Jes Tom (left)
www.jestomdotcom.com | Twitter@jestom | Instagram@jesthekid
Jes Tom (they/them) is a weird queer stand up comic, gleefully providing the nonbinary queer Asian American radical cyborg perspective that everyone never knew they wanted. Jes has performed at colleges and conferences spanning the frigid American northeast, and in all five boroughs of New York at venues such as Joe's Pub, Brooklyn Museum, and the Atrium at Lincoln Center.
Chewy May (right)
Twitter@chewycomedy | Instagram@chewymay
Chewy May is a New York City based comedian who has performed for clubs and specialty showcases all around. Her comedy has often been described as awkwardly charming. She has been the featured comedian in many noteworthy showcases in New York City, such as Brooklyn Pride 2016, Crosstown Comedy Festival, The MicIsOpen, Brooklyn College Comedy Showcase.
Interview conducted on 04/01/2017 (Skype interview)
throwdown815: To start things off, can the both of you speak a little bit about your ethnic background, and whether or not there were on-screen characters that you could relate to growing up?
Jes Tom: Totally. I'm a fifth generation American, half Japanese, half Chinese. I grew up in San Francisco, California, so I actually had kind of a different sort of experience from a lot of folks. Not so much in media, but in the world I actually did see a lot of my own representation just because in San Francisco there's a lot of east Asian American folk. And particularly folks who were third, fourth, fifth generation like me, who have been there for a really long time. Everybody - the teachers, the doctors, the dentist, the person who drives the bus - they were all Asian people where I grew up. I did kind of grow up being like, "Oh, I can do anything. I can be whatever I want." Then it wasn't until I moved out of that space that I was like, "Oh, the whole world isn't like that actually. This whole country isn't like that." People really have these really old, backwards ideas of Asian people and of Asian Americans that I had the privilege to not really encounter. For me, as far as media goes, I did turn to manga and anime, especially as a Japanese American, to find something that I related to more than I saw in Hollywood celebrities and stuff like that. I read a lot of classic Shoujo manga, like Inuyasha and Ningyo Ga Fuchi. My favourite was Azumanga Daioh, which is just about a group of five friends who are all girls, who are all in school. Me and my friends would pick out which one each of us was, so that was what I was doing when I was growing up.
Chewy May: For me growing up, I'm not sure if I was considered a first generation or a second generation American. My parents were born and raised in China, but they were in this country 20 years before I was born. Similar to Jess, I grew up in Brooklyn Chinatown, so I was surrounded by Chinese people, and on weekends we would go to Chinatown to visit my grandparents. Yeah, and I grew up watching Chinese dramas and TV shows. I didn't really get in touch with the American culture until going to school, and trying to assimilate with my friends there. And my school was predominately white, so I didn't know from an early age how the world viewed Asian Americans. I grew up watching Asian dramas, but also watching American TV a little bit. When I would see people like Lucy Liu on Ally McBeal, that would make me happy. Or seeing Sammo Hung in his action television show, I think it was called Martial Law, that made me happy as well. Yeah, it's like little glimpses of that in my childhood would make me happy.
td815: And what motivated you guys to make this video?
CM: It started off with Jes' Facebook post, because before that post, I didn't know about Scarletr Johansson's casting in Ghost in the Shell. And after reading that post, I decided that there's already so many articles and blogs written about whitewashing and misrepresentation of race and identity. So our idea was, why don't we come up with a video that actually shows people how it negatively affects us.
JT: So my Facebook post was written pretty much right after the first teaser trailer came out, and it was about how whitewashing people of colour out of movies has real life effects and consequences. So that was the post I had written, that Chewy saw.
td815: The video itself has a pretty strong message. Was it made solely in response to Ghost in the Shell, or were you guys trying to comment on a larger issue here?
JT: We're basically just using Ghost in the Shell as one example, because, at the time it was just the most relevant example. But since then, we've already seen multiple other instances, or either whitewashing or misrepresentation, happen in the media. From Iron Fist to Death Note that's gonna come out on Netflix. So the video itself doesn't have to be specifically about Ghost in the Shell, it's just an example of the whitewashing that's happening.
