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Book Review: Pushing Gender Binaries in the Novel Heiress Apparently

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Winona chapter.

*Warning: This article contains spoilers from the new book, Heiress Apparently by Diana Ma* 

Release Date: Dec. 1, 2020

After a review on Author Nicole Kronzer’s book, Unscripted, I was personally emailed by Kronzer’s publicist, Mary Marolla, from Abram Books. She gave me an awesome opportunity, and she asked me if I wanted to read and then review Heiress Apparently, a new book that will be published on December 1..The author, Diana Ma, is a Chinese-American author who was inspired to write Heiress Apparently because of the lack of Asian and Asian-American representation in Hollywood. 


In Heiress Apparently, the main character, Gemma Huang is forbidden to visit her hometown of Beijing, China by her parents for unknown reasons. Of course, you know Gemma will end up going to Beijing to find out what her parents have been hiding. However, the initial reason why Gemma is in Beijing is to film a movie as she follows her aspiring actress dreams. Obviously, if your dream is being offered to you in the palm of your hands, you would never say no. 


In this case, I’d say I would’ve done the exact same as Gemma.


At birth, Gemma is Chinese-American who goes to her hometown to find a sense of belonging. This theme reflects the challenge of Asian Americans’ right to belong in America. 


As a reader, I felt a little more culturally educated after reading Ma’s story. While I am aware of some common ignorant sayings from real-life experiences, I found a lot of Asian stereotypes throughout the book that made me think about my own life and people I know. It is interesting to read this book in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and the societal education that is happening with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. 


Heiress Apparently also included LGBTQ+ portrayal and true historical references, like the Cultural Revolution.


Marolla was able to get me into contact with the author herself! I sent a list of questions for the purpose of this review, and I will touch on some of the things she said, including Hollywood representation, realism and LGBTQ+ portrayal. If you read on any further than this, you will catch a glimpse of Ma’s book, including many spoilers. 


Please read more at your own risk.


There is a lot to unpack from Heiress Apparently. Trying to keep the layers of this book short and concise was difficult. I think from reading what Ma had sent in my interview questions, she too, struggled to keep everything straight-to-the-point.


Gemma’s character is at first introduced as an aspiring actress who is trying to catch a main role. She defers her UCLA college admission to pursue acting and meets her boyfriend Ken at a toothpaste commercial audition that he eventually gets. The story at the beginning itself represents Asian Americans in Hollywood and how it becomes extremely difficult for them to find good jobs. Ma, herself, is Chinese-American and she wanted to show Asian-American representation in her book.


The beginning does a great job at capturing the culture. I’ve found the stereotypes of good grades, strict parents, and the “no, where are you really from?”


I also wanted to clarify why Gemma got her main role of Song in the M. Butterfly remake, which is the whole reason she goes to China in the first place. Eilene’s character is the co-director who was brought in the film’s remake for “authenticity.”


Ma: Jake’s motivation for casting Gemma as the lead actress is purely about business. He sees a marketing opportunity in Gemma’s resemblance to Alyssa Chua, a Chinese social media star, and that’s all he really cares about.


Eilene, of course, has different motivations. First and foremost, she believes in Gemma as an actress and in her strength and passion to fight for a more authentic film.


I also included a scene where Eilene and Gemma discuss how Jake had wanted to cast a Vietnamese-American actress to play the role of a Chinese-American character. We see this a lot in Hollywood films (and in life)—where Asians are assumed to be a monolithic whole and interchangeable when, in fact, our identities are culturally specific.


One of the bigger questions I asked Ma was the realism portrayal throughout her book. When Gemma went to China, she found out about her grandpa’s involvement in the Cultural Revolution and how serious his position was. This created a lot of trauma in her mother’s side of the family.


Ma: It was definitely difficult to give readers enough historical context to understand the plot without making the book sound like a history lesson and taking over the fun, romance vibe of the story!


Here’s some brief (and probably oversimplified) historical context. The Chinese Communist Revolution, which took place about twenty years prior to the Cultural Revolution, established the Communist Party as the sole ruling party of China. The Cultural Revolution, which technically took place from 1966-1976, was a movement started by Chairman Mao, head of the Communist Party. It was a violent and repressive anti-intellectual movement that targeted “elite” culture, which included art and artists as well as anyone “tainted” by Western capitalist ideals. This, as you might imagine, cast a pretty wide net. The Cultural Revolution allowed Mao and his allies to go after their political enemies by pronouncing them to be “counter-revolutionary.” The height of the Cultural Revolution, when many of the greatest atrocities took place, was from 1966-1969, but it was officially over in 1976, and by the early 1980s, the Communist Party had roundly condemned the Cultural Revolution.


