Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) 2017: Part 1

This year, I was very lucky to see the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival: a showing of Asian Americans in films every day for two weeks at the Philadelphia Arts Initiative. Though I wish I was able to go to multiple nights of the festival, I was able to see two interesting films that night: the short, “Monday” directed by Dinh Thai and the feature film, “Cardinal X” directed by Angie Wong.

Just as a disclaimer, I have never truly understood the form of a movie review. I have always approached movie reviews with the expectation that it will inform me whether or not I should see the movie. However, unless the critic is vehemently panning the film, there is usually no clear direction for reader and usually, the plot has been spoiled. So in this little blog post, I will try to avoid these two things.

First of all, I would recommend getting to the Philadelphia Arts Initiative an hour to half an hour early to purchase your tickets. You don’t want your plans to be ruined if the show sells out (as it did on closing night for me.) The Philadelphia Arts Initiative can be a little difficult to spot, due to the industrial neighborhood, but this is what the space looks like from the outside:

Inside, there is a small reception area and a standard, small art gallery. That night, they were offering virtual reality headsets that showcased 2 short movies where the viewer was able to watch the film from all angles. I’m sure that you wouldn’t be able to see everything without watching those films at least twice.

Every night of the PAAFF has a theme, and that night’s was: Asian Americans doing drugs.

The short film “Monday” is a story about an Asian American drug dealer named Kwan who navigates his diverse clientele by acting in different ways to best fit whatever his customer views him to be.

The ease in which Kwan interacts with witty rapport that metamorphoses depending on the ethnicity of his customers was fascinating to watch. The pop culture references used by the characters reminded me of the punchlines in rap and gave the conversations a unique rhythm with lighthearted insults peppered. As the film starts to open Kwan’s deeper wounds, the film loses this dynamism as he wrestles with the contradiction of his appearance as a model minority Asian American with his dangerous, drug-riddled lifestyle.

While this is the structure of the film, director Dinh Thai’s attention to detail is what makes the movie become even more whole-bodied: Kwan’s customers are interesting and unique themselves: Nina, the Latina girl Kwan delivers Chinese barbecue pork to seems to be much scarier than any of her heavily tattooed male relatives and Andre, the African American weed customer is seen lighting a blunt while wearing baby blue medical scrubs. In addition, the daytime shots of Kwan’s deliveries seem to be shot in bright clear light that add for beautiful shots of his journey through different L.A. neighborhoods.

And while this is the strength of Thai’s film: his ability make bold characters that break stereotypes that haven’t been seen on the screen before, it seems like a bit of step-back when the film tries to deal with more emotional issues.

For example, a scene with Kwan’s cousin who berates his dangerous lifestyle is awkward and over-seasoned with swears– though it does convey the expectations of an Asian family and the stress that comes along with it. And while Kwan is able to break the stereotype of being the typical “Asian American” with his job, his persistent worry for his white love interest, Emma and the idea that he will probably do anything for her seems to be falling into that caricature of an emasculated Asian man.

However, I am not an Asian American man, and Thai did note that parts of Kwan’s story is autobiographical– perhaps this is how his experiences have been, and I don’t really want to discredit that. Anyways, the quality of the dialogue discussing racial stereotypes, affirmative action and the legalization of pot as well as the cinematography of the short film makes up for the somewhat vague execution of Kwan’s love life.

In other interviews, Thai has talked about making the film into a TV series, which I would be excited to see. After all, we’ve got the rest of Kwan’s week after this– it’s only Monday.

Dinh Thai’s “Monday” is now available to view on HBO GO.

How Disney Ignores Racism, Imperialism and Polynesian Diversity in “Moana”

Disney’s 2016 release Moana is remarkable for many reasons. It shattered box office sales this past Thanksgiving weekend with sales of 81.1 million dollars. It features the first Disney princess to be Polynesian, falling within the Asian American Pacific Island cultural and political identity. The film’s title character is also a steadfast and brave girl who breaks the typical epic male hero storyline that has dominated Hollywood from decades. And though Moana is not Asian American, she is relevant to Asian American media because she is an Asian character created by an American studio and released to an American audience.  Moana has made history as a blockbuster film with a heartwarming message and stunning animation. In addition, as the movie’s directors are two white men, Ron Clements and John Musker, the Walt Disney studio took great lengths to try to not commit any social injustices by casting a largely Pacific Islander voice cast and even traveling to multiple Polynesian islands for research. However, despite a progressive and culturally aware production, Disney’s Moana still falls short of satisfying the main criticisms of Asian characters in American media.

Moana’s introductory scene is an old woman telling a mythological story of the Polynesian god Maui to a group of wide-eyed toddlers. Polynesia is a triangular area of the central and southern Pacific Ocean that contains more than a thousand different islands that share a mythology (with minor differences between each nation’s folklore.) The film takes place in an island paradise, rich with white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue waters and bright pink flowers and shells. However, the distinct nationality of the village is difficult to discern because there are many aspects of different cultures within it. As Moana grows up and learns about her people’s way of life, we see that the main cultural influence is Samoan through the styling of the characters. The black, geometric tattoos that the male characters sport on the sides of their midriffs and thighs are unique to Samoan culture and are called pe’a.

Demigod Maui’s Samoan Pe’a covers his entire chest and legs.

Moana’s Samoan headdress.

Moana’s grandmother dancing Hawaiian hula.

