On Asian Identities, The Arts And Representation: The Women of Missfits Fest

Written By:  A’nysha Fortenberry

This weekend, we’re lending our support to missfits fest, a one-day festival celebrating Asian-American, self-identifying women in entrepreneurship and the arts. Produced by women-led organizations collective blue and in bold company, the festival explores cultural visibility and highlights a range of artists and thoughts leaders, across a pop-up galler, an interactive storytelling booth, stand up comedy, panels and more.

In this Q&A with the producers of missfits fest—Kristina Gonzalez, Nina Q. Ho, and Regine Malibiran—we dig into the program’s creative influences, media representation and tangible ways to improve diversity in our communities.

Regine Malibiran (left), Nina Ho (center), Kristina Gonzalez (right)

Regine Malibiran (left), Nina Ho (center), Kristina Gonzalez (right)

Q: How would you describe yourself and what you do?

Regina Malibiran: It took me a while to get over the imposter syndrome to say this, but I am a writer and a strategist. I enjoy working on solutions to problems ranging from “How can we optimize our media campaign?” to “How can we address and dismantle toxic cultural norms?”

Nina Ho: I would describe myself as multidisciplinary creative and entrepreneur. I love everything related to telling stories from writing to visual design and photography. I also tend to have a bias towards action and am usually thinking, “Cool, so how do we make this real?”     

Kristina Gonzalez-Saunders: I would describe myself as a Taurus rising, Capricorn Sun and Libra moon (just kidding, but not really). I’m a problem solver. I deal with logistics, problem-solve and plan in my sleep. I spend my days as the Project Manager for Party at the Moontower and my nights as a community connector.

Q: Walk us through some of your inspirations for missfits fest, what are you encouraging attendees to explore?

RM: The strongest inspiration and motivator for me is my personal relationships with the Asian-American women in my life. I’ve wrestled a lot with my identity. As a teenager my mother would not hesitate to tell me I was too American—too independent, too assertive—and not Filipino enough (read: quiet, conservative). However as an adult I now recognize that despite our generational friction, she’s always loved me and has sacrificed a lot to put me first.

That duality of wanting my mother to understand the value in independence and assertion and of respecting and admiring her and other women for quietly excelling even when no one else would care to acknowledge it really drives what I want to accomplish with missfits. I hope that attendees explore a similar duality, one where we can take the time to give each other our rightful credit and respect while also working to address issues in our culture and community to pay it forward to future generations.

NH: I think all three of us found inspiration, ironically, in our personal frustration. My thought process went along the lines of, “Oh, there’s not really any public conversations happening in our community about pursuing a creative career. Let’s have a panel on that!” We really just crafted this event to be what would be empowering, insightful, and fun for us—Regine, Kristina, and Nina. (We’re more excited than anyone to attend our own event!)

I hope what attendees take away from this event is a broader narrative of what if could mean to be an Asian-American woman. I’m constantly thinking about how, if 18-year-old Nina attended this festival and saw someone who looked like her being a tech founder, a DJ, a jewelry maker, a mental health professional, an event producer, an actress, how would that open the mental doors of what I thought was possible for myself?

KGS: missfits fest and our collaboration for producing the event came from connecting with each other. I had met Nina through mutual friends, we met up and started talking about what we thought was missing in our Austin community. I want our attendees to leave feeling inspired—to feel like they can truly relate to someone else because that’s what was always lacking for me. I really want to share these stories from our partners and I hope people find out they are not alone.

Q: Who and what were some of your influences while planning this conference?

RM: Nina and I definitely pulled a lot from elements that we thought were really effective and impactful from our previous events! When I was researching for our @missfitsfest account on IG, I took a lot of inspiration from ACL and BABES FEST.

NH: I think Regine and I looked back on our past collective blue events—from music showcases, vendor markets, to speaker panels—and were like how do we bring it all together in one event that specifically served us, a female Asian-American audience. Details-wise, we were definitely inspired by work from other local community orgs like #bossbabesatx and Almost Real Things.

KGS: With our promo shoot by Nina, we were inspired by Solange and Aluna George. I’m sure you can tell from the photos! We were inspired by pop culture in the U.S. for the names of our panels, too, and used a lot of what we knew to create this festival.

Q: This festival covers some serious topics, like mental health in the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, sexuality and gender identity, media representation, and telling your parents you’re pursuing a creative career. Why did you choose these topics, and what do you hope they will expose within the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities?

RM: A goal that’s really important to me regarding our panel topics is creating a space for Asian-American women to talk to each other openly about important issues in our community. Culturally, we have a tendency to shove things under the rug and prioritize keeping the peace and saving face. Growing up as a 1.5 generation immigrant, this tendency to bury any sign of negativity always bothered me. As a child I never understood why my family members would just keep quiet about things that obviously caused them and others pain and trauma. Our panel topics really resonated with me as issues that a lot of people in our community probably have an opinion about and have been wanting to discuss productively (read: not just address once and then ignore for decades; we’re actually going to unpack these issues) for a long time.

NH: I think these topics are the key issues in our communities today. These topics also hit home for us personally, too. We hope that while missfits fest celebrates the best parts of our cultural identities, it also brings to light important conversations that need to be had. Hopefully, we can start the process of unpacking this emotional baggage and trauma now so that we, and future generations, can travel lighter.    