CM: Yeah, it's called Ghost in the Shell PSA because it's the most relevant currently. But it's for the larger issue at hand for whitewashing and characterization of people of colour.
td815: Let's say that an Asian person was cast in the lead role of Ghost in the Shell (or another major Hollywood movie). What would've been the biggest impact of this?
CM: The biggest impact of that would've been that we finally see ourselves in an American blockbuster as a superhero, at the forefront character of a franchise. Instead of the sidekick or a supporting role. And this would've been a great message to Asian Americans, both adults and kids.
JT: And to me, it's not just about seeing an Asian American in a leading role. These are characters that were specifically written as Asian people, based on Asian people. So it's really more about staying true to the stories. I mean, as an Asian American I turned a lot to anime and manga because I wasn't really seeing myself that represented in American movies or American TV. To me, when anime gets turned into an American live action movie or an American live action TV show, and then they cast no Asian people or they whitewash it, that's just really a bummer to me because I'm already like, those were the stories that I had turned to.
td815: So for a movie like The Great Wall, where they did cast a white male (Matt Damon) in the leading role, but the rest of the cast and crew were predominantly Asian, is this a step in the right direction?
JT: I have pretty hard feelings about that. What I don't like about The Great Wall is that it's a different issue, it's not whitewashing because the character is supposed to be white. But it is a white saviour narrative. So it's the same narrative as The Last Samurai.
CM: It's a white man coming to foreign land, learning out culture in a short amount of time, and saving it and then becoming the leader of it. That's my interpretation of The Great Wall.
td815: To change gears a bit. What do you say to people who argue that even though Asians aren't represented well in the Western media, you can always look to Asian cinema where that isn't a problem. Obviously, I understand it's a bit different, but there is representation of your own ethnicity if you look elsewhere.
JT: I mean, that's perfectly great, but for me as an Asian American, that doesn't matter. You know what I mean? Okay, here I am, I'm a fifth generation American, I'm half Chinese and half Japanese. I don't speak Chinese, I don't speak Japanese, so already if I'm looking at anime I'm watching it with subtitles. There's already a cultural disconnect that's happening there. I can get connected to it because it's animated, so it's more universal in as far as how people can identify with it, but there's already a cultural disconnect there. If I want to, I can watch Korean dramas or Japanese movies or Chinese movies, but as an Asian American, where is our representation? That's what I'm saying. If we're taking a story like Ghost in the Shell for example, or a story like Death Note, and we're going to bring it into America, we're going to reset it. Well, Ghost in the Shell is still set in whatever futuristic Japan that is, but for Death Note, they set it in America. Why then does the character have to be white? Here I am, a fifth generation Asian American, my Japanese family has been here 100 years; how come I don't get represented anywhere?
td815: There's probably an obvious answer here, but why do you think they didn't just cast an Asian female actress as opposed to Scarlett Johansson?
JT: Well, you know, money's always quoted as being a factor, even though that's actually not accurate because by and large these whitewashed movies tend to tank in the theatres. It's also true that Asian Americans are a huge population that goes to the theatre and pays money to see movies. Ultimately, I think it just comes down to who's making the decisions up top. I think that we talk a lot about castings and the actors. But actually, I think the question should be who are the producers? Who are the directors? Who are the people who are making the decisions? If those people decide a white actress like Scarlett Johansson is going to be universally superior over any Asian actress, they're going to go with Scarlett Johansson.
CM: Yeah, like a lot of our criticism for this video was that Scarlet Johansson was universally appealing and that she can sell tickets. But there have been a lot of Asian movies in the US that were able to sell tickets, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. for example
td815: And over the past 5 or 10 years, would you say that the whole problem of representation is improving? Maybe improving slowly, but still improving to some degree?
