CAAMFest 36, May 10-24

Representation Matters: the Growing Asian American Presence in Children's Programming

December 9, 2015

Since the birth of my older daughter, I've given myself the healthy challenge of finding books and toys and programming that reflect positive images of intelligent, adventurous, three-dimensional girls. Racially diverse characters on television were a plus, but mixed-race or Asian American characters were the holy grail for me. The toddler years were easy -- Kai-Lan, Dora, Sofia the First, and Doc McStuffins were the queens of the junior set -- but things became considerably more difficult when my daughter discovered tween programming. iCarly was her first favorite tween show, and probably the worst offender with racist jokes and background characters; before long I had banned that show, as well as Jessie and Victorious from our house. The leap from beautifully inclusive programming for little kids to cheap, racist humor for big kids was so big and baffling that, for about a year, I preferred the crass humor of Sanjay and Craig to anything live-action.

Something changed in the past year or so. I don't know if it was the proven success of POC-centered family shows like Fresh Off The Boat and black-ish or what, but tween and teen programming seems to finally be catching up. Every Witch Way, a fantasy telenovela set in Miami, was one of my kid's early favorites and featured a primarily Latin@ cast. The Thundermans is centered on a mixed-race family with superpowers. Bella and the Bulldogs, a personal favorite of mine, centers on a girl who has become the quarterback of her school's football team, and though Bella is white, there's a lot of diversity in the supporting cast -- in fact, one of Bella's best friends, Pepper, is an Asian American adoptee. Granted, not all of these shows are good or watchable (I found Every Witch Way really hard to sit through as a mom), but it's been encouraging to see television shows that better reflect my kid's environment than the shows I had growing up.

Then over the spring, something beautiful happened.

Make It Pop! made its debut on Nickelodeon back in April. It's a completely over-the-top saga heavily inspired by K-pop music and K-dramas about three girls in a boarding school who become best friends and decide to start a band. Basically, all the right elements to instantly reel in my daughter. 

More than that, the show is centered on three Asian American girls (played by Megan Lee, Louriza Tronco, and Erika Tham), and somehow manages to not rely on overdone stereotypes. While some tired tropes do occasionally pop up on the show -- for example, Corki is a whiz kid whose dad is a billionaire businessman in Beijing and tiger parents her via FaceTime throughout the season -- Sun Hi, Jodee, and Corki are still fully-formed characters, and I never once got the feeling that the tiger dad character was being played as a shtick. In fact, as the characters in Make It Pop! broke barriers as three normal American teenage girls, tiger dad was one thing that felt really familiar. 

Later in the summer, Netflix debuted a three-episode series called Project MC2, about a teen secret agent who moves to a new town on a spy mission and inadvertently befriends a multi-culti group of super intelligent girls. Hokey? A little, but my daughter loved it. And I may have been slightly more excited than she was about the character Camryn, a Asian American skateboarding genius badass played by Ysa Penarejo, whose smoking hot dad (Marcus Choi) is an astrophysicist.

I'm happy and fortunate to say that neither of my daughters have ever been lacking in strong female role models and characters of all races to look up to in the media. From KC Undercover, to Garnet from Steven Universe, to Riley Matthews on Girl Meets World, to Adventure Time's Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, smart and and kind and tough girls can be found wherever we're willing to look. My daughters have watched Fresh Off The Boat and black-ish since their very first episodes, and while there's still a lot of work to be done in Hollywood, my kids are basically living in a world where they can see people like them and families like theirs on television. My older one hardly even understands why I make such a big deal every time a Filipina pops up on TV. 

But after finishing both Make It Pop! and Project MC2, I wondered what my life would've been like if I'd seen more Asian American girls on television doing cool, admirable things. Would I have felt less alone and less weird? Would I have felt less racially isolated in Connecticut? Would Camryn and Corki have inspired me to work harder in school in ways that my parents' pressure couldn't? Would Sun Hi's fiery determination have pushed me to continue trying out for the school plays even though I was always relegated to the chorus? There were things I felt I couldn't do or succeed at, either because I was a girl (sports, mostly) or because I wasn't white (anything that required being on a stage). Would any of that have been different?

I'd like to believe this has made a difference for my kids. My younger one, though fiery, is still a little young, but when someone talks about boy-specific toys or girl-specific toys, my older one is the kid who says, "There's no such thing." It's my hope that seeing these girls on TV helps my daughters feel just a little more confident in pursuing their passions and dreams, and not hindered by some imagined "otherness" barrier.

Representation in the media is not just about feeling beautiful and accepted. It isn't just about showing my daughters that you don't have to have blonde hair and blue eyes to be valued in society, to be the doll that everyone wants to play with. It's about showing them other girls who look a lot like them, who are excelling at exactly what they want to do, regardless of other people's expectations of them. It's about showing them girls who look a lot like them, doing things they didn't know they could do. And it's about showing them girls who look like them doing exactly the things they are passionate about, and being loved and supported by others.

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Theresa Celebran Jones

Columnist

Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.

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