In the midst of this mass media cultural awakening, 2018 marks a turning point in history for Asian American representation in popular media. The first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, “Crazy Rich Asians” brought the multifaceted personalities of Asian characters onto the big screen. No longer pigeonholing Asian characters as the socially inept math geek or the emasculated secondary male lead, these roles offered complex characters, depth and humanizing scenes to eradicate the purported two-dimensional characters traditionally reserved for Asian Americans.
“To All the the Boys I’ve Loved Before” featured an Asian American female lead whose lighthearted and charming character brought another kind of visibility and awareness to the limelight like the mainstream popularity of Yakult, a Japanese yogurt drink. In addition, the film “Searching,” has allowed the portrayal of Asians in a Hollywood dramatic thriller relinquished of any cultural intentions or statements. This movement and trend of Asian representation seeks to bring visibility to a marginalized group and to dismantle biases popularized by white media. But centuries of prejudice still prevail.
In this heightened, interconnected society, media can be a double-edged sword. Riding the wave of social trends and internet fads can be a hit or a miss, especially when seeking to do so in an unfamiliar culture. Whether the influx of Asian representation in media embarks as a movement or a temporary fad, it is undeniable that inclusion cannot afford to be forfeited. Dolce and Gabbana’s series of Chinese advertisement videos sought to promote its Shanghai runway launch, “The Great Show,” but these ads evoked offense and outrage with its Chinese audience.
Estelle Chen, a French model of Chinese descent, posted on Instagram, stating, “You thought you would make money by coming to China and holding a show while being so disrespectful and racist? You got it all wrong because we aren’t dumb when you say you love China. You don’t love China, you love money. China is rich yes but China is rich in its values, its culture and its people and they won’t spend a penny on a brand that does not respect that.”
In this heightened, interconnected society, media can be a double-edged sword.
From Chinese fashion icons to the average consumer, it seems all Chinese individuals with an internet connection and a Weibo account have joined the boycott of Dolce and Gabbana products. Even if the commercial was intended to be quirky and culturally appreciative, it turned out to have tones of racism, sexism, and a hint of neocolonialism.
These ads feature an Asian woman in a red garment in front of a backdrop perhaps best described as pseudo-Oriental, eating Italian food with a pair of chopsticks. This could have been an innocent stab at merging two cultures, but the shoddy execution of these videos proved otherwise. Vaguely Oriental music, complete with high flutes and the stereotypical gong, plays in the background as a male voice mansplains in Chinese to the woman how to eat a pizza, cannoli and spaghetti with chopsticks.
With an intentional mispronunciation of Dolce and Gabbana to mimic a Chinese accent, the man refers to chopsticks as “stick-like objects” while depicting Italian food as superior. The line specifically translates to “figure out how you will use these little stick-like objects to eat our magnificent Margherita pizza,” followed by the model stabbing the pie with single chopsticks as though she has never seen a chopstick, nor a pizza, in her life.
Delving into the nuances of these ads reveals the layers of ignorant prejudices and sentiments of supposed Western cultural superiority. Though the “eating instructions” are spoken in Chinese, it could not be clearer that the script was written by a non-Chinese individual, or perhaps a team of non-Chinese individuals. The effect of hearing a Chinese voice speak out these insensitive comments, with appropriately mocking inflections, is surreal. It speaks in the internalized voice of cultural inferiority and self-negation, fuelled by someone else’s words in Chinese mouths.
Vaguely Oriental music, complete with high flutes and the stereotypical gong, plays in the background as a male voice mansplains in Chinese to the woman how to eat a pizza…
The aspects of Chinese culture are reduced to mere props and outdated stereotypes without genuine interest in Chinese culture to appeal to the ever-evolving modern Chinese population. These ads highlight the necessity of representation in mass media to avoid ignorance and blunders that can lead to the demise of a corporation. Pitting two distinct cultures against each other while implying one’s superiority extends disrespectful manners. It ignores the cosmopolitan and culturally literate nature of modern Chinese society, implying the Chinese people’s inability to adapt to other cultures. It thereby purports age-old sentiments of Asians as perpetually foreign others.
Ultimately, the incident doesn’t come as a surprise given Dolce and Gabbana’s history of racist, sexist and homophobic onslaughts. Aside from the offensive ads and the outright racist comments from Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account immediately after the Chinese outrage, there also lies a subtler form of racism in the Western media’s portrayal of the event.
Reading through coverage of the scandal, I have found a common thread, with articles focusing on the projected economic loss and consequences of these ads. As McKinsey reports, the Chinese market makes up a third of global luxury expenditures. It implies that Dolce and Gabbana should apologize because of the monetary losses from Chinese consumers and fails to address that the real apology should be sincerely directed to the racist acts. The articles focusing on protests, returns and decreased sales misattribute why companies should be culturally aware and sensitive. If China did not contribute a third of sales, would its misrepresented citizens not warrant an apology?
As an Asian American forced to marry Eastern and Western culture in my everyday life, I find that the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is blurred by the lack of media representation. There are aspects of my culture that have been ridiculed because popular culture deems them alien, whereas other aspects of Asian culture are widely accepted and normalized by the dominant white culture. Just think of the emerging presence of idol bands such as BTS on the American music industry’s radar. These breakout stars’ popularity stands in contrast to the previously held beliefs that Asian men were unattractive, effeminate and uncool — but their effect is only felt after their acceptance by American audiences.
There are aspects of my culture that have been ridiculed because popular culture deems them alien…
While living within the Berkeley bubble, we view its progressive liberalism and cultural intermingling as woven into this normalized social fabric of everyday life. It’s not unusual for us to see perspectives and national origins blending together as students from across the globe share and embrace their cultures. We are constantly challenged to question the social constructs that have structured our thoughts and biases, to recognize privilege and inequities, and most importantly, to be aware of socially demeaning actions. Mainstream media’s likewise flurry of representation and politically correct awareness has primed us for a more comfortable society, one in which we can delight in seeing faces like ours on the silver screen.
And once in a while, a scandal here and there serves as a reminder that this is just the beginning.
Contact Nelly Lin at [email protected].