What you need to know
Ahead of a Girl Power Concert in Taichung, Esther Veronin traces her journey from starting out in Taiwan's male-dominated entertainment industry to becoming a feminist icon.
“Okay, I’m ready”, says Esther Veronin, two minutes after I had turned on some music while waiting for her to finish up. Straightforward and no-nonsense even in the middle of an Adele song (EVERYONE has time for an Adele song), the 31-year-old heads Meimeiwawa Multimedia, a Taiwanese lifestyle entertainment and media production company.
She begins by recounting Meimeiwawa's story as we lounge on floor chairs in the startup's comfortable meeting space. Along with her sister and co-founder, the singer-songwriter Lara Veronin, Esther leads a team of six women who cover everything from artist management to video production.
The team has independently released over 200 videos and garnered hundreds of thousands of views on their YouTube channels, successfully executed a landmark NT$1 million (US$34,000) crowdfunding campaign and received accolades for their visual works at various film festivals in Taiwan and in the U.S.
It’s a far cry from when a bright-eyed 26-year-old Esther dived straight into starting the company without so much as dipping a toe in first; neither sister really considered what they were up against in Taiwan’s male-dominated and sexist entertainment industry. Yet their contributions to the feminism movement in Taiwan are now making waves across mainstream and social media.
“Before we started the company, I didn’t realize there were so many issues with inequality in the workplace,” Esther recalls. “I was so unaware of the subtle sexism. We just thought, ‘oh we’re young entrepreneurs, we have a dream we wanna pursue’. Then when we had our own projects and started having to go out and talk to people, it started to occur to me [that] I was being viewed differently for my age and my gender.”
Even after five years, Esther, a highly skilled film and creative director, still has her abilities questioned on a routine basis.
I told him I had an all-female crew including a cinematographer, and he laughed like it was the funniest thing.
“There have been times on set where a man -- when he realized I was the director -- just looked me up and down and said: “Have you ever directed a film before?” Or I was speaking to a producer once and I told him I had an all-female crew including a cinematographer, and he laughed like it was the funniest thing. But I wasn’t joking.”
Strong feminist values have always been a part of Esther’s identity, even when growing up in Taiwan and in the U.S,
“As a youth I realized that there were so many psychological and emotional issues that come up as a young woman that weren’t really being addressed by educators and the media. Then, as I got older, started working and started a career, it just naturally carried over into feminist causes,” she tells me over mugs of tea. “What you don’t get taught is that [discrimination] is rampant in society, but you can’t see it and you can’t identify it, and that’s why it’s hard to notice when it’s even happening.”
Born in America before moving to Taiwan, Esther’s views on feminism went unchallenged during her school days at the Taipei American School and her time at Chapman University in California. However, it was particularly after returning to Taipei and entering the entertainment industry that Veronin realized how deeply ingrained gender inequality is in Eastern cultures.
“I think that honestly [women’s rights] are really behind. Having taken part in some feminist causes I will say that it’s not because Taiwan isn’t proactive about social causes; Taiwan’s got an amazing gay rights activism movement going on ... it’s [just] very much ingrained in the culture here.
“Challenging male power would put society out of order. They tend to think of it as "women replacing the roles of men", when in fact it's just about having equal opportunities and respect. That concept is woefully misunderstood."
Esther observes that in Taiwan and China, the saying 重男輕女 (favoring boys over girls) reflects the societally ingrained view that male children are preferable because female children traditionally cannot contribute to the household.
“You saw it in China’s one child policy -- there were all these baby girls being aborted or baby girls being put up for adoption. It’s very much ingrained in the culture.
“The average Taiwanese woman won’t discuss [these issues] because it’s still very much a patriarchal society.”
Veronin’s innate belief in female empowerment has increasingly come to the fore through Meimeiwawa’s projects and content. But to reach the largest possible audience, she refrains from overstating the activist aspect of her work.
“I tend to have female leads and female-based stories,” she says, adding that she refrains from thinking about stories as quintessentially “Asian” or “female”. “It’s just about normalizing correct representations of women instead of propagating these types of women who are prevalent in media.”
“It’s essential to create roles that show women as being capable of being leaders, capable of overcoming failure and achieving things and women as being strong and being able to lead.”
Veronin’s vision is most aptly encompassed in "Where Do We Go”, a post-apocalyptic themed music video she directed for sister Lara that features an all-women cast working together to reach an unknown destination.
Esther and Lara often use their roles as public figures to support various feminism-related events in Taiwan, be it promoting the annual Women’s March, or being ambassadors for feminism-related movements against sexual harassment and cyber bullying. In 2016, they attended the #CodeForGender movement’s press conference in Taiwan as ambassadors, speaking out about keyboard warriors who discriminate based on gender and advocating for equal opportunities for women to learn how to code. This time, they’ve chosen to co-organize the Girl Power concert in Taichung on April 27; taking an even more vocal stance on gender equality.
Esther suggests that music is the perfect vehicle for activism because of the speed with which it travels and the influence it can exert over entire generations, yet she cautions that the prevalence of new media and streaming music can have its downsides. “People are becoming increasingly isolated from human contact,” she reflects. “There’s something to be said for trying to promote face to face interaction; there’s a kind of energy I feel people can benefit from and feel inspired from in their own way.”
According to the calm and collected entrepreneur, the Girl Power lineup showcases independent singers who have their own take on things. “I don’t think you could look at any of those singers and feel that they don’t have their own voice. That that’s really important for this concert, that you see women being themselves.”
Esther has never been one to shy away from confrontation or airing her views. Though there are many different strains of feminism and ways of approaching issues regarding gender discrimination, there is nevertheless a need for women to be vocal about the respect they deserve before things can change for the better. At the very least, with the Veronin sisters projecting positive public representations of women in a consistent and high-profile way; we can continue to hope for a more respectful and inclusive society here in Taiwan.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Esther attended Chapham University in New York. It is in fact in California.
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Editor: David Green