Saturday, June 6, 2009

spice up blandly white entertainment with bizarre asian characters

Ken Jeong in The Hangover

Who went to see The Hangover this weekend? Show of hands please . . .

Okay, so, what did you think of that weird Asian guy?

I just paid cash money to see this movie, so I can tell you a bit about it, including the unaccountably weird Asian guy. I thought that overall it was pretty funny, and for those of you who haven't seen it, I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I say the following.

The Hangover is about four American men (all white guys) who go to Vegas for a sort of stag night, since once of them is about to get married. They rent a super-expensive hotel suite and wake up to the sight of a live tiger, a chicken, and a totally trashed suite. One of the four, Doug, is missing.

The three remaining guys head out and eventually find their lost car. As they moan and groan through their hangovers, missing teeth and so on, they continue to wonder where Doug could've gone, until they hear someone pounding and yelling in the trunk.

"Doug!" they all shout, but when they open the trunk, out leaps a naked Asian man! He has a tire iron in his hands, and some weird, Kung Fu-like noises are coming out of his mouth. He quickly flattens the three white guys with some jujitsu or karate or something, then runs off into the distance.

None of the guys can remember who this Asian man might've been in the wilderness of the night before. The weird Asian guy shows up later (I won't give away how and why), and he acts even more weird.

Mr. Chow (played by Ken Jeong -- you might remember him as a quirky doctor in Knocked Up) soon demonstrates that he's cruel, arrogant, and probably gay, which is also supposed to be funny; as reaction shots of the white guys help us see, Mr. Chow is just headscratchingly off the wall. Mr. Chow laughs repeatedly at one of the white guys, taunting him as "the fat one." This laughter is clearly supposed to be extra-humiliating and emasculating, given its source -- a man who's not only bizarre, short and gay, but also Asian (the sexualized racism here is further cemented at one point, when he grabs his crotch and invites the white guys to do something with "my little Chinese balls!").

So, I'm wondering, just what the hell is Mr. Chow doing in this movie? I mean, what purpose does it serve to make the one Asian character so weird? No one else in the movie is this flatout bizarre, not even Mike Tyson, who shows up in a cameo.

I think that for one thing, this movie is made for a target audience that's assumed to be white. Mr. Chow seems meant to serve as a bit of spice for the blandly white characters at the movie's center. As usual, the few, stereotypical minor roles for black actors also serve this purpose, including a street-talkin' black drug dealer and a large, bossy, black female cop (who shouts "Not up in here!" and so on). However, while these black roles are stereotypical, they're not also over-the-top, just-plain weird, like the role of Mr. Chow.

I'm reminded of the unaccountably weird Asian characters in a KFC ad that I posted about recently. In both that commercial and this movie, the mood is supposed to be bouncy and funny, and that mood is meant to be somehow enhanced by these zany, cartoonish Asian men.

Is this zany-Asian-character thing a trend in corporate entertainment? Maybe it's just an old standby. In either case, I don't like it.

As a good, happy citizen-consumer, I'm supposed to brush aside any negative, "PC" feelings brought on by such dehumanizing, racist portrayals, and just yuck it up along with the other white people. But I just can't do that anymore.

Because of Mr. Chow, I left this movie with a bad taste in my mouth.

And finally, on top of that, why couldn't they make at least one of the four lead roles a non-white guy? Would that be so implausible?

In case you're interested and haven't seen a trailer for The Hangover yet, here ya go (there's also a "restricted" version, with more glimpses of Mr. Chow, here).


  1. "[T]his movie is made for a target audience that's assumed to be white."

    Isn't it interesting how it's REALLY easy to tell who a movie was made for -- especially racially? Apparently, the assumption is that ALL White folks want the same thing, laugh at the same stuff, agree that Black women "should be" big and say "not up in HERE!", and Asians should be charicatures of themselves. The cartoons in the 1950's were full of these Asian images. Without the gayness, of course, since NOBODY was gay in the 1950'

  2. It's sad, Changeseeker, because I can always tell the intended audience for films. Most movies are geared toward white, straight people living in the suburbs. They are often perceived as the American viewing pubic without regard to the other colors that make up the real America.

    What's even worse is when they have the obvious token minorities, so that no one can scream racism or catering to one audience.

