Here’s a post written by one of our own MAASU Executive Coordinating Committee Members, Norman Chen:
I consider myself an avid How I Met Your Mother fan. The show is normally witty and well written (to an extent). However, when I saw the newest episode, “Slappointment in Slapmarra”, I was quite disappointed in the show. Without question, my reaction to it was that it was downright racist and outrageous that it would even be included in the episode. I posted this to Facebook and a lot of people seemed to be confused as to why I felt this way, which is what prompted me to write this blog post.
To really understand why this is offensive, it helps to understand the context and history of “Yellowface,” which is basically when a White actor plays an Asian character complete with “exotic” clothing, exaggerated accent, and eyes taped back. When many people question why something is offensive to Asian Americans, it may help to examine blackface and how it is offensive to the African American community. The history of minstrel shows and the intentions behind them prove to us why blackface is racist. However, there is a severe lack of understanding and engagement as to how and why yellowface is racist.
One of the prime examples of yellowface in mainstream media can be found in the popular Audrey Hepburn movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
Mickey Rooney plays an extreme caricature of a Japanese man in this clip. As you can see, Mickey Rooney is not Asian but he nonetheless portrays this character in a very over-the-top fashion. He openly stated that he never thought anyone would be offended by this character; sadly, not only is it offensive but it’s quite unrealistic and stereotypical. As a result, given the almost non-existence of Asians in the media and how popular Breakfast at Tiffany’s was in its time, for many Americans this may have been the only depiction of an Asian character in mainstream media that they ever saw…one that is not even played by an Asian actor.
Additionally, there is a precedent for Hollywood movies to be set in some mystical and mythical Asian country starring a Caucasian male character (never an Asian character) that usually ends up saving the day. Good examples of these types of movies are The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise and the recent 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves (who admittedly is part Chinese/Hawaiian) which was severely lacking in the box office. Interestingly enough, Reeves’ character does not actually exist in the original tales about the 47 ronin but presumably because the studio felt that it would not perform as well using a Japanese character as the protagonist, they fired the original director and hired a new one to re shoot the movie with Reeves’ as a focal point.
[To read more about 47 Ronin and its many issues, this article is wonderful]
Mickey Rooney and Keanu Reeves are part of a long history of yellowface and Asian exclusion in movies and TV series. What does this have to do with How I Met Your Mother? HIMYM plays into this history of yellowface and exclusion by dressing cast in stereotypical “Asian” garb and keeping the Asian actors as subplots. By placing focus on the white cast members, the show is inadvertently perpetuating several ideas. To mark Kung Fu as distinctly “Asian” they use “Asian” wind chimes as background, dress the characters in “Asian” garments and give them “Asian” hairstyles. Secondly, the Asian actors are used only in the background to add atmosphere to the storyline. Essentially, they are props. Already, there is limited amount of Asian faces on TV and even in this particular episode which supposedly aims to satirize old Kung Fu movies, the Asian actors were only used to mark the setting in which the Slap of a Million Suns is taught.
If the writers intended for the main characters to remain the focal point, Ted, Lily, and Robin could have quite easily retained their normal wardrobe, make p and hairstyles. Instead, to mark them as Asian and in essence, foreign, they were given fake names and rather ridiculous looking outfits at varying levels of outrageousness. I am not advocating against the use of comedy and humor, especially that of satire. I think it would be perfectly fine to produce a comical skit that depicts kung fu, but there is a difference between being smart in your production and doing it simply because it is Asian. What do the Kung Fu outfits add to the characters of Ted, Robin and Lily? What is really the point of Robin having chopsticks in her hair or having Ted sport a fu manchu moustache?
Intelligent satire would have a reason for each and every decision made instead of just dressing up for the sake of dressing up. The Fu Man Chu moustache is especially concerning because it has dangerous and mystical connotations, seen on villainous East Asian male characters. It has in essence become the symbolic mark of the Yellow Peril, which is the fear that Asians will eventually take over the world. We see Yellow Peril themes present in other movies such as Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen which produces a fear or hate of Asians, who are portrayed as nothing but evil and unfeeling. One of the more famous products of Yellow Peril is actually the supervillain Mandarin from the Ironman comic series, who also sports a fu manchu moustache. By wearing this particular moustache, Ted becomes a symbol of notoriety and a generator of hate toward Asians in general. For Asian Americans, this symbol challenges their very essence as Americans because it marks them as other.
[Here’s a Wikipedia article on the Fu Manchu moustache and how it creates the “Evil” East Asian]
In addition to marking Asian Americans as others, the show in essence presents Kung Fu as a stereotypically Asian trait, which is a product of the lack of proper Asian American representation in media. For the characters on the show and non-Asian people in general that caricaturize Asian culture, the decision to participate in this is as simple as changing into another outfit. Asian Americans are not afforded this opportunity of slipping in and out of character: We cannot remove the way our skin, eyes or body looks.
Statistically speaking, Asian American students are bullied more than any other racial group in school. Typically, one in three students are bullied up until high school, however the number rises up to more than half for Asian American students.
[See MAASU’s Bullying PSA here!]
We need to ask what exactly contributes to this bullying? Are Asian Americans just simply easier to make fun of? Are Asian Americans docile and refusing to fight back? Part of the problem lies in the severe lack in media representation. When your role models on Television only consist of Apu from the Simpsons and Jackie Chan from Rush Hour, the chances of you getting made fun of or being called names (likely just because you look similar to one of them) is significantly higher.
For HIMYM to participate in this marking of Asians + Kung Fu, Asians + background objects, produces an environment that has also lead to kids being bullied and offended in other ways. The Asian American experience often includes being asked if they have learned kung fu or karate growing up or if it is socially acceptable to put chopsticks in their hair. These tiny, seemingly harmless questions build up as microaggressions that assault ones claim to their identity. It is quite sad that I feel that I need to own up to how American I am despite being born in this country. A very simple example of a microaggression for me is being asked, “Where are you from?” My initial reaction is, and always will be, to answer: “I was born in Connecticut, but raised in Chicago.” Despite being blessed to be connected with my family’s culture, I sometimes viewed it as a burden because it discredited my claim to American citizenship. As an Asian American, I was afraid of being and feeling foreign at my American school…but at the same time felt disconnected and out of place when I went to Asia. Still despite all of this, CNN’s headline only describes “Asians” getting offended, as if only half of me cares that we are being mocked instead of the entirety of my being. That is not okay.
However, there are certain truths about America television that we have to understand. Raymond Williams wrote about “Television flow” in 1974, explaining that American Television is haphazard but heterogeneous. Despite all the different things going on television and mainstream media (think about how many shows and commercials that are out there), it will always favor a “dominant cultural order”, which at this point right now is still white, heterosexual and male. Hence, it makes sense to be uncomfortable when you are not included in the intended frame of discussion. However, as viewers, our job is to interpret the discourse that exist within TV that we are watching. If Asian American and other types of viewers find this particular episode offensive and controversial, then that is their interpretation and they are entitled to that.
For those who found the episode humourous, I am not asking you to lose your sense of humor or your enjoyment of kung fu satire. Instead, I am strongly asking you to consider and reflect upon why is it offensive instead of dismissing it as mere sensitivity. After all, we are not asking you to stop being entertained by HIMYM, but rather to understand the historical and cultural context that makes this episode offensive. For the writers of HIMYM, I ask you to write consciously and stop reinforcing existing Asian stereotypes like you did last Monday.