Sophie Chung is an English major with a concentration in film theory. Her thesis examines Asian-American voices on YouTube and how they affect the Asian-American community at large. Her adviser is Mellon-Keiter Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of English Yu-ting Huang.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: My thesis is about the Asian-American voice and community that is out of written text. So I’ve studied a lot of ethnic minority literature … But in studying the written text and literature, a lot of the questions I was wrestling with was, “What happens to the Asian-American voice when you take it out of written text?” I was considering the way the digital humanities and digital itself as a space is becoming more incorporated [into] the English literature field. I thought it’d be interesting to look at YouTube videos, so my entire thesis is on Asian-American YouTube videos and what kind of silences [and] what kind of voices are heard ... What does the Asian-American voice purport to do in the digital space … especially framed against theories of post-colonialism and cyber-race and cyberspace democracy and things like that? They’re all very big words, but ultimately I’m looking at YouTube.
Q: What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve found?
A: Obviously, a thesis project is something that you devise because it’s something you’re interested in, something you have a personal claim to, or else I would not be spending so much time on it. So I guess what’s been interesting for me in my journey of researching and writing has been the way I see YouTube videos that I normally would watch just as entertainment ... [and] now having to look at them through an analytic lens, and oftentimes the analysis that comes out is not necessarily favorable. I’ve been realizing that there are many ways that Asian-American YouTube stars are not really helping the Asian-American community cause. The ways they present Asian Americans can be reductive.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: [Ryan Higa] is one of the top subscribed YouTube channels and personalities — and not just out of Asian Americans, but all throughout YouTube. But he has an interesting video called “Are Asian Stereotypes True!?” and it’s supposed to be for comedic purposes. He lists all these … stereotypes that are prevalent in mainstream media. It’s interesting the way he takes that and says, “I personally don’t find these offensive and I think we should embrace them instead.” … I’m trying to look at [these stereotypes] through a more critical lens of how that’s essentializing the Asian-American community and statically reifying them as, “Yeah, Asian Americans are good at math — all of them” — which is not true. I’m an English major — I can say personally that I am not into math. … While a video may be well-intentioned, the result can actually be damaging or reductive in general.
Q: Has your process been looking at specific videos and then analyzing them?
A: The way I’ve split it up is that I have three different chapters and I split it up by genre. My first chapter is on the “real me,” or the confessional vlog [video blog], the diary vlog … what happens when a prominent Asian-American YouTube personality who purports to represent the Asian-American community confesses things and tries to reconstruct a self, an Asian-American self? … And second, I’m looking at comedy — so that’s where Wong Fu and Fung Brothers and different comedic YouTube videos will come out, analyzing that [and] problematizing those even further. My third chapter, which I’m still working on, is the more explicit activist video of when Ferguson happened — a bunch of videos were released by Asian-American YouTube stars who sat around a table and discussed what it means for the Asian American and how we stand in solidarity with the other minorities — just like more explicitly tackling issues head on in videos in ways that speak to contemporary issues.
Q: Do you only look at Asian-American videos that relate to the Asian-American identity?
A: So what I’m nuancing a little bit more is: what happens then when an Asian-American face on YouTube does not release anything regarding Asian-American situations or our positions in society? Is there still an [implication that] because you’re an Asian American you stand as a representation of the Asian-American community? I hesitate to say “Asian-American community” because there [are] so many different groups within that big label. One of the things I’m arguing is that we need to look at the heterogeneity, the multiplicity that the labels Asian Americans encompass[es]. I guess one explicit example that I do write about is Anna Akana, who is a stand-up comedian on YouTube. She releases a lot of videos that actually don’t have to do with Asian-American issues. She talks about her sister’s suicide, her depression and other topics. I would say she has multiple facets to her persona that she identifies with in her videos and I want to argue that it gives her more ways to position herself [and] different opportunities for her to relate to people who are depressed or women — not necessarily having her Asian face be her one identity.
Q: What do you think has been the most difficult part of your thesis work?
A: Writing, essentially, is identity work, which is why it’s so hard to write. As an English major, I can attest to the many times in which I would write something and if it was not that great, it would feel like an attack on my identity … Taking on a big, long-term project such as a thesis … it’s always a constant wrestling of, “Is this really good? Or am I just writing for the sake of writing? Is what I’m trying to argue meaningful?” And then it’s just constantly reflecting and looking at yourself and refocusing and recalibrating … “Why am I writing this?”
Q: What would your advice be for future thesis writers?
A: Don’t try to force it if it’s not there, and … don’t be afraid to have to drop a thesis, too. I think there’s a lot of shame or stigma in dropping a thesis because Amherst College students are very overachieving … There’s so much stigma and shame over dropping a thesis or realizing halfway through that this may not be what you want to do — [do] not be afraid of that. Sounds really cliché, but go where your heart prompts you. Oh, that sounds so cliché. Forgive me, English department!
Q: Who’s your favorite YouTuber?
A: I really like Anna Akana in the context of her life story and that she’s vulnerable and she explicitly works through her videos to add to the Asian-American narrative. I think what she’s doing is very admirable and I look up … to the vulnerability that she shows in her videos.