Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

The Greatest Charlatan

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I’ve been mystified by the success of the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, a movie based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame. How does someone make a “feel good” musical about a man who preyed upon people’s basest instincts to make money?

P.T. Barnum literally rented an elderly black slave and peddled the fiction that she was George Washington’s nursemaid. He exploited people of other races, such as the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. People came to see his freak show of humans with physical characteristics outside the mainstream of society. (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017) All of this is whitewashed by rousing musical numbers and anthems, ironically, of tolerance for people’s differences (Academy-award nominated song “This Is Me”).

I guess the popularity of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we live in an America that elected Donald Trump. Like Barnum, Trump exploited people’s prejudices and fears to win votes. He peddled the fiction that he was a man of great business acumen despite numerous business failures and the exploitation of many who worked for him.

Both Barnum’s and Trump’s greatest gifts have been for self-promotion. Barnum even titled his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Similarly, Trump travels around the country like a religious tent revivalist, whipping up crowds and congratulating himself for his greatness and popularity. Trump is fond of phrases such as “we have the best …” and “like no one’s ever seen.”

Donald Trump has created his own three-ring circus to dazzle, obfuscate, and distract the media and the American people from his lies and the backroom dealings that keep coming to light through the Mueller investigation. He has managed to convince Republican legislators and conservative media pundits that the true chicanery lies elsewhere, with the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Justice Department, and American intelligence services. Unlike the offensive but entertaining smoke and mirrors of P.T. Barnum, Trump’s con artistry is bent on destroying American institutions.

Americans who so want to invest their hopes and dreams in a man like Trump are the perfect audience for a sugarcoated movie about a man who conned and exploited his way to fame and fortune, a man who was wiling to abuse both humans and animals to make a buck.

As historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, “Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017)

If anything explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that does.

Celebrities: They’re NOT Just Like Us!

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jennifer-lawrence-oscars-2018-academy-awards.jpgThe magazine US Weekly has a feature titled, “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us.” These pages feature photographs of famous people doing ordinary things, such as walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, and picking up dry cleaning. And while the photos show a decidedly less glamorous glimpse of these celebrities, it should be obvious to all of us that celebrities are not “just like us.” Otherwise, paparazzi would not find the need to snap pictures of them strolling down the street with their giant Starbucks drinks.

Last night the glitterati of Hollywood were out in full force to attend the most prestigious – and at 90, the oldest – entertainment awards ceremony in the country: the Academy Awards. As the decked out and bejeweled A-listers sauntered down the Red Carpet, onlookers in the stands cheered wildly for their favorite actors, singers and the like. Unlike the somber black that women donned for the Golden Globes as a #MeToo statement, last night’s nominees and presenters were adorned in bright reds, pinks, golds, and other happy colors.

Female and minority empowerment were definitely the theme of the evening, and at times Jimmy Kimmel got perhaps a bit too earnest about the industry’s attempts at fairness and inclusivity. Still, there were some refreshingly wonderful moments, such as Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s somewhat kooky acceptance speech and her insistence that all female nominees stand up with her to show the world how far women have come in Hollywood.

As always, the musical numbers were overwrought and showcased the usual mediocrity of the Best Song category. My sister was apoplectic that The Greatest Showman‘s “This Is Me” lost out to the lame “Remember Me” from the Disney animated movie Coco.

I liked the fact that there were no sweeps by one movie this year, and I was fairly amused by the return of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to have a do-over of the calamitous Best Picture announcement from last year. I guess even celebrities are human, as are the suits at Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Human, yes. But I can attest to the fact that they are somehow a little different from us. For years I lived in Los Angeles and saw many famous people in those nine years, including Michael Jackson, Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields, Martin Sheen, Jack Lemmon, and on and on. In L.A., it’s not cool to go crazy over a celebrity sighting or approach a famous person for his or her autograph. We act as if they are just another ordinary person, but inside we are like, “OMG, OMG, it’s George Clooney!”

Celebrities are different, not just because of their wealth or the fact that they can’t walk down the street without being recognized. They are different because their roles create larger than life personas through their music or their acting performances. That is why the big movie studios used to guard the public image of their stars with ruthless tenacity.

And that is why we turn out in huge numbers to get a glimpse of these luminaries as they walk the Red Carpet. It’s why we tune into an overlong but magical spectacle called the Oscars. And it’s why, detractors notwithstanding, the Academy Awards will endure to celebrate their 100th anniversary and beyond.