We know the drill too well. Hollywood announces another big budget film with a whitewashed cast. Or talking heads use racially-charged language on cable news networks. Cue our collective outrage — op-eds, Twitter hashtags, letters to industry gatekeepers. Maybe we get a half-hearted apology. Maybe not. And eventually, the outrage dissipates... until the next offense surfaces. Then we lather, rinse, and repeat.
Where does it end? How long will we wait for mainstream media to take our issues seriously?
The industry pretends that it is objective and meritocratic. That the most qualified actors, actresses, and writers will naturally rise to the top. "If only there were more bankable Asian American stars," they say. "If only there were more qualified actors of color to audition!" This reasoning blames communities of color for our own underrepresentation, obscuring the reality of the situation: Hollywood's power elite is actively resisting the changing face of American viewership.
We can't keep falling for the industry's promise of meritocracy, waiting for the gatekeepers of mainstream media to open their doors to Asian American talents. From Hollywood to Big Cable, these institutions are born out of decades of racism and exclusion. And if recent big budget productions centering yellowface and white saviour complexes are any education (we're looking at you, ScarJo and Matt Damon), they have no intentions of really changing. But that doesn't mean we should sit back and accept Asian American media invisibility. Quite the opposite — it is a call to build new media institutions, networks, and platforms by and for Asian Americans.
More and more Asian American content creators are already taking advantage of digital platforms to bypass traditional gatekeepers and share fun, critical, and relevant content online. And these content creators have a ready-made audience: millions of Americans of all backgrounds who are hungry for diverse representation, who crave media that speaks to their experiences as immigrants, as Asian Americans, as people of color. It's no wonder then, that "Asian American YouTube" has become what it is -- an explosive, dynamic space where self-made stars reach millions of subscribers with comedy shorts, makeup tutorials, and short films. And it makes sense that young Asian Americans consume more streaming video content than any other demographic.
But Hollywood and Big Cable are terrified at the prospect of being made obsolete. In a media landscape in which a ragtag Asian American production company can crowdfund a feature film that Hollywood said would never work, it's clear that digital platforms are giving consumers and content creators the power to cut out the middleman. And while that vision of a democratized media industry is attractive to countless content creators and consumers of color used to being pushed out, Hollywood and Big Cable aren't about to let go of their power without a fight.
That's why we're seeing a coordinated industry assault on a proposal from the Federal Communication Commission that would further level the playing field by opening up the set-top box platform. The proposal would mean that cable subscribers aren't forced to rent a set-top box device from their providers in order to access the content they already pay for: DirectTV customers could access DirectTV's content through their Xbox, or Comcast subscribers could access their content through a Roku. It would also integrate pay-TV and streaming video content, making it easier for content often streamed on smartphones or laptops to be pushed to the big screen.
When cable customers are forced to rent set-top boxes from their cable providers, it allows the industry to cling to its role as content gatekeepers -- dictating what content is accessible to us on our TVs. It's a restrictive policy that nets the cable industry an annual $20 billion a year, all while preventing our Asian American YouTube favs from hitting the mainstream. So while the FCC commissioners prepare to be grilled by the Senate Commerce Committee this Thursday on their policy agenda, and as the Commission prepares to vote on the set-top box policy at its September 29 open meeting, we need to make sure these officials aren't just hearing from the industry gatekeepers who want to keep their seats at the throne. We need to make sure the FCC and Congress understand that for Asian Americans, this is about media self-determination: our ability to tell our stories on our own terms.
If you're like me, you're outraged that more white actors in yellowface have won Oscars for leading roles than Asian Americans; you're pissed that ABC cancelled Selfie after one season while Matthew Moy has clowned on CBS' Two Broke Girls for six seasons; you're mad that cable news networks allow demagogues to throw around slurs like "Jap," "Chinaman," and "Mandarin" around on air with impunity. If you're like me, you're fed up with media institutions — from Hollywood to Big Cable -- forcing Asian Americans to play by their rules and jump through their hoops in order to get a half-decent shot at real representation.
We need a systems change in the way we create, share, and consume media. So go ahead and boycott Dr. Strange for casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One-- I'll be right there with you. But while you're at it, let's work on breaking down barriers for the media makers who are already telling the stories we all need to see so badly.
Join 18MillionRising and sign a letter to the FCC and Congress in support of the FCC's set-top box proposal that would help level the playing field for Asian American independent media makers.
Mark Tseng Putterman (@tsengputterman) is a New York-based writer, organizer, and artist. He is the media justice campaigner at 18MillionRising.org, where he focuses on internet, technology, and media issues through an Asian American racial justice lens.