am so happy I had the chance to be part of this experience this semester, and know that as a result of taking it I am a more open-minded and thoughtful individual. I am incredibly thankful to everybody in the course and the professor for this opportunity and hope that more students have the chance to experience the same.

Breaking Stereotypes: Drag Queen Barbie

When I was younger, I remember some of my first expectations of what it meant to be a woman by playing with my Barbie. I remember discovering make-up as a curious nine-year-old, and coloring my Barbie’s eyelids in blue marker in an unfortunate, permanent travesty of blue eye shadow. I remember painstakingly cutting her hair, putting on her tight dresses, and hunting for tiny shoes for tiny feet that always managed to get lost in the carpet.

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“Drag Queen Barbie” (from The Daily Beast)

For me, Barbie was the epitome of the beautiful woman, and from her I learned what modern social expectations of beauty meant—and how much hard work was involved in creating them!

As a straight young woman, I realize that my interpretation of Barbie was and continues to be colored by my own experiences. As I grew older, my interpretations changed as I progressed to higher education—I criticized the unrealistic beauty standards she set (her features and proportions are humanly impossible) and how she, consciously and subconsciously, taught young girls to be insecure about their growing bodies. To some extent, I also realize now that Barbie also taught my young self that, amidst a sea of perfect Barbie accessories—handbags, dogs, brushes—the most expensive and perfect accessory was her boyfriend, Ken. Young Emily probably learned that having a boyfriend (any boyfriend—in fact, simply the fact of having one in your life at all) on your hip also meant having a happy, perfect life—a mentality that continues to be perpetuated among young girls today, who pursue heteronormative relationships for the social and cultural security.

However, Mary F. Rogers’ article Hetero Barbie? calls into question some of the assumptions I had—and continue to hold—about Barbie, and what she represents. According to Rogers, Barbie is open to “multiple, conflicting interpretations,” which leave open a multitude of possibilities—Barbie may not be heterosexual, or a woman. She may, in fact, be a drag queen. These are interpretations my young self never considered—and why is that? Is it because of my own understanding and (admittedly limited) personal experiences? Had it been subconsciously taught to me by my environment, by familial assumptions, environmental exposure at school and social functions, and by media? Is it due to a combination of the both?

The answer is: I’m not quite sure, though I would guess it to be a product of a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. However, Barbie as an “icon of drag,” as Rogers puts it, is an interpretation that I believe to be actively refreshing, mostly because it had never crossed my mind. I think it’s actually one of the aspects of society and humankind in general that is hopeful and kind of beautiful—that even Barbie, which I think can represent mass-produced, mindless and homogenous culture, is interpreted in different ways, and can mean different things to different people. I absolutely love the fact that, according to Rogers, Barbie isn’t limited to being a straight young woman anymore than we humans are. It means that even in a world of mass production and consumption, where in a way we are all products of society, we still have the capability to be individuals.

Lack of Discussion Can Push Social Movements Forward

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Ellen Degeneres on The Ellen Show (from The Odyssey Online)

When I think of Ellen, the first words that come to mind have nothing to do with her sexuality—Funny. Hilarious. Kind. This reaction is due to the fact that her sexual preference is not a major component of her show. As Ellen herself said, “I went back and forth, trying to decide should I talk about it, should I not talk about it, and ultimately I decided: No, I don’t want to talk about it” (218). And, honestly, I think that that’s great. If Ellen’s sexuality were a huge component of her show, it would attract a very different kind of audience–and I’m not sure if I would be included.

Expecting that every minority will be the spokesperson for that community in media is incredibly limiting, because it continues to assume that these people and their preferences and lives are not individual—the way that we treat white, or heteronormative individuals. That kind of mindset, that dumps so much responsibility on one person, continues to treat minorities as representations of something larger than themselves. Sometimes, that is great because that kind of representation is invited—for example, Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke for marginalized black communities and actively sought to represent the voices and needs of that group. However, Caitlyn Jenner as a transgender woman has received backlash from the larger transgender community, who claim that she does not represent their needs because she is wealthy and white. However, these kinds of accusations take away from their own movement. Being transgender is not limited by class or race—forcing it to be marginalizes and disempowers their own community.

