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Notes on Creation

Latest thoughts on the creative life

When Irish-Americans Rioted Against Whiteface

Jennifer de Guzman

theda-bara-xlarge.jpg

Theda Bara was a siren of early film, playing seductresses like Salomé and Cleopatra. An “evil woman” on screen, she was in private life more given to reading in her free time than ruining men. She was unique in her time as a screen actor in that she took the time to research and read about the people whom she played.

As lucrative as her career playing femmes fatales was (she was earning $4,000 a week), by the late 19-teens, Bara wanted to shed her “vamp” image and reinvent her public persona. The project she thought would help her do this was Kathleen Mavourneen, a tale of a happy Irish peasant girl who attracts the designs of an ill-intentioned squire.

The reviews were positive. The famous film industry columnist Louella Parsons praised Bara's role as “one of the best performances of her career” and The Houston Chronicle noted Bara's “beauty and charm.”

But there was an unforeseen problem. Theda Bara was, after all, not Irish.

Theda Bara in Kathleen Mavaurneen

Theda Bara in Kathleen Mavaurneen

Fox Studios had concocted an outlandish biography for her, saying that she was the daughter of an Italian artist and French actress, born in a tent in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, raised in the Théâtre Grand Guignol in Paris, and then discovered by an American film executive and whisked away just in time to escape the Great War. Lies, of course. In reality, Theodosia Burr (yes, named after Aaron Burr's daughter) Goodman was a middle-class Jewish girl from Cincinnati. 

To the Irish-American community, such a woman had no place playing an Irish girl, and the depiction of Ireland in Kathleen Mavoureen was offensively stereotypical. Recounted in Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden, “all hell broke loose” when the film opened. “The Friends of Irish Freedom and the Central Council of Irish Associations violently objected to the depiction of poverty in Ireland... Other groups — in a foreshadowing of today's Politically Correct casting furor — objected to a 'Jewess' portraying a beloved Irish heroine.” Riots started in San Francisco and spread throughout the country. Mobs destroyed theaters. Bara received death threats. The movie was withdrawn after only a few days in theaters.

Well.

First of all, let's do away with Golden's dismissive categorization of today's controversies relating to whitewashing and white actors playing people of color as “Politically Correct casting furor.” (She wrote these words twenty years ago, and yet we're still hearing complaints about being “politically correct.”) These are important issues that I have written about before. Minority communities deserve fair treatment in stories about members of our communities, fictional or otherwise.

What I want to focus on is that this rioting mob, offended at the depiction of the culture of their ethnic origin, was not Black or Native American or Latino or Asian. They were Irish. We would call them white now, but at the time, the Irish-American community faced some discrimination. (I say some because the early 20th century was also the time of Jim Crow laws and lynching and the Chinese Exclusion Act.) Over time, however, Irish-Americans were able to fold themselves in the American whiteness. This isn’t an option for people of color in the United States. No matter our successes and accomplishments — or even our proximity to whiteness, as is the case of Asian-Americans in tech — we will never be white. Nor do we want to be!

What we want is fair representation in popular culture, and that is still an upward climb. For example, the actor Ed Skrein recently resigned from playing Ben Daimio in Hellboy, after its producers failed to learn from the casting mistakes of Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, and Doctor Strange. Daniel Dae Kim is set to take over the role. (Kim and Grace Park quit their jobs on Hawaii 5-0 after the show’s producers refused to pay them equally to their white co-stars.) And speaking of casting mistakes, as of this post, the white actor Zach McGowan is still cast as native Hawaiian Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in the upcoming World War II film Ni’ihau. In the case of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, even being shown on screen is a challenge. A new report found that 64% of American television shows over the past decade didn’t have a single regular AAPI character.

Just gonna leave this pic of Daniel Dae Kim here.

Just gonna leave this pic of Daniel Dae Kim here.

I have seen the pushback against people who speak out about these inequities. They’re met with barrages of responses from (mostly) white people who insist that protesting is an overreaction, who go to great length to rationalize whitewashed casting, or who wonder why we make such a big deal when there are far more pressing issues in the world. And we’re not even destroying theaters!

So let’s remember the Irish-Americans who quite literally fought against an offensive depiction of their heritage when we’re faced with detractors who think our hashtag campaigns are too disruptive and radical.
--
To learn more about Theda Bara, check out this October 2014 episode of You Must Remember This.)