JT: Well, I kind of think that's a complicated question. I don't really know, because sometimes you look at some of the stuff that was made in the 1990s, in the sort of post-racial fantasy that we were in in the 90s. In some ways, it seems like there was more multiculturalism and white clip take of multiculturalism. Whether or not they were necessarily good or truthful stories, I don't know. Especially for East Asian people and the issue of whitewashing specifically, I actually don't think it's getting better at all. If you look at like, Iron Fist just, which came out two weeks ago - that's a story from the 80's. Here we are rehashing these really old orientalist, racist, kung fu tropes, that are old and we're treating them as though they're new, and we're making them again. This thing with taking an anime or taking a story that was about Asian people and casting white people over it, that's been happening, that's the status quo. To the point where this live action Disney Mulan movie is coming out, and they just announced that they're going to have a full Asian cast, and people were shocked. Because we don't expect that, because it's literally the status quo. That we don't expect that a movie set in China about a historic Chinese folkloric figure would have a full Asian cast because of the status quo that somebody gets whitewashed. I actually think that particularly for East Asian folks, it's not actually getting better. I don't know. It's different and more complicated for people of colour of lots of different backgrounds or trans people or queer people, it's different. I would say specifically for East Asian people, I don't think that it's really getting better.
CM: Yeah, I agree that it's not getting better, but I do feel like nowadays we have a stronger voice in media through Constance Wu, through B.D. Wong, about the importance of representation for us in the media and our own stories.
JT: It's not getting any better, but our voices are getting heard more. I feel like that's what's hindering a lot of people.
td815: And if we're going to correct this problem, where do we start?
JT: To me it all happens from the top down, so it's about who's getting funding to tell what stories? Whose stuff gets green lit? Whose stuff gets shot down? What I would really like to see, is more content, more movies, more TV coming from Asian American folks. Written and produced and directed by Asian American folks, and then probably starring Asian American folks too, just because that's probably how it would come out. Really, I would like to see from the top down changes to be made in as far as whose stuff ends up getting produced, and that it's not just the same five white guys or whatever it is who make the same movies over and over again.
CM: Definitely. I also believe that the reason why ABC is now showcasing a lot of Asian American families is because there's an Asian American in the executive office pushing for more diverse content in the network. We just need more diversity in the people that make these decisions for us.
td815: Speaking of opportunities, whenever people talk about representation in the media, there always seems to be two issues. One is with respect to job opportunities and how tough it is for minorities working in media, and the other is more about the cultural impact this has for minorities. Are these two things separate issues? In that, even if there are more opportunities and roles for Asians in Hollywood, the roles themselves matter on a different level?
JT: I don't think that they're two separate issues necessarily. I think that they really go hand in hand, because for me, I am an Asian American actor and writer and creator. Let's say it's harder for me to get booked on an acting gig than it is for a white person who looks fairly similar to me. That's true, it is true that I don't get auditions as much as a lot of different folks actually, just because there's really not a lot of parts out there that are for Asian people. Then the result of that is that my face or faces like me don't end up on the screen as much, so anybody who is watching TV or watching movies, who is likely a young Asian person for example, maybe a young queer Asian person, because I'm queer, isn't seeing themselves represented on screen. They are going to suffer on that identity based level. I kind of think that they're related issues.
CM: I agree. As an Asian American artist, our voice is not really valued as much. Our stories might be, but our full opinions might not be. Yeah, it's a mix of constraints on jobs and also for younger generations to see our faces on the screen. It's definitely an issue that we were trying to tackle.
td815: And final question, do you guys have any other future collaborations or projects that you're planning to do together or even separately?
CM: Well, I'm actually working on a couple of comics I put together in response to Scarlett Johansson's response to the whole Ghost in the Shell controversy. I have a little mini comic strip up about it, using her actual words, but illustrating what her words mean to me. It's up there right now (on her Facebook page).
JT: It's awesome. It looks really cool.
CM: Yeah. I'm also working on another short dealing with white feminism in response to this, because I don't know if you read the Marie Claire article about Scarlett Johansson's response where she says that for her, it's not about race, it's about uplifting women. And how she has that pressure on her shoulders. I have a short coming out in response to that.
JT: I'm just kind of doing my thing. I've gotten some good standup material out of everything that's transpired since this video went viral from all of the positive and negative reactions that we've gotten. I'm also working on some of my own stuff right now, including a horror movie that is slightly based on my own Asian American experience, but that's really just on the writing end right now. Yeah, we both really have stuff popping.