By Sheilla Njoto
With the ubiquitous freshly-released movies like Crazy Rich Asians and the Netflix Original, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it seems like the so-called ‘Asian pride’ reemerges in an instant. But not only that—it appears to be a trend to covet being represented in the Hollywood.
A couple of weeks ago, I was representing my country, Indonesia, at an International Relations conference, particularly in the track Art, Media and Culture. I came across a conversation in which we discussed this particular question: “Is it time for Asian superhero?” I have found my answer. But I’m getting ahead of myself—I’ll get to that.
There were other premises on which this question lies. It seemed to be a mental puzzle the first time I heard it. This question did not lead me straight to an answer. In fact, it raised a couple of more other questions.
The subconscious need for us, Asians, to be represented in Hollywood is in itself a fruit of eurocentrism. Yes, we want our image to be represented in the Hollywood, but Hollywood itself—or the context of superhero movies itself is rather a Western culture. So my question is, why do we want to be fit into the Western culture in the first place? Why do we want Asian culture to be boxed into Hollywood culture?
I am not at all against Hollywood. After all, there is a lot of historical facts supporting the massive contribution of Western culture to social development. But that’s not my point.
There is a thousand or a million of Asian movies that have been successful in, not only representing the Asian face, but also representing the Asian culture. I am sure that most of us who are reading this might have heard of Ip Man (it went on to Ip Man 3 and still is going)—a story of a local Wing Chun expert, who, not only was a true superhero, but he also defeated a snobby English boxer who was dishonouring China and putting Chinese people in the lowest pit during the second movie. What more of a superhero do we need?
Let’s take some other examples. Power Rangers, Ultraman, and all those superheroes represented in manga. These are the superheroes that represent the power of community and not at all emphasising on individualism as that of influence by the West. Why don’t we take these into account? Is it only because these movies are produced by Asian film productions?
“Yeah, but these movies aren’t really trending.” they said. Well, I say, who are the trendsetters? Aren’t you guys the trendsetters? Not until we start being proud of our local cultures can we be fully represented. If we don’t even take pride of our own culture, we can’t demand others to.
This reminds me that there has been a ton of critically-acclaimed Asian movies that had gone internationally recognised, like The Raid (2011), Train to Busan (2016), Forgotten (2017). There is also a number of Hollywood movies adopted from anime cultures that have gone popular, such as Dragon Ball: Evolution (2009), Tekken (2009), or Godzilla (2014). Even better—we have also witnessed successful Hollywood movies that are mainly starred by Asians--Rush Hour (1998), The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), or Charlie’s Angels (2000). I have not mentioned the legendary Hollywood movies that portray Asian face and cultures--Life of Pi (2012), Lion (2016) or Slumdog Millionaire (2008). These movies did not only go viral because of the Asian representatives but because they are extremely amazing movies. And they have been there for a long time. So why now? Why did we only start now when Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before came out?
We live in the generation of what I call as the era of ‘feeling victimised’. Everyone thinks that they’re victims but they don’t reflect on how much they contribute in this victimisation. Everyone wants to feel special by saying that “I am a minority.” Well, guess what? Everyone is victim in their own story. But what do you do with it? Do you just stand there and complain about it or feeling sorry for yourself? Everyone wants to a change for themselves or an impact in this world but no one wants to change or shift their perspective to look at the other side of the story.
This leads to another topic, which is the misrepresentation of Asians in Western movies.
“Why are all Asians depicted as smart and academically ambitious? Not all Asians are like that!”, some people say. Well, I agree. Not every Asian is smart or academically ambitious. But when we only perceive an issue from our perspective, we most of the time get some sort of a ‘cultural amnesia’. We seemingly become oblivious towards the history and reality.
In some parts of the world where Asians are considered as minority (which, by population, I don’t think we are anymore at this point), it is true that most of the Asian students I have met are intelligent beyond standards and most of them are ambitious! Most of them also love story-telling to each other about how strict their parents are about their career choices and academic grades.
