Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why I Don't Go to the Movies

I was a teenager in the 1980s, and like most teenagers growing up in predominantly-white suburbs at that time, I watched a lot of John Hughes movies. The one that had the greatest impact on me was Sixteen Candles, which cast Gedde Watanabe as an Asian foreign exchange student named Long Duk Dong. If you don't know the movie, Long Duk Dong was basically a yellow Sambo, yukking it up for mostly white teenage audiences with his FOB highwaters, malapropisms, and pathetic lust for white women. He was the nadir of high school loserdom against whom Samantha (Molly Ringwald's character) measured her self-worth. In Jeff Adachi's excellent documentary on Asian male roles in Hollywood, The Slanted Screen, Korean American comedian Bobby Lee speaks the sad truth about the character:
"My nickname was 'Long Duk Dong' in high school because of that character, and I think every Asian guy that ever went to an American school's nickname was Long Duk Dong because of that character. That means that you're not going to get any girls."
But this story of Long Duk Dong is not going to be about his impact upon Asian American men of my generation; instead, it has me assessing the lasting impact of his character and characters like him upon generations of our white friends.

The recent controversy over Sony Pictures Entertainment's scuttling of the release of The Interview got me thinking about Long Duk Dong again. I wondered if the collective outrage against SPE from Hollywood personalities, most of them white men--Judd Apatow, Rob Lowe, George Clooney, Aaron Sorkin, Steve Carrell--had anything to do with Long Duk Dong. No kidding. What are the chances that these guys, all teenagers at one point in the 1980s, watched Sixteen Candles? (Pretty good, I'd say. Rogen and Hughes co-wrote the screenplay for Drillbit Taylor, produced by Apatow.) Did they laugh at Long Duk Dong? Did they watch the movie with any Asian American friends? What might be the connection between Long Duk Dong and their indifference to Russell Park-as-Kim Jong-un's exploding face in the climax to The Interview?

I actually don't remember any of my close friends comparing me to Long Duk Dong, but neither did it occur to them to talk about how he ruined the movie or how the movie would have been better without him. That would have been something. To be honest, if they did associate me with him, it was probably upon my goading. Maybe I did an impression of him ("What's happenin', hot stuff?"), but I really can't remember. It was certainly possible. But here's what I had in my pocket going into the theater: my white friends regularly told me that they didn't see me as Chinese. It was a shiny talisman. Again, this isn't really a story about my internalized racism but what it means that they could say something like that to me. This is a story about what can happen when white people and people of color become friends and do friend things like go to the movies together--in 1984 or thirty years later.

When white people tell people of color that they don't see them as people of color, individuality is not happening. White supremacy is happening. What's really being said, albeit on an unconscious level most of the time, is "You make me comfortable despite your race." Or, "You are like a white person to me." Now, I know that some white people will say this only to front a kind of colorblindness, but I also believe that race does become a bit less salient for white friends and family when they spend a lot of time with you, and you help the situation by not calling attention to racism or any culture other than white culture. Several years ago, one of my colleagues from a different department, then a full professor nearing retirement, said to me, "David, I don't see you as a Chinese American." And I have to think he said this partly because I made him feel comfortable (by small talking about the Packers or the snow) and partly because he was trying to make me feel comfortable by not seeming to racially profile me. In the same way, a generation earlier, while I was busy being burdened by race watching Long Duk Dong geek out on the big screen, my white friends may not have been associating the two of us at all--because of their comfort level with me. But that turns out to be a big problem too.

The problem is that my friends were still able to distinguish between Long Duk Dong as an Asian-not-like-me and me. Yes, I was one of them and not Long Duk Dong (however much I was in my own mind or to strangers in woodshop.) But they were still laughing at the Asian-not-like-me. So, among friends, there can still exist a binary of the "good" Asian and the "bad" Asian. The good Asian is pretty much like a white person (you can substitute any lighter-skinned non-white race here for Asian). If you spoke with an accent, wore knockoff clothes, immigrated, walked or ran funny, skipped prom, you name it--you were the bad Asian. What really made you a bad Asian was if you were an unassimilated foreigner. What close friendship with white people bestowed upon me, the good Asian, was a probationary white identity. Quasi-individuality. And as a teenager, that was the identity I occupied with my white friends most of the time (unless I wanted to do something crazy like date one of them or invite them to hang out with my parents). In case you were wondering, this is why it is racist when white people defend themselves against charges of racism by saying they have friends of color. They've decided that their friends are the good ones.

