This past Friday my friend invited me to an event hosted by the Pan-Asian club at her work. That event was to go to the local Drive-Thru to watch “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Tens Rings.” I eagerly accepted, and I’m happy to say that it was an excellent movie. Simu Liu shines in the titular role, Awkwafina is a hilarious delight, and the film is visually stunning, with one beautifully rendered scene after another. I also left humming the lyrics to “Hotel California,” though I’m not sure if my friends would agree that was such a good thing. I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch this film, because up until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure if I could.
We live in a diverse world, but our media does not always reflect that diversity. Media organizations like the Walt Disney Company have the power to reflect how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Through its films, Disney has the ability to change the cultural conversation regarding the importance of diversity and representation. Disney has recently done this in the newest Marvel release “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Honestly I am not a massive fan of Marvel movies. I think they’re big and loud and a little silly. However, as The Walt Disney Company owns Marvel, I understand that Disney has designed all Marvel films with one goal in mind: to sell as many tickets as possible. They’re not for me, but I understand and respect that a lot of people love them. I thought I might feel the same way about “Shang-Chi,” but a recent Instagram post from Vivien at @freshfrippery changed my mind:
Vivien is a historical costume designer and cosplayer on Instagram with a following of 26 thousand people. I have never met her, but I have always enjoyed her posts, especially her skill and passion for costume design. In her post, Vivien refers to racist incidents she experienced before discussing Shang-Chi’s role in this film. Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first Asian superhero. Simu Liu, a Chinese Canadian, has the weighty responsibility of bringing Shang-Chi to life. His role in this film means a great deal to her, as Vivian felt under-represented in the media she enjoyed. Simu Liu’s response was equally poignant, asserting that movies starring Asian casts will no longer be the exception but part of the rule. Upon reading his powerful words and seeing Vivian’s proud, emotional response to them, they reminded me of an inherent truth: representation matters. All people want to feel fairly represented in the media. When we are not represented fairly or at all, it is like being told that we are nothing. That we do not matter. It says that a film featuring us is an “experiment” rather than a reflection of our lived experiences.
I am grateful to have had the experience of feeling represented. In 2002, Nia Vardalos wrote and starred in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a romantic comedy about a Greek woman who finds love with an Anglo-Saxon Protestant man. When I first saw it, I thought it was funny, but over the years, I have come to understand what a big deal that movie was for me, my family, and my culture. To simply explain “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”‘s impact: I can point to that movie whenever someone asks me about being Greek. In my family, we referred to it as a documentary. When my mom was marrying my dad, an Anglo-Saxon Catholic, she felt like every aspect of her life was overwhelmed by her family’s Greekness. My mom was Toula, and my dad was Ian. Watching “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” allows me to feel connected to my culture. Despite living in the culturally diverse Bay Area, I never felt like there were many Greek people in my hometown. My parents didn’t enjoy going to Greek Orthodox ceremonies, we ate American food, and I never learned the language. When my yaiyai (Grandma) came to the US, she learned that people thought her food was disgusting, so she stopped making it. She felt that her language made her sound stupid, so she only spoke English. Being Greek made her feel like she was less, so she pushed down that part of herself, and didn’t share it with us.
Yet whenever I watch “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a part of me feels like I’m reuniting with family. These characters are dear to me. I feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. It’s a privilege for me to experience this. I want this for everyone else. I want this for every child who feels underrepresented. They deserve to be seen. When I read about Vivian’s experience watching Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” she reminded me of the importance of representation. No film has to be perfect or exact in its portrayal of anyone. My life is not, nor has it ever been, like Toula’s life. I can marry anyone I want, I didn’t have to go to Greek School, and my mom never made me “Moose Caca” for lunch. Yet I feel no less seen by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” We are all the heroes of our own stories. I understand and empathize with why someone of Asian descent would want to support this film.
I am disappointed that the Walt Disney Company has been unwilling to release the film on Disney+ Premier Access. For many people, the streaming service is their only way of safely supporting the film. Supporting this film feels essential now more than ever, given the epidemic of anti-Asian violence sweeping across the country. Per the MGH Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness, by mid-April 2020, over 1,500 cases of Anti-Asian discrimination related to COVID-19 were reported. Chilling reports of Asian Americans experiencing verbal assaults and physical violence have emerged in growing waves. Now, more than ever, we must show our support for the Asian-American community, which includes supporting Asian art. Watching “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a small step, but that step is still movement towards greater representation. In our diverse world, we all deserve to feel seen, and one day, representation will no longer be a privilege for the few.