‘The Grace Lee Project’: Breaking the Mold of the Perfect Asian American Woman
Have you ever met Grace Lee? It’s no surprise if you have. Grace Lee is one of the most common names given to Asian American girls – and why wouldn’t it be? The term ‘grace’ means “simple elegance or refinement of movement,” and who wouldn’t want their daughter to identify as such? And according to the US Census in the year 2000, Lee was ranked the 22nd most popular surname with 605,860 people. So, to see whether the name Grace Lee was as popular as it seems, I asked a small group of friends if they knew or met an Asian American girl named Grace Lee. All of them said yes.
The Grace Lee Project, created and directed by the filmmaker Grace Lee, is a comedic exploration of the Asian American female identity through a deep dive into how exactly Asian American women are expected to fit into society. Lee conducted a social experiment with women all over the country who shared her name, in an effort to explore their similarities and differences and how their name and the persona of ‘Grace Lee’ affected their identity. In an interview with WORLD Channel, Grace Lee spoke about how she “wanted to make a film about how ‘Grace Lee’ became the stand-in for the model minority or the Asian American woman.” She was successful. The finished product is an insightful and charming peek into the experiences of Grace Lees from all walks of life that also explores what it means to be Grace Lee, both literally and figuratively.
So, who is ‘Grace Lee’ and what exactly does she represent? Simply put, ‘Grace Lee’ represents the mold that every Asian American girl feels pressured to fit into. Through multiple interviews with everyday Americans, a caricature of who ‘Grace Lee’ is, starts to take shape. ‘Grace Lee’ is the perfect Asian American daughter. She is the girl at school who is nice and smart, probably in ASB or student council. She is impressive but forgettable. She is every stereotype that has been pushed on to Asian American women. But although the Grace Lees of the world share the same name and general characteristics, the director’s decision to take these interviews and interlace them with the stories of the Grace Lees featured proves just how surface level these common perceptions of Asian American women are.
Take, for example, Grace Lee Boggs: an activist, writer, and revolutionary who was a part of the Black Power movement back in the 1960s and definitely not soft-spoken or passive. There is also 14-year-old Grace Lee from Cupertino, California: a normal teenager with a dark and graphic artistic mind, who also happens to make voodoo dolls. However, what the film doesn’t do is go into detail about where and how the ‘Grace Lee’ mold came to be. We learn a lot about the different Grace Lees and hear about their different experiences and opinions, but there isn’t much discussion about how exactly ‘Grace Lee’ became the barometer for all Asian American women. Perhaps, that’s for the best. It allows the audience to reflect on their own personal misconceptions and whether or not they carry these stereotypical perspectives of Asian American women in their day to day life.
The Grace Lee Project does an incredible job of pointing out how nuanced personal identity is and how much of an impact society has when it comes to the identities of Asian American women. In general, society likes to categorize. When you are put into a mold and labeled, it is easier for others to identify you and for you to identify yourself. And when you don’t fit in the mold, or choose to break that mold, your identity suddenly becomes a huge question mark. The Grace Lee Project, as a reflection of how truly diverse America is, asks the hard-hitting question: If I don’t fit into my designated mold, then who am I … really?
Watching The Grace Lee Project in 2020, fifteen years after the release, I’m not surprised at all to see how little the common perceptions of Asian American women have changed. Even though there has been an increase in Asian American representation across the board since the release of this documentary in 2005, the female Asian American trope and the ‘Grace Lee’ persona still remains. As the community continues the fight for more representation in media, it is important to remember to push for truthful, accurate, and respectful representation. ‘Grace Lee’ is a mold that never fit and never will, and The Grace Lee Project is a good reminder of that.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
The Grace Lee Project is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #14 on that list.
For the rest of the entries in the serise, click here.