himym

If it was a real kung fu movie tribute, the image would be stretched like this!

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!

Offended fans took to twitter using the hashtag #HowIMetYourRacism to express their outrage.  The hashtag got enough attention that the creators of the show actually apologized for the episode.

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.


  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    I don’t watch the show, but I figure that if Jackie Chan made fun of something, we all can!

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    Jackie Chan tweeted about it?

  • Ann Sulaiman

    “…like syndicated newspaper comic strips, sitcoms go for the lowest common
    denominator”

    Yes! I hate to say it, but as much as I love to complain about sitcoms, it’s so much better to simply not watch them if I find myself ranting endlessly about how irritated I am about their portrayal of women, “geeks” as a whole, and so on. To be honest, that’s precisely why I stopped watching HIMYM. :s

    “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.”

    Yup. That’s why they’re still on the air, even though people like to rant about them on tumblr and such to the effect of being incredibly self-righteous.

    Once again, Jamie, you put hit the nail on the head repeatedly and more accurately (in my opinion) when it comes to commenting on media and representations. :)

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    No, what I meant is that he’s made fun of kung fu and oriental stereotypes in his films. I mean, if we are judging this according to absurd costumes and ridiculous stereotypes…

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    I think that’s a little different. Asians aren’t a minority in Hong Kong so Jackie making fun of those stereotypes in one of his earlier films is coming from a very different place than when it’s done in a country where Asians are a minority.

  • Dan J.

    I know I’ll get slammed for this but it’s worth saying anyway. It’s not coming from a different place, it’s going to a different place. In other words, the difference isn’t in the mind of the sender, it’s in the mind of the receiver. You choose not to get offended by one. You choose to get offended by the other. Your choice.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    That cuts too close to “we can say it, but they can’t”. If only western movies produced Asian stereotypes, I’d agree. But my point is that Chinese cinema has been equally prolific in this. If HIMYM should apologise for something done without malice, shouldn’t we ask the late Run Run Shaw to apologize for introducing some of these ideas to ignorant Westerners? We all grew up with bad kung fu movies brimming with terrible caricatures. They are practically global cultural staples in the genre and its interpretations. The most crass is probably the fat guy with the bowl haircut or the leering shopkeeper with the bad teeth and wringing hands. To NOW turn around and question its appropriateness is to give blame to completely the wrong people.

    Either that, or we need the spread the blame objectively: Kung Fu Panda, Balls Of Fury, even the Chinese food guy in 5th Element…

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    So is your point that it’s okay for this to happen? That it’s okay for western television to continue to perpetuate these stereotypes?

  • Ward

    Why does every conversation about prejudice or bigotry get turned into a complaint, by the offender, into how _they_ are the victim? “But I can’t say x! That isn’t fair to meeeeeee!” Regarding a situation about inherent unfairness to a minority. Right.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    No, my point is that blaming HIMYM for stereotypes that have been propagated by both Asian and foreign cultures is disingenuous and subjective. It may make people feel like they stood for some principle, but in reality they are not considering the sides of the issue in an objective manner.

    Let me put it this way: is Steve Oedekerk being racist in Kung Pow or doing a great parody of kung fu tropes? Where do we draw the line? Is it okay because he used Asian source material or is it not okay because he is not Asian? If you want to appropriate blame for something, it has to go further than beating up some unfunny sitcom. You have to consider the larger picture – right down to Asian cinema’s own role in it – and then decide if it’s a bad thing or not.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    I never said I’m the victim. What I am doing, though, is argue that blaming HIMYM is a very subjective solution. If we are to tackle the issue of appropriate stereotyping, we should consider its larger scope – down to where these tropes have started and how they have come to integrate with pop culture. But that is inconvenient for many, as it will make it a lot harder to draw a line on who to blame.

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    In a scholastic dissertation, probably. Buuut I don’t think I can cover all that in a little blog post.

  • purplelibraryguy

    How close to “we can say it, but they can’t” is too close, exactly?

    If we take the term “nigger”, say, I think that describes the reality very precisely; blacks can say it, whites can’t, because it’s much harder for something to be a racist term of abuse when it’s coming from the same race. Hence, speaking of Jackie Chan, that scene in, um, Rush Hour was it? Where Chris Tucker goes into the bar and is all “Wassup, my nigga?” and everyone’s getting along great, and then he leaves and Jackie Chan tries it and triggers a huge brawl.

    I don’t even understand why that’s supposed to be controversial. I know it’s been made to be, but I’ve always felt it was just people who don’t want to believe they have to be careful about racism who made it that way.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    True. I can see where you are coming from with your views. I just think the show is getting blamed for something not entirely of its own making.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    Ah, but that is not quite true. If Jackie Chan says it, it may be a brawl. But what if Eminem said it? Granted, he might still start a fight, but the fact that he may not should give some pause for thought. It’s all about context and drawing the line in terms of race creates an absolutism that allows us to ignore the bigger picture. It gets us off the hook, allowing us to take a principled stand when really we haven’t forged any such thing. So using culture as a defence for when something may be said or not is more of a workaround than a solid, meditated solution to the issue.

