I don’t watch How I Met Your Mother so I really have no stakes in the game. But apparently, Monday’s episode was filled with Orientalism guised as a tribute to old kung fu movies. To learn the “Slap of a Million Exploding Suns,” one of the lead characters goes on a journey to meet the slap masters who are the other stars dressed up all chingy chongy. Because kung fu!
I’m going to give the entire staff, cast, and crew the benefit of the doubt. I sincerely doubt they knew that they might offend anyone. Seems to me that much like syndicated newspaper comic strips, sitcoms go for the lowest common denominator and do their very best not to offend anyone. We don’t look to these shows to challenge us with new ideas or take on systemic social problems. We look to them for cheap laughs. I think this is a case of an idea that was handled terribly.
So how did this happen?
I think this is symptomatic of the echo chamber effect. When you have people of similar background with similar notions of what’s funny, there’s no one to challenge those ideas. No one to say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t dress our characters like Chinese stereotypes from the 30s.” No one to say, “You know, it’d be funnier if we got Akebono to teach him how to slap sumo style.” I look at the cast and the creators of the show and I don’t see a whole lot of ethnic diversity. How is it surprising that they fucked this up?
That’s not to say that a more diverse staff would have handled this well. But at least there’d be more backgrounds from them to draw upon. And maybe, someone would have looked around and said, “Uh, guys, we can do better than this shit.”
I’m also not trying to say you have to Asian to do kung fu movie tributes justice. There are a number of examples of chop socky tributes done by non Asians who have never been accused of yellowface. Quentine Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Part 1 was an excellent tribute to kung fu cinema. The RZA’s Man With The Iron Fists was an enjoyable romp (yeah, I said it) through classic Shaw Brothers tropes. The Matrix was essentially a kung fu flick with trench coats. If you treat the source material with reverence, you can come up with some magical stuff. Treat it like a punchline and you better get that shit right.
I’m glad people spoke up and I’m impressed that the show’s creators responded so quickly. It’s a bummer that this kind of thing still happens, but until we get more diverse casts and crews as a rule rather than an exception, this accidental racist shit will continue to happen.