Friday, September 14, 2018

Bojack's Whitewashing Is Not Over- An Honest Reflection

NOTE: Like many of my friends, I was overjoyed to learn Bojack Horseman’s fifth season was released today. I’ve binged seasons 1-4 many times over, and I’ve seen the famous “Under the Sea“ episode more than a doctor might recommend. And so I write this with mixed feelings, after having considered not writing it at all. I greatly admire the show, especially the way it realistically betrays mental illness, depression, and the loneliness of modern life. It’s witty, intelligent, heartbreaking, end yet somehow still hilarious. Its depiction of dementia is one of the best in media, and its unwillingness to compromise truth for broadness is inspiring toall screenwriters who have ever suffered the phrase “yeah, but how do we make the scene wackier?” I greatly respect the creators, and Alison Brie, whose work I follow and admire. Yet (and maybe it’s just the Asian me) I feel that to truly love a work, you must not be afraid to criticize it. So with all that said, let’s begin…

The second episode of Bojack Horseman’s fifth season (“Dog Days Are Over”) is a beautiful and breathtakingly simple story. After divorcing her husband, Diane Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese woman, takes a spontaneous trip to Hanoi. We’re made privy to elements of Diane’s childhood that will seem familiar to many diasporic children: Diane’s father being too distracted to talk about heritage, or Diane’s discovery that she looks different from her classmates. In Vietnam, Diane expects to feel at home, surrounded by people whose faces and names reflect her own. But instead, she finds herself even more of a stranger. A good friend once told me that such is the plight of the immigrant and her children- to only feel ‘at home’ on the plane ride back. Because once you arrive at your destination, you’ll find the place you knew (or never knew) no longer exists, and you’re a foreigner no matter where you go.

Diane visits tourist spots, buys a rice hat, and takes unapologetic selfies. But when she runs into a family of white American tourists, her attitude changes. They refuse to accept that she’s an American, or that she speaks English- reminding her why she came to Hanoi in the first place. Incensed, she learns basic Vietnamese, wanders off the beaten path, and spends a night wandering with an American tourist who is convinced she’s a local. When at last she reveals who she is, she is rebuked for not being authentic- for not “really” being Vietnamese.

The story’s beautiful conclusion is that of Diane staying still, while the scenery changes behind her. Whether in LA, or Asia she is adrift, lost, and alone.

Diane Nguyen is played by Alison Brie
It’s a feeling many of us live with every day. Because our skin makes us permanently a stranger in the land that we’re born in. Because our tongue makes us a stranger in the one that we come from.  Because we are not entirely anything or anywhere or anyone.

Growing up, my strong sense of belonging (freckles and buckteeth aside) was a credit to my parents. They only spoke English at home, and only watched Western TV. As a kid, I knew Tagalog was reserved for when my Dad took the last cracker without throwing out the empty box- or for when my mom accidentally backed the family car over a very tall curb and got stuck. Tagalog was for arguing. And it was irrelevant. Many of my classmates’ parents felt the same. They were in Canada now, and their kids would be Canadian.

Years later I lament never having learned Tagalog. My sisters and I watch our parents, friends, and family talking, laughing, gossiping, and crying. But we’re on the outsides of those moments. We don’t understand them.

Watching Diane try to communicate with the first woman she meets in Hanoi sent my own heart surging. Her practical frustration was obvious, but as a second-generation Vietnamese woman there was another layer to the exchange. Diane must have been thinking: I should be able to speak to her. I should be a part of this. I should belong. I felt a sense of kinship with her. And then my stomach turned; I remembered I was listening to a white woman pretending to live my experience.

Message board comment
Bojack's whitewashing controversy makes Diane's later harassment by the American tourists intensely troubling. We're essentially watching a white woman pretending to be an Asian woman who's sick of racism. Ironically, public dismissal of Diane's whitewashing is deeply steeped in the kind of racism the tourists show Diane- that being 'American' has a very narrow definition, whether in speech or appearance. However, it's the opposite- with posters insisting that its only necessary to cast a diverse actor if the character has an accent- that otherwise there's no need. 
As my grandmother’s memory fades, my own lingual shortcomings hit harder. She was recently hospitalized, and the medication she received temporarily exacerbated her dementia. I was alone with her one evening, when she called me over and began speaking Tagalog. I reminded her I didn’t understand, but she continued. She was irate, upset that I wasn’t listening to her, she wanted something, and I could give it to her, if only I knew what her words meant. I called nurse, a Filipina woman. Matter-of-factly, she told me that second languages are often forgotten with dementia- that soon only her mother tongue would remain. What I had glimpsed was a time when Lola and I will no longer speak the same language at all. When I’ll become an outsider even to her.

