Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Ambiguous Morals of the Julie Chen Story

This news was, at first, so blah to me. Does the headline "Minority person felt unaccepted because of her racially distinct features" strike anybody as shocking? Seriously, this shit is everywhere from the moment you become awake to the world around you. Some groups obsess over the lightness of their skin, while others worry about "good" and "bad" hair. We can't get over our eyes. This is what happens when you're bombarded, upon birth, with nursery rhymes, fairy tales, historical accounts (many of which might as well be fairy tales), TV shows, movies, books, poems, plays, musicals, toys, cartoons, and advertisements that feature people who don't look like you.

But still, this Julie Chen story does raise the potential for a much-needed discussion.

Let me just say first that I think those who moralize about plastic surgery are at best, clueless, and at worst, knowingly hypocritical. We live in a society where looks matter, and that's never going to change. So if you condemn plastic surgery, then you also have to actually condemn superficiality and then practice what you preach. There's little worse than somebody who chastises those who seek plastic surgery, but then refuses to date anyone who is less than very attractive. What they're really saying is that they're so shallow that they not only prize beauty above all else, but only NATURAL beauty. Kind of like how diamonds are more valuable than cubic zirconia. And because only natural beauty gets passed down to your children, and beautiful children are more worthy of love. That's what it's all about, right?

Ahh, so cute! You're worthy of my care and attention.

But plastic surgery becomes a different issue when racial issues get involved because then, it's no longer just about yourself. It's about how you perceive your family, your community, your ancestral country, and even possibly your future children. It also reinforces the massive feedback loop that constantly blares out that if you're not White, then you're just somehow not good enough. Race is different from almost everything else because it's so fundamentally unalterable. If you reject someone's race, you're not only rejecting them; you're also rejecting their ancestors, their living family members, and their future children.

Whether Julie Chen was weak for giving into her network's demands is not very important. It happened a long time ago and there's nothing we can do to change it. Jackie Chan also got a similar procedure done very early in his career, and many Asian celebrities in Asia undergo plastic surgery (just like how many American celebrities do in hopes of furthering their careers). It's the sad nature of the entertainment/media industry.

Still, let's not lose sight of the fact that Julie Chen has been ultimately rewarded for her choice to acquiesce to the racist demands made on her. And it wasn't just the plastic surgery. She also married a much older White man who just happened to be an executive at the network that now employs her.  I appreciate the fact that she's speaking out about this after all this time, but the fact is that she is doing so after reaping the benefits of falling in line with the unfair status quo. As I said before though, it's pointless to judge her, and we can't all be confident that we'd have defiantly diverted our dreams in the name of racial pride had we been in her shoes.

What's actually important is the lesson we derive from all this is. Have things really changed since Julie Chen's days? We still live in a world where Asians are underrepresented in the media because studios and networks still think that "mainstream" (aka White) audiences won't be able to relate to Asian protagonists. Our "weird" eyes probably have something to do with that. And we still live in a world where associating with White people generally boosts your social status and bestows upon you that elusive cultural capital that you wouldn't be able to get in your ethnic social circles.

Because the story of 230 000 dead Asians isn't quite as tragic as the difficulties of a wealthy, blonde family

We shouldn't harshly criticize Julie Chen, but we shouldn't be as reserved on those who would seek to emulate her in this day and age, and those who see in her a well-defined path to "success". I'm sorry, but you can't have it both ways. You can't conform in almost every way possible to please a racist society, benefit hugely from doing so, then speak up way later when it's safe to do so and proclaim yourself to be a brave crusader. Not that Julie Chen has held herself up as some kind of equal justice warrior, but the media has largely made this into a personal interest story that celebrates her ultimate success despite her initial struggles, instead of a critical examination of the forces that compelled her to do the things she's done:

By the way, those forces still exist. They exist A LOT.

One of the most common types of ads you'll see in Korean subway stations, especially in wealthier areas

At least one of the good things to come out of this confession is that Julie Chen unequivocally said that she got the surgery to look less Asian. There are some who insist that getting cosmetic procedures done with the express purpose of minimizing one's distinctly ethnic features is so totally not related to wanting to look less Asian. Sometimes, they'll say that historically, Asian societies have always valued double eyelids (aka bigger eyes).

Yeah, and at one point, Asian societies also valued black teeth and long pony-tails on men, but you don't see those looks coming back anytime soon, right? I wonder why...

Ohaguro: The next big trend?

Denialism is the worst. Sure, perhaps if this surgery were an isolated incident, then these apologists' argument might have some merit. But let's look at the big picture, shall we? In addition to getting plastic surgeries that mysteriously seem to mimic the features popularly associated with White people, we Asians also tend to put European languages and culture on a pedestal. Speaking English well is shorthand for being cultured and intelligent, and if you're fluent in any other European language, then it's game over.

We Asians also think that it's perfectly normal to express preferences against hanging out with or dating people from our own racial group, almost exclusively in favour of White people. In fact, some of us think that it's so normal that we just blurt it out on national TV or print. See Gina Choe from America's Next Top Model, and Wesley Yang of New York Magazine.

And we Asians often go way too gaga over Hapa children, which sends the clear message that having some White lineage is better than just being full Asian. In Korea, even though Hapas are a very small segment of the population, there are numerous Hapa celebrities like Daniel Henney, Dennis Oh, Julien Kang, Lee Hyun Jae, the girl group Chocolat, and even toddlers like Mason Moon. They almost always play likable and sympathetic characters. Meanwhile, in America, Asians make up a sizable minority, especially in urban areas, and we're still not seen as worthy of being heroes in our own stories.

Because the story that really needed to be told in the ONE Hollywood movie about the Japanese internment is the love story between some White dude and his Asian love interest

So taking all that in the aggregate, is anyone still willing to argue that Asian eyelid surgery has nothing whatsoever to do with identity issues? Come on now.

Perhaps the lesson I want all of us get from the Julie Chen story is that we all have agency, especially these days. I'm never one to carelessly proclaim that we live in a "post-racial" (god, I hate that term) world where racism and prejudice only exist in that place where they filmed Deliverance, but things have probably gotten better since Julie Chen's days. Or if they haven't, we've certainly become much more aware and connected, enough so that we don't have to do the things that she's done. She shouldn't be treated like a sellout or a pariah, but her example should be held up as what NOT to do, as a cautionary tale.

Unfortunately, the media will probably lose sight of the many underlying racial and identity issues at hand and simply see this as a big redemptive success story because Julie Chen's overcome her early struggles to become the all-American success story she is today! In fact, the TV studio that initially made the demand apologized to her! The system works! Sniff sniff.

No, that's way too easy. The racial pressures that existed then exist now, perhaps stronger than ever. The day when an Asian person can succeed without having to de-emphasize their "troublesome" ethnic appearance or point of view is when we can start to maybe celebrate a little.

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