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How Hollywood Is Complicit in the Violence Against Asians in America

Reducing Asians, women and sex workers to flat punchlines isn't just degrading — it's dangerous

Family Guy Quagmire
Screenshot from 20th Television / Fox Entertainment

Reading the comments is rarely a good idea. But when opening a breaking news tweet on March 16 about a rash of horrific murders across Atlanta, including six Asian women working in three separate spas, the overwhelming sameness of the replies was unavoidable, infuriating, and instructive. “Not quite the happy ending they were expecting,” crowed one. “No happy ending then?” asked another. “Definitely not a happy ending,” declared yet another, throwing in a gif of a stick figure drumming a “heyo!” rimshot to make sure anyone reading it would understand that they wanted a laugh. Endless tweets of the same snark, each trying and failing to be the first because too many others had beaten them to it. Over and over and over again, people responded to the news of Asian women dying with a joke about their pain.

This response is horrendous, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Reducing Asians to flat, heavily accented caricatures is a favorite pastime in this country, and has been for decades. Mocking Asian men as weak and effeminate is so common that it’s become white noise for too many who hear it; Asian women have long been reduced to dehumanizing stereotypes, whether meek and speechless or aggressively sexual robots whose only purpose seems to be servicing white American men.

Onscreen, these patterns persist with unrelenting frequency. One of the most enduring depictions of an Asian woman in American cinema is still the Vietnamese prostitute in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” who saunters up to a couple of American soldiers and declares that “me so horny,” “me sucky sucky,” “me love you long time.” She’s only there to give these white Americans “everything [they] want” — and if she doesn’t, countless other films and shows are all too willing to demonstrate the violence she might endure. (Take a “Family Guy” episode I was unlucky enough to pass by on cable recently, in which a dozen Asian women spill frantically out of Quagmire’s trunk and garage, running away in their underwear; Quagmire only calms down once he reminds himself that “they’re tagged.”) Every single genre — whether comedy, drama, or police procedural — leans on the shock value of dead or endangered sex workers, many of them anonymous Asian women who are rarely afforded more nuance or humanity than that basic description.

Comedy in particular leans into letting “Asian” be a punchline in and of itself, and if you don’t like it, then you’re the problem for not getting the joke. I’ve never gotten more visceral online hate than in 2019, when I wrote about the comedian “Saturday Night Live” hired before his history of racist “comedy” — particularly and viciously against Asians — got him fired days later. His initial defense was a classic for comedians who get any pushback: that he was sorry “if” he offended anyone, but he was just doing his job by pushing boundaries. I disagreed, calling his attempts bad and boring for repeating exhausted stereotypes in search of knee-jerk laughs. In response, his fans called me a joyless cunt. Still, that was nothing compared to the sheer wall of furious harassment my Asian American peers got for calling the same racism out — or in other words, for refusing to accept that they should be the butt of the joke. The ensuing racist vitriol made it all too clear that such “comedy” about Asian accents, food and mannerisms aren’t rooted in people wanting to laugh, but wanting to assert dominance over cultures they find ridiculous. The subjects of their jokes fighting back isn’t a part of the punchline, and is therefore an unacceptable buzzkill.

Whether or not the people cracking wise about Asians realize it, they’re helping to dehumanize an entire population for no reason other than their own instant gratification. And frankly, granting the benefit of the doubt of “whether they realize it or not” is probably far too generous considering the ample evidence of how many do, in fact, realize exactly what they’re doing.

The most glaring recent example came from the very top. Just about every time Donald Trump spoke about COVID-19 as president of the United States, he deliberately avoided using the word “coronavirus” when he could instead say “Chinese.” At rallies, he’d practically wink at the omnipresent camera as he called the virus the “kung flu.” Hate crimes against Asian Americans immediately spiked, but to the people in charge with the biggest platforms in the world, it didn’t matter. Using hostile punchlines turned Asians into convenient scapegoats — an entirely worthwhile distraction from their own failures.

Turning the virus into a joke at Asians’ expense is especially effective because it makes it easy to shrug off criticism by explaining that it’s just Trump’s sense of humor. Last November, Dave Chappelle expressed admiration for the wordplay of “kung flu” in his opening “SNL” monologue, calling Trump a “racist, hilarious son of a bitch” who had beaten him to a perfectly good punchline. “I’m supposed to say that, not you,” Chappelle said directly to Trump. He went on to insist that “it’s wrong when you say it,” therefore staking his claim as the comedian who can say the racist thing as long as it’s got the cadence of a joke. He did not, it seems, pause to consider that it might just be wrong no matter who says it. The end result is the same, giving racism an out just because they found a way to make it catchy.

So no: It isn’t especially shocking to glance beneath a news story about murdered Asian women and see a slew of responses snickering about whether or not their lives had a happy ending. It’s appalling, but an undeniably typical display of the kind of casual disdain that leads to such senseless violence every day. Just because a punchline is expected doesn’t mean that it isn’t vile, and it shouldn’t just be on Asian Americans to say as much, whether to friends, co-workers, or Hollywood as a whole.

And no: Refusing to indulge racist jokes isn’t suppressing free speech, but pointing out hate for what it is. As much as laughter can be a tonic, terrible moments like these have proved just how effectively it can also be wielded against the vulnerable, when laughing at someone results in laughing away their suffering, history, and humanity. Nothing, especially not some cheap attempt at a cheaper joke, is worth that.