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The Problem With “Asian Jokes,” Representation, and the 2016 Academy Awards

In the same breath that last night’s Oscars extolled the virtues of diversity and equal opportunity, they also seemed to punch down and turn their sights on another incredibly underrepresented group: Asian people. Two “jokes” were shared last night to earn host Chris Rock and star Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ali G) the ire of Twitter and Asian viewers.

The first: Rock brought out three Asian-American children, introducing them as “PricewaterhouseCoopers” accountants. You can see video of the bit above, and it seems pretty innocuous to begin with, right? Of course, towards the end of that video, Rock does ahead and makes another joke, saying:

If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids.

Uh… awkward. Okay, sure… I guess. Fast forward to Cohen’s segment, where he introduces a category alongside Olivia Wilde. He makes a joke about the “tiny little yellow people,” with “tiny dongs.” The punchline–aside from the tired-ass Ali G bit–is that he’s supposedly actually talking about the Minions from Despicable Me.

The thing is, even Ali G’s joke has a “punchline” that supposedly takes the heat away from Asian people (despite them actually being the punchline let’s be honest with ourselves). On top of that, it’s freakin’ Sacha Baron Cohen, the dude is unpredictable and he’s got a reputation for firing from the hip with really shitty jokes. That one might’ve been pure ad lib that got by the censors and editors (already a pretty amazing feat, given delayed taping). Rock’s joke though? Deemed totally acceptable by multiple rounds of editing by professional editors.

But perhaps even more than all of that, Cohen was right to ask one thing: where are all the Asians? Through his (incredibly crass) joke, he points out something that Hollywood also seems to have completely disregarded and ignored: Asian representation at the Academy Awards is positively abysmal.

Take a look at this graph, created by The Economist. It lays out the current breakdown of races and ethnicities of SAG members, film roles, “top roles,” plus Oscar nominees and Oscar winners for acting. Note that for the purposes of this graph, The Economist defined Asian actors as ethnicities from East and South Asia.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 11.42.38 AM

Of all the Oscar wins for Asian actors, only two names pop up: Yul Brynner in 1956 and Ben Kingsley in 1982. Since then, the only other Oscar nomination for an Asian actor was Kingsley again in 2003. What about Asian actresses? It’s even worse: just one single nomination for Merle Oberon’s role in The Dark Angel in freakin’ 1935–81 years ago. Eighty. One. Years. To add insult to injury: Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in The Good Earth (1937), where she dons yellowface and plays the role of O-lan, the Chinese heroine of the novel the movie is based on.

luise rainer good earth yellowface

Perhaps unsurprising for the time in which the movie was created, but still, the fact remains: a white woman won a role that was originally considered for an Asian actress (Anna May Wong), who was shoved aside after refusing to be the only Asian in a movie about Chinese farmers. Asian women just can’t seem to win at all, here.

Moving on: not a single Asian director-led movie has won Best Picture, though Ang Lee has won Best Director twice: once for Brokeback Mountain in 2005, and Life of Pi in 2012. When it comes to Supporting Actor and Actress, there are only two winners, one of each: Haing S. Ngor and Miyoshi Umeki, respectively. Unsurprisingly, the amount of nominations for Supporting Actor and Actress are disproportionately larger than the amount of lead role nominations. Kind of says something about how Hollywood views us, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing about these “jokes”: on the surface, they’re immature as hell. It’s incredibly easy to write this stuff off as “comedians being comedians.” But when you consider the jokes in the full context of last night’s awards and the current controversy surrounding the film industry’s incredibly monochromatic nature, you can see that there are tons of problems with the things they’re saying.

Jokes like these are awful, but given enough positive representation to stand against it, they’re ultimately insignificant. But, when you consider the abysmal representation of Asian people at the Oscars and in Hollywood, then suddenly you realize that these are the only representations of us that people are seeing.

In short: when someone hears about or sees an Asian person on screen, forced child labor and small dick jokes are all that come up. These… words, these stereotypes and images are all that we have, and those aren’t particularly favorable images in the least.

Friends, that is the problem with these “jokes.” There just isn’t enough positive representation right now that would make these jokes seem insignificant by comparison. We don’t have a hell of a lot of nice things to look towards in order to ignore these busted-ass jokes.

I’ve written a few things about Asian representation and how some folks in the industry are trying their best to change it from within. But the fact of the matter still stands: as long as people keep saying these terrible things and laughing at forced child labor as represented by wordless Asian children on stage, then we won’t get a fair shake at anything in Hollywood. We’ll always just be Supporting Actors or Actresses, behind the camera talent, or even just horrifically racist caricatures to them.

There’s still such a long way to go, and the Oscars punching down while trying to make wild gestures at diversity kind of shows just how far they are from getting anywhere at all.

(via BuzzFeed)

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Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.

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