Josna Rege

239. No, It’s Not Political Incorrectness

In 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, history, Media, Politics, Stories on January 7, 2014 at 12:35 am

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The opening scene of Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is subtle, delicate, and totally charming, with Audrey Hepburn wandering waiflike along a deserted Manhattan street in shoulder-baring Givenchy, accompanied by Henry Mancini’s romantic rendition of “Moon River.” (Did you know, by the way, that Moon River was written expressly for that movie?). I stretched out luxuriously and prepared to relax for an hour or two, escaping into the dreamworld of this American classic, which, amazingly, I’d never before watched all the way through. But America had something else in store for me: as Holly Golightly, our gamine of a heroine, gets back to her apartment building she is met, not by a handsome beau, but by a loud, shrill caricature of an ugly, buck-toothed, lascivious Japanese man. It was such a jarring shift that I stopped the movie; it had completely spoiled the mood for me.

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It has no doubt been argued in its defense that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was made more than 50 years ago. The 50th anniversary DVD of the film tries to make amends,  confronting Mickey Rooney’s racist impersonation head-on with the inclusion of the video, Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective. But this heartening fact doesn’t help me personally. The movie provides plenty of fodder for an analysis of orientalist representations of Asians, but that would be a busman’s holiday. What it doesn’t do is allow me to kick back, half-close my eyes, and be carried away. Instead I feel like Bruce Lee, as he watches the same scene in The Bruce Lee Story.

Such scenes are not limited to movies of yesteryear, but crop up with depressing regularity in movies that go on to become blockbusters. In fact, far from being aberrations, they are an integral part of the Hollywood formula. Everyone of a certain age knows of the embarrassing figure of Long Duc Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984). Is there some unwritten American movie rule that says that there has to be a ridiculously inappropriate Asian geek as a repulsive foil to the (white) American sweetheart?

When Nikhil was in elementary school, I had a similarly jarring experience, this time when a group of his friends were at our house for a sleepover. We had duly bought the requisite pizza, set up all the mattresses and folding cots, and rented a stack of movies suitable for pre-preteen boys. By popular acclaim, the evening’s choice was Happy Gilmore (1996), starring an up-and-coming young comic actor by the name of Adam Sandler. I agreed to the selection, despite its PG-13 rating (“for language and some comic sexuality,” which I felt sure would be innocuous). I had never heard of the lead actor before and sincerely wish it had stayed that way.

This movie, too, introduces the Asian caricature, this time a Chinese woman, early on, both to drive home the unredeemed crassness of the loser lead character and to serve as a foil for his pretty American girlfriend who won’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Here’s the scene, so offensive and irredeemably crass itself that I hesitate to provide a link to it. I winced as I watched it that day, with a squirming, Dorito-munching knot of little boys stretched out on the floor in front of me, but didn’t say anything, hoping that it would go under their radar or right over their heads. Sadly, it did neither. In the car the next day as I drove the boys home they were chatting away in the back seat, and one of them said, in those bragging tones that boys assume when they’re trying to act sophisticated and worldly, “Wasn’t the scene funny in the movie last night, the one with the Chinese woman” (nod nod wink wink)? I cringed all over again, realizing that not only had they not missed it, but that in fact its brand of humor had probably been pitched at viewers of precisely their mental age. The whole source of the humor was that the Chinese woman who had thrown herself at our hero was so ugly that no one would ever desire her, yet he had not only happily used her for the night, but just as carelessly discarded her the next morning at the prospect of the all-American girl who was the true object of his desire, even as his Chinese doormat was preparing to do what Asian women are purported to do best: serve.

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Perhaps an even more disturbing scene in Happy Gilmore involves an African American. It’s been a long time since that sleepover in 1996, and I have no intention of watching the movie again, but  Chubbs Peterson, an African American former golf pro who lost his hand to an alligator, chooses to give his blessing and his special golf club to Happy Gilmore and, as if in repayment, is killed off completely gratuitously, after which Happy goes on to win the championship. For the life of me I can’t understand why so many viewers seem to find this scene funny.

The winning Hollywood archetype that Chubbs Peterson (played by football-player-turned-actor Carl Weathers) enacts is that of the Magical Negro, a black character who selflessly (and often for no apparent good reason) sacrifices him or herself to mentor and redeem a washed-up (and often utterly unworthy) white character. Once you identify this tired trope you will see it everywhere.

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Still, aside from the adolescent humor of Adam Sandler and his ilk, there have been some encouraging developments in the past half-century of film. The Japanese American Gedde Watanabe playing the execrable role of Long Duc Dong was arguably some kind of advance, if a dubious one, over Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi. But, no thanks to Sixteen Candles, 1984 was a breakthrough year for Asian American actors; it was the year when, as the character of Mr. Miyagi, Japanese American actor Pat Morita played a winning role in a Hollywood movie, The Karate Kid. Even though it was still a somewhat stereotyped role and remained a supporting one in which an elderly Asian American man mentors a callow white youth, Mr. Miyagi was a complex character, not a clown, and he paved the way for more and better roles for Asian American actors. (Unfortunately, 30 years on, their prospects are little better, and in 2010 Aly Morita, Pat Morita’s daughter, called for a boycott of the Karate Kid remake.)

