The field of Asian feminist media studies is inchoate and under-defined. Despite increasing archival endeavors to excavate women's work in early to mid-twentieth-century film and media cultures in Asia and continuous scholarly attention to the accomplishments of contemporary Asian women film and media makers, a concerted, in-depth reexamination of women's media work in different parts of Asia has been lacking. This has to do with fundamental difficulties in cognitively mapping the field—difficulties stemming from multifarious modes of practice that resist generalization, limited availability of primary and archival materials, and continuous anxiety with universalized Western critical discourses. These are further compounded by the complex and shifting parameters of what counts as “Asia,” given its mind-boggling linguistic, religious, historical, and regional diversity, and its constantly shifting gender and ethnic politics—all unfolding in relation to divergent yet more or less shared colonial experiences and postcolonial participation in (or resistance to) globalization.
That is to say, every word in the field designation “Asian feminist media,” comes loaded with both overdetermined and under-determined significations, such that any attempt to develop one-size-fits-all narratives would be not only impossible but also misdirected. With this special issue (five articles and one interview), our collective goal is to tentatively map a critical understanding of Asian feminist media authorship, including its formation, articulation, self-reflection, reconstruction, and ramifications. We stress this authorship as stemming from multiple intersections—in situated geopolitics (both intra-Asian and between Asia and what is conventionally seen as non-Asia), in theoretical assemblage (resulting from the clash with Western theoretical hegemony), in historical and sociopolitical constructions of gender identity (in relation to national, regional, racial and ethnic, and other dimensions of identities), in intermedial exploration (encompassing film, television, and video), and finally in institutional infrastructure (including the practitioners' education, multichannel fund-raising, polylocal production, and transnational exhibition). I unpack these intersections below, then lay out a roadmap through the collected essays, and finally conclude with our collective intervention in Asian feminist media historiography.
In their introduction to “What's Left of Asia?,” a special issue of Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, guest editors Yan Hairong and Daniel Vukovich note “the complex histories of struggles that defined and redefined what and how Asia means,” which result in “the challenge that while we cannot escape rethinking the question of Asia, we also can neither reduce Asia to certain Western historical imaginaries nor invoke an essential, ontologically pure Asia as self-evident, self-sufficient, and self-made.” Given Asia's “precarious situation and mixed legacies” that have given rise to divergent imaginaries from both within and outside Asia, the editors propose to rethink Asia “as a signifier for critical regionalism … in light of [the] nascent geopolitical formation.” Referencing Taiwan cultural critic Chen Kuan-Hsing's postulation of “Asia as method,” the editors aim to “undo the West as epistemological and political problematic, and to create alternative frameworks of reference and identification (of inter-Asia, as opposed to the West-and-Asia).” In response to the inquiry regarding “what's left of Asia,” they and the special issue contributors probe the region “as a line of inquiry” situated “between critiques of area studies in North America and discourses that renegotiate regionalization now under way in Asia and beyond.”1
Shifting from Asia as object to Asia as method, and from North American–oriented area studies to a bifocal attention to the dialectic tension between area studies and Asian regionalization, necessarily entails a reconfiguration of our theoretical apparatus in the domain of Asian film and media studies. The practice of applying Western theoretical discourses to non-Western cultural products has been heavily criticized as a form of hegemonic knowledge production. One of the earliest criticisms from an American standpoint appeared in E. Anne Kaplan's “Problematizing Cross-Cultural Research on Film: The Case of China” (1989).2 Western scholars' self-reflection soon developed into what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam poignantly described as “unthinking Eurocentrism” in their eponymous 1994 book, in which they critiqued Hollywood's imperial imaginary while engaging with “third worldist film” and alternative aesthetics of resistance.3 Their later edited volumes continued to espouse the significance of multiculturalism in transnational media studies with the goal of decolonizing global media culture.4
In the field of Asian film and media studies, such disciplinary decolonization arises from continuous anxiety regarding, and negotiation with, the Western theoretical gaze—so much so that Mark Hobart claims that “behind any attempt to rethink Asian media and film lurks the spectre of Eurocentrism.”5 To defuse Eurocentrism—or any form of centrism that reduces “someone else's discourse to your own monologue”—Hobart proposes Bakhtinian polyphony, a dialogic approach that recognizes “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices [with] a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world.”6 Other media critics resort to “de-Westernization.”7 Problematizing the Western gaze, however, does not simply lead to essentialist nativism. For just as global heterogeneity and polyphonification have thrown into disarray Euro-American-centrism, so they have undermined the nation-state paradigm. Both Koichi Iwabuchi and Chris Berry, among many other Asian media scholars, challenge “methodological nationalism,” questioning the usefulness of the nation-state as the primary analytical category in Asian film and media studies.8
Asian media scholars' struggles to find a theoretical pathway that simultaneously problematizes Euro-American hegemony and nationalist essentialism becomes even more urgent with the mobilization of the gender lens. The legacy of Western white feminist movements and theories has been heavily debated in the Asian context by scholars who engage with historically specific locational politics and the ways they shape gender issues in variegated Asian countries and regions.9 Emphasizing diverse communities, affiliations, and practices both within and outside Euro-America, Shohat and Stam posit “relational feminism” to push beyond the white feminist legacy. In this process of decolonizing and transnationalizing feminist discourses, issues of gender and sexuality become increasingly intertwined with issues of race and ethnicity, class, and national, subnational, regional, and transnational geopolitics. Thus Anikó Imre, Áine O'Healy, and Katarzyna Marciniak argue that “transnational processes are inherently gendered, sexualized and racialized. The borders they erase and erect affect different groups differently.”10
This special issue on Asian feminist media contributes precisely to reshuffling the cartography of women's media culture in the geopolitical terrain of Asia—a terrain rife with divergences, tensions, and interactions. The contributors exemplify strategies of reconfiguring theoretical concepts and frameworks by bringing different feminist and womanist discourses to bear on each other so as to instigate dialogue and transformation. They further incorporate cultural studies, postcolonial studies, Asian American studies, and Southeast Asian and South Asian studies to underscore the complex intersectional positioning of gender, race and ethnicity, and locational politics.
