Power of Media: Providing Platforms for Critique and Change

by Kelly Wan

As a graduate student in the MA program in American studies at Columbia University, I had written a thesis on the influence of twenty-first-century television on Asian American female sexuality. My methodology included ethnographic interviews in which I asked willing participants about their television viewership, knowledge about Asian American female stereotypes, and recommendations for improving visual culture. While my thesis integrated these interviews, I wanted to share interlocuters’ responses in a more accessible and visually appealing medium. By taking Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s course, Video as Inquiry, I had the chance to create a short documentary highlighting the origins of two Asian American female stereotypes—the Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady—and interview participants about Western visual media.

In creating this documentary, Asian American Visual Media: Female Stereotypes, I wanted to demonstrate how Western stereotypes of Asian and Asian American women impact the identities of Asian American female audiences. Though my master’s thesis concentrated on contemporary television, many of the interview participants mentioned examples of unfaithful and inaccurate representations within the entertainment industry as a whole. Their reactions to these misrepresentations pinpointed three large issues: they have internalized how Hollywood portrays Asian women in varying degrees; their internalizations combined with other people’s perceptions of racially gendered stereotypes affect their romantic relationships; and Western visual culture can diversify faster when funding improves. My original mission in making the documentary was to incorporate the interviews more fully than I could in the written thesis. However, through editing, I realized that these interviews offered new social commentary on race, ethnicity, and gender in the Western entertainment industry. Instead of analyzing the (mis)representations of Asian American female characters in mass media, which had been my plan, my documentary addresses audiences’ spectatorship and their relation to depicted stereotypes.

After taking Professor Negrón-Muntaner’s course, I have learned about videography, film editing, and the many challenges that arise from producing creative endeavors. Yet, most importantly, I have learned how presenting research in a form other than academic writing can spark new questions and conversations. Through editing and piecing interview footage together, I found various tangential topics, such as comparisons of stereotypes between Western and East Asian mass media and nonfinancial reasons for the lack of Asian American representation. Although these topics did not fit into the documentary’s narrative, I can continue to study and present them in other forms or genres of media. Another favorable component of using media such as video is the ease of conveying images. In my thesis, I included several stills of Asian American characters, but readers still have to rely on my visual analysis section to understand why these images are relevant, whereas video has the power to immediately demonstrate their significance. With video, I can “show” rather than “tell.” The difference between the two is substantial, especially when comparing screen shots and actual footage of a scene or a character confronting or conforming to a stereotype.

Without this course, I may not have gained valuable knowledge about video and film, not only as an artistic medium but also as an academic presentation. Using video as inquiry, I have also intersected my interests in analyzing visual media and producing it myself. This kind of interactive course is an opportunity that any student can benefit from, regardless of their subject matter.

Kelly Wan is a recent graduate of the MA program in American studies at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER). Her graduate thesis, See It, Believe It: 21st Century Television on Asian American Female Sexuality, and accompanying short documentary, Asian American Visual Media: Female Stereotypes, analyze how twenty-first-century television influences second-generation Asian American millennial female audiences in their construction of identity. Her research interests include Asian American studies, gender studies, and visual culture. She plans to pursue a PhD in either American studies, ethnic studies, or media and communication studies. Besides research, Kelly enjoys screenwriting Asian American narratives in the hopes of filling the gap in Asian American representation.