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Portrayal and Perceptions of ASEAN in Western Media: A Youth Perspective

By Kar Lok Pang and Tasia Matthews


ASEAN representation in Western media has remained few and far between. This lack of representation — in terms of ASEAN actors, stories, or even environments — contributes to an overall dissonance in self-identity experienced by ASEAN - identifying youths growing up in the United States and other Western countries. From a Western perspective, the lack of representation in the media that we are most immediately surrounded by amplifies feelings of foreignness and liminal experience associated with being members of the ASEAN diaspora.i This means that first and second generation immigrants in Western countries who ethnically identify with any of the ASEAN member states are unable to develop a shared identity, connection, or sense of belonging with the concept of ASEAN. For the ASEAN diaspora, feelings of being invisible or Othered are common, and a general sentiment of “I’m not Asian enough for Asia, and I’m not American enough for America” persists.ii


Further complicating this experience is the tendency for Western media to lump all ASEAN nations together, incapable of separating the distinct cultures and national identities in any comprehensive or authentic way. Without meaningful depictions of these to serve as a cultural guide and source of pride, it is often only due to a long and deeply intimate personal journey that ASEAN-identifying youths are able to build strong connections with our own heritages, let alone with the ASEAN community as a whole. As the ASEAN region becomes more prominent in news media due to rising coverage of geopolitical events, it will be pertinent for real-world depictions to be coupled with authentic, nuanced, and positive portrayals of ASEAN people, histories, and livelihoods in popular culture, so as to enhance cross-cultural understanding.


ASEAN Portrayal in Television and Films


A cursory review of ASEAN representation in Western television and film reveals the lack of genuine representation. Even when ethnically ASEAN actors get roles, they are limited to roles written for (usually Chinese or Japanese) East Asian characters. Short Round, a canonically Chinese character played by Vietnamese-American actor Ke Huy Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), is one of the earliest examples in recent cinematic history. The 1951 Broadway musical and subsequent 1956 film The King and I had a cast of Thai characters, but these roles were all given to Westerners. Further, the film’s depiction of Thailand and the royal family has been continuously criticised for historical inaccuracy. In the late twentieth century, ASEAN representation rose slightly, following the prominence of the Viet Nam and Korean Wars in the Western psyche. Even so, these depictions portrayed harsh, jungle environments, and rundown villages in extreme poverty, with locals relegated to savage, aggressive caricatures — reductive, Orientalising accounts that became a prominent mainstay of the conception of “Southeast Asia” in Western minds.


Possibly one of the biggest films set in an ASEAN nation in recent times, 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians caused an internet sensation with its larger-than-life depictions of the Singaporean Chinese ultra-rich elite. However, ASEAN representation was limited to the setting, and not much depicted the typical lifestyle of an average Singaporean. Too often, Southeast Asia is utilised for its exotic and tropical locales, exploited as nothing more than a pretty backdrop by which non-ASEAN characters unravel the plot. Thailand is a recurring victim: box office hits The Beach (2000), The Hangover Part II (2011), The Impossible (2012), and Only God Forgives (2013) all take place in the country but focus exclusively on Western character storylines. Another attempt to highlight the beauty of Southeast Asia was made through Disney’s 2021 animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, which depicts a fantasy world heavily inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, legends, and motifs. Yet, similar to its counterparts, the film was criticised both for its low employment of Southeast Asian vocal actors and its fusing of distinct cultures into a jumbled mess that further fails to distinguish Southeast Asian nations adequately. Without fully-developed characters and storylines with which to visually portray ASEAN narratives, “ASEAN” as a collective or individual identity remains unable to flourish in a media landscape that renders it invisible.