Similarly, I like that Ellen has chosen for her sexuality to be simply a small facet of her personality. I think it adds to the LGBT community by demonstrating that LGBT members can be defined as more than their sexualities, contrary to what society makes them out to be. That being said, I think that skirting the issue entirely—never, ever explicitly saying the words “homosexual” or “gay” and instead subtly alluding to it—isn’t necessary. If the roles were reversed, I know that I wouldn’t be ready to be the voice of the straight community, but I wouldn’t be against mentioning it from time to time if the occasion warranted it. Perhaps this “skirting,” as Candace Moore discusses in her article Resisting, Reiterating, and Dancing Through: The Swinging Closet Doors of Ellen DeGeneres’s Televised Personalities.

Ultimately, I identify as straight, but it’s not my entire identity—it’s not even one of the more important parts of my identity. If I had to rank aspects of my personality, my personality would come first, followed by my race, followed by my sexuality and sexual preference. Society forcing marginalized individuals to accept responsibility for representing an entire marginalized community is as limiting for the movement as the ideologies that oppose them, in my opinion. We need to get to the point as a society where we stop perpetuating attitudes that continue to divide us and label us into different groups rather than unite as individuals. Like Ellen, perhaps we all just need to engage in more interpretive dance.

The Role of Journalism in Stereotypes in Media

When I think of a gay man, in my head, the first image that comes to mind is a white man. At first, I believed that at least a significant part of this subconscious reaction simply stemmed from the fact that a higher proportion of gay men in America are white. However, after some online research—and unfortunately for my mental justification—I discovered that this belief is a myth. According to a study of more than 120,000 American adults, “nonwhite individuals are more likely to identify as LGBT,” with 4.6% of African-Americans identifying as LGBT, followed by 4.0% of Hispanics, 4.3% of Asians, and only 3.2% of white Americans.

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Masculine representations of gay men (from Piccsr)

Given this realization, Chong-suk Han’s article “Sexy Like a Girl and Horny Like a Boy”: Contemporary Gay “Western” Narratives About Gay Asian Men is even more applicable than I previously thought. Throughout the course of the article, Han analyzes various issues of LGBT magazines such as The Advocate and OUT, critically discussing the minimal and/or degrading, overly sexualized, and objectified representations of gay Asian men in American mass media.

For the most part, I completely agree with Han as he points out the perpetuated social and gendered stereotype of the masculine, gay white man as being superior to gay men of color. This toxic attitude completely dictates media, and affects representation of marginalized communities of every kind and on every level. However, Han also calls into question the journalism field as a whole, arguing that “in reality, journalism is a site of storytelling whereby a subjective version of reality is actually presented,” in a way that “reinforces social inequalities” (221). However, I would urge Han to be careful about such generalizations, especially in an article so centered on individualistic expression and representation. While journalism does have its faults, as a journalist myself I believe that as a whole the field helps bridge different communities of people and raise awareness of issues of social, racial, and economic inequality all over the world. Journalism, at its core, is simply a way of sending and receiving information on a global scale. Journalists, as individuals themselves, are likely to subconsciously embed their own viewpoints into their articles, as Han believes. However, without journalists and journalism, including their flaws, the world would be even more ignorant of different issues and mindsets.

Han ultimately concludes that the real goal is to change the dominant view of “masculinity” within the gay community—I admire this, and think that it can and should be expanded across media, including heterosexual male and female audiences. However, he does not offer any solutions, which I would argue is the most important part of any productive conversation about cultural and social issues.

I would suggest that the most effective way to change people’s minds on a large scale starts with communication—in other words, it starts with journalism. We need people like Han to continue to write articles—even subjective articles!—and make them widely available so as to raise awareness of the issue and promote discussion.

The Limitations of Realistic Representation in Mass Media

Whenever I skim through a magazine, watch an episode of a TV show or indulge in a movie, I don’t think about who these people are—I objectify them based on their character and their appearance. It’s not because I’m a bad person (hopefully)—I’m sure if I get to know these people, we would get along just fine, and I would acknowledge their humanness. But media, by its very nature, perpetuates stereotypes and generalizations. In some ways, it’s what we enjoy so much about it—the element that allows us to not have to think about what we’re watching, but just absorb the mindlessness of it all. There’s no way that media can literally represent everybody—if it did, it would no longer become a source of entertainment, but rather a social platform.

