Watch out! Angry little girl is sharing her feelings
Lela Lee's online comic strip about Asian American female rage is coming to TV this summer. Yay! Another outlet for all that seething fury.
Yeah, that's her, staring you down, eyes blazing, cursing under her breath. She's a piece of work with zigzag black bangs, a blood-red shirt and hands firmly planted on hips. When the guy who's in love with her inches forward, telling her, "I can't live without you," she shoots him down: "Then why aren't you dead yet?"
She's not big on holding back.
And neither is her creator, Lela Lee, a Los Angeles-based artist who has sent Kim and her gal pals into cult status as the heroines of the "Angry Little Girls" online comic strip.
It's "South Park" with Asian attitude — a primal scream, a blast of defiance.
"It's not easy being a girl, stuck with mean parents, a dumb boyfriend and annoying friends," Lee says, by way of introducing her main character. "I love the freedom of being able to say just what you need to say."
The comic-strip heroine acts out where her creator never had the nerve. Lee tells of being raised by ultra-strict parents, the youngest of four daughters in a Korean American household who were constantly pushed to achieve and "be somebody."
"I had lots of humiliating experiences and never had the guts to speak my mind," she says, hugging her forearms as she speaks, her eyes locked onto her listener's.
Now in her late 30s, Lee is making up for lost time: Like Kim, she never seems at a loss for words, talking at a rapid clip, her dark hair bouncing on her shoulders.
Fans have connected through seven comic books (sample dialogue: "Boys are Stupid. Throw Rocks at Them.") and a broad line of merchandise, including iPhone cases, dolls, skateboards and aprons that read "Weenies Should Be Fried." This summer, the "Angry Little Asian Girl" cartoon will debut on Mnet, a national Asian American cable channel.
The attraction of a pipsqueak with a bad attitude? For Henrietta Huang, a Sacramento programmer who owns five Angry Girl tote bags, two mugs and a calendar, it springs from a culture of being told what to do, when to stay quiet and whom to obey:
"We just want to be ourselves."
'Angry Little Asian Girl' by Lela Lee. Credit: Mnet America
'Angry Little Asian Girl' by Lela Lee. Credit: Mnet America
Kim came fuming into the world when Lee was a sophomore at UC Berkeley.
Home in the San Gabriel Valley had been highly stressful, with her parents working long hours so their daughters could go to private schools and off to universities. They expected — demanded, Lee says — top careers in exchange for the top education they had provided.
At the time half a state away in college, "I had to find a way to release" stress, she recalls. One day she sat down and started drawing — a favorite escape.
At the encouragement of a friend, she compiled the drawings into a short video, "Angry Little Asian Girl, the first day of school," but then, embarrassed, put it all away in a drawer.
After graduating in 1997 with a degree in rhetoric, Lee returned to L.A., uncertain what the future held. She tried her hand at acting and went out on auditions, landing a role in an independent flick called "Shopping for Fangs" and appearances in "Felicity" and "Friends." She had a recurring part on "Scrubs," cast as a surgical intern.
But Lee's mother reined in her youngest daughter, assigning her to help the family by working shifts at their dry-cleaning business in a Covina strip mall.
"God — day in, day out. The smell. The chemicals. The customers. I was so bored," Lee says. To kill time and entertain herself, she resurrected Kim.
There was a certain therapy to the process. Kim, after all, was more or less Lee.
"She is who I wish I could have been."
One weekend, Lee drives to Orange County to visit her mom.
Bong Soon Lee — "Mrs. Lee," she insists on being called — answers the front door in a plum-colored dress and fuzzy red slippers.
"That's pretty, Mom."
"Old," her mother replies. "You know my things are old. No need for spending money."
"Did you ever use the wallet I got you — where is it?" Lee asks.
Mrs. Lee waves her hand in the direction of the bedroom. "Oh, over there. Why would I need to use it? I already have good one I am using. No need for spending money."