A key theoretical lens in this special issue is, unsurprisingly, film and media studies, especially feminist media historiography, intermedial studies, and star studies. Indeed, as we delve deeper into feminist media histories, it becomes imperative that we take into account women's multifarious practices with different media technologies and forms in order to sufficiently understand their labor investment, stakes, and accomplishments. In other words, film is no longer the centerpiece; it must be viewed as one facet in the unfolding mosaic of women's media work as they strategically carve out career trajectories in relation to media technologies, their self-selected and/or created communities, the public, geopolitical circumstances, and their individual and/or collective visions. The task of describing and theorizing intermedial practices is all the more critical because it fully acknowledges their precarious, unpredictable, challenging, and enriching circumstances, and the ways women media practitioners develop flexible agency by negotiating and strategizing such circumstances.
Women media practitioners' agency finds expression not only by venturing into variant media technologies, but also by mobilizing a spectrum of resources in collaboration, funding, exhibition, and distribution in both subnational and transnational arenas. Aside from the fact the most of them have transnational education that already stitches them into border-crossing networks, they also optimize opportunities related to funding, exhibition, and distribution on different scales. In this context, production training collectives, transnational crews and casts, organizations that commission film and media works, film festivals, and alternative exhibition venues coalesce as the infrastructure that can facilitate Asian women's media making. Addressing these regional and transnational institutional and infrastructural networks, our contributors go well beyond textual and semiotic analysis to holistically probe the material conditions that both circumscribe and enable women's media making in Asia.
A ROAD MAP
Our special issue does not pretend to offer a comprehensive narrative of Asian women's media culture. Rather, our contributors deploy seminal examples and astute analysis to collectively develop a method of unpacking and writing feminist media authorship in Asia. Recalling Chen's “Asia as method” and Yan and Vukovich's idea of Asia as a “line of inquiry,” the featured authors delve into the different loci of Asia as shifting terrains of intersectional positions (rather than fixed geographical objects) that shape women's media practices, authorship formation, and participation in the multilayered debates on the “woman question.”
We begin with Jasmine Nadua Trice's “Gendering National Histories and Regional Imaginaries: Three Southeast Asian Women Filmmakers,” which stems from a program of Southeast Asian women filmmakers' short films that Trice curated in 2017 in conjunction with the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, a public-facing academic event that, according to Trice, constitutes an important infrastructural link contributing to fashioning Southeast Asian feminist media culture. Indeed, Trice's main concern is to unpack the filmmakers' scalar agency as they navigate regional and supranational networks of education, funding, exhibition, and distribution while making experimental short films addressing national political and film histories. Analyzing the short films Love (Jai, 2008), Shotgun Tuding (2014), and Eleven Men (2016), respectively created by Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thailand), Nguyễn Trinh Thi (Vietnam), and Shireen Seno (the Philippines), all internationally known Southeast Asian experimental filmmakers, Trice illuminates how these practitioners mobilize “a politics of looking” to create an alternative logic of historical time that is recursive and reflexive, thereby problematizing the teleology of both nationalism and colonial modernity. She argues that the filmmakers articulate a “shared Southeast Asian women's imaginary” that is contingent and yet “embedded in both aesthetic and thematic convergences, as well as parallel institutional structures that cross scales via local arts activism [including creating their own media-training collectives], transnational festival funding structures, and regional festivals and activities.” With their scalar agency, or the ability to navigate funding, exhibition, and distribution networks across local, national, regional, and transnational levels, they produce “a gendered form of regionalism.” The concept of the region prioritizes interactions that exceed the East-West binary and dismantle the national as the key reference point. Southeast Asian feminist regional imaginaries, therefore, enable “a form of transnationalism that works outside the hegemony of globalism.”
