The Chinese animated film I Am What I Am has been embroiled in controversy since premiering on December 17, simultaneously receiving a tidal wave of both five-star reviews and negative comments on Douban, China’s answer to IMDb. The harsh words primarily focus on the size and shape of the movie’s characters’ eyes.
I Am What I Am tells the story of a boy and his two friends achieving their dream of becoming lion dancers — entertainers who perform a ritual dance during Chinese festivals.
The film’s five-star reviews come from netizens praising its realistic portrayal of the traditional dance and its place in modern China, alongside strong visuals and storytelling.
“This is a valuable film because, finally, a Chinese director made an animation based on our modern culture instead of mythical stories,” wrote one Douban user who gave I Am What I Am a five-star rating.
Other positive reviews applaud the movie’s originality, noting that many animated films made in China — Big Fish & Begonia, Ne Zha, Lotus Lantern — are based on ancient myths, while I Am What I Am is a novel concept: The characters are youngsters in modern China, but they still practice traditional artistry.
A promotional image for I Am What I Am
Despite the vivid storytelling, a vocal segment of viewers are upset with the main characters’ small and slanted eyes — physical features considered racist by some Chinese people. I Am What I Am has been accused by some netizens of playing into the ‘Western gaze,’ a term describing privileged Western audiences projecting their biases and preconceptions on non-Western peoples.
“If the main character in a film has small eyes, it is reasonable to think that the film creator is trying to appeal to people in other countries,” wrote a critical viewer of the movie on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website.
Another user accused the film of adopting ‘yellow peril’ tropes, commenting, “This is how Chinese people were exaggeratedly portrayed during the colonial period. We’ve been discriminated against for so long that this doesn’t look so strange to some people.”
Of course, valid concerns regarding the use of outdated and racist Asian stereotypes in cinema exist. However, it’s worth questioning whether or not attacking a Chinese-made film for portraying different looks is the right approach to addressing these concerns.
The most problematic undertone to this debate: Suggesting that the only way to portray Chinese characters is with large round eyes is essentially stating that there is a best way to look Chinese.
China is a vast and varied country with diverse ethnic groups showcasing a variety of looks, body types, and skin tones — each of them equally Chinese. Even over time, beauty standards in China have evolved and changed.
In modern China, large eyes and double eyelids are viewed by many as a standard of beauty. Conversely, individuals with small eyes, especially monolids, are often deemed less attractive. This threshold for being defined as beautiful has led to double eyelid blepharoplasty (creating an eyelid crease) becoming the most common cosmetic surgical procedure undertaken by people of Chinese descent.
This wasn’t always the case, though. For long periods of Chinese history, small and slanted eyes were referred to as Phoenix Eyes (凤眼), and they were considered a beautiful facial feature.
“What the characters’ eyes look like doesn’t determine if [I Am What I Am] celebrates yellow peril tropes, and we shouldn’t discriminate against Chinese people with smaller eyes,” opined a Weibo user in response to the controversy.
Women with small and slanted eyes often appear in a Tang Dynasty (618–690, 705–907) art genre called “Beauty Painting.” This is a piece by Zhou Fang from that era
The online uproar surrounding I Am What I Am is the latest in a string of scandals concerning the depiction of Chinese people in media.
Last month, netizens put French luxury brand Dior and Chinese photographer Chen Man on blast for a photograph of a woman wearing a traditional Qing Dynasty garment while holding a Lady Dior handbag. The image was accused of pandering to Western stereotypes of Chinese people.
All images via Weibo
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