By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
With the New Year underway, it’s the perfect time to take a moment and reflect on 2013’s biggest hits and misses in pop culture. It’s been an interesting year, which saw Asian Americans breaking ground in new ways in pop media, as well as some spectacularly offensive moments from celebrities and teenagers alike. Let’s look back!
10. Kristen Kish of “Top Chef”
If you’re a reality show fanatic, then you may remember that chef Kristen Kish won this year’s season of the competitive cooking reality show “Top Chef.” Kish, who is a Korean American adoptee, was the first Asian American female winner on the show. Kish’s prize included $125,000, and she spent a portion of it on a trip to Korea to discover and connect with her homeland for the first time.
Kish’s run on “Top Chef” took place in Seattle, which featured episodes in numerous well-known restaurants in the Emerald City, making her tenure on the show and subsequent win more memorable for local viewers (and this column’s readers).
9. “Life of Pi” at the Academy Awards
Although the 2014 award season is just around the corner, I’d like to return to this past season and call out director Ang Lee’s win during the 85th Academy Awards earlier this year. Lee, who is Taiwanese American, took home an Oscar for Best Director for the adventure drama film “The Life of Pi.” Lee is also known for his directorial efforts on “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
In addition to Lee’s Oscar award, “The Life of Pi” was nominated for a total of 11 awards, and took home more Academy Awards than any other film nominated for 2013. The film also starred Indian actors Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, and Adil Hussain.
8. Katy Perry goes geisha
During this year’s American Music Awards, mega pop star Katy Perry performed her hit single “Unconditionally” live against a geisha-inspired backdrop, which included Perry and her backup dancers sporting kimonos, oil-paper umbrellas, and pale make-up.
Perry’s use of Oriental imagery was annoying because it continued to perpetuate the stereotype that Asian women make for submissive, docile, and doting lovers. The worst part is that Perry doesn’t seem to understand what is offensive about her use of these images. She saw the performance as an homage to Japanese culture. How typical.
Unfortunately, music award shows are hotbeds for offensive racial images and slurs. I don’t think this is a trend that will go away in 2014, but can we at least hope that some celebrities will have more awareness about these things?
7. Clichés on “Dads”
Several media outlets and blogs reported on the blatant, racist humor found in the FOX sitcom “Dads.” The freshman sitcom, which features Asian American actresses Brenda Song and Vanessa Lachey as leads, generated controversy when the show’s pilot showcased Song appearing in a skimpy “Sailor Moon” outfit as a joke.
Although the controversy first came to light in September, the show survived its initial negative response, and has since been picked up for a full season. I’ve actually watched a few episodes of “Dads,” and I don’t find it funny or original at all. I’m surprised it has made it as far as it has. Still, 2014 has just begun — it’ll be interesting to see whether this show survives past its first season or not.
6. Hayao Miyazaki’s imminent retirement
Famed Japanese Academy Award-winning director and animator Hayao Miyazaki made waves in 2013 when he announced his imminent plans for retirement. Miyazaki, who has become synonymous with the Japanese anime industry, is revered for his acclaimed animated films, such as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” and “Spirited Away.”
Miyazaki cited his need to rest among primary reasons for his retirement, as well as a desire to pursue other projects outside of animation. Though his retirement is not yet official, Miyazaki’s latest film “The Wind Rises” will see a limited U.S. release in early 2014, so his work is not disappearing from us quite yet!
5. Roger Ebert’s death
The world bid adieu to famed film critic and journalist Roger Ebert in April 2013, who passed away after an 11-year battle with cancer. Ebert is revered in Asian American cinema circles for his public defense of the indie film “Better Luck Tomorrow” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. “Better Luck Tomorrow” was director Justin Lin’s debut film, and is considered a cult classic in independent Asian American film. Ebert’s public defense put the movie on the radar of major studios, and also widened the distribution of Asian American films to new audiences.
Ebert was a true supporter and friend to Asian American filmmakers, actors, and audiences alike, as he understood the importance for multifaceted representations of minorities in American media. Roger Ebert, you will be dearly missed.
4. Chinese food goes viral
One of the most popular YouTube videos in 2013 was the inane music video for “Chinese Food,” a pop song performed by unknown teenager Alison Gold. The video observes Gold craving and singing about Chinese food, which is illustrated through fellow teens dressed as geishas, cliché Oriental music, and an adult man in a panda suit. You know, just the usual hallmarks of Chinese cuisine and culture.
Apparently, mimicking geishas was a trendy choice in offensive Oriental imagery this year. I don’t think anybody actually enjoyed this song, but it was one of those ridiculous car wrecks that nobody could avert their eyes from, giving the song its unpredicted popularity. The song even charted on the Billboard Hot 100, and spawned a prequel music video that explains the origins of Gold’s love for Chinese food. Don’t watch it. Seriously.
3. Miss America: Nina Davuluri
America finally saw its first Asian American queen during the 2014 Miss America pageant when Indian American Nina Davuluri took home the title during this year’s competition. But despite the fact that Davuluri was born in America, detractors lambasted the pageant organization for awarding the crown to someone who allegedly wasn’t American, simply based on her race and skin color.
Davuluri brushed the negative commentary aside, however, and refocused the conversation on her then-future plans for her reign. Haters aside, Davuluri’s crowning is monumental because it’s not every day you get to see an Asian woman take home the crown in a mainstream beauty pageant. No matter your stance on beauty pageants, I think we can agree that representation in all facets of mass media is important.
2. Reflecting on the “Fast and the Furious” franchise
This year saw both happy and sad news from the “Fast and the Furious” movie franchise. The sixth installment — titled “Fast & Furious 6” — is the most popular installment to date, and opened this past May amid much fan anticipation. “Fast & Furious 6” was also the third highest-grossing film worldwide in 2013.
Director Justin Lin was one of the franchise’s most prolific directors, having directed four installments of the films, including the recent sixth one. In 2013, Lin announced that he would no longer direct the films due to the demanding and overlapping production schedules of the sixth and seventh films. Director James Wan took over for the seventh film.
More recently, lead actor Paul Walker’s unexpected and tragic death sent the franchise’s future into question.
The seventh installment, which had been on a holiday break at the time of Walker’s death, was delayed for a few weeks to allow filmmakers to rework the script. The seventh film is currently slated for release in spring 2015.
1. High drama in hi-tech: Google gets scandalous
There was a point in 2013 where you couldn’t consume news online without catching a glimpse of the unfolding scandal out of Silicon Valley. In the midst of Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s divorce from former wife Anne Wojcicki, a rumor erupted that the power couple split when Brin began a new relationship with Google Glass marketing manager Amanda Rosenberg. Rosenberg is of Asian descent.
The scandal made such waves that celebrity magazine “People” even made it one of its cover stories, and published a photo of an Asian girl, who was mistakenly identified as Rosenberg. Their gaffe caused uproar in the media, which was made especially ironic given that magazine editors and interns could have, well, Googled and fact checked the photo to verify that it was actually one of Rosenberg.
Still, all the commotion from this high-profile love triangle makes this my top pop culture story for 2013. The tech industry never fails to surprise! (end)
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.