While minorities still struggle to find their place in mainstream Hollywood, YouTube has been a great home and career launching pad for young Asian Americans who are aspiring filmmakers and storytellers, from KevJumba, Freddie Wong and Ryan Higa to the teams at YOMYOMF, International Secret Agents and Wong Fu Productions. But if you think about it, the really popular ones are mostly guys. So how come when we ask young YouTube fans -- many of whom are girls -- to name the female filmmakers on YouTube they watch, they can only name a few?
"That really shocked me," says Brian Hu, the Artistic Director of the Pacific Arts Movement. "Because for me, traditionally in Asian American cinema, so many of the most illustrious names are women. And I was wondering: What happened? If YouTube is supposed to be this exciting, democratic space where people who traditionally didn’t have access to the mainstream suddenly have access, how come it’s just men that are directing the works?"
And it's not that there aren't successful Asian American women on YouTube, but most of the well-known ones are style and beauty bloggers, singers, and actresses acting in shorts written primarily by men. So where are the Asian American women at the helm, telling our stories?
Christine Chen. (Photo courtesy of Christine Chen)
Christine Chen, a producer at the popular channel Wong Fu Productions, says it's important for women to be the creators, because they bring an inherently different and unique perspective from the male writers. She recently co-wrote the Wong Fu short "After Us," which was inspired by a break-up, and she was really encouraged by the reaction from other girls who related to it.
The importance of women writers seems obvious enough, but what are some of the still-existing barriers for entry?
"You would think Asian American actresses who are very comfortable in front of the camera, who understand what it takes to film something, would want to be on YouTube or start writing their own stuff," Chen says. "But we [at Wong Fu] work with a lot of them! And I bring it up to them all the time. I'm always like, 'You guys should put your own content, set yourself apart and build your own following, so when you go to auditions, you actually have a fanbase.' But for some reason, the actresses don’t want to do it."
Anna Akana -- a popular actress, writer and filmmaker who has found much success on YouTube, with over 1 million subscribers and 90 million views -- says there are still societal pressures and expectations that make it harder for a girl to put herself out there. Not to mention the online harassment from the YouTube comments section.
"I've been called a talentless cunt probably about two dozen times," says Akana, "and I see stuff like that now, and I just laugh about it. Because it's so mean, it's so absurd, and I've heard it so many times that I don't believe it anymore. I think that your life sucks, or you're a kid who just learned a cuss word, and you're just saying this stuff."
"So I've gotten to a point where I'm ok with it," she continues. "But it did suck in the beginning to read 'Kill yourself' or 'Go back to China,' or 'I would fuck your pussy and lick your butthole,' and you're just like 'Whoa, what?' It just sucks because it probably discourages so many girls from ever putting their voice out there, because it's really hurtful. It took me three years to get to the point where I honestly don't care about those kind of comments anymore. But I don't know if a lot of people would have the drive to stick with that for three years."
Christine says that the comments about the guys at Wong Fu are nowhere near as cruel as the comments the women get. She has first-hand experience.
"I'm onscreen for a split second, and I get comments all the time," she says. "Who is she?' 'Who is she dating on Wong Fu?' 'She's not as pretty as this person.' 'How does she get to hang out with Wong Fu Productions looking like that?' It's one thing when one person says it, but when out of a thousand comments, 80 percent of the comments are about how dumb I am and how ugly I look... You have to have a tough skin."
Anna Akana's advice? You can't dwell on it; just be brave and power through.
"So many people are afraid of failure," says Akana. "And I think with entertainment specifically, it's hard because you have to [fail] with an audience. But you should be making so much stuff with a focus on improving every time. And when you put it out there and you have an audience and they criticize it, that's just more of a drive to make the next one better and better and better and learn from it."
"Even if something sucks, I put it up there anyway," she says. "You never know who's going to connect with it. Because there's almost always one person who really likes it."
Full Transcript of the Episode
To learn more about our interviewees:
Wong Fu Productions
CALL FOR TALENT: ISATV (International Secret Agents) is seeking talented people who want their stories to be heard, whether you’re a musician, host, actor, writer, editor, you name it. It's the first time they're doing something like this through ISA's YouTube channel, and those chosen would get a chance to work with and get mentored by notable Asian American YouTubers. Contact them at email@example.com.
This is just one challenge Asian American women face when telling their stories on YouTube, so this is a topic we at Bullet Train would love to revisit. Are we wrong? Are there a ton of Asian online female content creators, but they're just harder to find? Is it a marketing thing? If you're an Asian American woman telling stories on YouTube, whether you have over 1 million subscribers or just started, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear your story!
To hear more episodes of Bullet Train, go to Bullettrainpodcast.com.