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Letter of recommendation: personal history

Jordan 2019-03-13

My favorite column on The New Yorker (p.s. did I mention I read the New Yorker) is “Personal History.” The articles there are mini-memoirs and they read kind of like polished blog posts. Some recent favorites in my memory include a piece about not being Asian enough as a second generation immigrant called “Crying in H-Mart” by Michelle Zauner, and the intimate and revelatory story of a gay teen’s first love, “How I learned to Dive” by Victor Lodato. These stories do a really good job of relating inner life without being rambling, something I’m mostly aware of because of how bad I am at it.

Sometimes I think of my blog posts in two categories. The first category is explanatory. These posts are written to be read. I work as hard as I can to be concise and pare out extra details unless they really help me get my point across. The second category is expository. In these posts I’m doing my best to put my exact thoughts on the page. I try to describe things in ways that are so specific that they pin-down immediately recognizable feelings, but sometimes my descriptions miss completely and I’m left with a bunch of weird and unrelated metaphors.

My explanatory blog posts cluster around a particular tone. A lot of them are about distinguishing between two things that I feel like are often mixed up. Like one from 2013 where I try to explain the difference between being passive and being tolerant. Or this one from 2017 where I try to distinguish between the practical need to split up household responsibilities and the desire to fulfill socially-defined femininity (a.k.a. that post in which I mansplain emotional labor). Many of them hope to provide useful tools for thinking, like this one which talks about what it means when you act against your stated goals. All of them are made up. All of them sort of imply that I think I’m providing valuable insight, otherwise I wouldn’t have written them.

My expository posts are supposed to expose me. They’re supposed to be about things I’m ashamed about, or capture weird universal moments like arguments, or a feeling that you are looking for something but you’re not sure what. Sometimes they become somewhat fictional, but only in the “artists use lies to tell the truth” sort of way. Sometimes they wander around because they were written when my thoughts were kind of everywhere and I just wanted to write anything. When I write these posts I have to imagine that my secret thoughts are interesting enough that their honesty and authenticity is enough to keep the reader interested. I want the reader to feel like they’re snooping on my public diary, like maybe they weren’t supposed to see this.

Viewed through this lens, I think one way to express what I like so much about “Personal History” is that it is both explanatory and expository. And in fact, it doesn’t accomplish this by switching tones, rather the explanation is embodied within the whole story, through the thoughts the characters think during the narrative and upon reflection. A lot of the time there is no explicit moral, but still something is clearly captured and communicated and I feel like I have learned a lesson, or been taught to think a new thought which I’ve never had myself.



What Crazy Rich Asians proves

Jordan 2019-01-06

It is now too late for me to go see Crazy Rich Asians in theaters, as my Asian friend had informed me was my duty as a fellow Asian. We needed to turn up at the box office, she explained, because if CRA didn’t do well, then studio executives would take this as a sign that movies about Asian experiences weren’t profitable in the US, and we would never achieve representation in popular media. Another friend told me he bought a ticket and didn’t even go see it. What’s $15, compared to a chance to show studio executives how stupid they’ve been for waiting so long to make a movie like this – the last major American film to sign an all Asian cast was The Joy Luck club, 25 years ago. Lucky for me and my race, Crazy Rich Asians was immensely profitable without me.

Let me first say that I think representation matters. Real life is based on movies, books and TV – we learn about how the world works from the media we consume, and we are shaped by the stories we are exposed to. When I was a middle school student looking for my niche, movies and TV taught me that people who look like me can be either a nerd or comic relief (I went with both). I didn’t think that I could really be liked by girls, and I certainly didn’t think that I could be the main love interest of a story. CRA shows future middle school Asian boys that they can grow up and be desirable without sacrificing their Asian-ness.

And having more movies like this will be even better. Which brings up the question: does the success of Crazy Rich Asians also pave the way for more movies featuring Asian stories?

On one episode of Whiting Wongs with Jessica Gao (Silicon Valley, Rick and Morty) and Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty), Dante Basco (Hook, Avatar: The Last Airbender) describes Hollywood green-lighting as a market, in the sense that it’s incredibly efficient at figuring out the value of things. Studios would never knowingly turn down a chance to make the most profitable movie, which means that studio executives who are good at appraising movies for mass appeal make fewer flops and more hits, their studios make more money, and the they have more capital in the future to make more films. Dante says that the solution to Asian American representation is two-fold – people who decide what movies get made need to be open to making movies with Asian Americans, and Asian American creatives need to try to write more, act more, and direct more. In fact, he says, if we can do that and be great at it, then studio executives will have no choice but to make more of our movies, unless they hate money. We should try to prove that it’s profitable to make movies about Asian American stories.