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Given that one of my main goals in sitting down to watch a movie is to relax and enjoy myself, I’m not afraid to admit that I have a distinct preference for romantic comedies. While I don’t discriminate racially among my male romantic heroes, and freely confess to a fondness for the late Christopher Reeve, Colin Firth, and even Hugh Grant (in his time), I do take exception to the common practice in the U.S. of emasculating Asian American male characters. If they’re not utter buffoons, they’re nerds or geeks, and they are never romantic leads (unless they’re martial artists). That’s why I welcomed the Harold & Kumar films (Harold & Kumar go to White Castle (2004), Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), and a third, which I haven’t seen) with open arms, despite their adolescent-boy humor and silly stoner genre. Korean American John Cho and Indian American Kal Penn are intelligent, good-looking, romantic-hero material, and babes fall for them right and left. I take pleasure in this—and in them. I defy you to watch this trailer or this clip without doing the same.

In regard to my rant against Hollywood’s humor at the expense of brown and black folk, readers may wonder why I don’t just lighten up. It’s only comedy after all; why such tedious insistence on political correctness? My answer: because I watch movies to feel good, and characters like Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the Chinese woman in Happy Gilmore completely spoil the fun.

No, it’s not political incorrectness that is the problem here: it’s bad old-fashioned racism.

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  1. I agree with you. It’s not just Hollywood but American TV too has a long way to go. Hence, although I find Big Bang Theory very funny, and although all the nerd characters on that show are stereotypical, the additional stereotyping of the Indian Post-Doc Raj makes me cringe too often, especially in the early episodes when he is supposed to speak very little, especially in front of women so that other characters do all the talking.

    • I had heard about Big Bang Theory but hadn’t ever watched it, so I went on Youtube and search for Raj. The scene I came up with made me cringe, too, since it both feminized and scapegoated him. He was a houseguest (interesting in itself) at the house of two of the white American characters, a married couple, and was inadvertently showing up the wife by lovingly making the husband’s lunch and even putting encouraging little motherly notes in the lunchbox. At first the couple started arguing with each other, but soon they found unity by ganging up on Raj and blaming him for all their problems. The fact that it attempted a humorous metacommentary of sorts didn’t take away from my distinct impression that it was primarily Raj, not the other two characters, who came off the butt of the joke. Thanks, Bottledworder–and yes, from my limited exposure I agree with your point that although all the characters are stereotyped, it appears that Raj is especially targetted. (I feel this way when I see how Basil Fawlty treats the Spanish servant Manuel on old episodes of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. It doesn’t help that the show portrays Fawlty as a bigot, because I am sure that many viewers enjoy laughing at both Fawlty’s insulting abuse of Manuel and Manuel’s abject behavior.) Thanks for your comment, and warm wishes for 2014!

  2. Loved your post Josna. I wish I could just sit down with you and chat. So much to talk about, especially from our perspective here in South Africa.

    • I wish we could, too, Don. Race is constructed and configured so differently at different times, in different places, and of course, from different perspectives. These reactions of mine are of course mine, and very personal, though I hope they touch a chord in readers, especially when the movies I mention are pretty well-known and, in the case of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, well-thought-of. For a long time in the U.S. it was common practice for white Americans to abuse Japanese people and Japanese Americans and to use the derogatory term “Japs.” The attack on Pearl Harbor gave the U.S. an excuse to order mainland Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps, but there had been strong anti-Japanese (and more broadly, anti-Asian) feelings (and legislation) long before 1941. I also feel strongly that the U.S. would not have dropped the atom bomb on two European cities. Thank you, as always, for your welcome comment.

  3. Well, there are a couple of movies I will never watch. Ugh.

  4. You are entirely right about the obvious racism in so many Hollywood movies. Calling a spade a spade is a good first step, but when you meet it in person I find it so shocking and hard to believe that I am at first lost for words, just when I would love to be equipped to slay
    someone with my wit and understanding! Anyway, I do like to rate some of the Netflix movies appropriately and get them off my list at least. I believe they do pay attention to their customer’s ratings and that is one tiny contribution to getting attitudes noticed by those who make such films.
    Good for you for speaking your mind, Jojo!

    • Is there a place on Netflix where you can leave comments, or can you just rate by the number of stars? It’s a good idea to give the offensive ones two thumbs down and somehow let other potential viewers know why. Perhaps someone should start a blog where people rate Netflix movies based on criteria like humanity and respect and social equality and visionary content rather than horror or action or steamy romance.
      I know what you mean about not knowing what to say when confronted with racism, just feeling gobsmacked (as they say in the U.K.). If the person isn’t too thick-skinned, perhaps a quiet “Ouch!” or “I find that very hurtful” would be enough to shame them and make they think again about what they had just said.

