When Oriental is the Right Kind of Asian

Mar 22 2013 Published by under Asian Americanism

I am unfamiliar with Anthony Jeselnik's’s comedy, so I watched this clip with completely naive eyes. It’s a segment from his show, The Jeselnik Offensive, setup as a gameshow called “Which Kind of Asian is this?” in which contestants are brought on stage and tasked with identifying what kind of Asian a person is based solely on their photo and “clues” given by the host. Of course, these clues are really just intellectually lazy Asian stereotypes of the dog-eating, bad-driving, and under-pressure-to-achieve variety. You know, the standard offensive, if not straight-up racist, fare. The gameshow plays on the all-Asians-look-alike trope, so it comes as no surprise that none of the contestants are able to accurately identify any of the Asians pictured.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOF4fCdHttw&feature=youtu.be

As AngryAsianMan writes, “But yo, this is not even funny. Not even the yellowface switcheroo part at the end there. What was the point of that?” One might even wonder what exactly was the point of the whole segment. I guess a case could be made that Jeselnik’s turn as an ill-minded host of a racist gameshow is really irony in the strictest sense. Here he's taking being offensive to the extreme in order to illustrate the larger point that, yes, this shit is racist and offensive. But for me--and this is where AngryAsianMan and I diverge--the switcheroo is where the ship really turns around.

Toward the end of the segment, Jeselnik brings out the last contestant who is--surprise, surprise--Asian. After ribbing him a bit for being a movie critic and blogger, Jeselnik shows the Asian contestant this image:

Yunioshi

What kind of Asian is this? The worst kind...

For the uninitiated and unfamiliar, this is Mickey Rooney’s egregious, yellow-faced portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a buffoonish Japanese caricature from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s--comprete with buckteeth, grasses, and the crassic “L for R” mispronunciation:

Being a movie critic, the Asian contestant immediately recognizes this as Mickey Rooney and “correctly” identifies Yunioshi's character as being Japanese. That's when the incorrect-buzzer sounds and Jeselnik informs him that the correct answer they were looking for was “Oriental.” But the gag here isn’t simply, “Hey look! Not even the Asian guy with his innate Asian-dar can tell Asians apart.” For while the contestant is right--Yunioshi’s character IS Japanese--the portrayal of Yunioshi is by no means an accurate depiction of Japanese-ness, but rather a mixture of offensive stereotypes lumped into what qualifies as "Oriental" in the American consciousness. Therefore, to call Yunioshi anything other than Oriental--or the racist notion of Oriental--borders on being complicit in validating those very stereotypes. More than that, by evoking Yunioshi the skit taps into the long history of racism directed towards Asians in cinema that still finds its way into today’s films and which serves only to cement Asian stereotypes in the minds of Americans. It’s a type of racism that says to Asians, “we actually don’t care what kind of Asian you are” and so we’ll continue to carry on the traditions of yellowface, whitewashing, and the “interchangeable Asian.

Either that, or I’m giving Jeselnik WAY too much credit and he’s just being callously racist.

9 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    Not to stir the pot, but I've been thinking a lot about portrayals of certain races by people not of the race portrayed (e.g. people in black face, yellow face, brown face, red face, whatever face). I understand the inherent negative connotation of black face due to America's racial history with African Americans. What I don't understand though is where one draws the line or why there even is a line.

    Al Jolson is often noted as one of the more famous white men to wear black face while performing. Nonetheless, many credit his endeavor with introducing Black music and "culture" to a white audience. He was also pretty active in fighting against anti-black sentiment as well. Nonetheless, many people find his portrayals offensive simply because of the black face.

    People seem to have less of a problem with brown-face or yellow-face and while I can understand how that can be interpreted negatively, I actually don't see the problem in and of itself. Actors are playing roles and sometimes those roles require makeup or disguises. In Cloud Atlas, there are people in "yellow face," but I don't think the intention was to offend, but rather to add some kind of cohesion to a complex story with so many actors. Even more prevalent than that is what I call "brown face." People pretending to be middle eastern (especially after 9/11) or of Inuit decent or Hispanic. No one seems to be up in arms all that much over that and I would argue that they shouldn't be.

    I'm not offended by Micky Rooney's portrayal of a Japanese or "Oriental" man. I'm offended by whomever wrote that part and decided to make it into part of a movie. Again, it's not the yellow face or whatever face that concerns me. That's just makeup. I have a hard time seeing it as anything more than a woman or a man in drag. It's not meant for reality, it's meant for entertainment or art or whatever. It's just a person acting a part.

    The issue in my mind is the part itself. Yes, actors have a responsibility to choose parts that make sense and aren't derogatory, but that's not always clear cut. Especially after editing, etc. I don't care who plays the role as long as the role itself isn't especially racist. Check out this link of African-American actors throughout history that have portrayed and promoted negative stereotypes: http://black-face.com/blackface-actors.htm. It's not the makeup. It's the role. Focusing on the makeup regardless of context bothers me. If the role would be offensive for a person of that same race being portrayed then it should just be offensive regardless of who portrays it. Otherwise, it's just racism in the opposite direction.

    • AmasianV says:

      "Nonetheless, many people find his portrayals offensive simply because of the black face."

      I can't speak for the experience of black Americans other than to say that you're probably not accounting for history and context.