However, this is not the only culture present in the film. In one scene, Moana wears a Samoan tuiga (a headdress that features coconut threads and red feathers), and a Hawaiian haku (a flower crown worn for special occasions) in the next. Writer Izzie Martinez notes that “The soundtrack features the Tokelauan language. But there’s Hawaiian hula dancing in one scene and a Melanesian myth in the next. It would have just been better to pick one island and portray its culture faithfully.”

Per Lisa Lowe, the homogenization of different nationalities is problematic because the dominant representation of the larger group disregards and incorrectly defines the minority groups.[1] In the case of Moana, cultural aspects of all of islands are amalgamated under the umbrella term of “Polynesian” completely disregarding the individuality of each of these nations. In addition, the perception of Polynesian culture is mainly defined by Samoan practices even though the term describes a plethora of different nations and cultural customs. By including aspects of Samoan, Hawaiian and Tongan culture in the same village, Moana incorrectly portrays Polynesian culture as homogenous.

Another critique of Asian characters in American media is the tendency for their cultural identity to be presented as fixed rather than dynamic. Although “Moana” deviates from the typical male hero epic, the plot of the movie still follows a cliché heritage-identity crisis and represents her Polynesian identity as fixed, rather than dynamic. Like other Disney princesses, such as Cinderella and the Little Mermaid, Moana’s identity struggle is a main plot focus of the film. As the next chiefess, Moana’s father the advises her to focus on learning about village customs, instead of what she truly desires, which is to explore the ocean. When Moana defies her father and sails to return a magical stone to a goddess named Tefiti and initially fails, she almost gives up on her quest. In this pivotal scene, Moana’s grandmother directly addresses this identity crisis by asking her “do you know who you are?” Moana’s response to this question manifests into a song titled “I am Moana”, the lyrics of which are below:

I am girl who loves who my island

And a girl who loves the sea

It calls me

I am the daughter of the village chief

We are descended from voyagers

Who found their way across the world

They call me

I have delivered us to where we are

I have journeyed farther

I am everything I have learned and more

Instead of picking either her duties as a chiefess or her love of the ocean as her passion, Moana decides that both are a part of her identity by singing about these qualities in list form. However, departing from a typical identity crisis because these two identities do not oppose each other (though they initially seem to): the song states that her ancestors were originally ocean “voyagers” and therefore, the deep connection that Moana feels with the water is something that uniquely tied to her cultural identity as a Polynesian, and therefore her racial identity as an Asian. After this declaration, Moana saves her island from destruction with her sailing expertise and succeed her father as chiefess. The critique of this identity arch is that it depicts Moana’s racial and cultural identity as fixed: once she has accepted both parts of her identity, one that is cultural and the other that is not (the latter eventually becoming cultural as well), she is content and all of her problems are solved. Moana’s character is an inaccurate representation of racial identity because it is always subject to change depending on the circumstances.

While it is difficult to suggest what the filmmakers could have specifically changed to reflect the ever-changing quality of cultural identity, it is possible to pin-point the reason why it was so easy to ignore this issue. Scholar Stuart Hall describes cultural identity as a “matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power.”[2] Though Polynesian culture is rich with history, the movie reduces it to a vague past of maritime island colonization. In addition, Moana’s village and her people may be based on the real-life Polynesia, but they are relegated to a fantasy bubble of islands that has no connection to any other continents or other part of the globe. The “play of history, culture and power” that Hall speaks about does not exist in the movie because the characters are either Polynesian or inhuman (an animated chicken, piglet and giant crab god to name a few.) Moana’s cultural identity is not “subject” to a historical power hierarchy because Disney essentially erases it.

And even though the beautiful visuals of the animated Polynesia are similar to the real geography of the islands, the film romanticizes that one group of people happily live on each island as autonomous communities. Just as the film simplified Moana’s cultural identity, the film does the same to the islands and the peoples of Polynesia. When her community is threatened by a destructive black force that burns the trees and kills the fish, Moana is forced to quell the god Tefiti through a quest, which she eventually succeeds. This subsequently erases the pollution that has destroyed her village and restores the proliferation of lush vegetation that covers the island.

The natural environment of the Pacific Islands restored.

However, the reality of the socioeconomic status of those who live on the Pacific Islands is that there is high unemployment and their un-diversified economy is highly vulnerable because it depends so much on natural resources, especially fish. Though urbanization and global warming, there has been a negative impact on the environment of Polynesia as well as the rest of the world, but unlike in the movie these issues cannot be instantaneously erased. For example, experts have estimated that the economy of American Samoa is 80% dependent on the tuna cannery business. Moana’s Polynesia glazes over these fragile aspects about the real Pacific Islands and incorrectly represents Polynesia as a tropical paradise destination for American audiences.

Despite Disney’s choice to bring Polynesians to worldwide recognition and headline an Asian female as a title character in a blockbuster movie, the studio romanticizes the islands and ignores the reality of their poor socioeconomic situation, which could arguably be caused by the white colonialism that pioneered the society in which Disney has been flourishing for the past hundred years. So while Polynesians are faced with few opportunities for employment, poor infrastructure and possible natural disaster, Disney makes hundreds of millions of dollars from a film that would not have been able to exist without the Polynesian culture to begin with. Though Disney tries to ignore the intersection of Western culture with that of the Pacific Islands by failing to address any issues of racism or historical power structures, they must recognize that the intersection between the cultures is relevant because of the deep Pacific Islander influence in the movie and the mainstream American audience that is consuming it. To ignore this relationship and to continue the same errors in the media’s portrayal of Asian characters is a mistake for Moana despite its triumphs.