This is only one moment where I’ve felt the heaviness of my own contradiction- an Asian face with a Canadian mouth. It’s a moment upon hundreds of others- small ones, big ones, some as big as your head. These moments upon moments form our experience as second-generation people- shape us into who we are. Being mistaken as a foreigner by men with fetishes for submissive stereotypes, or repeatedly told that your face means you don’t belong here- these are all-too-familiar to us.

That’s why this episode of Bojack Horseman is so conflicting. As an advocate for diversity in the industry, I’ve always argued that only we can authentically tell our own stories. But this episode is so truthful, so real, and so relatable. The fact that there are no Asian writing staff on the show- that the Vietnamese-American protagonist is voiced by a white woman- leaves me hollow. Its seeming authenticity almost makes it worse, because it feels like something truthful was stolen from me. From others like me.

How many of us would be given the trust to tell a story truthfully like this? How many of us would have the ‘star power’ to be offered a role like Diane? How many of us would be given support to distribute something as wonderful as this show?  How can we ever make that number more than zero, when the most intimate moments of our lives are made fodder for the old club’s creativity?

Once again, we are outsiders. But this time in our own story.

The show’s creators have apologized for whitewashing Diane. And I do believe this episode as a concerted effort to make things right. But backlash over the choice to tell an Asian-American story with white voices, should not be a surprise. Any person of colour working on their staff could have told them it would happen- could have told them that telling this story, this way, with this white woman’s voice, would be another kick to a community already beaten down. That if they could not recast, not dwelling on Diane’s heritage would have been more welcome. But there were no warnings, because there are no Asian writers here. There are no Asian voice actors. There are only white writers, white creators, white voices, pulling the strings on marionettes that look like us, but will never be us.

Note: The creators have apologized for whitewashing the show, and have stated that Alison Brie would not take a role like this if offered it today. As an industry we have a long way to go, but there is progress being made, and people ARE coming around.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A moment of silence

Hey guys, don't normally like to be all touchy-feely. Especially online. But I'm feeling really weird tonight and I think I have to write it out somewhere.

I've been on this game making site for a long time. Since I was 12 actually. There's only ever been about 10 users on it, and we've all been there consistently through the years.

I met some good friends, and even hosted one for several weeks (then just recently stayed with him in Sweden).

A lot of us talked each other through life's problems- bullying, depression, gender identity, love. We had each other when it felt like the world rejected us; when we were sure that there was something wrong with us because no one in our waking world thought we were worth more than a punchline to a mean joke.

We never felt completely alone, because we always had each other.

But tonight I found out that one of these users died in the most senseless and random way possible. He was young, full of life- he liked pixel art, and styling his hair, video games, cosplay, and surrealist reading. He was just a normal geeky dude. He was 24. And now because of some stupid traffic accident he's gone just like that. For absolutely no reason. And his family is never going to hear his voice again. He's never going to draw again. He's never going to post some stupid selfie online so we can tease him again.

And this is hitting me like a truck. And I don't know if I'm allowed to feel this way because I never met him in person. It feels indulgent. But I felt like he was part of some little family somewhere in cyberspace, where we were all going to hear bits and pieces, and see photos of each other while we all grew up. And we'd see each other go from these kids in middle school who no one wanted to be around, to people who found themselves and built new communities-- forged careers, took risks, and fell in love. Big and small every little victory that one of us achieved felt like such a win.

And now one of us is gone. And we're never going to see him become what he was meant to be.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Uncomfortable Subject of Race in La La Land

I was hesitant to write this, because I really am in support of Hollywood making movie musicals again. Not to mention that many of my friends enjoyed this movie and I didn't want to be the Asian that rained on their parade. 

But I didn’t like La La Land. You can un-friend me now.
I’d heard good things about La La Land, but I confess it wasn’t really at the top of my list. Probably because I’m not a huge fan of romantic comedies (though there are some exceptions- Shakespeare In Love, The Princess Bride, and basically any other movie where handsome men wear very tight pants). I am a Broadway geek, however, and a music school grad, so my friends were surprised that I wasn’t scrambling to see this film. I guess something about it just screamed ‘seen it before.’ Which I suppose is the point- it’s meant to elicit nostalgia.

