I’m exaggerating here. It’s two magazine covers, that hardly qualifies as a month conquered. At the same time, it feels like a big deal to me. One day, maybe it won’t feel like anything at all because it won’t be unusual. For now, though, it’s something to highlight.
Lana Condor covered the March 2019 issue of Cosmopolitan and when that came out in February, I wrote that I couldn’t remember the last time an Asian woman covered Cosmopolitan. A month later, she’s covering the April issue of ELLE Canada.
In the interview, Lana talks about her new puppy, she talks about being adopted, and she talks about always wanting to star in a rom-com but not really believing in the dream because rom-coms typically don’t feature Asian leads. Jenny Han, who wrote To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, has previously shared that she got a lot of pushback for insisting on Lara Jean being played by an Asian actor. Now Lana Condor’s breakout role is from being in a rom-com. And she’s covering fashion magazines two months in a row. You know who’s on the cover of American and British ELLE for April 2019? Taylor Swift. This is not an insignificant month at the newsstand.
In addition to Lana, Gemma Chan is on the cover of Allure. Like Lana, Gemma’s 2018/19 has been a breakthrough, first with Crazy Rich Asians, and award season, and now Captain Marvel. Like Lana, she too is showing up where she wasn’t “supposed to show up” – for Lana it was a rom-com, for Gemma it was a period piece, in Mary, Queen of Scots. Asian people aren’t usually invited to appear in those kinds of period pieces. Which, I guess, is why there was some backlash. Some assholes on social media took issue with it. Gemma has no time for this, telling Allure that:
“Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race,” Chan says. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”
She credits Hamilton for pushing this forward:
“I feel like Hamilton opened minds a lot. We have a black man playing George Washington. They describe it as ‘America then, told by America now.’ And I think our art should reflect life now.”
Some actors of colour get tired of talking about representation all the time – and that’s understandable. Mindy Kaling has explained in the past that she should be able to approach the work the way other creatives work, without the pressure of having to “represent” and be asked about “representation” when white creatives, who are getting most of the opportunities, are rarely required to do the same. This is Mindy’s right, as it is Gemma’s if she wants to keep driving the conversation, perhaps to make up for the fact that there hasn’t been ENOUGH space made for other stories:
Last year, Chan worked on a documentary about the Chinese Labour Corps. “I studied the First World War three times at school. And I never heard that there were 140,000 Chinese in the Allied effort,” she says. “We would not have won the war without them.”
(The writer, Jessica Chia, had) never heard about those Chinese laborers, either. In large part, it’s because of the images that remain. Chan tells me about a mural made to commemorate that war. It was massive, she says. There was a whole section dedicated to the Chinese, but it was painted over when the Americans joined the war effort. “They left one kneeling Chinese figure, which you can still see,” she says. “If people understood that, my parents [might not] have been told, ‘Go home, go back to where you came from’ multiple times. If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”
If we’re talking about painting over things back then and where we are now, well, it’s April 2019, and two Asian women are on two different covers, and there could be more, sure, but the point is, maybe, hopefully, we’ve gotten to the point where they can’t be painted over, not when they’re on the front page.