Asian culture is underrepresented on your screens…
By Jaime Woo
During the premiere episode of the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, the contestants were asked to present a look based off their favourite British gay icon. When the two Black contestants, Asttina Mandella and Tayce, both chose Naomi Campbell, regular Drag Race viewers may have prepared themselves for a catfight like when Gia Gunn and Trinity the Tuck battled over playing Caitlin Jenner on their season of All Stars. I held my breath, worried that the show would carelessly exploit the struggles of people of colour for petty drama.
Thankfully, the two British queens instead shared their frustration at how difficult it was to think of any other Black British gay icon aside from the supermodel, and lamented the lack of visibility and representation. It made me wonder how the same assignment would have played on our homegrown version, Canada’s Drag Race. Would the Black contestants all have to choose Jackie Shane (who is American but lived in Toronto long enough for us to claim her as one of our own) or pay tribute to the late great Michelle Ross? It’d be even slimmer pickings for contestants like Kyne, Priyanka and Ilona Verley.
I keep a mental list of queer people of Asian descent, as I imagine most people who belong to multiple underrepresented groups do. As I ran through this thought experiment, I became deflated as I realized the names that came to mind were all American. George Takei, and B.D. Wong, and Margaret Cho, and Bowen Yang – although Bowen did live in Montreal as a child. I spent a few hours of effort, and came up with author Wayson Choy, city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and television host Lilly Singh. The list isn’t exhaustive, especially depending on how you define “icon,” but it’s depressingly not far off. (Maybe we can squeeze in Sandra Oh, who is nothing short of iconic as a lesbian in Under the Tuscan Sun. Is Keanu Reeves a gay icon?)
The reason it’s so shocking is because, until I had enumerated it this way, I hadn’t realized how little of myself I’d seen on screen. Because Canada has worked hard to diversify media representation – the CBC alone has Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience, Queens and Trickster – it’s easy to create a composite of sorts. In a Venn diagram, seeing the two outer circles gives an illusion of (or, more generously, hope for) something to fill in the overlapping region. Yet spottings of queer people of Asian descent are so rare, I find myself leaping out of my seat when I see them, like the climax of a round of Where’s Waldo.
It reminds me of a game I’d often play in my corporate career. I’d look up the highest-ranking person of colour in the company where I worked, and the highest-ranking person from the LGBTQ community, to get a sense of where the various ceilings might exist. When it came time to ask who was the highest-ranking person of colour from the LGBTQ community, it was usually me – and I never ranked that high. I played this game because visibility and representation matter: when you are rarely seen, that vacuum is filled by stereotypes, and to not be seen at all is to live as a ghost in the place you call home.
After the shootings in Atlanta, people began campaigning to #StopAAPIHate. It’s well-intentioned, but will hardly move the needle until we reflect on how that hate comes about. Nothing springs to life spontaneously, independent of its environment. Let’s not forget how sex work was a key component to the shootings, and reflect on how limited the portrayals of women of Asian descent are in Western media.
In the gay community, there are many stereotypes around men of Asian descent. The ease with which the community trivializes and erases men of Asian descent is clear to anyone who has used a hookup app. We have to trace these sentiments back to Mickey Rooney’s yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the character of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. We have to reflect on the absence of Asian men from formative television shows like Will & Grace, Sex and the City and Queer as Folk.
The few signals being sent can be so subtle that they slip under the radar, but if you’re aware of them, it’s impossible to miss. For instance, Michael Patrick King’s repeated dubious Asian representation includes having, in Sex and the City, a Pakistani busboy that Samantha could reject in order to feel better about herself, and a scheming Thai housekeeper named solely to allow Carrie Bradshaw to make a Chinese food pun; his first film features a handsome man in heels as a quick, queasy punchline; and his sitcom 2 Broke Girls has an antagonist, Han Lee, who fits the stereotype of being undesirable and calculating. If you never took note of these portrayals, here’s an invitation to take a minute and ask yourself why.
Even on Canada’s Drag Race, not a single person at the judges’ table was of Asian descent. I’m thankful for Sabrina Jalees’s mini-challenge appearance, but doesn’t that say something about the composition of our cultural landscape? (Similarly, the second season of the UK version doesn’t appear to feature a contestant of Asian descent, leaving Sum Ting Wong as the only representation out of 22 queens.) Little was made of how Kyne and Priyanka broke ground, perhaps even making history on Canadian television. Perhaps paradoxically because Canada is so multicultural, Canadians don’t notice the gaps in representation: they fill in the centre of the Venn diagram even if it’s not there. It’s clear Priyanka didn’t win to compensate for a dearth of representation, yet her win in this light now feels that much sweeter.
The awareness around anti-Asian violence has brought to the surface a lot of anger, and it can be difficult to know what happens after #StopAAPIHate. I think about the advice of Tibetan lama Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, author of the wonderful In Love With The World, who suggests that within anger and hatred we find love and compassion. What does that look like? To me, it means enlarging the spotlight. It means understanding how the representation of people of Asian descent relates to other underrepresented groups. It means not just inviting Canadian creators to view the LGBTQ community as including more people of Asian descent, but all of the BIPOC community.
We need more films about Indigenous LGBTQ lives, such as the short film Aviliaq: Entwined, by Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, where two Inuit women in the Arctic try to stay together during the rampant colonialism of the 1950s. Arnaquq-Baril was featured in the moving documentary Two Hard Things, Two Soft Things, by Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa, which explored the impact of colonialism on LGBTQ acceptance in Nunavut, and the quickening change since the territory’s creation. The film’s out Inuit participants Nuka Fennell, Jesse Mike, Kyla Gordon and Kieran B. Drachenberg again likely made history within Canadian media representation.
Their stories matter because they remind us of our common humanity, that we are more alike than not. The documentary ends at a Pride celebration in 2015, where we hear part of a speech from the former Premier of Nunavut, Paul Okalik. He says, “I recall going to school and to university and feeling very alone during discussions on Aboriginal rights, and who was there with me? The gay community was there with me, supporting me all the way. I’ll gladly return that honour to you any day, every day.” Solidarity is a rising tide.
To properly support one another, we must also learn from one another. One of the most interesting threads from the documentary is the discussion around how to translate the feeling of Pride into Inuit languages, given that pride is not viewed as a desirable trait. It’s a demonstration of the drive to unite while still respecting one another’s beliefs and values.
The world becomes less scary when we learn more about the people who live in it. The original Drag Race broke ground with Gottmik, a trans man; let’s see Canada’s Drag Race break convention with a drag king. I want a spin-off centring on tech entrepreneur Lawrence Yee from HBO’s Succession. I’m hungry for a world where we get more representation from people like Nyle DiMarco, the openly queer and deaf model. Why don’t we have a screen version of the reimagined Lilies staged at Buddies in Bad Times that was led by a predominantly Indigenous and Black cast?
Doesn’t a world with those things sound more exciting, like a place we can grow and thrive? When I reflect on Rinpoche’s advice, I see where I want to be. I’m still angry about the poor representation of LGBTQ people of Asian descent, but I see now how it can be transformed. Rather than being depressed and diminished by how little there is, I’m emboldened and energized to imagine what must be.
JAIME WOO is a writer based in Toronto, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture. He’s best-known for his Lambda Literary-nominated book, Meet Grindr, dissecting how the design of the infamous app influences user behaviour.
Asian culture is underrepresented on your screens…