I understand the appeal. The Golden Age of Musicals was a simpler time, with simple stories that drew in crowds. A cowboy and a farm girl fell in love to a golden melody. A conman changed his ways to impress a librarian. A little girl from Kansas went on the acid trip of the century before telling her family that she saw them in her sleep. In this complicated world of cell phones, social media, and Dippin Dots, “retro” is in. Albeit a very specific understanding of “retro.” Because tap dancing in the moonlight is all good and fun, but when you consider that black men were lynched for drinking from white-only water fountains, it starts to look less golden. See, for me and for many others the Golden Age of Musicals is hard to romanticize.

Perhaps part of this review is coloured by context. We are at a unique point in history when you can legitimately have an argument with a Nazi while riding a hover-board. With the resurgence in popularity of white supremacy and a longing for so-called old school values, I simply found it impossible to ignore the racial politics at play in La La Land. The distraction proved too great to enjoy the film.

Before I continue, I want to state that I actually really like Emma Stone and Ryan hot Gosling. And considering that they’re mainly straight actors, they did decent jobs in the lead roles. here is where my frustration with the film lies. They did decent jobs. As a plethora of brilliant dancers fanned through an LA highway in the film’s opening number, my heart sank. None of these talented people got to star in the film. And in a story about seeking fame and fulfillment, none of these people became stars in the film. Here was a movie where a rainbow of phenomenal dancers, and singers- some of whom, I have to reason, must also be good actors- surrounded two people who bounced through basic tap choreography, and lacked all expression in their vocal performances. 

I felt like I was watching these talented people of colour move about like set pieces in a minstrel show, bringing excitement to the world of the two white protagonists; one of whom has the absurd plotline of being the only person that understands jazz, and needs to save it from extinction.

You see, in La La Land Gosling’s character, Sebastian, is a jazz prodigy, who loves the genre for its purity and complexity. In one scene, he brings Stone’s character, Mia, to watch old, black musicians perform. Nevermind the awkward juxtaposition of these performers, who probably lived through segregation, playing their hearts out for the happy white couple. Sebastian is made to be Mia’s gateway into this world of authentic (ie: black) music, and in this presumption, he’s somehow a part of that specific world. Unlike the suits and the young upstarts, he alone can introduce his girlfriend (and the audience) to “real” jazz. The jazz band itself is only a prop meant to enhance a white story- their “retro blackness” is a sign of how cool and down-to-earth Gosling’s character must be. But the band’s struggle, culture, and voice is completely erased from the narrative.

To be fair, at one point I thought there might be some redemption for this bizarrely insensitive plot-line. But then the only group of young black musicians in the film lose touch with their roots and seek only gimmicky flash (that our hero Sebastian of course hates and eventually rises above).

At the other end of this frustrating story, Emma Stone plays Mia, an actress who is struggling to get by. She faces rejection after rejection, before finally proving her worth to a casting director and rocketing to stardom. This is after she writes her own one-woman show, and performs it out of pocket. Her story is structured around the Protestant work ethic which permeates American philosophy- plainly, what you give is what you get. The suggestion here is that, anyone who is talented enough, and willing to put in the work, will be discovered and all their dreams will come true. But Mia is surrounded by many other actors and actresses- many of whom are ethnic, many of whom work hard, and many of whom are clearly talented. Yet none of them seem to achieve stardom. In a time when Hollywood is really under the lens for whitewashing and racebending, when it’s being criticized for its lack of diversity, it seems almost too meta. These actresses only serve as background fodder for Mia.  Just like their characters, the actresses hit a ceiling in the film itself.
Thoroughly Modern Millie
There is an infuriating unawareness in La La Land throughout. An earnest desire to see “diversity” but only insofar as it paints a backdrop for the “real” heroes. Maybe this is part of the nostalgia- two familiar girl/guy next door types who fall in love beneath the moonlight- but in a modern twist they are surrounded by a diverse ensemble. Barf.  

It's nothing new. Movie musicals certainly have a history of racial exclusion. The Golden Age featured blatantly racist films like Thoroughly Modern Millie (which was thankfully updated and modernized for the stage). And then there were the countless films that committed the crime of invisibility. Remember, this is a genre that took its roots from jazz music and tap, yet rarely featured black protagonists. Not to mention performers of other races.