  5. It absolutely is racism. And for “all” the attempts- some real- at changing that, American films and especially TV Shows seem to believe that increasing roles for African American and Hispanic actors- and far more actors than actresses- is “enough”.

    I can tell when a TV show is shot in Canada- there is a definite Asian presence among characters. American Shows often lack even one token Asian person while Canadians shows have many. As the leads- generally not. Then again , white, non ethnic , or if ethnic, Italian or Irish, men still overwhelmingly dominate the lead roles. I lived in Canada over 20 years ago and the presence of Asians in Government was immediately blaring, because of the almost total lack in the US. Diversity and inclusion included Asians- and not lumping all persons of Asian lineage as ONE, either. The contrast with the US was severe and has only lessened some.

    Then again, the presence of Jewish characters is still very sparse. More often as a “flavor”. In support roles,. Rarely as leads, and then they are stereotypically intensely neurotic ,self centered and loud- Grace on Will and Grace (she lacked grace and he lacked will), Ross and Monica on Friends who’s sibling rivalry and Golden Child son and scape goated daughter, though accurate, still, stereotypical. I can only think of one show where it was “about” a Jewish family- Brooklyn Bridge. Which had me in tears, often, that my Jewish family was not like this jewish family, but which was also very short lived. There may be others, thou as a kid the only Jewish character I remember was Morey Amsterdams on The DIck Van Dyke Show. This matters because it both reflects and perpetuates American Culture and beleifs and prejudices. As a kid there wasn’t a show I believed. The families were white collar. Ate in the dining room, with the father in a suit- my father rarely wore a suit- and the families talked to each other, had discussions. And, of course, they were all Protestants. Or, the several shows without mothers: Flipper, My Three Sons, and others. Had my mother died- and she nearly did a few times, my father would not have been like those fathers.

    I think there is one new show now that is about a Jewish family. From what I have seen about it, its not going to improve the state of anti-semitism in this country. The stare of- if you are not Christian you do not belong- that is increasing in this country.

    And, diversity is not only about “race” and ethnicity. OR Gay men- because lesbians are even more rarely portrayed, and Trans… There are MANY people who are transgendered. Many. Just rarely in movies and shows.

    As someone who is disabled, on several levels, I rarely see anyone represented other than able bodied (and I include brain chemistry diseases as – “Body”.) Yes, we see very neurotic people. And we see people with alcoholism and other addictions, but mostly as the relatives of the character s to show the back story, and only as “these people” wanting to be “normal”. Or, valiantly pushing through life. OR the “role Models”. who are really outliers and whom almost no one else can be like but which leads to being judged by the world and far too often by those of us who can not meet the standards of normalcy- or- surpassing the norm.

    I am not “Handi-Abled”. And my life, my expectations, and what I can do are not the same as those of my cohorts who are not disabled. Trying to have those things, that life, is not healthy, it is not functional, because it is not possible.

    There are exceptions and maybe a bit more than exceptions. The new Ironside is played by a black man. He is paralyzed from the waist down. He was a narcissist before he was shot and he remains one still. He was a dog- in terms of women, and he remains one. Yes, he has sex- real sex. And he treats women ,not great. He never did, and he hasn’t become empathic and a changed man. He is a person, who is -now- getting around on wheels instead of legs. That doesn’t make him a saint or excuse his flaws. It makes him a person. And that is a good thing to portray. But still far too unusual. ______________________________________ So, what is so great about “normal”? The reference point, the standard, the norm are still predominately defined by, as the lives and expectations of, white, Christian, able-bodied, men.

    • Thank you so much for your rich response, Robin. It’s given me a lot to think about, particularly regarding American television–which I don’t know very well. My response are therefore compeletely impressionistic. One of the only family series I watched regularly after coming to the U.S. was The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I didn’t know enough about the States even to realize that the character played by Morey Amsterdam was supposed to be Jewish. Are Jewish characters still as underrepresented on TV? I also watched Gilligan’s Island when we first came to the U.S., and they were all white, of course. The Addams Family co-starred Gomez and I Love Lucy had Ricky. But these shows clearly date my television viewing! I watched Cheers on Netflix recently (hadn’t watched it when it was on) and though I enjoyed it, for a time, anyway, it was lily-white through and through. You’re absolutely right that even when there is a person of color or ethnic minority in a show they are usually the sole token figure. Wait, The King of Queens, for all of its caricaturing of working-class culture, featured a black couple who were the most intelligent people on the show. Yes, gay or physically disabled characters are also still extremely few and far between. I watch and enjoy George Lopez sometimes, and old episodes of The Cosby Show; oh, and Ugly Betty–that’s something a bit more recent featuring Latina/o and gay characters. But there’s nothing like the British show, Goodness Gracious Me on American TV. And yes, as you say, “white, Christian, able-bodied men” still firmly define the norm.

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