Disney’s New Cool Girl Aesthetic

“You feel isolated or out of place as an Asian…And I think that’s why I got into acting because I wanted to be anybody else.”—Ming-Na Wen

New Romantix

Andi Mack, the new serialized Asian-American TV show, conceptualized by the white woman behind “Lizzy McGuire”, is airing on Disney Channel. That sentence sat strange with me too. The premise: you’re thirteen and waiting for your first period. You’re in love with eighth-grade Jonah Beck from the ultimate Frisbee team. Your shack is detached from your house. You have a yellow mom and a white dad. You bought an electric bicycle behind your mom’s back, but your very old, very cool sister named Bex has a motorcycle. Then Bex tells you she’s actually your mom. Which means your mom is actually your grandma. Which means America’s new teen mother is yellow, suburban, and rich.

I was also surprised by the show’s novelty (the Sausage Party phenomenon—what’s with people making mature videos with Hannah Montana aesthetics) and if novelty was the only thing that made the show unique. Each actor described the show as “real” which made it different from the rest. I was more surprised because real was ambiguous and America never coddled her teen moms. They were always poor whites, Midwesterners, dumb, hood rats, victims, coerced, bitter, mamis, welfare queens, golddiggers, abandoned. They were exceptions, which was the opposite of real, and never given the luxury to speak for their experiences without a filter, without being framed as the example or counterexample.

Bex is a half Asian girl with style and Polaroids of her boyfriends, plural. Bex is not an exception. Most yellow women in today’s media, regardless of their youth, are marketed as a hipster’s favorite accessory. Margaret Cho, the first Asian American TV show star, is 47 years old, well into her mid-age, sang “My Puss” in a Chinese accent before Awkwafina sang “My Vag” in her Brooklyn backyard. Amy Tan has mentioned her German high school boyfriend who played the guitar. Asian beauty gurus like Sophia Chang and Jennifer Im dominate the blogosphere. Jenny Zhang writes about Shakespeare & Co and blow jobs in eighth grade; Constance Wu writes angry posts about The Great Wall and Casey Affleck. None of the above women have children. Yellow girls write poetry, talk liberal, and dress well. We abort at a rate two times that of white women. While we are always placed under the context of an overbearing mother and the consequent repression that hobbles over, we are never understood as mothers or potential mothers ourselves. We have the means of providing but are not providers. We live as teens, easy, hormonal, trendy. The slight mutation of Bex’s image from cool girl to teen mom is an inversion of the formula many of us understand to be a yellow girl’s past and destiny, albeit self-consciously socially constructed. But what does that mean?

None of us looked up to our mother, but we should have. The era was before 1080p so expressions of race revolved around bad quality YouTube videos, where someone’s Asian mom did things that our moms either did or did not do. Amy Chua exposed our secrets, and our pretty-bad-fully-yellow-school-orchestra’s concertmaster called it the best book ever, two months before he moved off to Pennsylvania, and a year before I quit. My mother wore high heels, worked in Manhattan, dressed in color, and read Bernard Shaw, but the truth was, I knew my becoming in this country would be foreign to her, and my style, when it was done, would be unrecognizable, since America dictated my life and her script was made in China. We didn’t trust our mother figures as role models but that didn’t mean there weren’t any, and I knew if I was going to be pretty, I was going to be wild.

The new girl from Oregon got sex advice from her older sister who yes, went to a strip club and liked it, and also yes, kissed a girl and liked it, and finally yes, had an open relationship with this British guy, who, yeah, had an accent. The girl from my Saturday relativity class told me her ex-boyfriend’s mom gave her condoms that she never used since they didn’t feel good. The viral video about putting on a tampon complete with a diagram of the vagina was done by an Asian girl with heavy eyeliner. Margaret Cho wasn’t the skinniest, but she was still getting it, at age over thirty. These girls were trendy, on the Ivy League track, and aspiring young business professionals, which was the most appealing version of yellow American womanhood that I could find, and bonus, it was easily accessible. Most of everything, their antics, their choices, their escapades, were presented to me well-done, with a shrug, and zero complications. I thought their images were real because their lives were messy and fun, but that was before I realized the messy fun Asian girl was also a trope, a mask. The realization that some of us couldn’t be polygamous, that there was dramatic upkeep involved with pink hair, that some of us turned red after x amount of drinks, was a similar feeling to the moment when my doctor, a black woman, lectured me about low key believing people of color were immune to skin cancer. I knew the ease had to be fake. I just didn’t think its fakeness applied to me.

I find Bex compelling because she fit the trope of a girl growing up yellow, suburban, and rich fast, but the illusion of ease didn’t last past the first episode, and in that case the representation qualifies as real. In a reality where 35% of Asian American pregnancies result in abortion, where Asian American women are four times more likely to contract STDs than their male counterparts, where Asian American women have the largest annual percent increase of 14.3% in HIV rates of any ethnic group, it is important that issues of sexual health, directly related to gendered and raced performance, are addressed. I hope Bex provides a sober representation of a highly seductive trope by highlighting precaution over romance, education over fantasy. No one is the exception. And your style is never your shield.

Christina M. Qiu ’19 is an Applied Mathematics concentrator living in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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