      "Actors are playing roles and sometimes those roles require makeup or disguises."

      Then why not hire Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Middle Easterns, etc to play those roles in the first place? Blackface, yellowface, etc. not only remind minorities of the ways in which the foundations for stereotypes about them were formed in the first place, but it reminds us of the ways in which we've been excluded (and continue to be).

      "No one seems to be up in arms all that much over that "

      Because no one is making a stink about it, doesn't mean it's not wrong.

      "I'm offended by whomever wrote that part and decided to make it into part of a movie."

      I agree. But I'm offended by Rooney's portrayal as well. As you mention, actors also have a responsibility in the roles they choose. Now you can claim ignorance as an excuse as Rooney has done, but even in recent interviews Rooney can't seem to even grasp "why" the role/character would be offensive. Instead, he casts himself as the "I was just doing my job and following the director's orders" victim. He goes on to pull the classic non-apology apology where he's sorry for everyone who was offended. He even goes so far as to "forgive" those who were offended.

      I'll reserve judgement on Cloud Atlas because I haven't seen it yet but I've been reassured (by non-Asians) that the yellowface isn't intended to be offensive. As far as intentions go I'll refer you to this quote, "...acts of exclusion and discrimination cannot be about intent, but only about outcome."

      • Anonymous says:

        "I can't speak for the experience of black Americans other than to say that you're probably not accounting for history and context."

        I am accounting for it. I'm saying that blackface has a long history of being derogatory, but that every use of it might not have been. It was just that the overall negativity outweighed any positives in many people's eyes.

        "Then why not hire Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Middle Easterns, etc to play those roles in the first place? Blackface, yellowface, etc. not only remind minorities of the ways in which the foundations for stereotypes about them were formed in the first place, but it reminds us of the ways in which we've been excluded (and continue to be)."

        I'm not sure why anyone HAS to hire anyone. Just because a person is of a certain race doesn't mean he/she would be a better actor for a role. As far as exclusion goes, there are many actors of many races out there. People get roles over other people. Like any job, race shouldn't be the dominating factor.

        "Because no one is making a stink about it, doesn't mean it's not wrong."

        Agreed. Just because no one says anything doesn't mean it isn't wrong. However, what I meant was that it seems less offensive in some situations than it is in others and I think that is indicative of my point. Black face in America is taboo, while other race-face is less so. My reason for pointing that out is that it carries such a heavy history with it. Without that history what does it become? What bothers me is the idea of the never-ending insistence that race lines should exist... forever. Sure, there is (and was) a line, but what do we gain from keeping it there forever? Drawing race lines and never ever removing them in the name of history is not progress. Of course people should learn from past mistakes and they should learn about history, but at some point we will just be taking steps backwards when we keep insisting on race lines. I don't see our culture moving forward when we keep extending those lines and re-living the past. If we are actually learning from our mistakes then an actor's portrayal of a race should be viewed/tested according to whether or not a person of the portrayed race could play that role without offense.

        I guess what I'm getting at is that we either start living with race lines as part of every day life (i.e. make a hard line rule that no race can ever portray any other race, period.), or we start figuring out a way to really live together beyond race lines. Obviously, we're not there yet as evidenced by how people feel today, but that's the main point of what I was trying to convey.

        • Kara says:

          You use the term "race lines" repeatedly above and I'm not sure I understand what you mean by that, but racial distinctions have real, tangible effects on the lived experiences of PoC. To argue that those distinctions and the oppression that they cause should just be ignored so that everyone can live in post-racial/beyond-race-lines harmony erases those experiences and is a tool of white supremacy.

          • Anonymous says:

            I wasn't arguing that racial distinctions should be ignored. If that's confusing, I apologize. I'm arguing that they shouldn't define us as a society negatively or keep us from sharing our cultures with one another. Obviously history should be remembered and we should learn from it, but to let that history control us is a problem. There is a big difference between taking offense based on a specific circumstance versus taking offense simply because history tells us we should be offended.

            I'm also not a white supremacist, nor am I white.

        • AmasianV says:

          "but that every use of it might not have been"

          Are you thinking Jon Hamm on SNL? OR Roger Sterling in blackface on Mad Men? Blackface as commentary?

          In terms of exclusion, there's the issue of actors being excluded from playing the characters that are their race. And then there's the issue of not having racial roles being written in the first place. So this is really getting back to your point about "roles" (which I think is your strongest one). Rhetorically speaking, if the writers knew that the racially-specific roles they were writing were absolutely going to be played by actors of that same race, would writers make a greater effort to write good character?

          Now as for an America without "race lines", I don't think I'd strive for the acceptance of race-face. I'd looked for an America where there the race of a leading role--when no race is specified--isn't defaulted to white.

  • Kara says:

    I can't seem to reply directly to the comment above, so apologies for breaking up the thread.

    Thank you, Anonymous, for clarifying. And I will also clarify that I don't believe you to be a white supremacist generally speaking, but the position I interpreted was a white supremacist one, and one need not be white to make arguments that support white supremacy.

    • AmasianV says:

      There's a limit to the number of nested replies. I might have to change up the format of my comments. Thanks guys for keeping it civil.

  • [...] shared my thoughts on yellowface here on this blog before, so you probably have an idea of the level of my disappointment after [...]

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