Psylocke & Me: Totally Problematic

Jennifer de Guzman

At the beginning of the month, I was lucky enough to be a guest of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. It was a truly stimulating experience, and I met members of the Asian diaspora who further informed my experience of being Asian outside of Asia: Will Yu, who created #StarringJonCho; the actor Lee Shorten, who was in The Man in the High Castle and spoke about his experience being adopted by a non-Asian Australian family; Jeff Yang, journalist and father of Hudson Yang, the young star of Fresh Off the Boat; Bernard Chang, comic book artist behind Batman Beyond and covers of Hulk and New Super Man; and of course my friends in the comics industry — Sarah Kuhn, Christine Norrie, and Jon Tsuei.

Many thanks to VAFF founder Barbara Lee for inviting me and Leonard S. Chang for moderating the comics panel!

In each session, the panelists gave a brief talk, and then sat down to answer a moderator's and the audience's questions. Here is a rough transcript of my talk.


Hello, everyone. My name is Jennifer de Guzman.  I’m a writer and I’ve worked as an editor, PR person, and journalist in the comics industry since 2001. In the last 15 years I’ve seen representation of people of color become ever more visible in the industry, and in particular of mixed race Asian people of all backgrounds like myself.

A bit about me: Former California Poet Laureate Al Young once called me a “quintessential Californian.” And I’ll take that — my family history is one of immigration, of a grandfather who worked in Chinese restaurants while he went to business college, of another who worked at the docks and on farms, of two sets of grandparents who flouted anti-miscegenation law in order to marry, two mixed-race parents who found their places — and each other — in the rich Bay Area Filipino community.

Sometimes, though, I find this quintessentially Californian history a strange match for who I am — I'm an Anglophile with degrees in English, a nerd who loves comics, a vegetarian (and if you don’t think that’s at odds with being Filipino, you’ve never tried to ask for vegetarian food at a Filipino restaurant). 

As time has gone on, I’ve recognized that the only bounds on my identity are those placed there by people who make assumptions when they see me or struggle to put me in a category that they know how to name.

It's a weird feeling — feeling like you're neither one thing nor another. To put it in a way comics nerds like me will understand: It’s kind of like being Psylocke.

psylocke-x-men1.jpg

OK, for those of you who don’t know, this is Psylocke. (The art is by Billy Tan, a Malaysian artist.) I’ll try to explain what her deal is really quick because it’s confusing even to die-hard Marvel experts. 

She looks like your average comic book ninja-y Orientalist trope assassin, but she’s not! She’s a psychic mutant, for one thing. And her real name is Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock, and she is a white British aristocrat in a Japanese woman’s body. (How that came to happen isn’t worth getting into here.) But she’s also Kwannon — that’s the Japanese woman — since when her consciousness was moved into Kwannon’s body, some of Kwannon’s consciousness remained as well.

So, yeah, she’s super problematic.

But you know, so am I. I don’t know how to say even one sentence in Ilocano. I read Charles Dickens instead of Jose Rizal, John Steinbeck instead of Carlos Bulosan — even though manong Bulosan’s life closely mirrors both of my grandfathers’. I read comics instead of komiks

So I am Filipino and conscientiously so — I mean, I read Jessica Hagedorn — but at the same time, sometimes I feel like I'm not Filipino enough. I was born in the U.S.; my parents were born in the U.S. One of my grandfathers died before I was born, the other died when I was 16. My direct, living ties to the Philippines are gone. If I ever visited Ilocos Sur, I’m sure I would be nearly as baffled and out-of-place as I was when I visited Beijing.

But the Philippines can never completely be a foreign country to me. I have to carry it with me. Manong Bulosan said “America is in the heart,” but so is a distant place that you may have never been — a place that shaped those who came before you. As much as I feel like just your average American when I’m out in the world, like I said, here is this face, this hair, these eyes, this skin, all somehow signaling that I am from another place, all drawing the questions so many of us of Asian ethnicity know so well — “What are you?” “Where are you from? No, where are you from originally?”

So then I’m reminded — like Psylocke, I’m two consciousnesses in one body. I am an American, but one who always has to be aware of her foreignness. We all know we have to do this. Because the moment may come when a teacher whose class you’ve been in for weeks or some random woman on the street will ask you if you speak English or another parent at the water park won’t recognize you as the mother of your own children, who are half caucasian. You have to be prepared.

You have to accept that your identity is complicated, and that your own awareness of your identity is complicated. 

Well, you don’t have to. Maybe you don’t recognize the micro-aggressions for what they are, maybe you even internalize racism without realizing it. It seems like that’s something some members of my family have done. They’re voting for Trump. Yeah, I don’t know.

But if you’re a creative person — if you live to create and tell stories — you can’t not be aware of the Marvel-Universe-level complexity of your identity. When you’re brainstorming,  your mind finds these complexities and paradoxes, these internal and external conflicts, and turns them into stories. 