A friend of mine, in a slightly humourous manner, once expressed a thought that I shared the same experience in, “there are only four career options for us as an Asian: an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or a disgrace of the family.” But anyway, I might have gone off-topic.
Again, I cannot stress this enough, I’m not saying that all of us share the same bring-ups but it is a fact that the majority of them that I have met do. Equivalent to this, it is also a fact that most of the Caucasian people I have befriended and encountered love drinking. Especially those I encounter in Bali (where, for some reasons, I always end up meeting more Caucasians there than here in Melbourne), almost every Caucasian you see there drinks a whole heap of beer! So it is a reality. It doesn’t mean that all Caucasians are obsessed about drinking. As a matter of fact, I do have some Caucasian friends who don’t. But it is understandable to see this characteristic of Caucasian in Asian movies too!
Let me fast forward to the Crazy Rich topic!
I am not at all saying that I am not proud of Crazy Rich Asians. As a matter of fact, I am. I am proud of the diversity that is starting to be promoted extensively. But I am also proud of thousands of successful original Asian movies like Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (2002), that perfectly portrays an innocent Indonesian high school love drama back in the 2000s. I am proud of ridiculously bloodcurdling Thai horror movies, like Shutter (2004), that has successfully represented the mystical culture in most Asian countries, especially the rural areas. In fact, this movie had been remade in Hollywood but it went down the drain.
So… going back to that question: is it time for Asian superhero? I don’t think it’s necessary to add on my direct answer on top of all these. I will leave it open-ended after all these paragraphs of verbose waffles!
By Sheilla Njoto
How many of you have heard of people saying...
“Women are stronger than you think.”
“Don’t be afraid to stand up just because you’re a woman.”
“Women have equal rights.”?
I agree. They are crucial; but I am not here today to tell you about all those again. I know we all have heard of them lots of times especially since a couple of years ago.
I was raised in a traditional German/Chinese/Indonesian family. My mother comes from a German/Chinese background and my father comes from an Indonesian/Chinese background. Being the youngest and the only girl among my siblings, I was taught in a certain way with certain etiquette in order for me to grow up in a safe and a protected environment to be a ‘well-behaved’ and ‘morally decent’ lady.
I was trained to cook for my family. I was taught to serve the family because we believed it was part of women’s role. My room was expected to be clean all the time and my handwriting was assumed to be very neat. I remember once when my parents would tell me off because I used to draw a lot on my notebooks and there was a lot of scribbles. I was a girl and they thought neat notebooks were my thing.
As I grew up, there was a time when I felt left out because my two brothers used to play video games and they didn’t want to include me. My brothers wouldn’t let me play because they thought I must have sucked at it because I was a girl. And I remember when they were still at school, I tried so hard to win Counter Strike. I wasn’t a huge fan.
I kept on practicing to prove a point to my brothers that I was, indeed, able. And I was right. The next night, I got the first rank among my brothers and all the AIs. I was so proud and content. And I never let them forget until today.
It was surprising for my father when he knew how huge my ambition was since I was little. I have always been a strong-willed, determined woman and sometimes it scared my parents.
“What if you never marry because you are being too opinionated and it intimidates your partner?”
It didn’t make sense for me because I didn’t understand how such amazing ambition, which, I was very proud I had, could affect me negatively. Wasn’t that a good thing to have determination and motivation for the future? To push my talents and to constantly search for new challenges in life? Wasn’t it a good thing to be able to lead? To inspire people, to speak up and to be a good leader?
I became tired of hearing all those negative comments about my so-called ‘masculinity’. This distinct characteristic in me that became one of the biggest drives for me to go out there and bring a change was seen merely as a ‘rebellious’ act towards norms in my own culture. I started questioning myself over and over again.
And just like any other most women you may know in your life, I envied the opportunities that men could have but women just didn’t.
This thought I kept on carrying in my mind along with a wishful thinking that someday, when I finally leave a communal society like my cultural bring-ups, I could be free from normative expectations—until I started living in Melbourne in 2015.