  3. Blanche DevereauxJune 7, 2009 at 4:31 PM

    It's funny; just before I got to the part about Mr. Chow (really?) being gay, I was going to tell you that "[T]he Hangover is about four American men (all white guys)" should probably be edited to also include "straight." Anyway, the first zany Asian I encountered was in the movie Sixteen Candles. Ironically, when I just Googled to make sure I spelled Long Duck Dong correctly, the first site I pulled up was one calling it one of the best Asian American performance in film. Why do actors take roles like this? Oh right, because if they don't they could always put a white man in (insertminorityhere)face.

  4. I know actors of color need to eat as well but they're participation in these stereotypical roles seem to piss me off more than the ppl. who give it to them.

  5. spelling correction: "their"

  6. R. Prince,

    One thing that must be understood is that for non-White actors, with the exception of the top tier, A-List actors & Actresses (like Denzel Washington and Wil Smith), getting any kind of role is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

    Once you get the role, with the exception of the A-List superstar, tweaking the role to be less "stereotype" is just as impossible. And with "Hollow-wood" being as insular (not to mention extremely bigoted) as it is, finding yourself on a blacklist - and not getting any work at all - would not be beyond the realm of impossibility.

    Hollow-wood is a very ugly place once you get below the surface of the glitz, the glamour, and the paparazzi. They just do a good job of keeping it below the surface.

  7. R. Prince - your first use of the term they're was already correct :D

    However, your statement did remind me of a quote by Kal Penn regarding his recurring role as a terrorist on TV's "24" (2001) -

    "I have a huge political problem with the role. It was essentially accepting a form of racial profiling. I think it's repulsive. But it was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up and take a family hostage. As an actor, why shouldn't I have that opportunity? Because I'm brown and I should be scared about the connection between media images and people's thought processes?"

    On the one hand there is this restriction that minorities have "What we do reflects on the entire (insert minority) community." on the other hand this responsibility restricts us as individuals. It is wrong... but I do so wish it wasn't.

    Honeybrown1976 - it's ironic, because the addition of these token characters actually show up the racism even more clearly!

  8. This sounds like an atrocious throwback to old stereotypically "wacky" Asian characters, but then, the entire movie sounds completely braindead - and even if I wasn't offended by the stereotyping I wouldn't even consider paying money to see it. The whole setup is a ludicrous 20-something white male fantasy of the Wild Weekend in Vegas, so I'm surprised that anyone is surprised that the general dumbness also includes dumb racial stereotyping. I say, vote with your wallet and send Hollywood a message by not going to see movies like this. (Of course, posting on sites like this also sends a message, but going to see the movie on its opening weekend sort of defeats the purpose. Hollywood wants your money. They don't care if you have a bad taste in your mouth, as long as you pay for your ticket.)

    I'm also a little disappointed to see you asking for a token minority character, macon. I don't see how a movie that includes all the stereotypes and stupidity you mentioned would have been improved by making the writers tweak one of the hero characters to make him a person of color. Who the characters are should be dictated by the story, not by quotas. We need more meaningful roles for minority actors - the kind of roles Denzel or Will Smith would be happy to play - and including a token black character in every white male fantasy doesn't help. It actually subverts the cause by allowing Hollywood suits get away with paying lip service to diversity.

    I don't mean to harsh on you, macon - I'm a new visitor here and overall I like what you write and what you're trying to do with this blog. But I do think that if we want Hollywood to make more intelligent movies and turn away from racist stereotypes, paying to see the latest stupidity and wondering why there wasn't a token PoC in the group is really not the way to send that message.

  9. Points taken, DejaMorgana, but I'm not sure making one or two of the central characters POC would mean they'd be tokens. I think of the several minor POC characters that this movie already has as tokens. Would a POC central character who's as fully developed and focused on as the other white characters necessarily be a token?

  10. @ gooblyglob
    oh, I meant their, the possessive adjective not "they're" as in they are.
    and you make a good point that actors shouldn't always be thinking about how badly their role in a movie will reflect on their community but when the majority culture sees you as a monolithic group, it's hard to ignore this and think of yourself as an individual especially when the role you'll take in this movie highly resembles the stereotypes provided by White culture. I guess it's me.. I like my pride more than money... this is why I know as a black female Hollywood wouldn't be for me---I'm not fat or sassy enough and I have not intention of pretending to be.

  11. This is the second post whose title has been about white people using POC to "spice" or otherwise add flavor to "bland" entertainment produced by/for white people. Sociological images has an interesting series of posts about the whole construct of people of color being used explicitly to add "interestingness" to a piece, and the idea that the bland/interesting dichotomy reinforces the stereotype that people of color are exotic and white people are the baseline.

