Ethnic Identity and Media Construction

Illustrator Junichi Tsuneoka for 'Here's your MTV' in Hyphen Issue 9

In critic Lisa Lowe’s essay, “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity”, she expresses the concerns with lumping, grouping, or “essentializing” Asian American identity. “By suppressing our differences such as national origin, generation, gender, party, class”, she states, we risk “underestimation of hybridities among Asians” as well as the inadvertent perpetuation of the “racist discourse that constructs Asians as a homogeneous group” (261). While homogeneity can be a means of unity, it also acts in place of dominant ideology, grouping all Asian Americans and its diversity into “the other.” In addition, this act of homogeneous grouping produces further internal opposition between the groups that are being disenfranchised. Often times in dominant discourse, the Chinese are assumed to be exemplary of all Asians (or through personal experience, the Japanese are presumed to be the exemplary “Asian tourist”), Asian identity is generalized as male, women are invisible, or the most common: the importance of other Asian subgroups is pushed under the carpet.

Lowe continues to debunk the idea of a fixed homogeneous reading of Asian American identity because all of the sub-groups under this pan-ethnic heading are in flux. Their hybridity is understood by a multiplicity of factors, which constantly change. The same applies to identity. She also looks at Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci’s theorization: “If minority immigrant cultures are perpetually changing…then the dominant or majority culture, which minority cultures are in continual relation with, is also unclosed and just as unstable” (259). In following this relationship, hegemony is then not fixed and reacts to “the other” as much as “the other” reacts to and challenges its enforcement of ideologies. In the process, “the other” can “constitute a new majority, a ‘counter-hegemony’” (260). The dynamic between the two then redefines Asian Americans as not only a group rebelling along the lines of the marginalized but also representing a different hegemony and balance of power.

Similarly, in the field of media studies, Stuart Hall, as interpreted by Ono and Pham, theorizes that “representation [in media] cannot be merely positive or negative because there is always a cultural context in which representations are produced and audience evaluations and assessments are given” (8). Often, representations that are being produced and evaluated are part of the “ideological struggle…attempting to win some new set of meanings for what is in existent” (Hall via Bailey et al., 10). If the cultural context is continually reproducing and manufacturing representations, then it is not set in stone either. Ono and Pham identify media constructions as representations of identities but emphasizing on the fact that they are changeable, not just because of the change in times, but also in discussion and debate. In the essay, “Asian American Cultural Production” by Chin, Feng, and Lee, the state of the cultural context echoes the construction of media and ethnicity as well: “‘culture’ is not simply an epiphenomenal manifestation of a pre-existing culture, but rather the product of hybrid cultural trajectories” (273). This means that there is an active social relation between culture, media, and ethnicities, which tests the relationship between the dominant group and the not so dominant.

In the 21st century, more and more “minority” groups utilize media as a platform to reflect their own culture, produce their own content, distribute it the way they wish to, and ultimately, create space for their own voices. As Lowe phrases it, “we might conceive the making and practice of Asian American culture as nomadic, unsettled, taking place in the travel between cultural sites and in the multivocality of heterogeneous and conflicting positions” (270). If the relationship between cultures, representation, and media follow Gramsci’s/Hall’s line of theory and thought, then there is the possibility that Asian American representation, does not always occupy the margins; it can shift from the marginalized to the counter-hegemony.

When examining Hyphen’s role in and approach to representing of Asian Americans in the media sphere, how are the ways Asian American being portrayed play a part in the “ideological struggle” as Hall suggests or that Asian American culture is, as Lowe proposes, nomadic, in flux, and always changing?

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