[1] Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

[2] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 225

Reflections after taking a course on Asian American Media

The texts we’ve read in Asian American Media, have obviously focused on the works involving the American perception of Asians in media. It seems like we went across the continent from Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean perspectives and perceptions. Within these ethnicities and how they intersect with media, we’ve also looked how these identities relate to gender, religion, the technology market, and the government. We’ve looked at multiple media categories such as movies, magazines, comics, anime, video games, and even porn. However, over the course of the semester I have been hyperaware of how the “Asian” focus seems too stifling, even suffocating because it seems like we hardly discuss how the issues and injustices that Asian Americans suffer in media are also relevant to basically all marginalized groups (especially in the show business.) How often have the statistics shown that female leads do not attract as high a salary as male actors? Was the world really that shocked to discover that Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood was significantly paid less than her male counterparts? Why is it that Leslie Jones, a comedy writer and actress, was regulated to practically the same loud black woman stereotype on her Saturday Night Live career? How many times have we seen token characters on television sitcoms emanate the same offensive racist or sexist stereotypes?

When people cite their example that they feel is relevant to the text they are writing the blog post about, they usually write about an example from class (has to do with Asian American Media) and if it is taken from outside of class, it still has to do with specifically Asian American Media. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when I think about the long-lasting longevity of the course, I feel like that the most important take-away of this class is to spark a belief in the historical/media study of marginalized groups. So when I see that most of the related examples have to do with Asian American media works, I question whether people really see the struggles of Asians in American media as similar struggles to other marginalized groups as well, such as women, environmentalists, humanity majors in an increasingly industrialized world (haha), Native Americans, agender people, etc. For example, a classmate Allyson Sweeney wrote that the protagonist, Jin Wang, of “American Born Chinese” seemed to have a similar struggle to Beast of “Beauty and the Beast” because people judged him based on his looks rather than his personality. This simple parallel is exactly what I feel should be made at the end of this course, and how the essays and techniques we learned about in Asian American media are the same way you might tackle learned about other marginalized groups (intersectionality, people!)

I think this especially important because of one of the quotes I pulled from the Ono & Pham article: media is the “basic by which ideas are formed and knowledge is produced, and, ultimately, for how people related to other people and how societies are formed and structured.” Through media, “certain privileged externalizations are disseminated widely… ad may ultimately become part of public memory.” I interpreted this quote as the argument that people’s perceptions of others and other societies is influenced by media. Making media extremely important! I mainly agree with this statement because of my personal experiences. I feel, as a someone who watched an excessive amount of television as a child, that I perceived real people as reflections of characters who I felt resembled them in media—which was a bit detrimental. But never mind me, the real issue or arguably, the evidence of this was felt through the 2016 Presidential Election. Apparently (though the faith of polling in this country is broken after the previously mentioned event), the main reasons that people voted for Donald Trump was because of racial resentment. Many of these people, who I presume to live in the rural areas (but this is not based on a real statistic so I will tread lightly) where Donald Trump overwhelming won the electoral vote, probably have never had a normal relationship with the minority groups that they resent.

So where could their opinion of these people come from? The media. And that is why this study of work is so important and why it does not only apply to Asian American media. It’s not like the people who are so upset about “immigrants stealing their jobs”, “blacks killing police officers” and “ISIS coming to take over America” favor one minority group over the other. They are resentful of all people who are non-white and deviate from the norm, and if we fail to understand the plights of marginalized groups other than ourselves and leave only the media to educate us about them, we jeopardize that our perceptions might run the same way.

Flashback Friday: “Chan is Missing”, an Asian American Film That Made a Difference

The chapter of “Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video” by Peter Feng, titled “Becoming Asian American” is an analysis of the 1982 film Chan is Missing, arguing that it is a pioneer in showcasing the multiplicities of Asian American identities in American cinema and therefore challenges the idea of a fixed Asian American identity. Instead of trying to spread awareness of the presence of a Asian American identity, the movie focuses on “the process of becoming.” (155) This quote means that the characters are not defining or becoming any definition for the Asian American presence in film, but are simply an example of guys who happen to be Asian in American trying to figure out their racial identity. Obviously, the movie does this through its multiple Asian American characters: Steve, Jo, etc. who all have their own personalities and the main characters of the film rather than villains, sex symbols, or comic relief. Like Rae said already, this is very similar to Flower Drum Song in this sense and is notable for this aspect in a period of film that was very much lacking this representation (let’s not debate the present fact of the matter…)

But in this chapter, Feng also articulates certain thematic elements of the film of symbolism that tackle other aspects of the Asian American identity (crisis.) Feng argues that the entire plot of the film, which is to find Steve and Jo’s friend Chan Hung. By looking for Chan, they must face the prevailing stereotypes of Asians in American media, such as Charlie Chan. “The video cassette’s “self-mocking” label seems appropriate; the characters themselves seem aware that they are trapped in a pop culture stereotype–trapped, not in the sense that they have been placed there by the dominant, but in the sense… of sense of strange kind of critique, purveying, and challenging their position.” (158)

I thought that this reading of the movie illuminates the craft of the movie in a clever light– trying to find the true meaning of “Charlie Chan” or the percieved Asian American idenity, but instead (depending on whose perspective, whether it be Steve, Chan Hung’s wife or the police officer.) seeing what they themselves percieve in him/it (and because some of these characters are Chinese American themselves, they see what they do not want to see in themselves.) So Feng is also highlighting that heterogeniety in the Asian American identity can be defined through the perspective of other Asian Americans (and this a different perspective.)