Following Trice's study of Southeast Asian women filmmakers who self-consciously articulate a feminist regional imaginary that contests teleological historiography, we switch gears to consider three instances where women media practitioners have carved out decades-long careers, navigating multi-scale infrastructural networks in the nation-state, the region, and transnational settings, making a wide spectrum of works (long and short, experimental and commercial, film and other popular media) that engage with gender issues in intersection with race and ethnic, class, caste, and other sociopolitical hierarchies.
Sangita Gopal's “Media Meddlers: Feminism, Television and Gendered Media Work in India” uses the example of Sai Paranjpye and her “gendered media work” to trace the exchanges between gender, media, and the nation-state, or more specifically the complex mutual constitution between second wave Indian feminism and expanding media ecologies (especially television) from the 1970s on. A self-styled “gypsy” and “media meddler,” Paranjpye remarkably refuses the moniker “woman filmmaker” and shows no attachment to any single medium or subject. Instead, she insists on “meddling,” thus achieving an intermedial career spanning radio, theater, television, state-sponsored documentary film, and mainstream Hindi cinema. She also believes that her gender identity, though not her exclusive concern, enables “a perspectival freedom” to “reorient existing social (and aesthetic) hierarchies and yield new insights.” Her commercially successful human-interest films have been dubbed “middle cinema” by critics—again a label she rejects, for it implies compromises between a male-authored art cinema and mass-market commercial film. Contesting neat binary categorizations, Gopal unpacks how Paranjpye injected the aesthetic, narrative, and generic protocols of television into film and other media to create intermedial hybrids. Thus, Paranjpye's media work is at once local, regional, and intertwined with the nation-state media ecology. She uses commercial genres (comedy, romance, musical) to address gender and other social issues (such as alcoholism, treatment of indigenous populations, water scarcity, environmental degradation, and displacement). Additionally, she leverages her commercial success to build a stable production and exhibition infrastructure to facilitate distribution and audience access. Gopal's nuanced study reveals how Paranjpye's gender perspective shapes and infuses her media work, rendering it intersectional and multivalent in subject matter, in style, in media forms, and in infrastructural navigation.
Like Paranjpye, the director Clara Law—born in Macau, and active in Hong Kong and Australia—has also developed a sustainable career over several decades. She started in television, then transitioned to make long and short films that appropriate commercial genres (such as melodrama and rom-com) in which the gender issue is always intertwined with broader sociopolitical turmoil, for instance China's Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and Hong Kong's 1997 handover to China. Both of these seismic geopolitical shifts prompted migration in Law's personal life and trigger the exilic mentality in her characters. To explicate how Law uses film to mediate the zeitgeist of displacement and precarity at key historical conjunctures, Kay Armatage and Xiqing Qin study her entire oeuvre in their coauthored article “Clara Law Cheuk-yiu's Transcultural Cinema.” They open with a resounding claim for Law's auteur status—a prestige all too often reserved for male makers. Drawing upon critics such as Tony Mitchell, Ackbar Abbas, and Audrey Yue, they analyze Law's themes and aesthetic styles. Emphasizing Law's education in London in the 1980s, exactly when feminist film theory (especially concerning melodrama) was unfolding, they describe Law's gendered genre films as “gynocentric.” Furthermore, they foreground Law's migrations (from Macau to Hong Kong to Australia) to situate her transnational filmmaking and her thematic concern with displacement and alienation, as well as her characters' gendered experience of diasporic situations. Law's gynocentric transnational filmmaking, they argue, goes beyond depicting ethnic Chinese in exile to tap international resources in funding, crew labor, and festival and exhibition venues. The result is a truly border-crossing oeuvre that de-essentializes Hong Kong cinema while gesturing toward hyphenated cinema, such as the nascent “Asian Australian cinema” (for instance Floating Life ). Reinforcing gender as historically constructed and locationally specific (rather than a self-enclosed ontology, to quote Lingzhen Wang), Armatage and Qin illuminate how Law's filmic world draws upon her personal experience to situate gender in the midst of myriad other political, philosophical, and sociocultural issues.
