Kate Bartel, Social Change Through Media

Before you know her or see any of her pictures, you know Kate Bartel is a force to be reckon with. She pushes up against stereotypes and throws herself into the emotional labor of identity work. She is the engine behind @angryasiangirls, a group that aims to turn Asian media tropes on their head. She recently launched a documentary. She does all of this while managing and prioritizing her own self-care. Yeah, she's this kind of powerful.


BWM: Boston Women’s Market exists to create space for other womxn to do what they do best, whatever that may be, and to connect them to new audiences to which they can tell their stories in their own words. So we like to start by giving our features the chance to talk about themselves and their projects in their own words.

KB: First, I really appreciate that being your first question. I think self-representation is really important, especially for women and femmes, who aren’t always given a platform to speak about their work for themselves.

I work primarily as a filmmaker and educator. A lot of my work is based in identity, specifically how identity can inform our art and the ways in which we come to see and understand the world. I teach Film and Photography through a social change lens to high schoolers at a community organization called Castle Square, and then I do some freelance video work where I can. 

I also cofounded an art collective called ANGRY ASIAN GIRLS. We’re a group of femme and non-binary Asian Pacific Islander (API) folks based here in Boston. Our work is largely focused on expanding the definitions of what it means to be artistic and what it means to be political. We try to bring folks together into community spaces to highlight the overlap between creative fields and political/activist work.

BWM: Empowerment features heavily in your work. What does empowerment mean to you?

KB: Empowerment to me looks like bringing a group of people whose narratives have been historically excluded from the mainstream into a room and telling them that what they have to say matters. That their voice and their story hold weight for a lot of people in that room who share similar experiences. 

One of my favorite things about the work we do with AAG is having people come up to us and be like, “Wow, I didn’t know spaces like this existed,” or, “I’ve never seen so many API creatives in Boston,” and things like that. I think to be Asian American and to be interested in art and creative fields is somewhat of an anomaly in the US. It pushes up against a lot of stereotypes, and I love that we’re able to foster the types of spaces and conversations for people to think about that representation, or lack thereof.

At the same time, I think it’s important to note that API folks are an incredibly diverse group. We don’t all face the same stereotypes, and there are varying levels of privilege that play into being able to have these conversations. So coming back to the idea of empowerment, as an organization, we really strive to be inclusive and cognizant of the struggles that our queer and trans API sisters face, or what it means to be black or brown and API. There aren’t a lot of API orgs out there doing that work, or enough of it. We want to put this at the forefront of our mission of empowerment.

BWM: There’s often an emotional toll involved in doing work that is innately connected to identity. Many of your projects take that work on. How do you cope or refuel when your work takes an emotional toll on you, especially in such a hostile environment we live/work in now? 

KB: Burnout can be so real. There’s so much emotional labor intrinsic to this type of community building and organizing work, and I think self care is really essential to prevent that burnout from happening.

Self care has become a bit of a buzz word lately. I think it’s often made to look all bath bombs and face masks, which is fine—like, I’m all about that skincare and smell-good life, believe me. But self care can also look like taking breaks and creating down time for yourself, meal-prepping to save money on lunch, seeking a therapist if it’s within your means, etc. It can be different for everyone. 

But sometimes we need to give ourselves breaks and space to breathe between projects. That’s what my self-care and recovery from my recent documentary launch looks like right now: reminding myself that the choice to just be still and take time to reflect is a valid one. 

Right now I’m trying to be more cognizant of the ways in which I tie my self-worth to how productive I am in a given week. When you’re a freelancer, it’s easy to look at an empty Google Calendar and think, “I can do better. I can push myself to make work here, here, and here.” But sometimes we need to give ourselves breaks and space to breathe between projects. That’s what my self-care and recovery from my recent documentary launch looks like right now: reminding myself that the choice to just be still and take time to reflect is a valid one. 

BWM: The name of @angryasiangirls is striking. For me, I think that’s because so often women are discouraged from showing anger or being angry. What’s behind the name of @angryasiangirls? How does anger play a role in the work you do? 

KB: I completely agree. There are so many gender-specific terms for expressions of anger, and women and femmes are so often expected to be more calm and composed, lest they come across as too “bossy” or “bitchy” or “high-strung.” And when we take that and apply it to Asian women, who are so often portrayed in media as quiet, submissive objects, there’s an added layer to the trope. 

I started AAG with my best friend, Dahn Bi Lee-Hong. We were in an internship program for API women at the State House when we were both in college, and all of us in the program felt really frustrated as we came to realize just how much of a white boys’ club American politics is. We felt unheard, and we didn’t have many role models at the time in higher political positions who looked like us. So we made these t-shirts that said ANGRY ASIAN GIRLS on them in repeating block letters (it was the summer of Hotline Bling, need I say more?), and funneled the profits back into the internship program. 

We had no idea the shirts would take off so quickly, and to be honest, we weren’t ready. But I’ve thought a lot about anger since then, and what it means to be angry as a femme person, or a person of color, or someone whose narrative isn’t presented as the normative in our society. Like when was the last time I saw a queer, mixed, API woman being commended for her work in film? I can’t say I ever have. And that makes me really angry sometimes, because it’s hard to be something when you don’t know exactly what that something would even look like. But I like to remind myself that anger is an energy, and it has the ability to drive change. And that’s so important.

So with AAG, we’re trying to turn that classic media trope of the “angry Asian” on its head. Like yes, we are angry. We have reason to be. Our anger is valid. And until something changes, it won’t go away. It can be empowering to reclaim something and use it as your own tool for reframing a narrative.

BWM: In the name of highlighting other womxn, who inspires you, personally or professionally?

KB: There are so many women and femmes in Boston who inspire me heavy. Shine theory is real out here. I want to give a shoutout to Saadia Sumrall, an incredibly talented Boston-based artist and photographer who really pushes the lines of what can be made feminine and soft. Her creativity and perseverance remind me to keep making art, even when it isn’t always the most lucrative work. I’m so thankful for her presence in my life.