Some have argued that Asian-Americans might gain greater clout in the industry through demonstrating their buying power and by focusing collective attention via social media on companies that seem eager to court their community. What does your research suggest about the value of such interventions? Where does advocacy as radical critique end and where does such advocacy become simply a tool for consumer demand within an industry structured around neoliberal logics?
This is a really important point. I want to recognize the way that Asian American advertising agencies are participating in media activism by doing just this—demonstrating to media industries that Asian Americans have buying power, and that their communities should be courted. I think this work is absolutely vital in contributing to media change, for a number of reasons.
First, as you mention, we have to recognize the neoliberal logics that (unfortunately) govern media industries, and advertising agencies are in the perfect position to speak that language. Their job is to know their own audience intimately—researching their actual demographics, how they identify, their likes/dislikes, what motivates and inspires them. They have the financial support to conduct this kind of research only because corporations want to sell things, but the end result is that advertisers become very socially attuned content producers. When they produce images of Asian Americans, they’re not going to rely on tired stereotypes or guesses about what will seem authentic—they will create images and messages that push representation forward, because they are responsive to actual Asian American audiences. We can see the impact of these agencies every time we turn on the television, because if you look closely, you’ll see that there are a lot more Asian Americans featured in advertisements than other forms of media.
Of course this all seems a bit rosy—after all, commercials offer limited space for telling sophisticated stories, and are unabashedly market-driven rather than artistic. But I point this out because I think this kind of “good cop” activism (for instance, working alongside corporations) provides a necessary counterpart to the “bad cop” activism of traditional media advocacy organizations, who often speak loudest when they are criticizing and protesting. Rather than worrying about radical critique becoming totally subsumed by neoliberal logics, it’s important to recognize that varying and even contradictory activist strategies actually depend upon one another for overall success. Each activist strategy contributes a vital piece of the bigger puzzle—speaking to different audiences, accomplishing different tasks, understanding the problem in different ways. Given that the issues facing Asian Americans in the media world are complex and multifaceted, our strategies for engaging with them must be as well, even if that means taking up assimilationist or revisionist politics alongside more radical critiques.
Much has been made in recent years of the fact that the top performers on YouTube are more racially diverse than the top stars on network television. How do you explain these developments? What do you see as their significance? How do these YouTube celebrities understand their relationship with the Asian-American community?
I think there are a couple of factors that led to Asian Americans becoming so successful on YouTube. First, many Asian Americans are already at the forefront of adopting digital technologies and using them to communicate with one another. I certainly remember the excitement of developing my own profile on the early social networking site AsianAvenue.com in 1997—years before Friendster or Facebook hit the scene. YouTube itself was created by an Asian American. When you couple that with an eagerness and passion for creating stories that couldn’t be found in the mainstream, it seems clear that this platform would appeal to minorities. Now we see that many of the most famous YouTubers are Asian American, such as Kevjumba, Nigahiga, and Michelle Phan.
Unfortunately this has not necessarily meant that any Asian American can flip on his or her webcam and instantly acquire the huge fan bases. On the contrary, it is still exceedingly difficult to become a top performer on YouTube. But I think it’s important to look at the ways that Asian American YouTubers are participating in media activism from their position as powerful celebrities—and it might not be in the ways we would assume! For instance, YouTube celebrities do not often use their platform to talk about their own Asian American identities, the problems facing Asian American communities, or intersectional oppression such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. In fact, many activists have criticized Asian American YouTubers for not participating enough in social change efforts.
But I think what YouTubers are doing that is politically important is coming together to create a powerful and durable network of celebrities who can create and mobilize audiences. Rather than looking at YouTube as separate from more traditional media industries, for Asian Americans, it’s important to consider the relationship YouTubers form with mainstream media and independent media celebrities and professionals. They very frequently collaborate on transmedia projects such as blogs, group YouTube channels, live performances, video competitions, and other new forms of storytelling. In linking popular YouTubers to this wider body of performers and media professionals, they are able to mobilize audiences to follow them across these differently mediated spaces and increase the visibility of even more Asian American media. This is a pretty important political accomplishment that stems from their YouTube popularity, but expands to impact the larger goals of Asian American media activism.
You end the book by exploring some of the contradictions surrounding fan activism and the “race-bending” movement. Race-bending now seems to have been extended to include a range of fan cultural production, from fan fiction to fan art to “fan casting”, which seeks to advocate for more diverse casting and storytelling within popular media. What role do you think fan culture can play in re-imagining diversity in popular entertainment?
This question brings me back to our early days starting up the Civic Paths research group at USC, which I remember very fondly! We started from the question of how fans were playing a role in activism, and my interest in the activists protesting the racist casting of The Last Airbender provided one of our earliest case studies. It was a great example of fan activism because it showed the way that passionate engagement with a media franchise could transition into a complex and long-term activist undertaking. Fans of the original Last Airbender cartoon were frustrated when the live action movie cast white actors to play roles they had long believed to be Asian. They took it upon themselves to learn all about the racial politics of representation and casting, and then encouraged a boycott of the movie using a lot of the skills they had developed as fans—connecting with digital communities, participating in online debates, creating original artwork and videos, staying current through research and scouring the internet for information.
These specific skills translated well from fandom to activism, but I think that passionate engagement with media franchises is important in bolstering all forms of media activism, not only those surrounding a famously beloved text. All Asian American media activism starts from the foundational belief that media images matter deeply—they shape knowledge about the world, as well as how you see yourself, your community, your culture. Activism is difficult and fraught with failure, so it is only sustainable when it is built from the same kinds of deep passion and frustration that fans feel too.
As race continues to be inserted into conversations about media, I do think that passionate and engaged viewers will continue to lead the way in shaping those conversations. This can be dangerous too—we saw with misogynist fans of the Star Wars and Ghostbusters franchises that not all fannish love leads to social progress. As with fans of The Last Airbender, sometimes fandom can promote a kind of essentialism or conservatism that is antithetical to experimentation, reimagining, or transformation. But I’m an optimist—I think the more that Asian Americans get involved with media production, and the more that Asian American audiences are able to find new texts to love and connect with, we’ll eventually be able to shift our media landscape for the better.