“Representation is important.” You hear this message all the time, just like you do with “Climate change is real” and “gender is fluid”. All of which are equally true, but it sometimes feels like they’ve lost their gravitas, merely being used as buzzwords to keep the message in the zeitgeist.
Thankfully, there are initiatives that come around that remind you that these aren’t just slogans sparking political debate – they’re real issues that greatly effect society now and for future generations to come. In this particular case, one such initiative is the #FirstTimeISawMe campaign, which encourages people to reveal which character first represented them in the media.
The hashtag is a collaboration between Netflix and all-around cool organization Black Girl Nerds. They released this video earlier this month, and hundreds of people took to Twitter to share their own firsts.
Answers ranged from older TV characters:
To those that resonate with a lot of millennials:
To the contemporary:
For a lot of people, coming up with an answer to this is viral hashtag is probably easy. Especially if you’re white. And a male. In which case, you probably haven’t thought beyond your answer to a simple question. But when I decided I should chime in too, I realized (or just became completely mindful of) the fact that there hasn’t truly been one character that I felt fully represented me as a female Filipino-American. I was having a difficult time coming up with an honest answer.
I’ve touched on this before in my Fresh Off The Boat post (why aren’t you watching it yet), but the first time I remember seeing an *Asian woman* on TV was in 1994, when Margaret Cho starred in All-American Girl, a short-lived sitcom that was cancelled after one season.
Fun fact: There was a plot line in Fresh Off the Boat in which Emery and Evan want to become actors, but their reluctant mom Jessica (played by the brilliant Constance Wu) says, “You’re not going to become actors. You think they’re going to put two Chinese boys on TV? Maybe if there’s a nerdy friend or a magical thing where someone wanders into a Chinatown, but no.”
Cut to the end credits when they’re watching an episode of All-American Girl, and Emery quips at his mom, “So, no Asians on TV?”
The show centered on U.S.-born Margaret (Cho) who lives with her Korean-American family in San Francisco. Her much more Westernized POV on life is in stark contrast to the traditional, Eastern values her family has, and of course, comedy ensues. Sure, I too am a first-generation child who has arguably taken up American culture more-so than my parents, but I’m not Korean.
This problem kept coming up anytime I’d try to see myself in any of my favorite TV or movie characters. I speak to my parents in English when they talk to me in Tagalog like Jane does with Abuela in Jane the Virgin, but I’m not Venezuelan. I enjoy hip-hop and grew up obsessing over music like Eddie on Fresh Off the Boat, but I’m not a Taiwanese male. I so hardcore related to Dev’s dynamic with his parents in Master of None, but I’m not an Indian male wannabe actor. If you took Lane Kim’s upbringing in a religious household (and tbh, Lorelai’s hot/cold relationship with her parents and knack for pop culture), you’d be pretty close to representing me – but I continue to not be Korean.
In fact, the only example I could come up with of even seeing Filipinos on TV at all is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – and that show just ended its second season. Overall, the show is superb and speaks to my interests of romance, comedy, tragedy, and musical theater, but moreover, for the first time, I saw a Filipino as a main character. And one that didn’t just ignore the fact that he’s Filipino. Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) isn’t even a goofy sidekick. He’s the hot guy who is the one with the “crazy ex-girlfriend”. His name is literally in every episode title.
I already loved the show as soon as I finished the pilot, but what really turned the tide for me was the 6th episode titled “My First Thanksgiving with Josh”, written by comedy writer/actor and Filipino-American, Rene Gube (he also plays Father Brah). In this ep, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) manages to get herself invited to Josh’s family Thanksgiving, despite the fact he’s still engaged to Valencia, who the Chans do not like that much. Because of this, Rebecca wants to impress his family as much as she can, which is why she teaches herself some basic Tagolog while cooking a traditional Filipino dish called Dinuguan (a stew with pork blood that I even refuse to eat).
Not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think I ever expected to see a white actress learning Tagalog while making a Filipino dish on network TV. That is not a thing I ever expected would happen. But then the episode continues, and we meet the rest of his family including his dad, mom (played by Amy Hill, who was also the grandma on All-American Girl), and sisters Jayma and Jastenity (who have perfectly ridiculous Filipino names). Not to mention there’s an entire ROOM full of Filipinos, or Asians that act like they’re Filipino at least, eating a mix of American and Filipino food on Thanksgiving, just like I did growing up.
