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What it means to be seen

The first ever major film that registered in my consciousness, growing up in the ’90s, was James Cameron’s “Titanic.” How could it not? The movie seemed ubiquitous that time, praised and parodied across what limited media outlets were available in those simpler times.

I remember Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson, with his trademark blond hair and startling blue eyes. At that point, I thought, “It must take looks like these to charm the socks off the ladies.” I mean, he had those scenes with Rose.

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Since then, so many other figures have taken the place of Jack, from James Bond to Captain America. From my childhood years all the way to my adolescence, I remained in awe of these archetypes, thinking not only that I looked so unlike them, but that it also must take so much for a guy of Asian descent to ever catch up with such looks.

For quite some time, I couldn’t even reconcile myself with being Asian. It wasn’t until very recently that narrow Asian eyes began to be portrayed more positively, and even as attractive. So I grew up convincing others and myself that I am a Pacific Islander, because why not? Maybe I had Samoan heritage without me knowing it?

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The media we consume is indeed very powerful. Its imagery does not only present entertainment values, it also depicts identities we are compelled to swallow and digest without us being conscious about them.

Asians, for instance, are either superfunny or supersmart. There was Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” who provided slapstick comedy in the classic film. Then there are the math or piano prodigies that Asians are boxed in, which is probably why we almost always assume the “intsik” must be good at math.

For such reasons, representation has become such an important issue recently. Not until the blockbuster successes of “Black Panther” earlier this year and “Crazy Rich Asians” the past weekend did many of us realize that we have subscribed to white race dominance for so long.

Indeed, people of color are supremely misrepresented in mainstream media. A study by the University of Southern California revealed that only around 5 percent of the top 100 films last year featured Asian characters who had speaking lines.

But, with “Crazy Rich Asians,” it’s been proven that something can be done about it, to a wildly successful outcome. Thus, not only is the film important for Asian-Americans, but also for us who are in our home countries. We are such massive consumers of Western media, such that it has struck a chord in our cultural and personal narratives even if we are physically that far from Hollywood.

The film may not represent all the spectrums of Asian communities. Not all Asians are alabaster-white, cosmopolitan or crazy rich, after all. But on a global scale, it’s a huge step.

Locally, representation should be just as important, given that all our telenovelas and blockbuster hits are just as whitewashed, even though they cast Filipino actors. We have our own minorities, too, and they are just as grossly misrepresented. In the Philippines, the chinito and the mestiza are the “white races,” still subscribing to Western concepts of beauty.

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Representation is not just challenging what is considered attractive or not. It is also about vividly portraying the minority not as caricatures or as stereotypes, but as actual persons with nuances, hopes and aspirations in life.

It’s been quite a year for representation, with “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” being the banner films. This is not only for entertainment, however. As TV writer Teresa Hsiao put it in a tweet, when you see people who are different from you on screen, “they cease to feel different.”

And that’s what it means to be seen.

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