Like all epochs, though, it's not so cut and dry. As with any other Hollywood production, movie musicals were bound by agreements like the Hays Code, and influenced by public ideology at the time. Despite their flaws, musical theatre, and musical movies, do actually have a long history of subversion. Showboat dealt with racism, poverty, and sexism. My Fair Lady with classism and female autonomy. Even the racist Thoroughly Modern Millie challenged ideas of gender norms, and women’s rights. In musical movies, the love story was often the starring narrative, but the setting was the message. This is arguably because music has the incredible power to move us, and allows for a freedom of storytelling you don’t see in straight drama. Because of its relatively “safe” reputation, it’s able to make a point without being too threatening to audiences. IMHO subversion is in fact a key element to the genre

Which brings us back to La La Land.

What does La La Land do except glorify a bygone era and transplant it into the 21st century, in a weird fulfillment of every alt-right wet dream. It tells a love story. One we’ve seen before, with archetypes we’ve seen before, in a setting we’ve seen before. And it does nothing to challenge our view of society, in a time when we really need to be questioning ourselves.

This is a shame, because there was a chance for this film to be very modern. How much more interesting would this film have been with a black male lead? What if Emma Stone’s character were a woman of colour? How would that change her journey to stardom? How much more of a disadvantage would she be at at the start of the film?

As it is, racial representations in the film were simply too distracting for me, especially considering political events as of late (which, to be fair to the filmmakers, happened after the release of the film).  I found myself rolling my eyes every time people of colour performed for the leads. I felt like I was watching racial insensitivity in motion, where two people are inspired by “cool ethnic culture,” and then rocket to stardom.

Was La La Land a solid movie? Objectively well-structured, well-shot, and well-acted? Yes. Am I glad it was made? Yes. Because I hope it will inspire studios to take more risks on musicals. And was I glad I saw it? Yes. Because it reminded me of how much further we have to go.

So yes, La La Land is a good film, and I don’t blame anyone who finds it enjoyable. But no, I didn’t like it. Even though it stars Ryan hot Gosling.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A note on tonight’s episode of Second Jen:

I can’t tell you how much it means to talk about women’s sexual health in an open way. This episode was a labour of love (no pun intended); I’m so glad that we made it, and that our network supported us so unconditionally.

It can be difficult, especially in immigrant families, to talk about subjects like reproductive health, medication, and even illness. But it’s so integral that young people communicate their needs, worries, and healthcare concerns; and that they are listened to without judgment.

A regular PAP test and physical is one of the most important things young women can do to prevent issues with future reproductive health, STIs, and cancer (among other things). Let’s remove the stigma around sexual health, and ensure a healthier future.

For more info on PAP tests, cervical, ovarian, and breast cancer, please visit the Canadian Cancer Society’s website at

-Amanda Joy

Monday, October 31, 2016

How Going For Walks Totally Cured My Depression

Lately I've been mega depressed; like, Harry Potter Book 5 depressed. But now thanks to this image macro I saw on Facebook, I learned that the cure for my crushing mental illness was not the pill that took many years to admit I needed, but mother nature!
The viral image that solved all my problems
Who knew all along that the cure for Depression was going for walks! I mean, no one has ever told me, or any other depressed person to go for a walk before. Of course I immediately threw out the meds my doctor had prescribed to stop me from spending entire days sprawled on the kitchen floor. Sure it was medically inadvisable, and sure these drugs are a godsend to me and others who suffer from similar symptoms. But I've learned the truth- SUNSHINE is the only selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor one needs!
I know what you're thinking: I could continue taking my medication while also treating my depression with exercise, healthy foods, and fresh air, as most doctors recommend. But as this image macro clearly states,  pills are "shit" and my doctor's an uncaring hack paid-off by big pharma. ILLUMINATI CONFIRMED

Back to my walk. Five out of five stars as far as walks go. I had barely made it four feet out the door when the cool spring air infiltrated the dysfunctional serotonin neurotransmitters in my brain, ensuring that they'd start doing their job instead of half-assing it in the fulfillment of a cruel genetic defect. 
Worried that this euphoria might not last, I made sure to eat an avocado for lunch. Avocados are delicious. And they cure anxiety.*

As a bonus, while that Vitamin B worked to stop my defective nervous system from over-producing adrenaline, I instantly lost five pounds from all the yummy avocado fats! After taking several pictures of my lunch, I decided to really zap my mental illness with the ultimate cure: yoga in a picturesque location. Now I know this may seem like overkill, because I'm already curing my genetically inherited condition with trees, and things that grow on trees, but the internet has taught me that yoga in picturesque locations cures every mental illness and cancer.

