Old Stereotypes Are Still Alive
Wednesday - January 25, 2006
Years ago I had a session with a talent coach sent to our station from our Mainland corporate office. Visits from these coaches are a routine part of the business for a lot of TV news stations. No big deal. I was eager to improve my on-air performance as an anchor.
Together this woman and I viewed tapes of several of my newscasts. She critiqued delivery and voice and overall body language. She told me I wasn’t expressive enough. “You are ... inscrutable,” she said.
She then went on to talk about other things she didn’t like about me - I was too reserved and ladylike, I was demure and dainty. I appeared too perfect.
I sat across from her trying to digest all of this incredible information. All I could think at that moment was, “What, me? Inscrutable?!”
Hmm. I obviously didn’t know myself very well. Maybe it was a matter of interpretation. What she described as reserve, I thought of as professionalism. What she considered “too perfect,” I considered a simple matter of good grooming. But the use of the word “inscrutable” - now that really annoyed me.
Later I found that she had asked another reporter on staff, “is English your second language?” Yes, he is of Japanese ancestry. No, English is not his second language. And he understood what she was saying very well.
I tell you this because I was asked to participate in a discussion at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii about stereotypes and how they have affected my life and career. The catalyst for the event was the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, currently in theaters. I read the book when it came out. I enjoyed it. It was simply, to me, a good story of a geisha told from a Western point of view. It did not offend. After all, I, too, see the story through a Western filter. I’m American, after all.
But when I saw the movie, I have to admit I squirmed through parts of it. Not because of stereotypes, but because the movie wasn’t all that good. The director, I thought, had created a beautiful world filled with shallow, one-dimensional people. I just couldn’t believe the love story, and that irritated me more than inaccuracies like the flimsy kimono or the unkempt hair. It was not, after all, supposed to be a documentary.
When first approached about the panel I thought I had already figured out what I was going to say. People nowadays are smarter about stereotypes than they used to be. They don’t look at movies and believe that all Japanese women are like the women on the screen because they are more sophisticated and global in their views about people of other cultures. And I believe that’s true - to a certain extent.
But then I have to acknowledge that there’s the other side. I see myself as an all-American woman, and it’s strange to think there are some who see me as Asian first, American second. But then I remember the talent coach - an educated, professional woman who nevertheless fell back on a stereotype in describing my performance and appearance. Heck, I admit I wasn’t relaxed on camera; in fact, I was pretty stiff at first.
I called it lack of experience. She called it inscrutable.
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