Recently, there’s been an attempt to resurrect affirmative action in Californian universities. This attempt failed and news outlets flooded with articles reporting the Asian American backlash against affirmative action. Sure enough, when I went by the library the other day, I saw a banner proclaiming “SCA5 = RACISM” and two Asian American girls tabling a booth outside city hall.
And I wondered — how in the world did it get to this point? How did so many of my fellow Asian Americans end up thinking that affirmative action was racist? Well, I’m guessing the model minority myth played a role. By buying into the mindset that Asians, as the ‘model minority,’ have more in common with white Americans than with other POC, concerned parents and political leaders came to the false conclusion that affirmative action would be detrimental, and therefore racist, towards Asians.
Tell your parents, tell your uncles, tell your aunties: Stereotypes are toxic, kids. There is no such thing as a good stereotype.
Which brings me to this question: When it comes to YA lit, media, etc — is all representation good? Representation certainly matters, but to what extent does the need for representation of marginalized groups in fiction excuse shoddily written characters and stereotypes? Short answer: It doesn’t.
The thing is, there is great representation out there. It might require some searching, but it’s out there. To unquestioningly accept any-and-every form of representation means dismissing and devaluing the fantastic stuff already out there. Representation of marginalized groups in YA lit shouldn’t simply be a matter of putting a check mark next to the diversity box. It shouldn’t involve stereotypes, exotification or cultural appropriation. It can and should be done right.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an incredibly lazy when it comes to reading. I’m my English professor’s worst nightmare — a passive reader. When I read, I let the words wash over me and think of nothing but the story until I’m finished. Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to become a more proactive reader and question the things I read.
A while back, I reviewed Eleanor and Park. I was all ready to cheer for the wild success of a book with a Korean American hero and love interest. But when I read Eleanor and Park, I was a bit troubled by the racism vibes — I attributed this to the POV of the heroine Eleanor and her good-intentioned-yet-ignorant views, and ignored my discomfort.
Fast forward a few months: I picked up Fangirl, another book by the same author, and gobbled it up. Though it was a fun read, I finished the book with the same troubled feeling, this time about the novel’s problematic treatment of mental health and anxiety issues. Same author, different book, and a pattern emerged, causing me to question my initial reading of Eleanor and Park. By itself, Eleanor and Park can be read as a cute, Romeo and Juliet style romance. But books don’t exist in a vacuum. Historical context and prevalent stereotypes cast the book in a different, and more unforgiving light.
Still, I wanted to cheer for the success of a book with a Korean American boy as the hero and a lower class girl as the heroine. Wouldn’t pointing out the problematic elements of the book do more harm than good?
Around the same time, I read Stormdancer, a self-proclaimed ‘Japanese steampunk’ fantasy novel. It ended up a huge disappointment and was, to put it nicely, pretty dang racist. This, to my mind, was a classic example of ‘not all representation is good representation.’ Each time I saw Stormdancer and its sequel Kinslayer listed on diversity blogs and goodreads shelves as a ‘diverse read,’ I cringed inside. Something was amiss here.
I don’t mean to cast Eleanor and Park or any other book, for that matter, as the villain. But it’s incredibly telling that people are more afraid/angered by the label of ‘racism’ than by, well, racism itself. For some, calling something out as racist is considered worse than actual racism (or sexism, homophobia, classism, etc). This makes for an environment hostile to critical reading and analysis.
I firmly believe that there are questions that should be OK to ask of any book: Is this book racist? How are these character depictions influenced by society and stereotypes? Is this respectful borrowing or cultural appropriation? –and so on. No book should be off-limits. Representation matters, and because it matters, giving it the careful thought and attention it deserves is paramount. (Update: And yes, for the record, Eleanor and Park is racist. Bloggers and authors have written far more eloquently than I ever can about this book’s issues. See the end of this post for links.)
One of the things that makes YA lit so awesome to me is the fact that it’s a genre-bending category open to experimentation and fresh ideas. It’s a safe space for new voices, innovative ideas, and social activism — or so I like to think. If we can’t question, examine, and re-examine works in this brave not-so-new world of YA lit, then where can we?
tl;dr Is all representation in media good representation? Not necessarily, and asking questions/thinking critically about YA lit is important! Representation matters, so we should give it the thought and attention it deserves.
IF YOU’RE CURIOUS ABOUT ELEANOR AND PARK (and Stormdancer)
Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park
Clear Eyes Full Shelves on Eleanor and Park
Ellen Oh on Eleanor and Park
The Book Smugglers: On Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Addressing Troubling Tropes Regarding Asian and Asian-Americans in YA