How I Met Your Racism
To say I really like “How I Met Your Mother” is an understatement. For the past four years, ever since my best friends and I discovered what would we occasionally deem the “Friends” of our generation, it would not be a stretch to say that the Carter Bays and Craig Thomas-produced show has been a tremendous source of comfort and guidance. Call me crazy, sure.
I am positive I am not out of my mind, however, when I say that last week’s latest installment of Marshall and Barney’s ongoing slap bet was racist in its portrayal of Chinese people.
Always the first to defend what others have been calling the steadily declining quality of the series’ storylines and jokes, I really wanted to be able to enjoy what I assumed was going to be round two of Katy Perry’s American Music Awards debacle, that being another instance of white people distastefully appropriating ethnic dress and “culture” for cheap entertainment. What’s new? Honestly, as someone who examines different forms of oppression on a daily basis, appropriation warrants a mild alert, at best, on my racism DEFCON.
That, and I really wanted my favorite television show to prove me wrong. Oh, how I was to be disappointed. But really how could I be when I admittedly saw it coming?
Creating a convoluted backstory for the second-to-last of the tremendous slaps Marshall owes Barney, the series’ producers, according to Carter Bays’s Twitter apology, decided to make a “silly and unabashedly immature homage” to the kung fu movies that they’ve always enjoyed. Referencing Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, (complete with black and white cue cards and exploding heart techniques) Marshall desperately seeks tutelage on the “martial art” of slapping from Robin, Lily and Ted, each of whom who perform yellowface and act out narrow Chinese stereotypes.
The backstory opens with Robin, wearing traditional Chinese garb eating in a Shanghai restaurant. Not a modern one mind you, but one rife with dated Orientalist stereotypes.
Stoic Triad gangster? Check. Identical shopkeepers despite taking place in three supposedly different restaurants? Sure, because all Asians look the same.
“Much gold?” More like the pipe dream of the Gold Mountain that sparked the first wave of Chinese migration to the United States following a defeat in the first of two wars in which the British Empire tried to colonize China.
The cruel tutelage of a mysterious and sexualized dragon lady? Undoubtedly. Not to mention the white actress who is allowed to put on, and then more importantly take off, this costume while the Asian women she is misrepresenting continue to be stereotyped.
Almost as if they had a checklist of Asian stereotypes they had to fulfill, the creators of the show also decided to cast Ted as the ever-effeminate Asian man. Because God forbid any real man be interested in calligraphy. Not to mention the Fu Manchu mustache he wears. Fu Manchu was a fictional character created by a British author (surprise, surprise), archetypal of the villainous “Yellow Peril,” who was physically weaker than his white counterpart but whose nefarious schemes had to be thwarted. At this point, the typical argument usually attempts to decontextualize modern portrayals of stereotypes as removed from their racist origins.
So much time has passed; it can’t possibly be racist right? Besides, it’s all in good fun. But sometimes, it’s not everyone who gets to laugh. Some in the audience, unfortunately, are laughed at.
Thank goodness CBS at least had the foresight not to slant the characters’ eyes (à la Jim Sturgess in “Cloud Atlas”), or fake their accents or both (à la Mickey Rourke in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Not to mention how the source Tarantino films and other kung fu films aren’t wholly innocent of racist and stereotyping either.
As an Asian American male, I have more than my fair share of privileges and am not wholly innocent either of vestiges of internalized bigotry. Sometimes before I get to think twice, my own internalized racism and sexism lets laughter slip at the expense of the other ethnic and gender stereotypes the creators of “How I Met Your Mother” deploy to generate cheap laughs.
In case we all forgot, Lebanese women, following half-Asian women, served as the new targets of Barney’s sexual fetish. Last week’s episode was not an isolated incident. Chinese and Asian folks and women aren’t the only victims of the overwhelming white male supremacy that is the American media machine.
Frankly, I wasn’t surprised when the #HowIMetYourRacism hashtag started to trend on social media. When you have a predominantly white (substitute with male, wealthy, straight, able-bodied, etc.) body of creators, the resulting art is bound to reflect the real-life marginalization of those who aren’t represented. Too often, comedy is allowed to use the excuse that someone has to be the butt of the joke. But when that butt is reinforced by centuries of oppression, I don’t think it’s funny.