This direct confrontation of the stereotype reminded me of the Das Racist music video “Who’s that Brown” we watched in class on Tuesday. That music video featured so many stereotypes, such as the game that the rappers played which involved dodging arranged marriages, a Grand Central station filled with “yuppies (young professionals) who are gentrifying the neighborhood” and the black guy that one of the rappers has a dance battle with. This is also an example of an interaction: definitely a satire, but also a critique of not only stereotypes about South East Asians, but of other races too.

The whole plot of the movie, especially the conclusion of the movie, which is that they never find Chan Hung and the fragments/pieces of evidence that they find out about him paint an even more confusing picture of him is beautiful because it’s such a truism. The problem with defining anything in general is that you, often times, are never wholly correct and are therefore wrong; it’s the perpetual problem with history, isn’t it? You always leave something out because it would be impossible to tell the entire story/experience (but as Lowe/Feng argue, they are not asking that the ENTIRE story be told, but the important parts.) Whenever you’re writing about a group of people– theres’ a pretty good chance that you will be unable to accurately generalize them. This idea is the essence of a quote from the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, which relates this idea we have read in an example of Asian American media, but is applicable to pretty much all media and life as well.

What’s especially interesting is that Feng (and Wang too, since it is our media for this article), draws the conclusion that these attempts to analyze/define (and therefore, understand) are more indicative of the person who is trying to do it rather than the actual subject of study. Not only is the analyzer human, but the act of analyzing opens a void in which we can view them, rather than who is being analyzed. Which is really quite ~meta~ if you think about this blog post in the context of this class.

Starting Asian American Media: Ono & Pham

Ono & Pham‘s chapter “The Persistence of Yellow Peril Discourse” details the definition, history and media portrayal of the yellow peril stereotype. They write that media discourse “serves as the basis by which ideas are formed and knowledge is produced and, ultimately, for how people relate to other people and how societies are formed and structured.” Just saying, I think that this is true for the most part, but especially when people do not actually interact with the ethnic groups that media depicts in real life. I went to a conference this summer and Reza Aslan said that the number one factor in changing people’s prejudices against Muslims was if they actually knew a Muslim.

Ono & Pham go on to write about how media is so important because it allows the “certain privileged externalizations [to be] disseminated widely… and may become part of public memory.”

Then they delve in the history of yellow peril, which was thought to have originated from the fear of mongoloid Genghis Khan, general xenophobic from the Western world, and the fear of Anglo Saxon race suicide, to name a few. Offensive stereotypes such as “wearing pigtails, speaking with exaggerated dialects” and “seeking white women for physical and sexual labor.” I was horrified to see that current periodicals such Harper’s Weekly (and from what we saw in class, though not as harshly or vulgar, Time and The Atlantic) purported these horrific images to their audiences. Who even reads Harper’s Weekly anyway?

These stereotypes (some of which are incorrect, all of which in association with each other are incorrect and offensive) get scary when they influence United States policies, such as The Angell Treaty of 1880 (which limited the immigration of Chinese workers who hoped to come to America) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This is completely offensive when my great-grandfather and many other Cantonese people came to America to help build the First Transcontinental Railroad.

And getting to the main idea of the essay, it gets even MORE dangerous when yellow peril translates into cinema through the movies of the 18th century. The movie that we watched in class “The Cheat” (1915) was exemplary of the typical storyline of movies that focused on Yellow Peril: an unrequited Asian man steals a white woman from a white man for his own illicit/evil/sexual desires. More movies guilty of this moral injustice is “Broken Blossoms” (1919) and the Fu Manchu franchise. Though I had known that the typical name for a Chinese style mustache was named after this character, I didn’t realize until now how damning that really is. A Chinese mustache should NOT have an inherently evil connotation, though that really might be the perception that people may have of Chinese men with mustaches on their upper lips.

Something that I found fascinating about the article is that highlighted the relationship between yellow peril media works and the historical context of Chinese American relations at the time. Darrell Hamamoto wrote an entire paper about how Asian American media representation is directly linked to US foreign policy: for example when there was anti-Chinese resentment during 1800-1950s, which explains the offensive Chinese stereotypes detailed in the beginning of their chapter. However, this changed in the 1940’s when Americans began to direct their hatred towards the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor and caricatures of Japanese began to crop up, portraying them as rodent-like, barbaric and evil. World War II caricatures of the Japanese followed suit, but after the war ended, Chinese directed yellow period began to rise again. Could another form of yellow peril start with the negative portrayal of middle easterns/south east asians in the media because of the current fear of Islamic terrorist group ISIS with movies such as “American Sniper” (definitely not as bad as the previous examples)?

The introduction of Ono & Pham’s essay describes that “contrary to the popular media story that well all live in a post-racist society, yellow peril has not faded away into the depths of history.” This totally reminded me of an Onion article called “I Don’t See Race; I Only See Grayish-Brown, Vaguely Humanoid Shapes“. This humor article ALSO satirizes this claim made by people who think that racism (and probably global warming) are myths of the past (“Wasn’t slavery like a billion years ago?”)