Given this context, in Heiress Apparently, Gemma meets Eric, who is the grandson of Gemma’s grandpa’s rival. On page 134, the story clarifies Gemma’s grandpa betrayed Eric’s grandpa by accusing the man of being a “counterrevolutionary,” or the enemy.


Gemma learned the painting that framed Eric’s grandpa was the painting her mom stole from Empress Wu’s missing art collection. The painting was thought to be destroyed from the Cultural Revolution, and for that reason, Gemma’s mom left the family. Later, Gemma is able to recall where this painting is in her own house. The family drama is what carried this book. Not going to lie, many cheesy moments that I either smiled at or successfully cringed at (especially when they reunited). As readers, we find out there is more to this; it’s not just that one explanation. However, I, myself, was surprised to learn that Diana Ma is writing a sequel to this book.


Ma: I’m going to hold off on saying anything more about Empress Wu and the art collection. The next book in the Daughters of the Dynasty series will be Lei’s story as a teenager (Lei is Gemma’s mother), and I’m so excited to dive even more deeply into Chinese history in telling Lei’s story. Trust me—you’re going to learn a lot more about Empress Wu and the painting in the next book!


I think what people will love about this book is the portrayal of LGBTQ+! In today’s time, there has been a lot of police brutality within the Black Lives Matter movement in COVID. I think everyone is more limited on what we can do in quarantine, and as a result, we are able to focus and educate ourselves more on such important topics.


While reading, I realize there are so many controversial ethics between cultures, hence how the United States does one thing versus China.


I loved when I asked Ma more on China’s stance on LGBTQ+ she gave me some insight on it even in the United States!


Ma: During that time period, LGBTQ+ people fell into the fairly broad category of “counter-revolutionaries” who were targeted by Mao and his allies during the Cultural Revolution, but the LGBTQ+ community was not the only (or even the main) target. In fact, Song in M. Butterfly was targeted as much for being a classical opera performer as he was for his sexuality during the Cultural Revolution.


In 1968, the Motion Picture Production code, which banned explicit sexuality in film (including LGBTQ+ sexuality) came to an end, ushering in a new era of LGBTQ+ representation in film. One year later, in 1969, the Stonewall riots took place, marking what many consider the beginning of the LGBTQ+ revolution in the US. However, this uprising of the LGBTQ+ community in Greenwich, New York was preceded by years of police brutality where people were dragged out of the LGBTQ+ bars and into the streets to be beaten and arrested. The police raid on the Stonewall Inn bar in June of 1969 was just one of many such acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ community. It took trans women of color (got to love that) standing up to police violence and harassment on that day in 1969 for the LGBTQ+ rights movement to really take off.


That revolution continued, leading up to 2003 when the US Supreme Court struck down laws that banned same-sex acts. And it wasn’t until June 15, 2020, that the US Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ+ employees were protected against discrimination on the basis of sex in the workplace!


Ma explained to me in her response that in order for things to really change—whether that’s in China, or the United States—there needs to be a widespread protest for equity and social justice. This is similar to today and the Black Lives Matter movement, where things cannot seem to change unless there is an active fight for it.


Ma: I believe that China can make progressive changes in LGBTQ+ rights and representation—neither communism nor Chinese culture is innately homophobic. But again, it will take sustained activism.


Ma’s character, Alyssa Chua, comes in at the very beginning because Gemma and her looks resemble as if they were twins. I think this was really interesting, especially because readers find out they are cousins and that even their mothers gave a striking resemblance to one another. Readers are introduced to Eric later—and eventually Mimi—who played Alyssa’s love interest. This was the last thing that would’ve gone through my mind. I think as a reader, I was so engrossed with the infatuation between Eric and Gemma that I never saw it. However, as I think back, it would make sense that she was in love with Alyssa. Alyssa is rich and is considered to be a social media influencer for Weibo, China’s social media platform.


I thought this was really cool to read because I am always on social media, but I have never heard of Weibo. I also find it interesting because it’s so known in China but not here, which is probably the reason why Gemma was only stopped for her presence in China and not the U.S. Alyssa Chua was a huge celebrity in China for her social media. In other words, she is practically the Charli D’Amelio in China.


Ma wrote at the club, Alyssa was swarmed with men around her, trying to catch her attention. Reading until it was revealed she was with Mimi; I would have never realized Alyssa and Mimi’s characters were romantic. In addition to this, when the two went missing, I genuinely thought they were kidnapped because Alyssa was so famous. It made sense to me at the time.


