As of this writing, Ryan Higa’s videos have amassed 1.2 billion hits, with over five million channel subscribers. Kevin Wu (kevjumba) has nearly 300 million hits, with over two million subscribers. The makeup artist Michelle Phan counts nearly 600 million views and two million subscribers. Others of note: Tim Chantarangsu (Timothy DeLaGhetto), 400 million views and over a million subscribers; Peter Chao, 160 million views, 700,000 subscribers; Christine Gambito, over 600,000 subscribers and nearly 90 million hits; Freddie Wong, over 3 million subscribers, 660 million views; Wong Fu Productions, nearly 200 million views and over a million subscribers.
Young Asian Americans dominate a great swath of the messy territory called YouTube, holding their own against the well-funded and famous.
Taken together, these numbers make two major points: there is a great pool of Asian Americans who, against the grain of “model minority” professionalism, need an outlet for humor and creative expression. Perhaps more importantly, these numbers prove the existence of a huge audience, largely Asian American, who want to see the experiences and talents of Asian people in popular media.
YouTube is, indeed, the only time most of us have seen Asians speak into a camera about the issues that matter to them, and perhaps the only realm where Asian Americans have the opportunity to talk about race to a large audience. Here, they use humor to take on stereotypes and misunderstandings, as in Higa’s “Dear Ryan, Can you open your eyes?” — an absurdist response to a commenter’s absurd question — or Wu’s “Asians Just Aren’t Cool Enough?” taking on the casting of a white actor as Goku in the Dragonball movie (“that’s like making a Fat Albert movie starring Keanu Reeves as Fat Albert”).
Mostly, though, these are videos of young people talking about what young people care about: relationship problems, internet memes, pop movies and music. Higa speaks internet, utilizing quick cuts and interspersing of-the-moment memes, Wu’s facial expressions and self-deprecation are disarmingly funny, DeLaGhetto hits you with a barrage of swagger, Gambito affectionately imitates a Filipina aunty as she gives life advice. The ordinariness of these stories is also their reason for being: they fulfill the very simple desire we all have to watch and listen to people who shares our experiences. Banal as it might seem, in today’s media-dominated America, faces-on-screens are an essential tool of staking a claim in the conversations — cultural and political — that shape this society.
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A brief New York Times article last year pointed out the Asian American YouTube phenomenon, as well as the ongoing lack of Asian Americans in mainstream media. The article also skirted the elephant in the room: with this audience of millions, why are faces like this still so absent from mainstream screens? The repoerter quoted a Pew Study on the high percentage of Asians who use the internet, and cited the “artistic freedom” afforded by the internet. It’s true: Asian Americans use the internet. But surely tech-savvy Asians are also savvy enough to buy movie tickets.
In the nebulous world of production and stardom in mainstream media there is no single force keeping Asians out, but a set of unspoken possibilites:
- Market studies show that the audiences who will click on a video, i.e. young Asians, are not a large enough group to make a big-budget show or movie financially viable.
- There are not enough Asians on the production side of media to recognize and understand the potential of Asian stars, to promote Asian talent.
- The rest of America will not respond to Asian faces cast in big roles on the big screen.
While all of these are true to some extent, and all these factors are intertwined, it is the last that is most concerning. Can Americans care about and relate to a small minority? Asians still comprise only 5% of the overall US population. Though looking at leading roles in Hollywood, you would think the number was much smaller. How much longer will we cast Tom Cruise in a movie called The Last Samurai, a guy named Justin Chatwin as Goku in a white-led Dragonball?
Race in media presents an impossible burden of proof: the forces behind who we want to see in certain roles and why we like certain actors are hard to put in words, let alone pin down on race. The YouTube phenomenon is useful because it highlights a great absence that would otherwise go overlooked. Quantifying fairness in YouTube hits versus leading movie roles is crude, but it’s a way into the conversation.
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YouTube is often discussed as a breeding ground for talent, but its greater potential lies in breeding changes in public perceptions. If non-Asians can appreciate Asian American talent on their computer screens, maybe they will be open to seeing them on big screens. The dialectic between mainstream perceptions and mainstream media has, for Asian Americans, always been a trap (“we don’t cast Asians because no one wants to see them”). YouTube has provided a way to sidestep that process, to push thinking about race and talent forward a few million clicks at a time.