ASEAN Portrayal in Literature


Many of the aforementioned films are adapted from novels, and the publishing industry continues to be fraught with inequalities. Just as “Asian” in the Western psyche is predominantly East Asian, ASEAN is scarcely represented beyond Vietnamese authors, which is yet another complication of colonial roots that problematises the issue today. Even when ASEAN writers publish against the odds, they become bogged down by expectations (legitimate or otherwise) that they must tap upon their ASEAN roots and cultural ties to produce their work. Such expectations mire the creative process and unfairly commodify ASEAN identities as marketing tools. Concomitantly, ASEAN writers struggle to contend with their own identities, in deciding whether or not, and how to represent their ethnicity in their work. On the one hand, representation is beneficial for readers who see themselves reflected and legitimised in their own lived experiences. On the other hand, although artists have to mine their identities to some extent in producing creative pieces, the general difficulty of publishing for Asian writers places an unfair burden on them to sell their literal bodily identities as capital and for (predominantly foreign) profit


As discussed, the advent of popular Asian movies, even as they improve ASEAN visibility in popular culture, draws upon tropes and caricatures that are not so representative as they are harmful to ASEAN existence. Although it is right that we celebrate the hitherto never-before-seen achievements made possible by generations of ASEAN creatives paving the way and overcoming structural boundaries, questioning how the limited ASEAN representation in Western media stereotypes and misrepresents the nuanced cultural identities embedded within “ASEAN” becomes an issue of survivorhood. For there to be a future where ASEAN identities can thrive, the ASEAN community must collectively demand pluralistic and authentic representation in Western media, both as consumers and as the subjects of mis/underrepresentation.


A Way Forward?


In the present day, there is hope. Recent portrayals of ASEAN people, culture, and environments have brought these to life where before they were nothing more than set pieces. In the second episode of the ongoing 2023 HBO drama series The Last of Us, based on the titular 2013 video game, the screen opens on pre-apocalypse Jakarta. Minor depictions of everyday life in Jakarta, including traffic, a local restaurant, and a small cast of characters speaking in Bahasa Indonesia, humanise the city, culture, and people to a Western audience who may otherwise remain unfamiliar with Indonesia. Considering the global pervasiveness of Western media and the fact that more than one-third of the Asian-American population ethnically identifies as ASEAN, there is clearly an appetite for diverse stories. Diversification — as well as improved, nuanced portrayals of ASEAN narratives and even minutiae — is likely attributed to the contributions of diverse identities entering the writers room. If production companies pay attention to the wants of a burgeoning audience, responsively hire writers, producers, and actors from the same previously underrepresented communities, and invest in the stories we missed out on in our childhoods, the collective ASEAN identity will have the propensity to rise even for those growing up in the diaspora.


Within academic circles, there are also encouraging signs recognising ASEAN as an understudied region and identity. For instance, Queer-of-colour critique is acknowledged as an understudied field for uncovering the ways in which liberalism is complicit with exclusion and domination in non-Western/White settings.iii These efforts not only enhance visibility and produce economic revenue for existing industries, but improve sociocultural awareness of the richness of distinct ASEAN identities. As such, increased ASEAN representation, for all its problems, is nevertheless a positive indicator of what can be done better in forging ASEAN identities beyond geographical boundaries.


Conclusion


Overall, issues with ASEAN representation — both underrepresentation and misrepresentation — persist in the film and publishing industries, despite the monumental goals we have surpassed and continued to push through as a community. This is often compounded by political and social expectations of ASEAN-identifying creatives and what they should or should not embody in their craft. That said, there are encouraging signs that point to the prospect of a future where ASEAN identities can take centre stage, in reflecting the region’s cultural diversity, media appetite, and potential to elevate visibility of minorities. To this end, we should celebrate and advocate for genuine, nuanced portrayals of ASEAN in Western media, and develop accountability mechanisms to ensure faithful representation.


References

i Turner, Victor Witter, and Jon P. Mitchell. Essay. “In Liminality and Communitas: Form and Attributes of Rites of Passage”. Pp 93–11. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction Press, 1969

ii With ‘America’ being replaceable by any applicable Western/non-ASEAN nation.

iii Ferguson, Roderick A. “Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique”. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.



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