Episode 3 in the series profiles Lela Lee, a Korean American actress struggling to make it in Hollywood and a cartoonist unleashing anger through pen and paper. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Lela is the creator of "Angry Little Asian Girl," a series of short films about a cute but acidly funny Asian American girl who tackles racism and gender issues with a surly attitude sprinkled with some choice foul language. Launched in 1996, the short films struck a massive cultural nerve, not only with Asians, but with women everywhere. The series' unexpected success led to dreams of an empire. Today, the initial short films have expanded to a web comic series called "Angry Little Girls," which averages roughly 750,000 hits a month. Lela Lee's story puts a personal spin on Asian Americans in the media and the challenges of being an Asian American woman.
Lela Lee created "Angry Little Asian Girl," her minimalist and iconoclastic comic character, after attending a Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation with a friend. Says Lee: "I came out of there, I was really mad. And I said, 'I did not enjoy any of those cartoons. They were all making fun of colored people or ethnic people, and they were sexist and even though it's a cartoon, it's still not funny to me.'" She decided to create her own character to turn Asian stereotypes on their head.
What is "Angry Little Asian Girl?" Combining simple line drawings of adorable little girls with wicked wit, it's a wickedly sharp look at life from the receiving end of stereotyping. Kim, the cartoon's main character can let loose with an angry torrent of cuss words accompanied by the single-finger salute. In one early cartoon, an adult tells Kim that she speaks "good English." Kim can't hold back: "I was born here, you stupid dip s*?%@! Don't you know anything about immigration? Read some history books, you stupid ignoramus!"
Elaine Kim, Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley, describes the groundbreaking nature of Lela's work: " The way that Lela expresses herself in her cartoons wouldn't really have been possible in the past. I can't even imagine having a comic strip like 'Angry Little Girls' when I was young. If there had been something like that, it would've made me feel much more powerful because I would've felt that someone else experienced what I felt only I had to go through. It would've been really helpful."
After seeing a few of Lee's comics, it soon becomes clear that Lee is Kim's real-life alter ego. "The character is sort of based on me, and I had a bit of a short temper, where I was just really mad at the world for the imperfect world that we all sort of inherited," she says. "And sort of mad at the illusions that my parents and teachers and my schools had sort of fed to me."
The youngest child born into a Korean American family, Lee was sent off to her grandparents' chicken farm in Korea when she was six months old. Her family was starting a new business and the stress of a fourth child proved to be too much. She returned a few years later to find a tight-knit family unit to which she was the outsider, providing the basis and early material for "Angry Little Asian Girl."
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." 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."
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1996, Lee moved to Los Angeles and was cast in two independent Asian American features, "Yellow" and "Shopping for Fangs." Lela also appeared on popular shows like "Felicity" and "Charmed." Then, after the success of "Angry Little Girls," Lela landed a national American Express commercial, where she plays herself as an entrepreneur who turns to the card to grow her internet business and finance visits with her family. Behind the scenes footage of NBC's "Scrubs" and clips from some of Lee's other film and television appearances (including episodes of the Sci-Fi Channel's "Tremors") provide examples of her work.
What are Lee's future plans? She wants to continue acting and maybe even direct one of the feature scripts she's been working on. She's also focusing on the Holy Grail for comic strips, achieving weekly syndication of "Angry Little Asian Girl" and its newly morphed companion, "Angry Little Girls" (www.angrylittlegirls.com) in which Kim is joined by friends Disenchanted Debra, Gloomy Xyla, Soul Sistah Wanda and Crazy Maria.
So far, Lee has only received polite rejections that cast doubt on whether the world is ready for "Angry Little Girls" coping with real world and often sophisticated social issues. But Lee is not deterred. Just read the writing on her website: "Screw making the comic strip acceptable for 'them.' I draw this for me and you."