Stereotypes and the Transformers Franchise

My goddaughter is reaching the age where children become sponges for popular culture, expanding her imagination while validating the jobs of marketers and toy sellers alike. One of my favorite things is listening to her talk about her new cartoons and hobbies, and many of them are surprisingly not gender-specific. Alongside her Princess Sofia collection and her MLP toys are some pretty familiar faces to our community: a Batgirl poster, a few Tiny Titans collected trades, and the pictures of the girl-power action figures that will be arriving around Christmas are just to name a few. In our most recent talk, she wanted to recount the plot of the last movie she saw, which was Transformers: Age of Extinction.

I’ve spoken about my distaste for the movie before, but I wanted to engage her in a conversation that she was obviously excited for. Her being five, I asked her the easy ones: did she enjoy the movie, did she learn anything from the movie, etc. But when I asked her who her favorite Transformer was, she immediately said Drift. A was a little shocked that it wasn’t Bumblebee (because seriously, who doesn’t pick Bumblebee?), but her next answer to the follow-up question was even more concerning. When I asked her why Drift was her favorite, she didn’t say because he turned into the coolest car or that he’s awesome with swords. She said it was because “that’s who we are in the movie”, meaning that Drift was supposed to represent us as a culture.

I can’t tell you how incredibly sad that made me.

The pop culture industry is making some real headway for representing underrepresented groups, but we still have a long and winding road ahead of us. Media-wise, we hear about two groups the most (women and African Americans), but living in Southern California, we hear about the plight for Hispanic representation as well. Asian Americans account for about 5% of the population, but that still accounts for about 19 million people. It’s an idea that many of my friends and family struggle with: that we are the Model Minority.

It’s not the idea that Asians typically are more successful than other minorities that bothers most of us, it’s the idea that our concerns are never really given weight by the media or the general populace. Pretty recently the news blew up to a white man in blackface that pretended to be Kanye West, harassing Kim Kardashian in the process. Look up the the story with as little of keywords as possible (really, just use the keyword “blackface”), and I promise that you’ll find the story on at least five different sites. Have you ever heard of a story involving “yellowface”? Surprisingly, there was one pretty recently, with Jim Sturgess in Cloud Atlas. Search for this story in a similar fashion; there’s little to nothing about the incident in general.

The truth is, all of us geeks that happen to be Asian have struggled with this fact at least once: the idea that we can’t connect to other characters in other works because we don’t “look like them”. It was truly inspiring to watch The Legend of Drunken Master or The Chinese Connection growing up, but the second I wanted to identify myself with an astronaut, a skilled jewel thief, or the protagonist in a romantic comedy, there was no one to be seen to represent me. This caused me to not want to be me. And I am terrified that we’re passing this onto the next generation.

Despite what other sites have reported on about the character of Drift, I personally think that the controversy for the second Transformers film should definitely apply here. It depicts a culture as a distilled caricature of itself, taking its best features and lampooning them to the point of disregard. When my goddaughter is older, I sincerely hope that she still loves the nerd-things that I introduce to her, but I know that she’ll be going through the same things that I did: the self-loathing, the misrepresentation, and the backlash and derision that she’ll get from others because of our caricature-culture. As Asian Americans, we need a voice to represent us and the struggles that we face in popular media. And that’s not going to come from a guy who speaks in haikus and calls people “sensei” all of the time.