KGS: In 2018, there were two pretty big movies that started a larger conversation in Asian representation in the media, To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved and Crazy Rich Asians. Those films sparked a lot of discussion amongst the Asian American community.  I remember crying because I felt excited to see an Asian girl get the guy for once in a movie.

All of these topics are based off of what we thought should be discussed in our community. We hope that our community will stop sweeping things under the rug and start talking. Start sharing with each other. That’s where healing begins.

Q: What advice do you have for marginalized women, particularly women of color, who are looking to create their own seat at the table the way collective blue an in bold company have?

RM: Over the years, I’ve witnessed a really deep-seated fear of failure and a compulsion to be perfect in women of color, including myself. We carry so much weight on our shoulders that it can feel like every decision and mistake we make are mission critical.  That fear and compulsion can be exacerbated by a tendency to neglect self-compassion.

My advice to other women of color is twofold: one, just do the damn thing. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and you’ll likely open new doors for yourself in the process (besides, our “average” is way above the norm anyway). Two, cut yourself the same slack and give yourself the same comfort you would your best friends. You’re a boss, you’re doing great work, and you deserve to believe that.

NH: Echoing what Regine said, just go for it! I think it’s valuable, especially for women who are usually held to unrealistic standards of perfection, to reframe the belief that your ideas have to be “perfect” from the get-go. You can only refine and improve them when they’re “live” and out in the real world. Greatness and impact comes from growing through feedback, challenges, and lived experiences—not from perfectionism and flawless execution, the latter doesn’t actually exist.

KGS: I agree with Regine. You just have to do it. Start it. We need your ideas. We need more women of color pushing the normal. Look at Congress right now!! Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are women created their own seats at the table. Why? Because there are people out there who want you to have a say. They need you to be out there pushing those boundaries. When one of us gets a seat, it means we all benefit.

Another piece of advice to surround yourself with a good support system. Without my community, in bold company wouldn’t exist.

Q: One of your panel topics covers media representation. What are your thoughts on media representation for Asian-Americans today? How does this affect perceptions of one’s culture or identity?

RM: We made significant progress in 2018, but there’s still so much work to be done. For every Constance Wu there are like, 50 Scarlett Johansson’s that are just ready to undermine us for a check. Representation is already so hard to come by, and then you add whitewashing on top of all that? Come on. That sends a message that our stories are not worth telling unless they are being told by someone white.

Representation can seem like an “overrated” issue but the impact of seeing yourself accurately portrayed in popular media is literally life-changing. And I think that often times, people will cast East Asian leads and pat themselves on the back. We still need representation for the full spectrum of what it means to be Asian-American. Darker skinned Asians, LGBTQ+ Asians, complex Asians need representation, too.

NH: Something that’s been on my mind recently is the idea of narrative plenitude vs. scarcity by writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. He writes about how, when you’re in the narrative majority, individual stories or pieces of media are not commentaries on your community. However, when you’re in the narrative minority and have so few stories about your group (say Asian-Americans), each story becomes either a huge success or a huge failure that’s reflective of your entire community. While I think there have been some major wins recently for Asian-Americans in media, we still have a long way to go—there’s still a huge scarcity of Asian-American stories. (For example, only 1% of lead roles are given to Asian-American actors.)

I believe that positive, or even just realistic, portrayals beyond racist or model minority stereotypes can go a long way in helping someone appreciate their culture and identity and not internalize shame or self-hatred. It’s crazy to think about, but it took me 25 years before I saw someone who looked like me be the protagonist of a romantic comedy and not just the brainy or ditzy sidekick (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before).

KGS: When I was researching information about Asian-Americans in the media, seeing the numbers that Nina mentioned  was shocking, but not surprising, if that makes sense. I always knew I never saw anyone like me as the star of any movie or TV show. That’s why I clung to Selena so hard - she was one of the only brown women I saw in media.

As a young person, you look up to the media. Celebrities and artists are your idols. When you don’t see anyone that looks like you, one begins to wonder why. Is it because we’re not pretty enough? We’re not smart enough? What is it about me that’s not good enough? I spent a long time being insecure about the line I toggled between Asian and American.

Q: What are some tangible things we can all do to improve representation, diversity and inclusion in our communities?

RM: Support work and people that you believe in! Representation, diversity, and inclusion are all tough, uphill battles and it can be easy to become discouraged. Support from the community is invaluable in fueling the work.  It’s also important for us to be self-aware and check on our own inherited biases so that in our journey to create progress, we don’t inadvertently exclude people in our communities.

NH: Support organizations and individuals who are doing the WORK. Whether it’s just a follow on social media or buying something from them, social and financial currency goes directly into their pockets and back into the community. Additionally, let’s start respectfully engaging in dialogue and pointing out problematic issues, while still being mindful of our emotional bandwidth in each situation. A tangible tool I like to use is to ask “why” questions that spark conversations. (For example, this ethical brand only has images of white women wearing the clothes and any person of color is an indigenous maker. Why is that?)  

KGS: Support, support, support! Our event is inclusive. Yes, our main audience is Asian-American, but we want everyone there. We need each other and improving representation, diversity, and inclusion in our communities starts with understanding.

Hosted at Native Hostels on Feb. 10, missfits fest is a one day festival celebrating self-identifying Asian-American women in entrepreneurship and the arts produced by collective blue and in bold company. Tickets are $15 pre-sale and $20 at the door. Click here for more information.

Jane Claire HerveyComment