Side Character Syndrome

Photo by Kleigh Balugo

By Kleigh Balugo

Why don’t main characters in teen movies ever look like me or my friends? This is a genuine question I have. 

When I was younger I didn’t understand that the lack of representation for Asians and other POC in the media was rooted in racism. I didn’t think anything of it honestly. All I knew was that I wanted to be Hannah Montana. I remember wishing that I could dress up as her for Halloween, but I figured I wasn’t supposed to because I didn’t look like her and even if I put on a blonde wig it wouldn’t be the same. 

I didn’t think it was possible for a girl that looked like me to star in her own Disney Channel show. As sad as it sounds, I spent a lot of time when I was little wishing that I looked like Hannah Montana, or any of the other white actresses I idolized.

This can be confusing because I didn’t know I was being racist towards myself. The way I felt was a result of how I was obsessed with TV, and the fact that TV was overwhelmingly white. This seems like a very trivial issue and maybe it is, but I realize now that not having role models that I could identify with made me have self-esteem issues. I didn’t feel validated and I thought it was my fault, for looking different.

This experience is common among WOC. I never knew that me wanting to be white was my way of suppressing my cultural identity. I was just going off of all the media I consumed. I figured that white girls were the cool main characters with interesting lives and lots of friends. And girls like me were the comedic relief or the supporting character that never stepped in to the white girl’s spotlight or even had any traits of her own. 

The same is true for coming of age movies. When I was 14, I was obsessed with these movies. I wanted to be the main character, even though girls that looked like me were only ever a supporting character. I still don’t understand why it’s so uncommon for POC to play main characters in teen movies. I just want to see people that look like me doing everyday things like going to school or falling in love.

On the contrary, it irritates me how over-politicized it is when POC actually are main characters. I was a big fan of Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, book series, and later on movie trilogy. It felt refreshing to see another Asian-American lead her very own rom-com. I just didn’t like how a lot of people reacted to it. They wanted it to be this big critique of racism in America, rather than just a cute teen movie like it was intended.

I think there’s a time and a place for discussions about racism, and a rom-com definitely isn’t one. It’s a big double standard that white people are allowed to have all these fun movies dedicated to growing up, while movies with POC are always given the responsibility of addressing oppression in some revolutionary way. Why can’t I see people that look like me doing normal everyday things? Do those kinds of stories not exist?


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