None the Wiser: Racism and Social Darwinism in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” through the Lens of Stephen Crane’s “The Monster” and H.G. Well’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau”

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner questions the power difference between man and his creation by chronicling the hunt of terminal manufactured “replicants” who yearn for the longer length of a human lifespan. Because the replicants are commodified as slaves for humans, they enter a world of social inequality on the lowest rung and a short expiration date. While the humanity of the replicants is the movie’s focus, it also makes a statement about the other outcast in the social hierarchy: minorities. Certainly not a theme exclusive to the 1992 film, the relationship between society and the “other”, also dominates Stephen Crane’s “The Monster” and H.G. Well’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. “The Monster” involves a young black man who is horribly disfigured after a good deed, and then subsequently ostracized from his town’s community. “The Island of Doctor Moreau” experiments with the possibility than an obsessive scientist can speed up evolution to create man from animal. In this essay, these two texts are used as a lens to view Blade Runner: “The Monster”, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” and Blade Runner, which feature white male “creator” characters and inferior people of color, are allegories to historical events of racial discrimination: American slavery, British imperialism and American immigration, respectively.

In comparison to the white, male protagonists who dominate the plots, minorities are portrayed as inhuman and grouped together as unimportant. While Crane’s protagonist, Henry Johnson is introduced as a likeable black man, he quickly loses his colorful personality after his disfigurement. After the fire occurs at the end of Chapter 7, Johnson suffers grotesque chemical lesions and possible brain damage. After this early incident, Johnson is labeled as “a monster” by Judge Hagenthorpe and is avoided by the majority of the town. In this way, Johnson is stripped of his humanity because he is no longer able to express himself, rarely speaking during the rest of the novel. While Johnson is tragically unable to be respected, despite his brave act of saving Jimmy’s life, he does not remain the protagonist. Because the disfigurement occurs so early on in the text, the majority of the story’s focuses on the Dr. Trescott and the townspeople’s opinion of Johnson as a villain: Trescott, who maintains that he must protect Johnson for saving his son, slowly loses his business, social circle and his family because of his persistent association with Johnson. Wilson Jordan notes in “Teaching a Dangerous Story: Darwinism and Race in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster’”, that the burned Johnson is also dehumanized through the language that Crane uses to describe him: choosing to refer to Johnson as the ambiguous “dark figure” or “it” instead of his name (34). This change in Johnson’s pronouns after the fire exemplifies how the townspeople do not see him to be a man after the fire.

The objectification of Johnson, a black man, is also representative of the lack of individuality and racial profiling of all of the black characters in the story. Despite his best efforts (sacrificing his own body, and ultimately life, for the son of a white man, Jimmy), society refuses to respect Johnson as a human, and shun him. Cleman suggests that Crane’s depiction of blacks in the novel are racist stereotypes: the blacks live on a street called “Watermelon Avenue” and likens the Farraguts to “three monkeys”, details that are  reminiscent of Jim Crow minstrel shows (16). Not only is this degrading, but it labels the racial group of blacks instead of the individual man, Henry Johnson. While the white townspeople are diverse in their characters, such as Doctor Trescott, Martha Goodwin, Judge Hagenthorpe, Jake Winter and more, there are only three individual black characters: Johnson, Alek Williams and Bella Ferragut (and briefly, Mrs. Farragut, her mother). These characters, though they have names and personalities, are minor characters whose lines pale in comparison to the influence of the Judge or Goodwin on the plot: the Judge repeatedly tries to convince Trescott to send Johnson away, while Martha’s character description details her family history and personality as a stubborn woman with an unwavering opinion. Johnson loses his personality and individuality after the disfigurement, while Williams is portrayed as an uneducated fool as he tries to increase his salary for housing Johnson. Farragut is Johnson’s fiancé who loses all interest after his disfigurement, violently rejecting his advances after he tries to court her again. Additionally, as stated before, the story focuses the “monster’s” effect on Dr. Trescott and his family, pushing the minorities out of the spotlight.  

Johnson is symbolic of the blacks in the novel, but also black Americans in history as well. While not a slave himself, Johnson, a black man, is the stablehand of Trescott, a white doctor. Not surprisingly, in “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s “the Monster””, Clemen identifies that the relationship between Trescott and Johnson in “The Monster” illustrates slavery during the 1890s. This also is supported by the slavery-reminiscent language to describe Henry’s actions during multiple parts of the story, such as “slavery” and “submission” (24). Society’s rejection of the black Henry Johnson, and symbolically of blacks as a whole, highlights that the correlated traits of being a minority and an outcast manifests into beings who are lesser than human.

Wilson Jordan’s examination of the pronouns used to describe people of color in “The Monster” can also be applied to the dehumanization of the Kanakas in “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. The Moreau’s treatment of minorities and beast people implies that not only are people of color inferior to white Europeans, but that this stratification is justified by Social Darwinism. Among the human characters in the novel, the only minorities mentioned are the six Kanakas, Pacific Islanders who Moreau initially brings to the island. In his description of their beginnings on the Island, none of the Kanakas have an individual name and are referred to by only their ethnicity or as immature “boys”. Moreau, like Crane’s treatment of Johnson, doesn’t see the Kanakas as humans because of his use of the pronoun “it”, as he tells Prendick “It was killed”, when Prendick asks about their fates: all of the Kanakas have either deserted or have been killed on the island and have been replaced.  

This contrasts with Moreau’s references to Montgomery, a white, European man like himself– even the name Montgomery, and Moreau’s use of it, is an acknowledgement of Montgomery’s individuality and allows Montgomery to be defined by his character, rather than by his race. This makes it even more apparent that Moreau views the Kanakas as a racial group that is inferior, disposable and weak. In fact, when describing his earlier experiments, Moreau refers to the beasts and the Kanakas in a similar fashion: the pronoun “it”, its speciation (such as “the puma”, “Thing”, “the beast people”, etc.) and with a lack of respect afforded to Prendick and Montgomery, who are white European men.

This correlation between minorities and the beast people implies that Moreau considers the Kanakas and his creations to be similar, and inferior to man. Through this relationship, H.G. Wells suggests that the Social Darwinism that Moreau uses to justify the possibility of evolution from beast to man can also be applied to the Kanakas, or anyone of non-European descent. In his explanation to Prendick, Doctor Moreau observes that the more animalistic the creature is, the less intelligent it is. Moreau says,

“The intelligence is often oddly low, with unaccountable blank ends, unexpected gaps. And least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch, somewhere—I cannot determine where—in the seat of the emotions.” (76)

The beast people, who are derived from animals, ultimately fail to develop the same level of intelligence and emotional capacity as natural born humans do. Whereas Crane’s story served as an allegory to the racial inequality caused by the American slave trade, critics have likened H.G. Wells’s novel to British imperialism. Hendershot parallels the animals of the Island of Doctor Moreau to the natives of British colonies, such as India and Africa. She notes that Moreau’s role as a religious figure for the Beast People is uncannily similar to how white imperialists assumed their control over a native population. The conquest of both animals and people through fiction and history are justified through Social Darwinism. Though the Kanakas are not native to the island, Moreau’s similar treatment of minorities and Beast People in comparison to European men suggests that Social Darwinism is a justification for such racial discrimination.

Critics have briefly analyzed the relationship between race and social stratification in Blade Runner in the context of larger arguments. In “Metahuman ‘Kipple’: Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream Of Electric Women?’ Speciesism And Sexism In Blade Runner”, Barr contends that contemporary racism has been replaced by speciesism against the replicants. Desser contrasts this argument by identifying that race and class actually are conflated, where minorities and replicants share the same class. Contrary to Barr, this implies that both racism and speciesism are present in the society of futuristic Los Angeles.

In Blade Runner, there is clear racial stratification between Earth and the off-world colonies. Most of Earth’s population has left for a different planet, lured by the change for a fresh start at life. Though we never see the off-world colony, the dirty, overcrowded, dark atmosphere of Los Angeles is perceived to be inferior to whatever environment the off-world colonies offer.  Through J.F. Sebastian’s explanation that he was not eligible to leave Earth because of a genetic disease, it is suggested that this society is trying to “improve” the human population by only allowing the “ideal” humans to colonize. From the racial demographics of the city, mostly composed of East Asian and Hispanic people, it is inferred that these races are considered to be inferior to the white population (the majority of which have already left Earth.) Just as in “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, Social Darwinism is used to justify the colonization of the superior whites on the off-world colonies and the exclusion of minorities.

While the the eye designer shown at the beginning of the movie is of East Asian descent, he is never named and is presumed to be murdered by replicant Roy Batty, the latest replicant on the market. Instead, in his only scene, the eye designer functions as a weakling at the mercy of the white man. This contrasts greatly with the depiction of S.F. Sebastian, who is seduced by Pris and Roy Batty in multiple scenes, where the audience also learns about his individual characteristics, such as his genetic disease, his creations and his home. These racial groups lack individual personality afforded to the multiple white characters in the film,  and are wholly unimportant to the main plot of the film.

White supremacy is also exhibited through the design of the replicants, who also live on the off shore colonies. As a commodity, the replicants are marketed as the perfect human: the five replicants we meet over the course of the movie are intelligent, incredibly strong, conventionally attractive, and are all white. The replicants exemplify how the ideal human is one that is of white, and that those who are not of European descent are inferior. The non-Europeans may be human, but the film does not afford any humanity to the East Asians and Hispanic characters, instead treating them as background scenery, indistinguishable and unimportant.

All three of these works suggest that society propagates a white supremacist hierarchy that alienates the non-European through dehumanization and generalization. This racist argument is only redeemed by that another product of this society is white fallibility: Crane depicts the mob of townspeople as cruel and unforgiving, who ultimately shun Johnson, Dr. Trescott and his family from the community because of their racial prejudice. H.G. Wells’s white scientists suffer a worse fate: the insensitive and power hungry Moreau is killed by his own creation and his assistant Montgomery commits suicide. In Blade Runner, most of the replicants and their creators (the eye designer, J.F. Sebastian and Tyrell) are dead. The characters who survive, such as Dr. Trescott, Prendick and Deckard, are unable to continue living in these white supremacist societies. The unhappy fates of these characters suggest the authors’ criticism of these white supremacist views in society, especially because they mirror the historical events of American slavery and British imperialism.

By examining Blade Runner through the lens of “The Monster” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, the historical racial discrimination that the movie could be critiquing is the exploitation of immigrant workers by white-led corporations. Hispanic immigration started in the 1960s, while one of the biggest waves of Chinese immigrants started in 1965. The desperation of immigrants for jobs make them especially vulnerable to exploitation by companies. Many immigrants flock to the cities in hopes of better jobs, such as a city like Los Angeles, which overflows with people. This criticism seems to becoming true in reality: a newspaper article published last year reported the “sweatshop-like conditions” of the garment industry.

“The majority of garment workers in Los Angeles, one of the world’s fashion centers, are Latinos and most are undocumented. About 20 percent are Asian, mostly Chinese immigrants, Martinez said. None are unionized.”

