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Lela Lee: cartoonist, filmmaker

interview by Douglas Eby

 "Once I stopped asking for approval, 
my art started to get stronger."

Lela Lee created "angry little Asian girl" Kim for a video production class at UC Berkeley. After graduating with a degree in rhetoric, she made a short cartoon of Kim and a group of friends. Now the actress and cartoonist publishes a comic strip on her own website. 

An LA Times article described the characters as "five animated little girls and a gender-confused boy, all of whom spend their days encountering numerous injustices: anything from gross racial stereotyping to an obnoxiously self-involved mother for whom Oprah is God."

At first, Lee didn't want to show her work to anyone. "I was afraid it would be too angry," she says. She went ahead, but admits it wasn't easy. 

"I had very strong reactions against my stuff, for my strong views. Some comments were, 'You're impudent,' and 'You don't know what you're talking about.' The reactions depend on the person and where they're coming from.

"They're kind of hard not to take personally, but after a while, you get used to it and look at it objectively. Now, I don't really share my art with people who belittle it. I just do it on my own. When I was younger, I cared too much about what other people thought. Now, I don't look for approval."

"That gave me the courage to keep going," she says. "I really felt that I had touched a nerve for some people. I knew that because my comic strip was so different, and had to do with girls and ethnicity and anger, it wouldn't be looked on very favorably, or as not very commercial. 

"And I just disagreed with that. I felt really strongly about my work, so I took it in my own hands." 

She is developing contacts to publish her creation as a syndicated strip. After making T-shirts with her characters, and selling out the first batch, she is now marketing them from her website. 

"I still don't make much money at it, but I don't worry about that," Lee says.

Growing up, she was "always in an art class, through junior high school," Lee says. "After that, I couldn't do art so much because academics were stressed. And then in college, I was away from my family, and I was able to reclaim the art." 

Her advice to other women who get negative reactions from family, friends and others about their creative work is, "Never take it personally. Examine why they might be having that reaction. Then when you think about that, it's really interesting to delve into it further. 

"I would say that any kind of reaction is a good thing. If it's negative, then you might be pushing some buttons. If you just start talking about some topic, you'll find like fifty other people that feel the same way."

Lee has been getting "a lot of really good responses" to her strip. 

"Girls really like it," she notes. "They write to the website, and say how they're so happy that they found it, and can't wait for more stuff to come. And I have parents writing in to say they're so happy they found it for their daughter. So I think there is a growing awareness about little girls and what they are expected to behave like. 

"The characters are all very young, about six years old. I chose that age because I just think they're so cute when I draw them. I like little things." 

Lee makes anger an ongoing theme for her strip, and at times, she finds it in her daily life. "I don't like being angry," she says. "I prefer being happy. But I found I have to think about what makes me angry, really get to the root of what's going on, and then once I look at the truth, it doesn't really have that emotional power. 

And my art is a way to get to that truth."

A PBS series ["Searching For Asian America"] includes a segment on her, and the series' website about Lee includes the comments : 

Raised in a colorful and at times, dysfunctional, Asian American household, Lee was discouraged from expressing anger at home. Eventually she found her release in art and the craft of acting. 

"You didn't get angry in our house," says Lee. "If you got angry, you were a bad child. The cartoon is my therapy."

"There's an aspect of Angry Little Asian Girl that all women can relate to," says Peggy Orenstein, author of Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap.

"The stereotype affects all of us. All of us are socialized to be feminine, to be quiet, to be polite, to be nice. And our anger is denied us. And so any time a young woman steps up and takes on anger, I think all of us kind of cheer for her."

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site:  Angry Little Girls

related book: Producing Animation by Catherine Winder

> related pages: 

filmmaking *** filmmaking teen/young adult *** anger

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