For my sophomore Asian American studies course, Asian American Women’s experience, our final project was a creative project tackling any topic we had covered in class. I decided to make an online zine titled Angry Gurlz. In my adolescence and teenage years, I spent hours pouring over magazines such as Teen Vogue and Seventeen Magazine. Both of these magazines addressed a myriad of hard-hitting topics such as the latest fashion, makeup, and fitness trends, as well as providing advice for our budding heterosexual relationships. I referenced these sacred glossy pages as if they were my very own guide on what was objectively hip, beautiful, and desirable. However, one of the largest problems with these magazines—besides their attempts to exacerbate young girls insecurities to support the capitalist machine—was and most likely still is, the complete lack of diversity and acknowledgment of race. Almost every model was white, almost every celebrity featured on the cover was white, and all the “hard hitting articles” focused on the problems of white, cis-gendered heterosexual teenagers. At my young age I didn’t realize the processes in work and I developed a substantial amount of internalized racism and low self-esteem because I was unable to achieve the white standards of beauty and privilege displayed throughout the magazines’ pages.
As a result of this, I wanted my zine to feature all Asian American women in response to the white-focused magazines in order to address issues of underrepresentation, misrepresentation, Asian American stereotypes, and identity. A very prevalent stereotype is that of the passive and quiet Asian American woman. All too often I have found myself and watched other Asian American women such as my mother stifle emotions of disappointment, anger, sadness, and hopelessness so as to blend in and not draw more attention to ourselves. And in instances where I have spoken out passionately against acts of oppression such as microagressions, I am often deemed as self-serving, radical, and disruptive. As a result of this I chose to name my zine “Angry Gurlz.” Initially I was inspired by the comic Little Angry Asian Girl by Lela Lee, and decided to use the emotion of anger as a way to fight against the previously mentioned stereotype that never allows Asian American women the space to be angry about the obstacles and oppression they face. Also I changed “girls” to “gurlz” to create a rebellious tone that deviates from the model minority stereotype faced by Asian Americans.
Continuing with the theme of rebelling against stereotypes of Asian American women as passive and quiet, I directed the women I photographed to scream and display their anger in whatever way they wanted. I felt that a screaming woman on the cover would be a very powerful image and I imagined that multiple angry Asian American women would create an even more moving image together. Screaming and expressing anger are powerful actions in this context, because Asian American women are historically and currently not expected or allowed to behave in this manner. When Japanese and Chinese women immigrated to the United States through Angel Island, they were forced to remain demure and composed when asked even the most personal and humiliating questions so as to be let into the country. If these women had outwardly demonstrated their frustration—especially when held on Angel Island for extended periods of time—they could risk being deemed crazy and unfit for immigration into the United States. Currently, the media gets away with underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asian American women. A prominent movie producer stated that Hollywood can’t get away with the same representations of African Americans and Latinos because they fear these minorities will become vocal and fight back against the studios. However, in addition to making up a smaller percentage of the population, the studios assume Asian Americans are too complacent and “assimilated” to fight for more accurate representation. Thus the imagery of angry Asian American women stands to act as a physical release and acknowledgement of the emotions that we are expected to either not possess or suppress.
I also wanted my models to be screaming because this deviates from the representation we see consistently in the media. On the very rare occasion that a fashion magazine uses ostensibly Asian models, they are usually shot in exotic locations wearing “oriental” inspired clothing in hypersexual poses lacking any sense of agency. This hypersexualization is carried over to movies, music, and television—providing Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans with a one-dimensional image of the Asian American woman. I refrain from referring to hypersexualization as being demeaning, because I believe that Asian American women should be able to lay claim to their sexuality whether it be exaggerated or not. Therefore I am not using these pictures to fight against the evils of hypersexualized Asian women, but rather provide more dimensions to representation of Asian American women.
In my zine, I also wanted to address the second case of underrepresentation that occurs within the Asian American community by deliberately using models of different Asian ethnicities, such as Indian, Iranian, and Vietnamese women. In magazines and movies, the few Asian American women featured are predominantly of East Asian descent. Because of this, many people, even Asian Americans, mistakenly confuse the age-old question of “who is Asian American?” to mean only East Asians. When the term Asian American was being introduced, Asian-Pacific Islanders were a separate group that ultimately merged with Asian Americans to have larger numbers and political power. I wanted to photograph women of different ethnicities to emphasize that the Asian American experience does not just refer to Chinese immigrants or Japanese internment, but that it encompasses many different people and drastically different experiences. However, I also wanted to emphasize that we all do experience similar obstacles and have shared experience that unites the Asian American community through a sense of solidarity.
The final component of my zine comes from personal statements made by the models. After photographing each woman, I asked what made her angry in relation to her gender and race. Using these statements, I created faux magazine article titles, “what is she wearing sections”, and used short quotes. Each of these is positioned next to the picture of the screaming model imitating the content found on the covers of magazines. I wanted to do this in order to mock the trivial and superficial subject matter that teen and fashion magazines sell to their audience. For example, a Seventeen cover will advertise things such as “101 ways to look cute this summer!” and feature a white female celebrity paired with a superficial quote: “I’m really just a down-to-earth girl.” Inside the magazines, the fashion spreads feature captions listing off the various pieces of clothing each model is wearing and further promoting capitalist-fueld consumption.
My zine takes this trend and in a tongue and cheek fashion, addressing the issues faced by Asian American women. For example, one model told me she becomes angry when people tell her “you’re pretty for an Indian girl.” Using this, I created the faux article “Look pretty for an Indian girl.” Another woman told me she hates it when people assume her ethnicity without first asking. In response to this I created the article “3 easy steps to telling if your best friend is Korean, Japanese, or Chinese (without having to ask her!). This was an attempt to use humor to bring light to the consistently overlooked problems that Asian American women face regularly. Also, this provides a space for these women to acknowledge the problems that friends, family, and the media never ask about or address. I could tell that for many of the women this was their first time expressing their grievances about the intersections of gender and race, which in itself speaks for so much.
Thank you to all the students that took time out of their busy lives to participate in this project!