Another point I wanted to bring up was the homophobic director, Jake. Gemma was an actress, playing the lead in a remake of the play and movie, M. Butterfly. There are a lot of points on the plot of this movie I did not fully understand while reading and had to look up the story. Comments described it as “reverse Mulan” or “crossdressing beginnings.” I had asked Diana Ma to explain a bit further.


Ma: When I’m not writing YA books, I’m a college English professor, and I’ve taught both David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly and the film version in a class examining media representations of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s important to note that Hwang’s M. Butterfly was already a remake of sorts in that it tackles the problematic portrayal of Asians in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Hwang’s play came out on Broadway in the late 1980s and is set in the 60s and 70s—during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Hwang, as a Chinese-American writer, was interested in exploring the Western assumptions about China and how those assumptions were rooted in imperialist notions about Chinese people’s innate “submissiveness.” M. Butterfly is fascinating because of how Hwang uses the setting and the themes of gender and sexuality to critique Western imperialism and challenge cultural stereotypes of China and Chinese people.


My challenge, in having a main character starring in a remake of M. Butterfly, was to update the story, themes, and character…into a contemporary remake of a remake. To do this, I had to imagine a whole script for Butterfly, the film Gemma stars in. Basically, I had to create a rom-com within a rom-com, but this allowed me to explore the themes of race, gender, and sexuality in Hwang’s play in a different way.


There were many problems with Ma’s character, Jake, who played the remake’s director. He said to Gemma that China was “traditional” when it came to LGBTQ+, hence they would find being closeted as funny. When Gemma told this to Eric, he wanted to show her what China truly was to show how wrong Jake was.


Eric introduced Gen XX to Gemma, who was an all-girl band but dressed like boys portraying a boy-band. I thought this was cool to bring into the book and add to the dynamics that pushed Gemma to fight for herself and the role she was committing to. I asked Ma to explain its purpose more for a better understanding.


Ma: Gen XX is fictional, but there really is a Chinese all-girl “boy band.” I wanted to include Gen XX in the book to question the American perception that Chinese culture is just about strict gender roles and repression of women and the LGBTQ+ community. The reality is more complex. Gen XX and Gemma’s suit are meant to push against gender binaries—and also to challenge limiting ideas of Asians, gender, and our sexualities. 


This also brought me to my last point in LGBTQ+: what Gemma’s tux meant as a symbol? Gemma put on a tux when her and Eric were frolicking around in one of the family’s stores. It was described as amazing on Gemma, but incredibly expensive that she could never afford. Eric wanted to buy it for her, but she insisted that he did not. In the end, when Gemma wanted to make a point to Jake on how her character should really be played in M. Butterfly, she changed the suit that was originally oversized and unattractive on her to the one that fit her physique well. This final gesture was also to push gender binaries and to challenge our limits on sexualities. 


Now that I have read personally, Ma is creating a sequel to this book, and the ending does seem to be open-ended. As I was finishing, I think I could’ve been happy with its ending also. Gemma’s character reflects on her family’s situation and states she has not yet learned her mother’s full story and plans to reconnect. Reading this now, I understand the book was open- ended to her mother’s side of the family history, which the second book will reflect.


Once again, I am so happy to have had the opportunity to read Heiress Apparently before it is even published. Diana Ma did a fantastic job at representing Asian culture that I lack reading on about myself. I also love that I got to add another book to my recently read list. I’ve loved challenging myself on analyzing books lately and would be open to doing more. This is my last year on Her Campus, and I have had the best experiences writing quickly for so many articles about books to publish. Hopefully, I find more books to read and analyze. 


In the meantime, go find yourself a copy of Heiress Apparently to read or buy on December 1st! 


Natalie Elle Tyler is a senior at Winona State majoring in Creative Digital Media. She is minoring in Dance, Creative Writing, and Journalism. Natalie manages her own photography business. When she isn’t writing, she’s either doing a photoshoot, hanging out with friends, or dancing. Her ultimate dream is to make book covers through her photography while having the time to be a freelance travel photographer or photojournalist.
My name is Hannah Hippensteel, and I like to say I'm a Chicago city-slicker, but I'm actually from the 'burbs. I'm currently a senior at Winona State with a major in mass communication-journalism and a minor in sociology. Catch me enjoying all Winona has to offer: the bluffs, the incomparable Bloedow's Bakery, and not to mention, Minnesota boys. With a goal of working at Teen Vogue, Seventeen or Glamour magazine, I'm soaking up every opportunity to keep my finger on the pulse and share my personal voice!