Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and does not represent NextShark’s views.
In the costumes of Mulan and Cho Chang, I discovered there are limits to representation.
In middle school, fall signaled the arrival of the annual Halloween carnival. The event took place on the last Friday of October at the school gymnasium, where a slightly clammy middle-school-P.E. odor lingered. The most anticipated events included the haunted maze, built from shipping boxes which younger students crawled through as soccer boys banged atop the flimsy cardboard to scare them. There was the face painting station, where artistically inclined popular girls drew uneven butterflies and pumpkins on soft elementary school cheeks.
Eighth graders were responsible for staffing the carnival: assembling the maze with duct tape, taking payments of two tickets for face painting and serving paper bags of popcorn. They were also the only students allowed to dress up in costumes. Every year, pacts between friends formed quickly, coalesced around one idea and agreed on a group costume.
When I finally became an eighth grader, I was excited to be included in a group of girls dressing up as Disney princesses. I wanted to be Belle, for one particular reason I felt was obvious: I was incredibly bookish, which defined my entire reputation as a nerd at school. I thought Belle was the princess I could relate to the most, and I imagined others would see it that way as well.
Instead, I was informed that the group had already chosen a princess for me. As the only East Asian girl in our class, I had been assigned Mulan.
“You fit that character better,” one of my friends explained. “Besides, you already have her costume.”
I did not, in fact, have a Mulan costume. They were referring to a light blue yukata that my Japanese grandparents bought me for Matsuri, the summer festival. On Halloween, I wore that to school, with my hair in a bun.
A few years later, at a different school, I found myself in a similar situation. Once again, we had waited several years to be able to dress up in costumes on the last Friday of October, a privilege reserved for seniors. Everyone was vying to be in a group that had the most original, clever costumes.
My group of friends chose Harry Potter, which admittedly was not so original. I thought I would be an obvious Hermoine. In high school, I had not outgrown my bookish-ness, and I had upgraded to an even more irritating know-it-all attitude.
Once again, however, the group had predetermined a different casting for me: Cho Chang.
“We already have a Hermoine,” my friend said. “Besides, you’re the only one who can play Cho Chang.”
On Halloween, I wore the same plaid skirt and cloak as everyone else in my group. The only thing that made me Cho Chang, I suppose, was my face.
The new era of representation
At this point, it feels like we’re deep into a new era exploding with potential for Asian and Asian American Halloween costumes. This comes, of course, because of a rise in representation of our communities and cultures, both in Asia and the diasporas. There will undoubtedly be a host of “Squid Game” costumes, green tracksuits and magenta jumpsuits hitting the balance between recognizable and creepy. Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour” album cover — a bright swath of stickers splashed across foreheads and cheeks — seems likely to be popular this year. I expect to see a variety of little Shang-Chis striking fighting poses in red jackets. Then, of course, there are costumes that have become staples, from pregnant Ali Wong in her cheetah print dress to the ornate gowns of the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast. Most of this representation is for East Asians, and, of course, no representation has been perfect. But for what feels like the first time, there are a lot more options for us Asians and Asian Americans.
In my adult life, I’ve not been much of a Halloween fan. I wouldn’t go so far as to attribute this to any outsized childhood trauma caused by being forced to dress up as Mulan. I think that in some ways, this was always the kind of person I was destined to be: I have always been quiet and rather timid — it’s just in my nature. I don’t particularly like drawing attention to myself. Part of this might also be because my appearance has always elicited questions everywhere I go, questions about my ethnicity, my “mix,” my Asian-ness. But for whatever reason, whether due to nature or nurture, I generally prefer to not be noticed.
This year, however, I decided to dress up for the first time in years. I plan to go to a Halloween party with a friend group solely consisting of Asian Americans. I suppose it feels safer to be in costume in this context. I found myself drawn to the idea of dressing up as a famous Asian American. I considered being Japanese Breakfast from her recent album cover, persimmon in hand. But I hesitated. If I dressed up as an Asian American just because they looked like me, did I return to the same trap set for me as a teenager?
I hear the issue of representation debated sometimes between two opposite poles: that representation doesn’t matter because it doesn’t transfer tangible power to the underrepresented people, or that it doesn’t matter because it’s simply not a “real” issue.
I tend to disagree with discounting the power of representation entirely. It’s my belief that visibility does have an impact on communities. I watched a whole theater of people smile when Simu Liu took his shoes off in “Shang-Chi.” That little nod that said this movie was for us. I think that for children, most of all, it’s important to see yourself reflected in heroes and protagonists and main characters. It’s also just fun. We have all these options now, the opportunity to dress up as newly iconic Asian and Asian American characters.
But it’s also true that representation itself doesn’t necessarily shift agency or power. It isn’t at all empowering to be compared to characters you have nothing in common with just because you share an ethnic background. I was Mulan because I was Asian, and I was Cho Chang for the same reason. I’m sure now that in 2021, there are kids who are told they should be Shang-Chi.
As a kid, I grappled with a sense of discomfort around this, but I didn’t yet understand the complexity. I saw myself as a whole, complete person. I related to characters who I thought most resembled me, whether or not they were Asian. But my friends cast me in a role that was based only on race. Now, as an adult, I wonder whether that’s how they saw me all along.
The shortcomings of representation
I think most people understand inherently that this is the limit to representation. Simply having characters that look like us has never really been enough. It’s the quality and complexity of these characters and their stories that matter, so you see yourself not only in a character’s face but also in their actions and their personalities. I think this shows even more when people of other ethnicities become excited to dress up as characters from Asian and Asian American shows — not for aesthetic reasons, but because these characters are so well-defined that they’re relatable to people outside their cultures and backgrounds of origin. This is what I hope will be the path forward for representation in our communities.
This Halloween, I’ve taken a different route. I’ve opted to dress up as Mabel, Selena Gomez’s character from Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.” I chose her because she’s acerbic, sarcastic and guardedly private. I picked a character that best mirrored myself. I think what was most important was recognizing that now, I do have that choice.
The true power in representation comes through choice: as we recognize ourselves in characters who also look like us, we are given the gift of identifying with stories and people that ring true to ourselves, whether for a Halloween costume or in everyday life.
Featured Image via “Squid Game” (left), Wikimedia Commons (center), Marvel Studios (right)