When I came home from my walk, I couldn't help but laugh at the hamster wheel I was in before-- taking medication every day to make sure one of my major organs worked properly? I mean who does that? Except diabetics, and hemophiliacs, but maybe they should just start going for walks too. 

So anyone out there who's suffering from Depression be warned: doctors will try to prescribe things to you. But unlike every other drug on the market, these drugs have side-effects and chemicals. And not the chemicals that are already in your body, or that literally make up the entire universe and everything in it. Scary chemicals!
Too long have we lived in the dark, believing only a minority could fully manage their mental illnesses with lifestyle changes... believing that only a slightly larger group could manage their symptoms with expensive and largely inaccessible therapy sessions. Fuck medication, because THAT IMAGE ON YOUR FRIEND'S FACEBOOK THAT MAKES YOU FEEL LIKE SHIT HAS ACTUALLY SOLVED THE MENTAL ILLNESS EPIDEMIC.
And any sheeple who disagree should look up a little something called "mindfulness."
*unless it's 2014 in which case Kale cures anxiety.
Look, I don't normally write about things happening in my social circle. Because it's petty, and there are more interesting things to talk about in the world than how Sandra's "TOTALLY FEELING #ALLDAYBREAKFAST RIGHT NOW! #YOLO..."*
*though I confess all day breakfast is one of my favourite topics.
But there is a post going around the community. And by "the" community I mean the entertainment industry, because I'm a narcissistic artist and to me this is the only thing "the community" can mean. This message, while I'm sure well-intentioned, is the sort of harmful statement that discourages  people from receiving help for their mental illnesses. And as many of us know, mental illness is a life-threatening, serious epidemic that is especially prevalent in our community.

So look, I don't care if the guy who added me on Facebook is pissed off because I don't think spaghetti squash cures schizophrenia. That's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because it could literally save someone's life.

Don't get me wrong, meditation, CBT, mindfulness, etc. can help manage depression. But these things can't "cure" depression. Except in certain cases (some traumatic depression, etc.) depression is a lifelong condition. There is no "cure." Only treatment and management. For a lucky few, symptoms can be managed without medication, but for many others, they cannot.

The big problem with this viral image is that it reinforces the stigma surrounding mental illness- that it's not real, that medication is somehow the lazy/wrong way out, that Depression is the same thing as sadnesss. Many sufferers of mental illness feel too guilty, or too ashamed to seek help, because of messages like this. Why is this important?

Depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide, with approximately 60% suffering from this condition. [source] Along with suicide, there are lifelong complications associated with mental illness: constant hopelessness, extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and increased rates of cancer and heart disease (to name a few). Every day someone doesn't receive treatment is another day they are forced to suffer in silence.
I could go on and on about the science of Depression and Anxiety, but there are so many peer-reviewed sources available- sources that are more reputable than my blog. So for the sake of this essay I'll just say: People, it's not that hard-- mental illness has physiological roots that emerge as psychological symptoms. Just because obsessive compulsive disorder doesn't make you break out in itchy welts, doesn't mean it's not a disease that needs understanding, appropriate treatment, and -yes- self-management. You wouldn't tell a diabetic not to take their insulin and just start speed-walking. Because it's fucking dangerous. So don't go around telling mentally ill people not to take their medication. You don't know what they're going through, and you don't know how they might interpret what you're saying. They may...
  • Be newly receiving treatment for a serious mental illness, but still be in denial of their condition.
  • Feel guilty about their disease, and think seeking medical help makes them "weak."
  • Doubt that mental illness is real and can be treated.
  • Be suicidal and already self-loathing. 
When you say "medication is shit" what you may mean is that you think "nature is great." But what someone with depression reads and interprets is that nature would cure them if they weren't so useless. You may mean "I think drugs are over-prescribed" but what someone suffering from a mental illness reads is "If I were any good I could manage my own symptoms without medical help."  You may mean "I think walks are great for helping with sadness." But the depressed person reads "My disease isn't real."
CAMH recommends that we use the "STOP" method when evaluating how we speak about mental illness. Because regardless of what we mean, our words can often have more power than we know. It can even be the difference between life and death. 
We reinforce stigma around mental illness when what we say:
  • Stereotypes people with mental health conditions (that is, assumes they are all alike rather than individuals)?
  • Trivializes or belittles people with mental health conditions and/or the condition itself?
  • Offends people with mental health conditions by insulting them?
  • Patronizes people with mental health conditions by treating them as if they were not as good as other people? [source]
So what should you say?
This pie chart from Buzzfeed gets it across pretty well: