Diversity and Me

30 / 03 / 2016

Jill Nguyen is a communications graduate from the University of Melbourne. She has been volunteering with Melbourne City Mission since she was 18, and has also volunteered with the Royal Children’s Hospital and at ACMI. Aside from being passionate and dedicated to social justice issues, Jill is also an aspiring actress. This month for Sheilas she talks to us about the how lack of representation in the public sphere of non-white women does not truly represent the cultural make-up of Australia, and the effect of this on young women. 

I am Vietnamese, but I feel Australian. I am Australian, but I feel Vietnamese. I am proud and protective of both cultures. I have no memories of being a refugee. It is a surreal and fascinating part of my identity.

I was born at the Pulao Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia, August 15th, 1992. I came to Australia with my parents when I was 14 months old. My parents escaped the devastating and dehumanising circumstances that plagued Vietnam after the war ended. Ever since I was a little girl, I never considered myself different from the other little girls. I didn’t feel different because I grew up in a rich, multicultural part of Melbourne’s West where white, brown, black and yellow girls were all friends. I have always felt a sense of belonging. I have always felt a sense of home. It is this sense strong sense of identity that has given me the fearlessness and confidence to pursue my dream of acting.

Being a woman isn’t easy and being a non-white woman is another experience in itself. I love the wonderful things that womanhood entails. I really, really do. Yet at same time, I find it hard to overlook the magnitude of discrimination that can affect Asian women like me.

The first time I experienced overt racism was when I was 19. To my horror, a customer told me to speak “proper-English.” She swore, mocked me and said meaningless words in a supposed Chinese accent. It hurt. First of all, I’m not even Chinese. Second of all, I am a university-educated and eloquent young woman. Third of all, her abuse was a reflection of her own small mindedness, and it took me a while to dismiss her behaviour. It is the few experiences like this that motivate me to pursue acting relentlessly. I am tired of being misunderstood by some and misrepresented by many. Perhaps if ignorant people like this woman saw more interesting and inspiring Asian women in the media, she would have had a more wholesome perception of who we are. Ultimately I want to act so I can help actively liberate women of colour not only from our invisibility but also the the grossly unjustified stereotypes that stigmatise our value as women.

In regards to representation in the public sphere, non-white women and Asian women like myself are voiceless and faceless. In rare instances of being seen, Asian women are merely objects used to accessorise and perpetuate ridiculous stereotypes of working in a nail salon, working at a Chinese restaurant or being unable to speak English at all. Seriously, we are more than this.

jill baby wtih mum

Findings from a study by the University of Southern California on diversity in film includes an observation by Nikesh Shukla whose affirmation echoes my sentiments. Nikesh says, “I realized that white people think that people of colour only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences,”. The finding itself, analysed international top grossing films from 2007 to 2011, concluding that filmmakers have made no progress in portraying people of colour in film. Similarly, author Randa Abdel-Fattah expands on this, stating that in relation to Australian television and film, “[We’re used to] thinking that we’re post-racial and celebrating multiculturalism when it suits us, claiming that we are a multicultural society when it’s on the world stage or when it comes down to tokenistic things like food or festivals. But when it comes down to our cultural production I think we’re really lagging behind.”

While the many multicultural food festivals in Australia are fantastic and the Asian fusion restaurant scene is admirable, the current state of film and television is not. It is  inherently flawed because it is racially exclusive.

The predominantly white state of film and television contradicts the stark reality of multiculturalism in Australia. The 2011 Census reveals that a quarter of Australia’s population are born overseas and 43.1% of a parent who was born overseas. If women of colour exist, why don’t we see ourselves in the media landscape? Our absence is problematic. Our absence makes me wonder if there is an unintentional attempt to reduce our significance as women and as human beings. The first black woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Viola Davis, exemplifies my ideas in discussion. She said, “It’s time for people to see us- people of colour — for what we really are: complicated.” I sincerely want to believe I am part of a generation of fearless women with complicated, dual identities who yearn to be as visible and as understood in the media, as our white female counterparts.

I want to be an actress to preserve my cultural identity and self-worth. I do not carry the belief that the colour of my skin is a limitation to potential to succeed in any area of my life. I want to be an actress to communicate and exhibit the beautifully complicated and diverse stories of Asian women that are never told. For example, my mum lost both her parents by age 12, during the Vietnam War. She was a teacher, she was briefly in prison for attempting to leave the country and spent 5 years at a refugee camp. She is also unbelievably soulful and creative, and she has a beautiful singing voice, draws a lot and is a wonderful, hilarious mother. I have wonderful Asian friends and cousins, who are mothers, sisters, teachers, health practitioners, artists, lawyers and so much more and again, their stories are never told. You never see an Asian women in film or TV who are memorable. Therefore I want to be an actress so I can empower all the Asian women who have been silenced by the entertainment industry for an awfully long time.

jillbaby

Sometimes mum would sympathetically remind me, ‘Jill there’s hardly any Asian actors. How can you succeed if there’s no other Asian actors like you?’ I always say, ‘Mum, that’s why I can’t give up. There needs to be more Asian actresses. I can’t give up and I won’t give up’. More importantly, I believe that being an actor would provide me with the power of art and activism to influence the way Asian women are portrayed. Writer, Jessica Hagedorn reaffirms the inherent misrepresentations, observing that Asian women are unfavourably portrayed and often cast in overtly sexual roles, disposable victim roles or demonized villains. She adds that Western film trivialize and exploit Asian women as people of colour. It’s laughable because it ridicules us in so many ways, it’s simply laughable. I am honestly exhausted by the one dimensional misrepresentations of Asian women in the media and I hope to do all I can to change this.

Strong and beautiful and complex Asian women are invisible in the sphere of entertainment. Growing up, the only two main Asian females who people would constantly compare me to was Lucy Liu and Mulan. Seriously, one isn’t even real. The mindless comparisons started to make me wonder in my teens, ‘where are all the beautiful Asian women that are badass and inspiring and beautiful?’ Being bombarded by predominantly white female role models, really shapes what you consider to be beautiful and superior.

The lack of Asian women in the industry highlights problematic exclusivity of the entertainment industry that I didn’t question when I was a little girl. Now that I’m older, I question it all the time. Gina Rodriguez, who is the main star in Jane the Virgin said she didn’t pursue acting to be a millionaire. Instead she stated that, “every role that I’ve chosen have been ones that I think are going to push forward the idea of my culture, of women, of beauty, my idea of liberating young girls, of feeling that they have to look at a specific beauty type. And I wasn’t going to let my introduction to the world be one of a story that I think has been told many times.” I strongly support her views and am determined to do the same. As a little girl, it is strange not having a strong and beautiful female role model who shares the same ethnicity as you and as a woman, it still affects you all the same.

There are obviously people in the world I live in who undermine and underestimate women like me, based on the colour of our skin. Nevertheless, the optimist in me truly believes that there are good people who are open minded, supportive and ready for real change to reflect more real women. All I want to see is Asian and women of colour in the media.

Actress Viola Davis is obviously one of my heroes because she’s not afraid of who she is. She bravely declared that the only thing that separates women of colour from white women is opportunity. It is that opportunity that I strive for, hope for and live for. I am an Australian-Vietnamese woman and I want the world to realise that women of colour deserve the fair, rich and better representation that we truly deserve because we’re human too – in case you forgot.

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