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Main Disney princesses (from Disney Princess Wikia)

I think that something we as a society need to be careful about doing—something I also need to be careful about doing—is to understand the limitations of representation in media. Analyzing the role of LGBT characters in mainstream media as Kessler does in Showtime Thinks, Therefore I Am needs to be conducted in a way that acknowledges the nature of global communication. Kessler admonishes media for its limited portrayal of the “good gays”—good looking, flashy, upwardly mobile purchasers. And yet, we need to be careful when we insist that this portrayal simply isn’t representative, isn’t real, or just isn’t good enough—because what does that say to good looking, flashy, upwardly mobile purchasing viewers that identify as LGBT? That their identity simply isn’t good enough? As director of The L Word Rose Troche defends, the characters on the show aren’t meant to be every woman or every lesbian. That doesn’t mean that they’re not an accurate depiction. Media today is often criticized in such a manner—criticism of Disney claiming that all the princesses are white, for example. And yet, these princesses are set in European countries that are predominantly white. Critics of movies with women that fulfill traditional gender stereotypes—a blonde girly girl who enjoys cooking for her husband and getting pampered—claim that these characters set the feminist movement back. And yet, the feminist movement is about empowering women. When you claim that traditionally “girly” women in movies are not woman enough, that only characters like the badass Furiosa in Mad Max can be celebrated as inspirational for moving the movement forward, you are perpetuating the same toxic attitudes that pit us against each other instead of celebrating our preferences and our differences. It’s the same logic as feminists that criticize women for choosing to be stay at home moms, not realizing that such criticism goes against the philosophy of their movement—of empowerment and support.

To be fair, of course representation of the LGBT group in media is an issue—as it is for all minorities, and perhaps to all people in general. Media isn’t meant to be realistic—it’s meant to be entertaining. As a consequence, the characters we see on TV aren’t supposed to feel real. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t watch a TV show centered around my life. That’s not to say that the issues that Kessler brings up in her article aren’t very real and need to be addressed. Media is a mirror reflection of the norms of society, and so often what we see in media is what is or is quickly becoming accepted by most consumers. Mainstream media is not supposed to be controversial, to redefine limitations or correct stereotypes. It’s a business that’s designed to make money by catering toward the most amount of people—as Kessler says, “the power of purse strings.” Though I doubt that this will change anytime soon, I do believe that we have the power to impact what we’d like to see, by simply re-evaluating our own preferences and beliefs. As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we’d like to see in the world. Only then will we see it truly reflected in mainstream media.

The Price of “Free” Social Media Platforms

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Facebook.com Sign Up page (from Login Sign In)

I don’t pretend to be an expert on internet platforms or media privacy policies. I am, however, an expert at actively checking Facebook. In fact, it’s one of my open tabs. The homepage is almost too easy to navigate—centered posts, apps and pages on the left and events, birthdays, and trending news on the right. It’s only when I scroll do I notice subtle ads in grey on the side—only because I’m looking. When I click SPONSORED, it opens a neat page titled, “Advertising on Facebook.” Not only are there bullet points explaining what they use to create relevant material with links to more information, but there is an option for me to create my own ad.

I can’t help but be reminded of the optimistic prosumer Fuchs describes in his chapter on “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook.” In many ways, I agree with Fuchs. Maintaining online privacy is an issue we face in our media-focused society, and not having control of our information can and has led to problems that unfairly target the everyday consumer. However, that’s my opinion, and I came to it on my own terms. One of the most dangerous ideas Fuchs delivers is implying that what is happening to social media—our lack of privacy—is inherently negative, without defining it, describing it, or defending it. Before we can discuss strategy, we have to come to a common understanding of the issue. To me, it’s a bit ironic that while Fuchs’ advocates for greater user control, he doesn’t give the reader the chance to form his or her own opinion.

That being said, assuming we agree online privacy is an issue, Fuchs jumps into ways we can combat the problem and focuses on one solution—alternative internet platforms. Within this subtopic, he emphasizes an alternative social networking site—Diaspora. Heard of it? Me neither. Curious about Diaspora’s “privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open source” mantra, I went to Diaspora.com, which opened a broken link. Stymied, I Googled the phrase. The steps to sign up each led to another page, on which a giant “Sign up now!” banner opened another page with a giant, flashing advertisement blinking in the middle, and a button above a chart saying, “Confused and just want to sign up?? Click here.” This button led to some website called “Byspora.com”.