CRA is a good example of what can happen at the intersection of these two things. It’s refreshing to see more than one Asian face in a movie trailer, and the film has received positive reviews regardless of its part in the representation movement. But going to see CRA is not a kick in the crotch of studio executives, you’re throwing them your money for god’s sake! You’re not going to slowly condition them to make more bets on Asian movies through psychological reinforcement. The only thing that gets movies made is money.

So let’s look at the money. The most profitable Hollywood movies aren’t just superhero movies, they’re woke movies. Which is to say, basically, movies with Strong Female Leads and Black People ™. Consider the themes from the biggest films of 2017 and 2018 – a woman defies the patriarchy (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and black people are secretly better (Black Panther). Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t made in spite of executives thinking it would be unprofitable, it was made because executives thought it would be immensely profitable. It doesn’t change things, it just shows how society is changing. Making movies isn’t activism, it’s capitalism. And proving that your race or gender is a profitable demographic isn’t social progress, it’s business as usual.

Movies are a barometer for culture. When ideas gain popularity, they also gain movie potential (which is why I predict that in the next 3 years we will see a film that critics will say “perfectly captures gen-Z humor,” and I will see it and hecking love it). Crazy Rich Asians is tinted with Asian American subculture in a way that doesn’t stop and explain itself. In fact, the whole appeal is that it is unapologetic about it – if the story had been watered-down to be more palatable for Westerners, it would have been derided for whitewashing. You can see this same thing in the new popularity of pho, K-pop and anime – Asian culture is being gradually absorbed into universal culture, and it is specifically because of its Asian-ness. People want authentic Vietnamese pho, they want to rap in Korean, and they want their Anime subbed, not dubbed.

Crazy Rich Asians got made because a studio noticed this shift, not because Asians proved something about ourselves. The shift itself probably happened due to a combination of increased globalization, the formation of internet communities, and the chaotic churn of popular ideas.

I’m not sure that it even makes sense to talk about proving ourselves. If that means showing that Asian movies can be profitable, well, that’s been done. If it’s about making sure our stories are not held to a higher standard before they are considered profitable, remember that studios don’t just want to make profitable movies, they want to make the most profitable movie they can, and as long as white male writers continue to receive the most support from their parents for careers in the movie industry, this is unlikely to happen – minorities are held to a higher standard insofar as we are required to beat the numbers. The real question is whether we are building up momentum, or whether we are doomed to start and stall forever. The answer doesn’t depend on Hollywood execs or Asian creatives as much as it depends on the a priori cultural change.



Good reasons to lie

Jordan 2018-12-30

I wrote about two frameworks you can use when someone seems to be acting against their self-stated goals: revealed preference theory and misaligned incentive theory. Often times, the RPT view can become an accusation that someone is lying, but this isn’t always the case. Here are some good-faith reasons someone’s self-proclaimed preferences may not match their actions:



Preferences and incentives

Jordan 2018-12-30

Revealed preference theory (RPT) is the idea that we can’t trust people’s self-proclaimed preferences as much as we can trust their actions. So if someone claims to care about the environment but still eats meat, doesn’t recycle, and doesn’t donate any money or spend any time working on the problem, we might say that their actions reveal that they don’t actually care as much about the environment as they claim to.

One alternative to RPT is misaligned incentive theory (MIT). This is the idea that when someone’s actions seem to contradict their self-proclaimed preferences, it might be because their long-term and short-term incentives are not aligned. For example, if someone says they are trying to quit smoking, but in the moment they can’t resist lighting up a cigarette, we wouldn’t say that they must not really want to quit, because it could just be that their long-term goal of quitting smoking is not aligned with their short-term desire for a nicotine fix.

RPT and MIT are both useful frameworks for looking at behavior which is seemingly contradictory. Just because someone acts in a way that obviously goes against their goals doesn’t always mean those goals are false, sometimes it’s just hard to do the long-term thing when the short-term thing is so much easier. Likewise, sometimes people are wrong or lying about about their preferences, and the only way to find out is by actually observing their behavior.

In general the RPT view is harder to verify, so a practical solution is to assume the MIT view by default. This means trying to help by pitching ways someone could better align their incentives. For example, you could recommend that a smoker try a nicotine patch, which allows them to satisfy their nicotine cravings without filling their lungs with tobacco smoke. Or you could suggest to your friend that instead of just writing rants against Republicans on Facebook about climate change, they could use that time and write a guide for young people on how to set up domestic recycling. If these recommendations are repeatedly denied, you now have evidence against the MIT view and can gradually switch to the RPT view.



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