I’m 16 when I dye my hair red. Standing in my best friend’s bathroom shower, I pull at my burning scalp, watching as the water runs crimson, pink, and finally, clear. It’s hot, unbearably so, and when I’m done, there are red marks on my ears and neck that resemble birthmarks. I lie on my best friend’s lap as she towels my hair dry and we can hardly hide our awe at how red it is. Red-gold strands of blood, fire and everything else that calls attention to itself. Everything that our black hair isn’t.
“Be honest.” I stare up at her. The ceiling fan spins lazily above us. “Do I look stupid?”
She tugs at a strand of hair, curling it around her finger. The heat is so extreme that it’s already dry. “No, it looks good. You look older.”
I dyed my hair because Angela Chase did.
I dyed my hair because Angela Chase did. In the TV series My So-Called Life, 15-year-old Angela turns her hair crimson to reject the timidity of her middle-school self. In the film Empire Records, Deb, recently broken up with her boyfriend, shaves her hair in the bathroom of the record store. Veronica Sawyer, a passive member of high school hierarchy emerges, literally, from the ashes – with a cigarette and a new, devil-may-care attitude in Heathers. Writer Catherine Driscoll explains in Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture that the appeal of the teen film comes from “romantic narratives of transformation.” Stuck within the liminal period between child and adult, the teen heroine becomes a phoenix figure – she lives, she dies, and she reinvents herself all over again.
I watched the teen heroines, and saw reflected in them my own restlessness, the crawling urge to be loud and disagreeable. But the teen heroine exists in a bubble – she is middle-class, she is white, she is Molly Ringwald and we love her for it. The Asian teenage girl is deemed too foreign, too ‘other’ to understand the proper rites of rebellion. She is the grating Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, she is the sexy and exotic Yoyo Gubari in Kill Bill, she is not there at all. A report from USC Annenberg researching diversity in popular film confirms what I already knew at 14: “Invisibility is the norm for girls from diverse backgrounds.”
A few days before my 16th birthday, I hit a turning point. A loud, guitar-heavy song played through the speakers of my cousin’s car. It was rough around the edges but brash, unapologetic. The song, she told me, was by Emily’s Sassy Lime, a teenage riot grrrl band of American girls from Asian immigrant backgrounds. Sisters Wendy and Amy Yao, and Emily Ryan, snuck out of their homes to see punk shows, and would fervently discuss song ideas via home answering machines.
I had listened to bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, screaming and dancing in my room – but a part of me had always associated riot grrrl with white faces, white voices.
Emily’s Sassy Lime changed everything for me. I had listened to bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, screaming and dancing in my room – but a part of me had always associated riot grrrl with white faces, white voices. I had listened to these bands the same way I had watched the protagonist of the teenage movie – with recognition that I was like them, and anger that no one seem to believe it.
I would listen to the bone-rattling, ‘Would-Be Saboteurs Take Heed’ on my bedroom floor, nights when my friends and I would also choose to sneak out – to parties, to shows, anywhere at all. Listening to Emily’s Sassy Lime, and later, Cibo Matto, Mitski, Rina Sawayama, Michelle Zauner – became defiant moments for us. We weren’t alone. We knew that in popular media, we were foreign, uninteresting, invisible – and we knew that this was wholly, deeply untrue.
That night, after I dyed my hair red, my teenage best friend takes out her phone and shows me a photo of Miki Berenyi. The lead singer of English rock band Lush, screaming into the mic. Her face, at certain angles, resembles mine. We play ‘Ladykillers’ in the park, and dance to the lyrics: “Save your breath for someone else and credit me with something more.” We walk home that night, laughing, shouting, running through neighbourhoods – red and black hair shining under lampposts.
Her face, at certain angles, resembles mine.
As a teenager, my closest friends and allies were Asian-Australian girls. When I think of them – I think of first drinks, wild laughter, and university plans. I think of the bone-deep courage and rebellion each of us has, and I think of how it’s a loss for anyone who sees us as anything less than that.
Years later, my hair is black and I watch fewer teen movies. I go to a Mitski show in Melbourne and there’s a group of Asian-Australian girls right in the front row. Mitski gets on stage, and sings loudly, unapologetically: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of the way my mother raised me! But I do, I finally do!”
And I feel a little less invisible.
Gina Song is a freelance writer and the winner of a New York Times essay writing competition on immigration.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_