This year, an up and coming new web series took social media by storm. That’s What She Said, a story about five different queer-identified characters living in the greater Los Angeles area, found themselves featured through a gif-set that has now reached over 26,000 notes on Tumblr. — Jo Chiang
On their website, TWSS explains that this project “was created out of a desire to see positive Asian representations in the media, as well as to give voice to the often-untold stories of queer Asian women.” Taking their newfound popularity in stride, the TWSS team talk about what it means to create in a society driven by identity politics.
As[I]Am: Many people believe that Asian Americans are not interested or do not pursue careers in the film and television industry. What brought you to this field?
N. I am really surprised whenever I come across that assumption—I think it has more to do with a lack of representation than a lack of true desire from the Asian American community to pursue careers in the industry. I’m actually part of a writer’s group called MAPID (Mavericks of API Descent) started by a wonderful man named Ken Choy, and the majority of the members either work in or are interested in working in film and television. We are not all doctors and concert pianists, y’all—but seriously, I think I fell into this field by accident. For one reason or another, I went to NYU and majored in Dramatic Writing. Before that, I had never written a play or a screenplay, and I actually thought I was interested in Drama/Acting. I ended up loving my area of study, and here I am!
Vicky: When I started, I didn’t think or categorize myself as being an “Asian American lesbian breaking into the industry.” I got into Film/TV because I wanted to tell stories. It so happens that I am an Asian American lesbian, and that’s the point of view I’m coming from. I approach it as being, “Hey, this is my story. If you can relate, great. If you can’t, then I encourage you to tell your own.” But I believe in my point of view, and I think that’s important to remind yourself that when entering this field because it is competitive, challenging, uncertain and often times, pretty racist, so you have to keep believing that what you have to say matters.
Narinda: I was brought here by my interest in writing and community-building. I am not sure I can speak to being in the industry, but I can say that my involvement in Asian American storytelling (through my own writing, through the web series, through supporting other artists) comes from what I think of as a very natural desire to see and be seen. To see people I can relate to, to invite others to relate to me. With our (Pearl Girls Productions’) alchemy of proficiencies and available resources, an indie web series made sense.
Allison: I’ve always been interested in media, art and pop culture. I don’t think Asian Americans are not interested in film and television, its more that there aren’t any examples of them in the media. It’s also not necessarily a field that is encouraged by parents and guardians to pursue because it isn’t stable and profitable. I went to school for Studio Art, with an emphasis on video, photo and digital art, and I remember being asked on multiple occasions and by multiple family members “What are you going to do with that? Are you sure you want to be an artist? Do you want to struggle all your life?” I decided that yes, I want to be an artist, I am an artist and yes I am okay with being a ‘struggling artist’ all my life. I later realized that the real struggle is not being an artist, but that people are starving for art and media made by and featuring Asian Americans, especially queer Asian Americans. Art and storytelling is in my blood. Not going to lie, I enjoy the challenge of making the ‘impossible’ possible. It’s what drives me.
As[I]Am: A common discussion in the industry is the concept of art versus activism. Do you believe that all art should take into account societal issues and pressures or that artistic freedom is more important?
N.: I don’t think that those two have to be separate. “The personal is political,” yes? In the words of my high school Art History teacher, “Art does not exist in a vacuum!” …In terms of my own writing, I feel that any sort of views and experiences I have, that make me who I am—including any social justice awareness I have—make my art more rich and meaningful. And I truly think that there is a desire for that, from the community. It’s part of the reason why I think watching That’s What She Said was meaningful for so many of our viewers.
Allison: The choice is up to the artist. Some artists make things to be purely aesthetically pleasing. Then there are artists who use art as activism. I thought that I wanted to be the former, but quickly learned that I am the latter. Everything has a purpose. I’ve always been interested in activism but didn’t see myself as someone who was out on the streets protesting and rallying up troops, but I knew that I wanted to have an impact somehow. My art is my activism. I think of it as using artistic freedom to create freedom on the personal level and societal level.
As[I]Am: What was involved in the process to get your project on its feet?
N.: Blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of asking. Narinda is fond of saying, “The community is our greatest resource!” and I think that is 100% true. We literally could not have done it without the support of our community, people who did a myriad of things to support the project and us.
Narinda: I draw a lot from what I learned through working with Tuesday Night Project and with traci kato-kiriyama—she is the one who introduced me to the idea that “PEOPLE are our greatest resource.” What got this project on its feet? A lot of dreaming & scheming time over meals and drinks, a lot of sharing our ideas with people, listening to their thoughts, all of which eventually coalesced in our borrowing a friend’s camera and deciding to do this thing! We made a really hilarious(ly bad?) pre-pilot. And then some time passed, and we started filming in earnest. Maybe someday we’ll show people the pre-pilot. Maybe.
Allison: Dreaming. Declaring. Delivering. And lots of support from people who believe and support our dream of filling the void of queer Asian American representation in mainstream media.
As[I]Am: Our country has a complicated and yet unquestionably resilient relationship with diversity. Where do you think we’re going from here, and what part do you think storytelling, whether as a filmmaker or actor, has to play in that?