    I can't tell if you're being sarcastic in your title choices or not, but it is a theme I've noticed in several posts, so I thought I'd bring it up. Because while you object to how various minority groups are being portrayed in this and a couple of other posts (can't look them up at the moment) it seems at times as though you are perpetuating the bland norm vs. exotic exciting other construct even as you critique specific formats that it shows up in.

  12. Jules, please point us to those posts on that excellent blog.

    I'm not sure what you're saying. Is it that you think the very act of my pointing out various instances of that egregious dichotomy actually reinforces it? If that's what you mean, then what do you suggest as alternative -- simply ignoring the dichotomy (instead of pointing it out), and hoping it'll somehow disappear on its own?

  13. i think the minority characters as presented highlight how 'normal' (aka white) people process the 'other'.

    Did you also notice the music used to signal good times were afoot for the quartet -- hip hop music.

    The movie is honest about how again the 'normals' process anything that disrupts their world view.

    I ain't mad at that because I know how oblivious the 'normals' can be but I also know they can't remain that way when they are living in my world.

  14. heavyarmor...
    Hollywood isn't an ugly place; the world is and no matter what your occupation don't we all owe it to ourselves to try to negotiate and navigate with a little bit of integrity and pride?

  15. And finally, on top of that, why couldn't they make at least one of the four lead roles a non-white guy? Would that be so implausible?

    This reminds me of the Sienfeld show. I always found it interesting that in a city as diverse as New York that not one of the buddies could be a person of color (Friends was like that too). Of course if they had added one, I probably would have figured he/she was a token which would have been borne out by the fact that no plot threads would have been written for them.

  16. Basically the first joke in this movie is when one of the guys is sitting with his one-dimensional, controlling wife in their living room and then his three buddies roll up in their car to pick him up, screaming "hey faggot" through the window. HAHAHAHA! They hate gays too! And it was downhill from there.

  17. I lived in Japan for almost a year and studied Japanese literature in college, so I always tend to notice Asian stereotypes first.
    For years now I've noticed this stereotype of "wacky" Asian. e.g. "What will those crazy Japanese think of next?!" This even shows up in news stories ("Japan set to release yogurt flavored Pepsi!!!") without any sort of context (Japan has had "yogurt" flavored soft drinks for decades, and Pepsi is trying to directly compete with the producers of one of the most popular brands).
    I wonder if it's because Japan is seen as a more "Western" country, and white people try to "normalize" their culture by shunning things seen as non-white.
    I know that the character in the movie is supposed to be Chinese, but this got me thinking about it and I had to share.

  18. In the show Heroes, they consistently emasculate the Japanese character Hiro and his sidekick Ando, even though they are two of the most badass characters in the show. No sooner do they do something awesome, then they are ritually humiliated by the screenwriters. It's so offensive. Also, the actor who plays Ando is pretty good looking, so he is pretty much forced to constantly make stupid faces, I guess so that hopefully no one will notice his hotness.

    I don't know if the writers were trying to make up for this or trying to be ironic, or what, but in one of the last episodes, Hiro and Ando encounter a Japanese-looking truck driver with a (surprise!) totally over-the-top hillbilly accent, cowboy boots, huge hat, belt buckle, etc. Because god forbid, they should have an asian male character who is just -normal- like, um, all the white dudes on the show.

    Also, all the women on the show are blond. It gives me the creeps.

  19. It is sad, because the guy is not even Chinese. He is Korean doing the white man's dirty work to stereotype Asian men. So fuck Hollywood. I hope he dies a horrible death.

    What a fucking assholes.

    I am definitely not going to pay some cracker and Jews to insult me.

  20. black continental europeanAugust 3, 2009 at 3:11 PM

    The great thing about this film, is that it can serve as a social litmus" test. I simply ask Americans what they thought of this film, and if they "loved it". I don't waste my time discussing international affairs with them. Btw, I'm a black Continental European, currently living in Vegas, and the popularity this film reflects the frightening reality that is the sexist, racist, homophobic USA. Glad I'm not just imagining this nightmare!

  21. even worse than the racism was the terribly sexist nature of the film. there were more naked women than clothed women, and they were all stereotypes (shrew, stripper, angry black woman). this movie was disgusting.


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