Image description: Legs crossed on a living room table with a background of a TV with Netflix on it, a guitar on the side, and plants around the room.
Debate about who makes art and who features in it is a constant conversation in my life. It is hard to explain why seeing someone like you on screen, in my headphones, or in a painting is such a comfortable feeling. In art, it’s human stories that matter the most, whether it be through the script of a romantic-comedy or the lyrics to a coming-of-age song, but learning the lessons of these stories is hard when it seems like it’s never you living them out. The usual examples of powerful leaders, heroic women, and sought after love interests are the most pertinent. Replicative and imitative action is natural to humans, and it can be hard to navigate your own stories when you have little to base them on.
It may seem a trivial fact that the woman on-screen does not have brown skin, but this objective fact changes the subjectivity of the story for me. Part of this is definitely caused by the (toxic) way I interact with film, social media, and music, but in the world we live in, it’s stranger to not reflect art in your life than it is to adopt every inch of the film you watched last night into your own existence.
Replicative and imitative action is natural to humans, and it can be hard to navigate your own stories when you have little to base them on.
Lack of representation affects different people differently, and the Asian experience in Western culture is a hard one to understand. Sometimes the Asian friend is merely the comedic sidekick, but sometimes they are the most intelligent person on screen. There seems to be little in between, and little that represents the reality of Asian diaspora.
Moments like finding out Charli XCX is part Gujarati or Rina Sawayama produced the most electrifying album of 2020 with heavy reference to her Japanese heritage has made me realise my own South Asian heritage can legitimately be part of my identity and the things I put out into the world. This has been a hard realisation, and it always felt like I had to separate the two, coveting external praise at the cost of denying myself the chance to feel at home in my own skin. It doesn’t help that Asian identities in general are often boxed into non-creative roles, ones that reflect this rigor and practicality that apparently resides in any Asian person, purely by virtue of their Asianness.
Seeing people who mirror my own identity succeeding in industries traditionally dominated by white people is encouraging- sort of like seeing your own older sister do well for themselves. In a strange and bittersweet way, their success often becomes your own when you face so many obstacles to getting there yourself.
The problem with a lack of representation in the media is that you habitually start betting against yourself.
The problem with a lack of representation in the media is that you habitually start betting against yourself. In any situation, academic, romantic, or professional, self-doubt creeps in because logically, if you have never seen something before, it is hard to believe it will come to fruition in front of your own eyes.
External problems of ‘people like me never make it in the industry and so my application will be given nothing more than a skim’ are addressed often in discussions about representation. The internal matters as much. Thoughts like “it’s hard enough for a woman of colour to get into this industry, why would it ever be me?” plagues the start of anything. Writing this is hard because dressing it up in beautifully cloying language seems so antithetical to feeling like confidence wasn’t made for you. Feeling fenced in with the only viable options available limited and resembling nothing you want is a weight exacerbated by the usual self-doubt anyone feels, regardless of skin colour. It’s one thing to have the world seemingly against you, but when you internalise that, it’s a different type of rejection. When vouching for yourself becomes a long shot, everything becomes a long shot with it.
I’m going to attempt to end this piece on a hopeful note. The optimism I sometimes force on myself in these situations is that finding these instances of representation is a moment of realisation. Listening to a track from a woman of colour and knowing the lyrics were written from a point of view similar to mine, or hearing about a woman of colour being appointed a high-status position in the university (looking at you Baroness Amos, the first black master of any Oxford college, and the current master of my home Univ) always bring a sense of movement. A movement that encourages me to ‘break the glass ceiling’ and other such cliche idioms. Even though much of my life has been dominated by white stories, it is becoming a lot easier to envision my own story.