Because the movie was released in 1982, the statement that Scott is criticizing the Los Angeles garment industry specifically is unlikely, but the racial makeup of Los Angeles 2019 was an intentional choice. The future society of Blade Runner is allegorical to the historical influx of immigrants during the 1960s. Scott suggests that society views immigrants in America are viewed as inferiors to whites, exemplified by the blatant racial prejudice against non-Europeans of “The Monster” and the Social Darwinism used to justify it in “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”


Works Cited

Cleman, John. “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s “the Monster””. American Literary Realism 34.2 (2002): 119–134. Web. 12 May 2016.

Crane, Stephen. The Monster. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963. Print.

Desser, David. “Race, Space And Class: The Politics Of The SF Film From Metropolis To Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 110-123. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

Barr, Marleen. “Metahuman ‘Kipple’: Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream Of Electric Women?’ Speciesism And Sexism In Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 25-31. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

Hendershot, Cyndy. “The Animal Within.” (1998): n. pag. Web.

Nasser, Haya El. “LA Garment Industry Rife with Sweatshop Conditions.” Sweatshop Conditions in L.A.’s Garment Industry. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

Philmus, Robert M. “The Satiric Ambivalence Of The Island Of Doctor Moreau.” Science Fiction Studies 8.1 [23] (1981): 2-11. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Ridley Scott and Hampton Francher. By Hampton Francher and David Webb Peoples. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. Warner Bros., 1992. DVD.

Taneja, Payal. “The Tropical Empire: Exotic Animals And Beastly Men In The Island Of Doctor Moreau.” English Studies In Canada 39.2-3 (2013): 139-159. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

“The History of Chinese Immigration to the U.S.” The History of Chinese Immigration to the U.S. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

United States. National Park Service. “An Historic Overview of Latino Immigration and the Demographic Transformation of the United States.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Modern Library, 1996. Print.
Wilson-Jordan, Jacqueline. “Teaching A Dangerous Story: Darwinism And Race In Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster’.” Eureka Studies In Teaching Short Fiction 8.1 (2007): 48-61. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”

*This title references the pilot episode of the HBO series “Girls.”

The piano music finally reaches crescendo as the long-lost lovers reunite in a field of wildflowers. The image of their embrace fades to black and the credits start to roll. The names of the director, an actor playing “person sitting in café #3” and the assistant to the production assistant fly past the tear-streaked faces of adolescents and their mothers. Sniffling themselves back into recovery, the movie finally ends with a phrase and a photo: “Based on a True Story” accompanied by a sepia-filtered photo of a couple who does not seemed to be as toned or wrinkle-free as their re-enactors. Struck by the added layer of authenticity, the audience bursts into tears again.

This scene is not surprising, and it is most likely relatable: movies are often more dramatic than and take many liberties with the original storyline. The multibillion dollar film industry transforms everyday people and occurrences into poreless heroes on grandiose odysseys, sure to be action-packed with romance, betrayal and explosions. Hollywood seems to have no thoughts of stopping: In 2015, it was reported that 29 of the movies to come out in this year alone were “based on a true story”, illustrating the tendency to distort history from the truth. This is not limited to the scope of films or the art of expression: the past often becomes defined by those who interact with it, despite the truth. In retrospect, entire cultures, time periods and movements become defined by singular examples culminating in a hyperpolarized impression of the past; often times these examples are curated by a fraction of society: the educated white male (e.g. Nicholas Sparks, see above.) This essay will primarily explore this institutionalized phenomena through the lens of the literature, art and analysis of World War I.

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning comment on the literature of WWI in relation to society. The authors base the Western reaction World War I on a generous number of sources, including European poetry, newspaper articles, textbooks and letters. However, despite the different types of media and writing style, the authors of all of these texts were all white men. Additionally, many of them were educated at university level: two of the most famous World War I poets, Sassoon and Seegers, were educated at the prestigious universities Cambridge and Harvard, respectively.

Once these traits are highlighted, it is clear to see the juxtaposition between these authors and Western society at the time: the diversity of Western society at the time is not represented in the selection of texts that Fussell and Winter chose to include in their dissertations. When declaring the changes in not only the entirety of Western culture, but its method of memory and mourning, it is flawed to derive that opinion from fraction of society, especially one that does not recognize other dominant perspectives.

Instead, a more accurate description of “the cultural consequences of the Great War” would be to analyze the audience of these poems and their reactions to them. There were numerous soldier-poets who used literature as an outlet to comprehend their experiences on the front, but what fraction of the population was reading these poems and empathizing? Do the diction choices and old-fashioned themes of honor and glory reflect the female population of Europe that made up half of the “culture” that Fussell and Winter describe? What fraction of Western society was reading poetry and was that audience more financially well-off than the rest of the population?

To better understand the culture of World War I, it is key to analyze the reactions of other writers, other people, other women, and other countries (not exclusively England) to the literature that defines it– without public opinion, the portrait of pre- and post- World War I culture and any analysis that is based off of it, is incomplete. By making generalities about the modern memory (the ability to remember is shared by all humans), Fussell and Winter define the pre and post-WWI mindset as the authors they chose, and exclude everyone else.