That’s how I realized Psylocke is a symbol — not a perfect one; like I said she’s totally problematic — of my relationship with my ethnicity, which I admit is kind of dysfunctional.

I even named this dysfunction after her: Psylocke Syndrome. It’s when you’re Asian (or any a person of color of any ethnicity, I guess), but you and your family are so thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream Western culture you live in that you’re afraid you’re a fraud. Like, you may have this face, but inside maybe you’re just as white as Betsy Braddock, English aristocrat. 

And then you remember Betsy Braddock isn’t just that white English aristocrat inside anymore. Not just because she has Kwannon’s consciousness — but she also has that face, those eyes, that hair, and that’s going to affect how people see her and treat her. What’s that feel like? We know what that feels like! 

And then you resent people for treating you like you’re foreign, other. You want to be seen and treated as who you are — a unique person and also as a member of the same society, one whose history isn’t foreign but essentially — quintessentially — American — or Canadian. I want to be me, seen as me — but I want to be seen as part of “us,” too.

That desire is part of that double consciousness, which can feel a lot like insecurity. The insecurity of wanting to exist as a paradox; the conflict between our many identities — That's what stories are made out of. And what’s more, the particular anxieties that arise out of our conflicts have been, until now, largely unexamined in mainstream entertainment — they’re not in novels, not in movies, not in comics.

Well, a little bit in comics, thanks to my girl  Psylocke. 

And a few awesome Asian creators in comics — here are some books that explore the experience of the Asian diaspora.

Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Young, Scrappy, and Hungry: Marvel's Iron Heart Cover Blunder

Jennifer de Guzman

art by Stefano Caselli

Riri Williams is "Iron Heart" — one of Marvel's newest superheroes, a 15-year-old prodigy who builds an Iron Man-esque suit of armor in her MIT dorm room. Along with Spider-Gwen, Squirrel Girl, and Moon Girl, she's a character developed to appeal to young, female readers.

Marvel and one of J. Scott Campbell, one of the artists doing a variant cover, didn't quite remember that. (The art on this post is not the cover in question — that is by fabulous series artist Stefano Caselli.)

I write about the over-sexualization of teen girls, target audiences, and poor art choices at Women Write About Comics. The Campbell cover was eventually pulled after fan objections — but will the industry learn from this incident?

Whitewashing and Yellowface: When Is It Going to Stop?

Jennifer de Guzman

Battle Angel Alita, as depicted by creator Yukito Kishiro

Battle Angel Alita, as depicted by creator Yukito Kishiro

My essay on Hollywood's "Asian Problem" is up at TeenVogue!

With Emma Stone cast as a hapa woman, Scarlett Johansson playing Major Motoko Kusanagi in the film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and not a single Asian actor in the running for the title role in Battle Angel Alita, the erasure of Asians in Hollywood is hitting a crisis point.

How does this problem hurt everyone, Asians and non-Asians alike?

It’s a mindset that diminishes Asian people’s humanity. It also assumes white audience’s inability to learn to empathize with Asian characters, even though exposure to people of diverse backgrounds diminishes the cross-race effect. And because of this bias, generations of Americans of all ethnicities have grown up without seeing rich, diverse, and complex depictions of Asian people in the media we consume. The Kung Fu heroines of my childhood may have modeled strength and excellence to me, but they shouldn’t have been my only models.

Read more at TeenVogue.

Think of a City

Jennifer de Guzman

Think of a City by Jennifer de Guzman and Kate Brown. Full size here.

This breathtaking image is by Kate Brown, an artist whose praises I cannot sing enough, for the Think of a City project curated by the extraordinarily talented artist and architect Alison Sampson. Each work in the series of images is inspired by the previous one, all arising out the seed of an idea: Think of a City. A writer and an artist collaborate (though sometimes the writer and artist is the same person) on each image, unfolding a picture of a city -- or many cities -- that is also a portrait of the minds of its creators.

My city came to me long ago, a city on lockdown during a modern-day plague. I wrote about it years ago in a short story called "Interior Scenes." When Alison asked me to be part of Think of a City, I knew I wanted the piece I wrote to be inspired by that story. The previous image, by Addison Duke and Ryan Burton, showed an impish creature dumping some phosphorescent-looking mushrooms into -- what is that? Perhaps it connects with the turreted city in the background, clinging to a cliff over the sea. Perhaps those mushrooms would grow, and spread... and kill.

Who are our two quarantined people gazing at each other? The girl's name is Sascha. The boy's name is James. I don't know the name of James' cat. Sascha has a cat, too, but you can't see her.

The rest? I'll leave up to you.