Constructing my cinematic childhood
Being an Asian American woman, movies with accurate representations of my life experiences are extremely rare, if not nonexistent. Yet here I am, doing the opposite of boycotting white, male-centric movies and — dare I say it? — enjoying them. What gives?
It’s a simple explanation: unless I want to sit in an empty space completely devoid of all media entertainment, I have to make compromises. I have to reclaim and rehabilitate the white male gaze to tease out elements with which I can identify.
Because even with all the problems inherent in inserting myself so fully into these characters, it also lets me reclaim positive elements. Take Catwoman’s character in “Batman.” Though she’s the villain and we shouldn’t like her, my mind searches for traits that encourage, even empower me. She’s fierce — a female role model who isn’t passive! Great! Never mind that she will never get to be the real hero and save the day. She’s hyper-sexualized just to add eye candy for male viewers? Well, I embrace sex-positivity, so I interpret her slinking around in skintight suits with that lens instead.
Another example: “Boyhood’s” very white, middle class, American depiction of childhood. I left the theater with the goofiest grin on my face, nostalgic for the childhood experiences I never had. But I take the experiences of other people around me and use that to reconcile the gap between my life and what’s on the screen.
I’ve compromised. I enjoy this. I feel comforted, satisfied.
But should I be?
Regardless of how much I can find interesting and compelling characters to identify with in films, it’s still perpetrating the idea of what is normal and what is not. Though I smiled knowingly when it happened in “Boyhood,” I’ve never watched “Rugrats” or been to a baseball game. My family doesn’t have heartwarming Thanksgiving traditions. People are always shocked: “You never did that? Did you even have a childhood?” I did, but because white culture is the predominantly represented one, it doesn’t feel like I had the right childhood.
As a viewer, I can make things that are not relatable relatable to me. That is the joy and beauty of storytelling. You can take on the experiences of a secret agent solving a mystery, or a child dealing with a hard time, or a washed-up journalist grappling with identity, and it helps you connect your own experiences to someone else’s.
So when the industry doesn’t want to produce films with diverse backgrounds because audiences (hint, white males) cannot relate to them, that’s bullshit. If the majority of my movie-watching life involves learning to understand and empathize with the stories of other genders, nationalities, races and even species, I think white males can learn to do it once in a while too.