Needless to say, Facebook’s user-friendly one-step sign-up page is infinitely more accessible. But more than that, a closer look at Diaspora highlights systemic flaws in their setup—namely, a lack of money. Advertising money is what allows Facebook to be the successful social media giant it is—money accounts for its popularity, its marketing, its continued accessibility to free users. You can argue that Facebook has a head start simply because of assimilation into culture. However, despite Diaspora’s promising beginning—an incredibly successful $200,000 Kickstarter—a number of flaws, such as bugs and security holes, insufficient funds, as well as the suicide of a stressed co-founder have ultimately led the network’s development to a standstill since 2011. Facebook’s marketing strategy allows it the freedom to continue to develop and add features as well as cater to a growing audience. Of course, nothing in this world is free, and we pay for these services—as Fuchs so adamantly complains—with our online privacy. I’m not advocating Facebook’s strategy, which I realize is a double-edged sword. But is a subtle advertisement to a pretty necklace that’s just my style such a bad thing? And if it is, what’s a sustainable answer?

From Crushes to Questions: Generalizations of Race in Cultural Studies

One of the first crushes I ever remember having was on Ryan Higa, better known as “nigahiga” on his Youtube channel. As a young teenager, I was attracted to his dorky sense of humor, subtle athleticism and easy smile—not to mention, I suppose, his race. The idea that we could be good friends if we met was not far from my mind, and never failed to lend continuous hope to my fantasy of accidentally bumping into him in LA and running away with him into the sunset—fantasies largely fed by the short romantic films spun by Wongfu Productions, which with sappy music, slow-motion, and flattering lighting always seemed to imply that any love, including mine, was a story. And yet, despite these notions, it never consciously occurred to me that these interests were racially charged until college, when I connected with other Asian-Americans on our favorite Youtube stars over dried seaweed and Korean barbeque and had to link my other friends to “Stangers, Again” or explain who KevJumba was.

Ryan Higa
Ryan Higa, Japanese American Youtube actor (from WikiPicky)

Reading about these Asian-American stars and their careers in light of their races, as Christine Bacareza Balance does in “How It Feels to Be Viral Me,” was an enlightening experience that redefined the way I look at race in the entertainment industry. However, analyzing race, I believe, is a complex balance between discussion and discrimination, between genius and generalization, between study and simplicity. It is one thing to consider how race plays a factor; it is dangerous, however, to begin to apply these considerations to a wide sample size, which is precisely the kind of thinking that these discussions serve to avoid. For example, Christine Bazareza Balance ends on the following note—that these “Youtube stars’ vlogs, song parodies, skits, and cover performances” (an impossibly wide range of videos) “restage and respond to… racist moments of Asian America’s everyday life, transforming alienation into human, hate into love.” While a touching notion, the very idea that every single one of these videos aims to serve as commentary on Asian-American culture and identity is a bold claim. Some—many, I might argue—are not consciously doing so, and applying these ideas to their subconscious motivations can be misleading. By simply inserting one word—“generally,” “largely,” “usually,” “mostly”—the writer can avoid this type of generalization. While this suggestion might be considered to be a small point, I believe that in the context of discussing race, it’s of utmost importance that we make every effort to avoid perpetuating the toxic, and often subconscious, attitudes that I believe the writers themselves struggle to understand and break down. Rather than a question of sensitivity, ensuring that language reflects ideas fully is a practice of caution and respect.

Interestingly, discussing race is easiest and thus more common in industries where race is most easily determined. I believe it’s no coincidence that this discussion of race is framed in the visual entertainment industry, where any audience member can see a performer’s face and make their his or her own judgments. In other creative commercial industries affected by this sweeping transition from top-down to bottom-up approaches, such as journalism and publishing, the application of race has not been discussed comprehensively, to my knowledge. It might be interesting to conduct a similar evaluation of race as it affects the publishing industry with the advent of major self-publishing platforms, or the popularity of citizen journalism branches such as CNN’s iReport. That being said, I appreciated Christine Bazareza Balance’s general care to avoid generalizations and her commitment to explaining and identifying her sources, which demonstrate her professionalism. Her analysis of Asian-American culture in the Youtube industry raised many questions that I had yet to consider about my own cultural identity.