No escaping backlash over TV stereotyping of Asians

Updated: 2014-01-22 09:49

By Chen Jia (China Daily USA)

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No escaping backlash over TV stereotyping of AsiansCBS is facing a public-relations crisis because an episode of its How I Met Your Mother sitcom that was deemed to be racist has triggered a social-media backlash. Separating itself from the outcry over ABC's Jimmy Kimmel talk show, CBS decided to make a quicker apology to audiences.

These protests can serve as a springboard for a more thoughtful review of stereotyping in the entertainment industry.

How I Met Your Mother, now in its final season, is under fire in Asian-American communities after recasting three Caucasian actors in yellow face and dressing them in stereotypical Asian attire on a recent night's episode. The three actors' characters were supposed to be Asian experts in Shanghai.

"Yellowface? Orientalism? Fu Manchu? What?" tweeted a netizen who argued that the term "oriental" is "Not okay @cbs" and that many Asian-Americans find it disrespectful. Created by British novelist Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu is a fictional character (who lent his name to the Fu Manchu moustache) regarded as typifying an evil criminal genius.

Following the angry social-media reaction, How I Met Your Mother co-creator Carter Bays tweeted an apology.

"With Monday's episode, we set out to make a silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we've always loved," the four-tweet message went. "But along the way we offended people. We're deeply sorry, and we're grateful to everyone who spoke up to make us aware of it."

The apology continued, with Bays saying: "We try to make a show that's universal, that anyone can watch and enjoy. We fell short of that this week, and feel terrible about it. To everyone we offended, I hope we can regain your friendship, and end this series on a note of goodwill."

CNN reported that "a number of people" rallied to the show's defense, saying people were "overreacting". But others "didn't think anything about the ordeal was funny, with some jabbing the program for its lack of minorities and playing up Asian stereotypes."

A netizen named Jocelyn Baker tweeted: "As an adult educator myself, I found the full info to be an effective and heartfelt apology, given the limits of this medium (Twitter)."

Some of Bays' Twitter followers said they thought the episode was "not offensive" and contained "funny jokes".

"You really think it was racist? …if someone thinks so, I am sorry for them, but it's being excessive," said a netizen named VJ.

In the ABC case, Kimmel aired a controversial segment in which children joked about killing "everyone in China". The segment triggered large-scale protests in many cities across the country and a petition on the White House website. The protests continued even after Kimmel and ABC apologized.

Last March, General Motors Co also walked into a firestorm of public outrage after sparking anger in China for its advertisement soundtrack – the 2012 song "Booty Swing", in which Austrian DJ Parov Stelar heavily sampled "Oriental Swing". It was aired in Canada and on GM's Chevrolet Europe website before being revised. Lyrics to the tune described China as "the land of Fu Manchu", where girls dance and clap their hands while saying, "Ching, ching, chop-suey, swing some more".

Perhaps these protests signal that the time has come for a deeper examination of demeaning portrayals of Asians in the entertainment industry.

Wilma Pang, a community leader in San Francisco's Chinatown, told China Daily on Tuesday that raising awareness about Hollywood stereotyping of Asian women in "typical China Doll" or submissive roles should also be questioned.

"It is important to dispel" this degrading view of Asian women, she said. "I find that casting whites to play minorities, excluding Asian American actors, is unacceptable. As a unified voice, we should let Hollywood know our discontent," she said.

What the intense public reaction to the tasteless Jimmy Kimmel and How I Met Your Mother "jokes" show, is that a unified voice is hard to stop – especially if it marshals social media tools adroitly.

What the principal actors in those incidents know by now is that in an age of social media, there's no escaping the public's ire.

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