N.: I have no idea where we’re going from here! Hopefully in a good direction. Some days I think it’s a good direction, and other days, I’m afraid. Haha. I think storytelling and representation plays a huge part in improving views on and understandings of diversity—it’s why I really believe in media as a powerful tool that can be part of the movement for social change. I could talk about this forever. But I’m just going to reference the biracial Cheerios commercial—there was so much talk around having a biracial family represented and so many people were ecstatic (including me) that something like that had finally happened. It was so small, but you look at commercials that air now, and there’s been a huge influx of diversity! I see Asian families represented, more biracial families—amazing. Yes, in the name of commercialism, but these corporations really started to recognize minorities as a demographic and a force to be addressed. And the implications of that are stunning. The commercial is like, what, three minutes? But it really changed things.
Vicky: I think it will be a never-ending roller coaster ride. I think we’ll have incredible highs where diversity breaks through and really shines. Where a gay couple is featured in a popular clothing store ad or a TV show features a person of color as their main character. But then we’ll have protests about it, and terrible Twitter trends that make you cringe and hang your head in shame that these people exist on the same plain as you. Still, we have to keep churning out those stories. When we hear about how terrible a situation is, whether regarding race or gender equality, we can’t let it discourage us. We have to let it fuel us.
Allison: Stories matter. Visibility matters. The past few years have been amazing in terms of the kind of stories that have made its way into the media. There’s is still a lot of work to be done, but I think that the key is to encourage and empower more people to do the work. Though the thirst for more stories is high, the willingness to step up and share and be vulnerable is what’s lacking. Understandably so, because for every person that is willing to share one story, there are hundreds of people ready to comment and shoot them down. It’s disheartening, but that’s what makes it even more important. It’s easy to be afraid to share, being vulnerable takes courage. I’ve often think about what may happen if I put myself out there, but what continues to drive me is the belief that if I make a difference in at least one person’s life then all of it was worth it. At the end of the day, we’re all people and we are looking for someone else out there who understands us, has gone through what we have and feels what we feel. Storying connects people to one another.
As[I]Am: Any fun behind the scenes stories you’d like to share? Any serious ones?
N.: We have a running joke that if there’s a person who volunteers to be in the webseries, that we have to ask them if they’re willing to make out. Hahaha!! It came about because we wanted to be sure there was real representation of queer relationships—none of that “we’re lesbians and together but we’re only ever seen hugging” stuff that is sometimes out there in mainstream media. Making out is revolutionary, so join the movement! Make out with us!
Vicky: A lot of crying in the dark. Just kidding. We have a lot of fun on set and always end up with a good amount of bloopers. With some of our guest actors, we’ll do a take where we film it very dramatically, very exaggerated. Maybe we’ll release those as extras at some point.
Narinda: We are arguably some of the hungriest people you’ll find on a set. There was a scene where Claire had to be a body double for Anni, lying in bed, only her back in the shot. Claire methodically ate trail mix throughout the scene. Hopefully no one noticed any munching sounds. As for a serious story, we experienced some awfulness on a promo photo shoot in San Diego in 2012 that you can read about here.
Allison: There are plenty of great stories about things that happen behind the scenes and on set, but I’ve got to say that one of my favorite aspects of doing this work is the feedback, messages and emails. Getting messages from people all over the world, sharing their experience and gratitude for the webseries is what makes this worth it. It is a big part of what has inspired me as an artist and as a person. It gives me hope for the world. Its changing and we are part of why it is. What a mind blow and an incredible honor.
Watch Episode 1 of That’s What She Said, “Pilot.”
N. KI is the behind-the-scenes writer and producer. Her recent credits include play readings through the Mixed Phoenix Theatre Company, the KCACTF Festival, and the Tuesday Night Project. Her published work can also be found in the Getting Bi anthology, Venus in Scorpio Magazine, and Relationships and Other Stuff (just to name a few). Like an elusive unicorn, she is extremely attention (and thus camera)-shy. But she’s hot. We can tell you, we’ve seen it with our own eyes.
VICKY LUU is a filmmaker and writer born and raised in the Bay Area. She traveled to Los Angeles for college and after graduating decided to stay and cultivate a life among the plethora of Asian lesbians she managed to stumble upon. She is happy to be a part of PGP and is always looking for creative outlets in the form of visual media or the written/spoken word. She is also a part of The Undeniables, an online writers workshop. You can find her writing at flyfarfrom.wordpress.com.
NARINDA HENG is a Khmer American writer currently based in Oakland. She’d spent 2007-2012 working with various arts and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles. From 2009-2011, she was a co-producer with Tuesday Night Project, which holds one of the longest-running free public art spaces in Downtown Los Angeles April-October. She recently released a chapbook of her writing called earth things. When she is not somewhere along the 5 freeway between LA and Oakland, she’s usually out climbing rocks, brewing coffee, and looking for cats to cuddle with.
ALLISON SANTOS is a Southern California native. Born and raised in the South Bay of Southern California. Believer in family and chosen family. University of California, Irvine Studio Art Graduate. Focus on the intersection of visual art, queer studies and women’s studies. Human jukebox. Trained panel speaker & LGBTQ mentor. Former Director of Advocacy for Barangay Los Angeles. Multimedia artist. Educator. Facilitator. Motivator. Performer. Transformer. Gender Queer Swag aficionado. Love warrior in the revoLOVEtion. Full-time visionary. You can see her website at www.allisantos.net.
JO CHIANG is a Theatre major at Barnard College and the Social Media Coordinator of the Asian American Film Lab. When she’s not poking holes in the wall of the kyriarchy, she enjoys sipping tea and wearing combat boots.