The people behind The Interview believe in the idea of the bad Asian. Their idea of the bad Asian protects them from charges of racism because they have made the bad Asian something unto himself, nothing at all like other Asians or Asian Americans. Rogen has stated that staging Kim's assassination is
"not an edgy position to take. It’s not like, 'Well, politically, you’ve got to look at both sides.' He is bad. It’s controversial to him. But to everyone else, it’s fine."
But it's easy for Rogen to speak for "everyone else," and he knows it. Because who would risk standing up for Kim Jong-un, and what decent person would compare an Asian American friend to him? Just as important, what Asian American would squander cultural capital by identifying with Kim in the slightest? For Rogen to think that Kim is some kind of raceless, sui generis entity whose meaning stops at the boundary of his own skin is for him to impose honorary white status onto "everyone else," to make them like himself. "You do see Kim only as the one-off, fanatical leader of an oppressive state regime, and not as an Asian person, don't you?" he seems to inveigh. But does this mean that Bobby Lee was imagining things? Or can the social meaning of bodies escape the fourth wall, enough to break a Korean American kid into a sweat during a movie's climax? The sick thing about The Interview and all other Yellow Peril movies is that it forces its audience--of all races--to believe in the racist idea of the bad Asian too. The ideas of good and bad people of color are nothing but sustaining fantasies of white supremacy.

The Interview controversy has stolen focus from vital stories of our time: police killing black people with impunity and the CIA torturing Muslims with impunity. White Hollywood, so silent on #BlackLivesMatter and "I Can't Breathe," cannot contain its outrage and indignation over not being allowed to make fun of whomever it wants to. This after Chris Rock called out Hollywood for its racism as a Mexican "slave state." As for The Interview and the "free speech" argument, how much does censorship matter if the story is an ancient lie about people of color that we don't need to hear again? Here, I'll save you ten bucks by telling you the same story: Rudy Giuliani makes bad black people the responsibility of good black people, #illridewithyou rewards good Muslims with buspools, and Marco Rubio reminds us that the bad Cubans are still oppressing the good Cubans. But let's not forget that good Asians aren't always set against bad Asians. The model minority story has always been about white people using good Asians to shame bad black people, first in Harlem and Watts, then everywhere else. People aren't talking much about how the purchase of Columbia Pictures Entertainment by Sony was regarded with classic Yellow Peril hysteria in 1989, part of the era of the "bad" Japanese businessman buying up American corporate icons. Now, Sony Pictures Entertainment is the "good" Asian, a reasonable facsimile of apple pie. And Hollywood and Washington are already making the hack about the violation of post-racial state sovereignty and not about the divisive abuses of white supremacy.

I don't go to the movies anymore because I'm thinking too much about the people around me in the theater. I can't concentrate because I'm paying too much attention to how they're responding to black stormtroopers, black Annie, white Moses, or Mark Wahlberg, who brutally attacked two men for being bad Vietnamese before he praised one as a good Vietnamese once he forgave him. When I used to go to the movies, I never knew if Steve Park were going to fail miserably while making a move on Frances McDormand or if Ken Jeong and his junk were going to explode out of a box to become this generation's literal Long Duk Dong. I know why Watanabe, Steve and Randall Park, and Jeong take these roles, and I think I know why their screenwriters and directors create them. They just think they know funny. Rogen is so sure he knows funny that he hazarded some annoyance at Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai--who rarely intervenes in SPE decision making--when Hirai asked for some decency in editing the snuff shot of Kim. But jokes are always culturally-bound (just try to tell a joke in your second language) and say more about the relationship between teller and listener than about funny (why we laugh at corny jokes). How fitting that Rogen cast himself as the Green Hornet, the only white superhero with an Asian sidekick. (Here's a portrayal of the man who was the original Kato learning about what Hollywood has always been.) I don't go to the movies because you have to watch them like Seth Rogen. You become a Libertarian there in the dark, alone. And there are good reasons and tragic reasons for laughing at unfunny jokes.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this!!!! I've been hoping that someone would comment on the extremely problematic (not to mention idiotic) nature of this movie. You put it very well.

  2. Good to see you running it down, David.