“I saved you the pork adobo and turkey skin, anak (child/something my parents and aunts and older relatives still call me to this day)” Mama Chan to Josh
Plus there’s the other line that Mrs. Chan says to Rebecca in yet another slight to Valencia, by saying, “We are so thankful God sent you to us”, a precursor for when Mrs. Chan later invites Rebecca to mass that same night. This isn’t a thing that I personally did with my family, but I will say that I grew up going to Filipino Bible Study, was super active in my Protestant church, and went to Catholic school my entire life. So yeah, my parents love the Lord and I understand the Chan’s church on Thanksgiving tradition.
Later in the season, we’re introduced to Josh’s aunt, played by Queen of the Philippines Lea Salonga, and we get to see even more of the Filipino culture when Josh’s sister Jayma gets married. The men, including Jayma’s Jewish husband, all wear traditional shirts called Barong Tagalog, which are lightweight and embroidered and worn at formal gatherings. Again, never in my life have I seen so many barongs on American TV. I never could have imagined this.
So all this to say, that’s what I tweeted. I said I’m still waiting for the one person in media that I can relate to wholeheartedly, but the Chans are the closest thing I got. And lo and behold, they responded:
Vinny also tweeted back and I unexpectedly started a Twitter convo between the Chan family. #FangirlGoals, amirite?
But through my own delve into how Filipinos/Asians/Females are represented in the media and seeing all the responses from other POCs on Twitter, it’s just a reminder that we still have so far to go. There are so many more stories to be told, especially in America, where not only are we a melting pot, but minorities are lit’rally taking over the country. According to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report, by 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.” By 2060, the minority population is expected to rise to 56%, while the foreign-born population will reach 19% (that stat was 13% in 2014). Plus, the population of bi-racial, or “two or more races” is projected to be the fastest-growing in the next four decades.
If this is the direction the U.S. is heading, doesn’t it just make sense for the media we consume to reflect the diverse makeup of this country? The more we see POCs in the media, the less likely we as a nation are to be culturally insensitive and racist. Just look at the LGBTQ community. Over the past two decades, the mere presence of characters like Willow and Ellen and Will Truman and Jack McFarland, Cam and Mitchell, have become part of pop culture history and “normalized gays” for those in the South or midwest or any area in the U.S. where being gay is considered against God’s will.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s the accurate portrayals of this community that have helped society embrace the real life gays and lesbians and transgendered folks we meet at work or in the grocery store. The same goes for all the POCs listed above – Brandy proved that she, too, could be a Disney princess in Cinderella (and get the handsome Filipino prince), America Ferrera inspired Latinas in both Gotta Kick It Up! and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as a smart, confident young lady, and Regina King showed in American Crime that wearing a hijab might just be a superpower to become a badass who never gives up on seeking justice. These characters don’t fall into negative stereotypes that have long been shown in film and TV, which can subsequently give viewers a false sense of these minority groups. If you’re a white woman living in a small town in Alabama where the population is 95% white and all you see are black people on TV who are gangsters and drug dealers, I’m going to assume there’s at least a small part of you (if not whole) that believes this stereotype to be true of all black folks. Whether you realize it or not, the negative portrayal of minorities leads to invisible (and possibly outright) racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., which is why we need to keep having conversations like #FirstTimeISawMe.
Not only do we get to see others’ personal experiences with representation in media, but it’s a reminder that when you forget about skin color for just one moment, these are people just like the people in your bubble, who are going through similar trials and tribulations. That’s not to say we should be completely colorblind, but rather encourage the acceptance and appreciation of all cultures, no matter how different they are from our own.
I’m grateful that I live in a time where I can see Filipinos (and minorities as a whole) being portrayed in an accurate light on screen, and it gives me positive reinforcement that we aren’t an afterthought. That we, too, have a place in this society, despite what the horrible actions and hate crimes of other Americans may say. It provides an intangible sense of belonging that no travel ban or affirmative action law can change. It gives us the ability to open up the dialogue and insist that there is always room for representation of all people on TV and film. Despite knowing all this, we can always do better. We have to do better. And we have the power to do so. If you’re a storyteller, tell your unique story to the masses. Pen a script. Direct a movie. Write a blog post. Yeah, Representation Is Important. And who better to represent us than, well, us?