I, then, realised that I was wrong. I started to think that I could never escape a set of expectations put unto me about what a woman should be. No. It wasn’t that women have to cook or clean. It was a total opposite. I just realised that I have entered a new world where, having built by the same tradition in the past with all the new cultures revolving around it, women are valued more when they can only hear their own voices, become very individualistic, fiercely reject requests of serving men, and more. I was often put down for being ‘too weak’ as a woman because I seemed to confirm to some traditions and cultural values. I was often put down because I enjoy doing things that women were ‘assumed’ to do.
Yes, I cook for my brothers—not because I’m pushed to but because I enjoy looking at their smiles when they devour my cooking. Yes, I care about how I look—not because I care about looking pretty in photos but because I want to be respectful towards whoever I meet that day. Yes, I care about how revealing my dress is—not because I don’t agree with women’s rights to choose but because I care about what I might be silently expressing through my decisions in life. Yes, despite my aspiration in bringing social change to the society, I wish to be a full-time mother someday in my life because I feel called to be a loving mother and wife.
I came to realise that cultures take a huge part in the definition of being a so-called ‘good’ woman. I would say that there is no better or worse definition for it. I like to be able to appreciate both cultures. And whether we like it or not, cultures, along with what we are exposed to and the way we were brought up, take part in shaping ourselves and our identity. I am more than grateful to have been exposed to all these cultures.
Thinking that there is only one definition of being a ‘true’ woman only means we’re being exclusive to certain cultures. Thinking that jobs with most women are second-class jobs only means we’re being exclusive to certain women.
From all these experiences, I gained a thought that having a freedom to speak as a woman is not merely the freedom to have equal opportunities as men, but also the freedom to be the best of our authentic self without being put down. That’s when we truly have the freedom to speak and to choose.
Be the best leader you can if you are a leader.
Be the best motivator if you are a motivator.
Be the best housewife is you are a housewife.
Do all those not only to prove a point. Do all those because you know it’s the best you can do. Do all those because you’re confident about yourself and you know what you’re capable of.
I have met a woman who has decided to become celibate because she had a mission in Africa to help them with their education and famine. She believed that having romantic relationships would only hurt more people at the end of the day. At the same time, I also know a very wonderful woman who turned down a prestigious architectural role and decided that she would be able to serve her husband and her whole family better if she became a stay-home mother. It was, indeed, her decision. And never in my life have I known a time that her husband disrespected her. He knew what she was capable of. He knew what she was worth. He knew how smart she was and there was not a decision he made without neglecting her bright opinions—and he let everyone know about it.
These women are a huge inspiration and these are the women to look up to! The women that are happy with who they are. The women that can find joy in things that they believe in. They prove to be great people.
And the question becomes: why, then, the more people know about this confidence in these women, they gain respect towards their decisions?
Instead of trying to define what it means to me to be a ‘good’ woman, I chose to push myself towards being a ‘good’ person instead—and through this, I let people decide what I am as a woman. I decide to be authentic about who I am without forgetting to question back what I am politically-but-mutely saying by doing a particular thing. Let’s try out best not to define ourselves by what people say about us but at the same time let’s try our best not to disrespect people’s opinions or even their presence just because we only think about what we think.
I believe that not caring about what people think about us entirely is not the key to being confident as a woman. I believe that the key to being confident as a woman is to be the best person you can be—not because you are proving a point, but because you realise it is a good thing. Think of people’s perspectives as a medium to reflect.
So why do we keep on feeling sorry for ourselves because we are women? Why do we keep on victimising ourselves? Why do we keep on playing victims?
If we want to be respected as women, then we, first, respect them. If we want to be listened, then, first, engage with them. If we want to be included, then include ourselves. If we want to be included as women, don’t exclude men in return. If we don’t want to be victims, don’t victimise ourselves. If we are smart, be smart. If we are strong, be strong.
After all, it is not winning Counter Strike that made my brothers realise how strong I was as a woman. It was my great ambition and determination that did. My willingness to face new challenges and to push myself out of comfort zone was what first made my dad realised that I could be stronger than both my brothers—being my authentic self and the best person I can be. It was never about me winning Counter Strike.
We come from different perspectives. We have different pairs of shoes.