October 21st 2022
(Mis)representation and Keeping Sense of the Self
When Orientalist representations seep through the porous boundaries of ourselves, the demand for media representation is a demand for an authentic self.
Written by Bri Sicam
Edited by Katie Barnett & Karen Chu
There once lived a girl surrounded by mirrors.

Not the kind that you could buy in a shop and hang up on the wall. She had one of those in the bathroom and it showed nothing new. No, she saw special mirrors, ones that other people couldn’t. She saw them in other people - in their faces, in their bodies. She saw images of herself in every person, every thing, each slightly resembling the form it had subsumed.

She began to love seeing her image. She began to hate it, too.
Books would shine out at her, pages of fragmented, undiscovered selves. Films had reflections that moved and spoke. Obsessed with self-recognition, she began to read and watch all she could.
Soon she found that by looking at these mirrors, she could, momentarily, be someone else. She could open a book and be a princess, a priestess, a knight – and herself when she closed it again. Lonely and hungry for knowledge, she clung onto these rituals. But she wanted more than fairy stories; she began to read more, watch more, consume differently. Older books by dead men. Longer films by famous men.

Then the mirrors started warping. The reflections began to linger. They bled past the last page, flickered past the last shot. She stopped seeing herself in the mirror. She began to see coquettish dragon ladies, submissive damsels. They shared her black hair and black eyes and ate away at the glass boundary.
“How should we feel about enjoying Orientalist media?”
At some point you look in the mirror and see a version of yourself that you don’t want to see. When you forget who you really are, idealised representations – or indeed, misrepresentations can begin to take over. That’s what I was trying to say in this little story, I suppose.

Growing up, I projected myself onto every little piece of media that I could. I was an only child who enjoyed being alone but hated feeling lonely, so the autonomy that came with reading was perfect. I could experience new things and meet new ‘people’ without doing very much; all I had to do was find a way into the story. This began to extend to my approach to watching film and TV.

Sometimes the links were comically weak. When I was very young, I developed a crush on The Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George – his dark hair and eyes had led me to code him as Asian. This happened as I got older, too. I didn’t care if Daria’s Jane Lane was Asian (nor her brother Trent, another childhood crush of mine) because I’d already decided that she was upon seeing her. It’s funny, but I also think it speaks to a sense of desperation: a plea to see myself, and therefore, as I believed it would lead me, to know myself. I would grasp onto any character that appeared to be ESEA, regardless of whether they were positive or negative portrayals.

As I got older, I started consuming more content that actually featured Asians. What I had yet to really think about, though, was where this content came from and what effect it had on me. Most of it came from Western media, and thus from a Western perspective – a perspective that too often seeks to cement Western dominance by presenting Asians as a paradoxically threatening yet entirely malleable ‘other’. My understanding of myself was heavily coloured by interpellation; surrounded by the vast, ironclad structures of mass media, I was practically an ideological mould, in the perfect position to internalise Orientalist ideas.
I remember getting quite far into ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden as a preteen before finding out that Mineko Iwasaki, one of the geisha that Golden had interviewed and used as inspiration, had publicly denounced it. My stomach churned reading about the novel’s inaccuracies and how affected she felt by them. I still appreciate it as a somewhat compelling read, but I also understand that it was written with very little concern for its subject matter. It led me to rethink my relationship with literature; I’m much more of an active reader, a little less impressionable.
The same sentiment applies for most ‘seminal’ texts that perpetuate Orientalist stereotypes. They may be well-written, they may be enjoyable, but one wonders whether they can really escape their questionable provenance. What they depict can influence entire crowds of people, entire schools of thought. It’s a point of much contention – how should we feel about enjoying Orientalist media? Is it enough to wince through the scenes featuring Long Duk Dong to get through the rest of ‘Sixteen Candles’, or to revise the functions of the Fremen in endless debates surrounding ‘Dune’? For those of us who’ve grown up with Western media, the frequency of Orientalist depictions makes it frighteningly easy to internalise representations that have been crafted for the purpose of subjugating non-Western peoples. We must think critically about what we enjoy. If we are to consume content that seeks to subjugate us, then we might as well dissect it and further our own empowerment.
“I’m tired of begging for more from people who won’t give it. I’m tired of pretending that seeing a slightly less careless caricature of me will cause fundamental change.”
I write about misrepresentation a lot, not because it’s trendy to talk about, but because I really feel that it can have a detrimental effect on your perception of both the world and yourself. It did on me. I became more than simply conscious of the fragmented Bri in the mirror: I began to project harmful ideas onto her, onto me, until I felt entirely alienated from my sense of being. As someone that’s always been a little prone to wallowing, realising that I had done this to myself made me feel incredibly defeatist. I feared that I would never stop being a passive subject.But I’m tired of losing track. I’m tired of begging for more from people who won’t give it. I’m tired of pretending that seeing a slightly less careless caricature of me will cause fundamental change. We have to move forward – as many of us have already been doing. That means demanding more, instead of being appeased by the calculated ‘benevolence’ of representation that continues to serve an imperialist perspective. When we do indulge in that type of representation, we must try our hardest to remain cognisant of who we truly are.
We have to make our own mirrors, find our own joys.