Never Perfect. Directed by Regina Park. New York: The Cinema Guild, 2007.
Regina Park’s documentary Never Perfect uses the story of Mai-Anh T., a twenty-seven-year-old Vietnamese American woman, to explore the politics of eyelid surgery performed on Asian American women. Mai-Anh’s narrative concentrates on her move to Los Angeles and her decision to have a surgery that will produce a fold in her eyelid and enlarge her eyes’ appearance. Interviews with social scientists, plastic surgeons, and Asian American youths and seniors provide a variety of perspectives on the issue and frame this form of surgery within a historical and geopolitical context. The film refuses to pin down any one cause for the popularity of this surgery among Asian American and Asian women; both Chinese preference for larger eyes before any Western influence and U.S. militarization in Asia are offered as parts of this surgery’s history.
The dominant theme of the film—whether or not Mai-Anh’s surgery should be interpreted as Westernization or whitening—is reflected upon from a number of perspectives. While most of the commentators interpret the eyelid procedure as Westernization, Asian American studies scholar Elaine Kim disagrees, stating, “eyelid surgery doesn’t have to do with racial identity.” Mai-Anh’s words, too, complicate the Westernization narrative: she understands her desire for larger-looking eyes as stemming from a combination of her mother’s criticism, the lack of Asian American women in U.S. popular culture, the abundance of double-folded eyes in Asian popular culture, the fact that she spent time in a predominantly white school, and the fact that among her Asian American friends and her family, most have double-folded eyelids.
The film’s extended discussion of historical and contemporary racist images of Asians may lead viewers away from this complex picture of identification, since it tends to reproduce Asian American women as “mimics.”1 Similarly, Never Perfect too readily accepts Mai-Anh’s tendency to reduce diasporic subjectivity to an intergenerational conflict between “Asian moms” and their daughters. Yet the film’s focus on variability within the category “Asian” and Mai-Anh’s own comments—“some critics might say you’re abandoning your Asian heritage, but what Asian heritage is it that I’m abandoning?”—could lead not only to a nuanced classroom discussion of the racialized politics of beauty but also to a deep interrogation of the meaning of ethnic authenticity. This discussion would be enhanced by readings that directly address eyelid surgery on Asian Americans,2 question the assumption that non-Euro-American subjects desire to mimic whiteness,3 and provide a historically informed view on the co-implication of aesthetic surgery and racialization.4
1 Kathleen Zane, “Reflections on a Yellow Eye: Asian I (\Eye/)Cons and Cosmetic Surgery,” in Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, ed. Ella Shohat (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 161–84: 164.
2 Zane, ibid.; Eugenia Kaw, “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 2nd ser., 7, no. 1 (1993): 74–89.
3 Terry Kawashima, “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 3, no. 1 (2002): 161–90; Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” in his Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 97–130.
4 Sander Gilman, Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998). Never Perfect’s web site also contains a list of readings recommended to accompany discussions of the film (“Resources — For More Information,” 2007).