When we, as students without much other WWI knowledge, read these critiques, the literature of WWI is defined by these same white, male and likely well-educated men because it is all of that we have read. When we read about Dadaism, the art movement inspired by World War I, it was suggested that the Dadaism was ironically, not an art movement at all– instead, it was the anti-art that abandoned the canvas portraits, fruit paintings and battle scenes for geometric shapes, toilets, and graffiti: a seemingly disregard for the defining characteristics of art. At that time, the Dadas rejected the proposition that they were creating art, but rather that it had no meaning at all–– futile, just like the war that was ongoing. However, when we visited the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Dada Exhibit, it did not seem like the focus was on the correlation between Dada and its symbolism towards World War I. Instead, the majority of the exhibit focused on one of its leaders, Marcel Duchamp. An entire room was dedicated to his Dada artwork, multiple earlier impressionist paintings and even a detailed description of the thought process and organization that went into creating “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors”. Another part of the Dada exhibit, “New York Dada”, was tucked away in the rear of the building and in a small room without as much description as Duchamp’s. So even though the Dada movement involved other movements and even other motives, the museum treats the anti-art movement just like any other art movement. Instead of the original protest of World War I that inspired their art, the modern impression of Dadaism is dominated by one man, Duchamp. For those who were not living through World War I and are learning about it through museums and schools, such as us students, the event becomes defined by what is curated by these institutions.

We are not alone–– the works that we are reading and analyzing are likely the same things that the general public uses to learn about World War I. Fussell and Winter were prominent university professors and scholars, and they cited popular newspapers, poems and people; Winter analyzed a poem by Rudyard Kipling, England’s first nobel laureate (who is so famous that people are still writing about him in magazines today.) The Philadelphia Art Museums is a landmark of the city and each exhibit attracts thousands of visitors. Whether a popular author or a popular museum, their counterparts will also attract similar amounts of attention. Apart from those who were not living during or around the same time as WWI, knowledge about any event is usually based on what is most popular, whether it be in the past or in the present.

One of the most popular books to be written about World War I and its after-effects is Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. At the time of publication, it sold 5,000 copies in its first edition and was favorably reviewed by the popular newspaper, The New York Times, which wrote “this novel is unquestionably one of the events of an unusually rich year in literature.” Many years later, the novel retained prevalence in popular culture through movie adaptations in 1956 and 1984 and an opera in 2000. Its historical legacy continues to be preserved through the AP United States history exam, which is currently offered by high schools across the nation. Speaking from personal experience, with the rampant cramming for exams that is common amongst students, I am left with little doubt that for many, “The Sun Also Rises” is the only book they know written about World War I. Not only is this another example of a few characters representing an entire generation, but it is also any example of the dominance of the white, educated man (Barnes, the narrator and protagonist), despite a storyline involving characters who do not fit this archetype (Lady Brett Ashley, a woman and Pedro Romero, a young Spanish bullfighter.) Touted as the “the quintessential story of the Lost Generation” on the book jacket of a 2014 edition, the modern era, “The Sun Also Rises” defines those who grew up during World War I (even taking their moniker from Hemingway.) As time goes on, the most popular things eventually come to encompass more than their jurisdiction because most people do not have the time or the desire to learn any more than that.

This leads to the question: “who chooses what is to be remembered?” In the case of Fussell and Winter, they chose the works they wanted to comment upon– is it so surprising that they themselves are white men who were educated at Harvard and Cambridge? The description of Duchamp’s exhibit acknowledges that Duchamp was friendly with wealthy benefactors who brought attention to his art. Later on in life, Duchamp, who studied art from an early age, became a curator in New York exhibitions. Ernest Hemingway had no further than a high school education, but was known to write about the masculine characters that mirrored his own persona as a war veteran and an athlete. There are known to have been many other drafts of “The Sun Also Rises”, including one that had a female narrator, but it did not survive the editing process (one notable editor was F. Scott Fitzgerald). The majority curators of popular culture are white, educated and male and it seems that they are usually the subject of their works as well.

It is clear that this facet of society has played an integral part in shaping our understanding of history and pop culture. But it also must be acknowledged that these men, are considered to be the the most privileged of society, and that privilege includes the opportunity to be artists, scholars and writers. Fussell and Winter may not have analyzed works written by women during World War I because there were not many women writing at the time. It should be the case that all of the people who are writing at the time were educated because writing is not a skill that everyone has, especially at lower socioeconomic levels. Those perspectives of women, minorities, the poor, etc. are often excluded because those groups did not have the resources to write about their experiences. However, as history has progressed, with advancements such as the printing press and word processors, writing and art have become much more accessible. But this does not mean that educated white men will not continue to dominate popular culture and our interpretation of the past.

It is easy to say that this excuse can no longer be tolerated when it comes to more recent events, such as the LGBT movement, the war on terror and climate change. But from everyday experience and current events, I know that gender inequality is still a battle yet to be won. A well-known truism is “history is written by the victors.” If the educated, white man is winning, does that mean that the rest of society is losing? Does that mean my opinion is completely insignificant? I can look to influential figures such as Frida Kahlo, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe as examples of minorities who have made their mark in the history books. But how can I be sure that they are examples of a trend and not anomalies?  It is a troubling prospect to consider.

As I have written this paper, I have realized that I have forgotten about the importance of truth when it comes to history. That is because writing history based on the resources available means that there is always something missing. It is impossible to recount every detail of the past and every perspective. And that means that there is always a better truth.

The difficulty of writing about the past brings me to a particularly apt quote from a novel I read for my 12th grade English class: “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on.” It bothers me that out of the numerous modern “Great Books” that we read for this class, most of the authors were white, educated men (including Philip Roth, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov). But I cannot deny that this quote is one that rings true. So I will accept that most of my understanding of this world has been “mono-colored” with bias, but I can only look to the future to minimize such tendencies. Right now, that’s the best truth I’ve got.