By Mila Zuo, Assistant Professor in the School of Writing, Literature and Film; and the OSU Asian Studies Program
I study cinema because there is something about the film experience that cannot be reproduced in any other medium. It’s a form of shared storytelling that engages every part of your body. It generates physiological and emotional reactions and a cognitive response. It connects with all of our senses. Film represents a synthesis of the arts. I call it a space for public dreaming.
But film also reflects our values, priorities, ethics and politics — the way we regard other people. It has the power to shift perspective. We saw its negative power in D.W. Griffiths’ racist 1915 epic Birth of a Nation. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been almost nonexistent, became a huge social force as a result of the film.
Fast forward to Black Panther, the latest superhero blockbuster and the first centered around a black leader in a world that hasn’t been tarnished by Western colonial rule. We’re seeing how people are responding and how it empowers certain communities. It says to me that film has the power to change perspective.
At any given moment, film can tell you where we stand in relation to our values. I also think it can change our minds.
In my own research, I have focused on the depiction of Asian women in Hollywood films, particularly as objects of sexual desire, but also as foreigners to be feared. In the early to mid 20thcentury, the United States was grappling with issues of immigration and ideas of foreignness. The first ethno-racial law passed in the U.S. was directed at the Chinese and then at other Asian cultures. The language used then in the media described Asians as vermin, rats, subhuman.
Hollywood played its part. We see Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, the Daughter of the Dragonwith Anna May Wong. We see these noir-like and fraught stories that deal with the mysterious other, that show either a benevolent racism — they’re smart, sneaky, clever and sly — or monstrous depictions. These Asian characters are often played by white actors.
In 1960, we get the World of Suzi Wong, which stars Nancy Kwan, a Eurasian. There’s this tension being played out between fear and desire. She needs a white paternalistic partner to save her from herself, to civilize the savage. You can see that story, even though it’s coursing through sexual narrative and interracial possibilities. It encodes the Asian woman as an infantilized colonial subject who needs to be saved from herself and her backward Asian culture. Desire and fear often work in tandem. You see that ambivalence around Asian women in general.
American film history has been built upon fantasizing the other — stereotyping, fearing and desiring the other. The first sound film, The Jazz Singer, has a man in blackface. I can’t teach these canonical texts without addressing race, gender and nationality. Some of our students would rather not deal with these uncomfortable topics, but I think there’s something generative about being uncomfortable. It’s about taking us out of our comfort zones, out of our shells. As an educator, I’m about gently pushing boundaries.
Note: This essay stems from a conversation between Mila Zuo and Terra editor Nick Houtman.