Asian American Experiences of Beauty Standards: First Generation (2/3)

December 16, 2019 at 8:28 am 1 comment

by Emma Li

When I first watched First Generation (2017), a short film directed by Andrew Yuyi Truong and Jeannie Nguyen, a lot of the sentiments I felt about whitewashed advertising in China began to resurface. The short begins with a 90s television advertisement promoting blue contact lenses “for even the darkest brown eyes.” As this ad and other ads play, the camera slowly zooms out farther away from the television to show more of a living room wall with Asian decor, from a glowing portrait of Guan Yin the Buddhist bodhisattva to red electronic candles. The television’s content stands in stark contrast to the rest of the setting, which is further emphasized when an off-screen voice speaking Vietnamese demands the television be turned off.

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The protagonist, My-Linh, is a young Vietnamese American woman aspiring to be a model. After the television ad scene, we see her wearing and taking off blue contact lenses. The diegetic sounds of her removing the lenses are turned up through foley. The extreme close-up of her eyeball and her wincing facial expression amplify the sense of discomfort created by the sounds. The width of the frame also narrows to pull the viewers even closer. This scene confronts the logistics of striving towards the beauty standards promoted in the earlier ad.

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The TV model flashes a smile with her “sparkling blue eyes,” but the film reveals the uncomfortable reality of wearing contact lenses. I’m reminded of the tear-inducing frustration I felt in middle school when I tried to jam a pair of color contact lenses I bought online into my disobedient eyeball. Retrospectively, I’m glad I never got it to work. If I had, I might’ve gone down the “beauty” rabbit hole the film’s protagonist dives through, trying to achieve the looks I saw in ads every day.

My-Linh then bleaches her hair blonde (well, more orange than blonde) at the hands of her friend Jenny. The sense of discomfort from the contact lens removal scene is returned in this scene through the squeaky noise of putting on the pink rubber gloves and the mushy sound of the hair paste. This solidifies associations of working towards beauty standards with discomfort and unease.

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The short is largely told through My-Linh’s internal monologue, which demonstrates the tension she feels between these beauty standards and her natural beauty. As the bleach is slapped on, My-Linh narrates, “I want to do this and I don’t. It’s as if I’m living two different lives through the view of two different eyes.” Flipping through a magazine, the film presents viewers with a montage of the models featured, all of whom were white women with blonde hair and blue eyes until My-Linh stumbles upon Scarlett Johansson. The short was released on May 1, 2017, right after Johansson’s controversial role as an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell was released. In the magazine montage, the only model with dark hair and dark eyes was still a white model; in the film industry, one of the only Asian roles still went to a white actress.

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My-Linh struggles with her beauty decisions throughout the film. When her friend Linda questions her hair change, My-Linh narrates, “Sometimes, we need to change how we look to feel comfortable in our own skin.” The theme of comfort is examined throughout the film, especially as it relates to one’s appearance and societal beauty standards. Through various cinematic techniques, the short generates feelings of discomfort with advertised beauty standards and with the procedures needed to (try to) reach those standards.

Near the end, the film also grants its characters and viewers some sense of comfort in the results of those procedures. In a montage of the three Asian models posing, the upbeat music, the playful facial expressions, and the purple-yellow lighting celebrate the women and their appearance. They seem to be comfortable in their own skin. However, this comfort only appears to exist through the lens of the camera and consumerism. They appear at ease within the frame of the purple backdrop in order to advertise and sell the products (presumably the clothes they’re wearing).

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As soon as the posing montage ends, My-Linh once again displays signs of discomfort upon seeing the results of the photoshoot. She self-consciously grabs her hair and furrows her brows at the photos. As a model, her image is used to sell a fantasy about how happy and desireable one will be if one purchases the clothes she models, but, as film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu writes, “fantasy does not belong to the powerful alone but may be manipulated to express dissatisfaction and other critique” (146). The film ends on a montage of My-Linh drenched in black hair-dye, a television (that advertised white beauty standards) smashed on the ground, and a blooming orchid. This montage is a fantasy of completely subverting toxic beauty standards and having pride in one’s Asian qualities. The montage provides a sense of catharsis, but it only exists in My-Linh’s imagination as she closes her eyes to cope with the discomfort generated by her photos. When she opens her eyes again, the TVs and the magazines advertising blonde hair and blue eyes will still be there, in her living room and everyone else’s.

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(All images’ source: First Generation)

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 24, 2019 at 12:33 am

    In this second post you are using the lens of your personal experience, which you discussed in the first of this series, to view and analyze independent Asian American media productions. I think that “First Generation” is a good case study from which you can expand into a larger discussion supported by Asian American scholarship and web-based discourses. I also feel that you need more than the autobiographical framework to bring this series together. Perhaps framework generated by your own experiences and informed by Asian American, feminist, and media studies discourses?

    Reply

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