Zhou Xia, an associate researcher at China Film Art Research Center, then conducts an extended interview with director Guang Chunlan, translated by Yiwen Liu. Guang is ethnically Sibe, born in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, then trained at Beijing Film Academy in the 1960s. She started making films in 1979 after the Cultural Revolution. Like Law, Guang has developed an enduring directorial career. By 2013 she had amassed twenty-six titles, and she has recently adopted digital filmmaking. As head director at Tianshan Film Studio in Xinjiang, she not only puts the studio on the map, but also fashions an ethnic (especially Chinese Muslim) cinema that has traveled to festivals in Muslim countries, and proven greatly popular. Like Paranjpye, who started out in state-owned television, Guang predominantly works within the state studio system, creating a distinct ethnic cinema that aligns with the “ethnic harmony” discourse of the state. Also like Paranjpye and Law, Guang harnesses popular genres, ranging from children's film to comedy, musical, road film, and Western, frequently working with crews and actors of different races and ethnicities (including Uygur, Mongolian, Kazakh, Sibe, and Han). The interview reflects on her enduring career, and invites us to examine gender in intersection with women's authorship, race and ethnicity, and the state's minority policies—all couched in popular genre films.
Our next article turns to Hong Kong actress Lucilla You Min and her border-crossing stardom during the Cold War era. Erica Ka-yan Poon's article, “Lucilla You Min and Her Embodiment of a Cosmopolitan Fantasy,” compares the publicities choreographed by Japan's Tōhō studio and Hong Kong's Cathay studio concerning their three coproduced films starring You Min. In delineating their drastically different constructions of the actress, Poon reveals the tensions between the Japanese and the Hong Kong film industries and their different management of war memories in relation to postwar East Asian bidding for cosmopolitanism. Mobilizing a wealth of primary materials in Japanese and Chinese, and drawing upon Judith Butler's theory of performativity and Richard Dyer's star theory, Poon unpacks the Japan–Hong Kong coproduced female star's body as a site of ideological struggle. By extending Edward Said's Orientalism to Japan's Orientalist and colonialist imaginary of East Asia—an imaginary that continued into the postwar era despite Japan's defeat in World War II, Poon's article draws our attention to the geopolitics undergirding inter–East Asian female stardom.
Our special issue concludes with Danielle Seid's “Forever Her Chinatown: Where Is My Grandmother in Chinese American Feminist Film History?” If Armatage and Qin make a compelling case in intertwining Clara Law's life experiences with her filmic pursuits, Seid goes further, writing herself and her transgender sexuality and ethnic identity into the article. She develops a trans-feminist approach to trace her grandmother's absent presence—not only in the making of her grandparents' film Forever Chinatown (1960), but also in inspiring the author's own trans-feminist perspective. Seid's study makes three key contributions. For feminist media historiography that has primarily relied upon excavation of empirical evidence, she raises the entrenched dilemma of always not enough (even scarce) evidence for the “effectively forgotten” subject, and explores how “informed speculation” could address this dilemma, converting the “effectively forgotten” into “not forgetting.” For the method of writing feminist media historiography, she hybridizes a form of life writing (what she calls a writer-activated feminist practice) with traditional academic writing, foregrounding the film historian's intertwined, even intimate, positionality and the ways it shapes her animation of the marginalized subject. For Asian feminist media, she reveals the inevitable imbrication of (diasporic) Asian cinema and Asian American cinema. She expands the concept of “orphan” in “orphan film” to understand the feared orphanhood of diasporic Chinese at the height the Cold War era, prior to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 and also predating the establishment of the “hyphenated” Asian American identity. The home-movie travelogue made by the diasporic couple in the United States turned its marketing eye to Taiwan and Hong Kong (as well as San Diego), both reflecting its makers' orientation to Taiwan as homeland in 1960 and presaging the present-day cross-Pacific interactions that remind us once again of the porousness of Asian media and the intersectional network in which it is situated.
The articles and the interview in this special issue collectively bring out the longue durée and multifaceted nature of Asian feminist media. We carefully historicize each of the key terms—Asian, feminist, media—foregrounding their shifting and contested configurations in relation to historical and geopolitical transformations. We scrutinize how Asian women's media practices construct local, national, regional, and transnational imaginaries by working at the ground level and by harnessing resources at varying scales (peripheral as well as central). We unpack how women's gendered authorship and agency go hand in hand with the practitioners' engagement with intersectional sociopolitical concerns. We mobilize rich archival materials and nuanced analysis to formulate an assemblage of theoretical parameters with the goal of fostering the field of Asian feminist media studies. Finally, we are acutely aware of the critical importance of the feminist historian-critic's own positionality vis-à-vis her subject(s). Thus we experiment with a method of life writing that injects feelings, desires, and speculations into traditional academic writing, gesturing toward a mode of feminist media historiography that is as palpable and sensuous as it is analytical and critical.
Given the ever-increasing value of Asia in the global media culture, whether experimental, commercial, or anywhere in between, we hope our gendered framework will inspire questions and interventions in Asian media, and excite further discussions that will eventually galvanize into a dynamic force field of intersectional inquiry.