After college, all of it — the strive-for-success home life, the back-and-forth with her mother — got poured into new cartoons.
When she finished, Lee transferred the Magic Marker illustrations onto butcher paper, pinned it on corkboard and showed the work to a cinematographer. They joined forces, polished and screened "Angry Little Asian Girl, 5 Angry Episodes," at an American Cinema Tech event in 1998.
Against all odds — Lee figured — critics from the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times gave it sparkling reviews, saying it offered "bold dialogue on subjects often kept unspoken." Twenty people went up to her after the showing, telling her, "I love 'Angry Little Asian Girl.' She says everything I want to say. I was her growing up."
Lee's reaction? "I've got to make T-shirts."
She charged the first batch on her credit card, producing 300 tees featuring the Angry Little Asian Girl flipping her middle fingers, double-barrel style. Her mother's voice echoed in her brain as she followed her business hunch: "We left Korea so you have better life. You work harder. Try harder."
"I called friends, begged them to buy it off of me, and I started wearing it outside," Lee said of the T-shirts. "Strangers would approach and ask, 'Where did you get that? I want one.' "
She sold the shirts from her apartment, and later from her car. Her short video was featured in Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. She then launched a website and encouraged readers to share their "angry stories."
"There's something about anger and women not being allowed to express it," Lee says, "that compels them to finally do something about it."
"Are the kids eating well?" Mrs. Lee interrogates her daughter. "What are you feeding them?"
Lee, who has two young sons, says one has a cold.
"He is sick?"
Lee waves her off. "Mom, don't worry. I think he just caught something."
Lee tries to change the subject, and asks her mother how her basic computer classes are going.
"Oh, is OK," she says, seemingly uninterested in the topic.
And then her mother circles back to child-raising.
"Why you not taking good care of him?"
Somewhere between the quirky, crude characters in "South Park" and gloomy, fatalistic Charlie Brown, maybe — just maybe — there might be room for Kim and her gal pals on TV, Lee thought when the T-shirts started selling.
But taking what had made for a good T-shirt and a comic strip with a following proved to be a tough sell with executives. Some told Lee the proposed show seemed too racially charged. Others said Asians didn't represent a strong consumer market when it came to ratings.
"It wasn't the right fit — so I waited until someone came along who understands what we're trying to do — trying to say," Lee says.
That turned out to be Mnet, an Asian American channel that attracts a post-college, young professionals audience. Officials there signed on to air two seasons of "Angry Little Asian Girl," expected to debut in June.
"I've always been a fan of her work," says Mnet's chief executive, Ted Kim, who met Lee when she was trying to make it as an actress. "She touches on things that are so universal — family relationships, for one, and a girl finding her way in the world, but getting frustrated by what happens around her that aren't the consequences of her actions."
Walter Santucci, the animator for the series, calls Kim a "bad-ass."
"She's so in-your-face, but she's honest," says Santucci, who collaborates with Lee closely.
As much as he likes Kim, though, Santucci's favorite character is her mom, who just happens to be called Mother Lee. "She's all about the hardship in Korea, how you should eat Korean food because it's the best food on Earth, and we went through all that suffering in the old country so you can have better in this country."
And somewhere in there, he says, Mother Lee "has a real soul," voiced in the new cartoon through comedian Margaret Cho.
"This show is about sometimes not understanding your family — but that's part of your relationship, the disconnect," says Cho, who met Lee more than a decade ago when they worked together on a TV pilot. At the time, Lee was still doodling with characters, but Cho found one she instantly liked.
" 'If you ever cast the voice of Mrs. Lee,' " Cho told her, " 'I want to do it.' "
Mrs. Lee isn't sure what to make of her daughter the cartoonist, the humorist, the boundary-pusher.
"I didn't teach her. She was different from her sisters. So strong a character. The others, I control easier."
Lela Lee laughs. "She hopes I get a real job someday."
"I demand achievement," comic-strip Mother Lee says.
"I demand you get a grip," Kim shoots back.
Angry to the end.
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