  • purplelibraryguy

    Things are complicated; there can be no solid, final solution. But racism — and in many ways race — is a cultural phenomenon. What other than culture are you proposing to appeal to? And how can you discuss what kinds of things count as racism while trying to sidestep the question of who is on top and who is the victim? Racism doesn’t just create one category, it creates two categories, the one being stepped on but also the one on top doing the stepping. Of course whether something counts or impacts as racism has to depend to a fair degree on which category the one doing it is in. How could it not?
    Yes, there are other kinds of context as well, from syntactic to the possession of special “I get to say it” cards signed by Martin Luther King in the last moments before he died. Doesn’t really undermine the basic principle that many things are much more problematic said by members of the group doing racism than by members of the group done racism to.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    That is too absolute. What you are essentially saying is that some races are not allowed to do something because of their race. I understand the whole ‘taking ownership’ philosophy, but it is deeply flawed. It just remedies one type of segregation with another.

    Thus my call for context. It’s not so much about the race of the person who said it, but why they said it and how they fit into the moment. Where did they come from with their thoughts? Did they intent malice? If they did, then – yes, racist! I’ll be right there shouting with you. But if they didn’t, is it racism or just that uncomfortable shuffle we do when we try to buddy up to cool people we want to be friends with? It’s high school all over again!

    I think what HIMYM is probably more awkward geek moment than accidental racist. They wouldn’t have done the parody if they didn’t think kung fu and all that came with it wasn’t awesome. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, just as I would never have stopped Richard Pryor making ‘whitey’ jokes. There is a difference between racism and getting to know each other.

  • Ann Sulaiman

    It also depends on how it’s all done – how did Jackie Chan do it, that makes it different and far less likely to upset people than the way that HIMYM did it? How else could the kung fu joke have been written into this episode, without drawing on ingrained stereotypes? Perhaps if they ditched the costumes and props, and went along with the basic principle? Then they could have perhaps homaged kung fu films by the names given to the slapping techniques (“the tiger strike” or something that references American kung fu)?

  • Ann Sulaiman

    So basically, instead of targetting HIMYM in particular, people should consider the origins of the featured stereotypes and what they mean in American culture to established Asian American communities?

  • Ann Sulaiman

    I kind of think that this point was already covered by Jamie’s mention of Kill Bill (aside from the kung fu master, the Bride also performs homages to the genre, even with her jumpsuit), The Matrix and The Man with The Iron Fists. If you focus on the “foreign-ness” of something as a punchline, you need to think carefully about how to make it work AND avoid insulting your audience.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    They can do that. Or they can blame everything that uses such stereotypes (Kung Fu Panda, etc.). Which one we agree with – or other views – is a different debate. But I certainly think focusing anger on one show’s debatable faux pas is a type of pointless instant gratification – self righteousness without actually doing anything to deserve it and not really processing the topic at hand.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    By that rationale Pepé Le Pew is racist, as he portrays the French in a poor light. And a lot of Monty Python’s stuff. And Family Guy. And anything Sacha Baron Cohen has ever done. See, if you start down that route you start risking both censorship and sanitation.

    The question is if they intend insult or not. The Duck Dynasty debacle ignited because that guy very clearly did intend to insult. But if the intention is not to insult, yet the audience is insulted, the fault lies with the latter.

  • Ann Sulaiman

    But Family Guy IS racist, because of its creator Seth MacFarlane (who has made this known on more than one occassion)…

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    I don’t know anything about that, but sure, I can believe it. Still, that’s one show. My point was that by following your line of thought you start affecting a broad swathe of artistic creations, many of which are not intentionally racist. Often, especially in comedy, it is an attempt at catharsis and a very different thing to discriminating someone’s race.

  • xero42

    Its weird when I saw it I didn’t think they were whitewashing I thought they did it that way so the audience knew the whole story was bullshit (wich it was) I mean the names of the three slapping masters were obvious plays off the charicters names/personalities

    But I see your point about it being offensive

  • purplelibraryguy

    Too absolute is you trying to insist that the context doesn’t include the racism. Say you’re a huggy person. Say you’re a guy, and one of your female acquaintances has had traumatic experiences with rape by a guy. If you go around hugging that person and want to claim that you’re not being a douche you’re just treating everyone equally . . . guess what? You’re a douche.
    Not because you’re antifeminist. Just because you want to act like that person’s experiences are irrelevant. Further, whether you yourself are antifeminist or not, you’re certainly helping create the atmosphere for people who are, who think rape victims were asking for it, should get over it, yadda yadda.

    So no, you don’t get to call black people nigger even though black people do. You may not have had a say in defining your group as the oppressor, but the group still got defined, you’re in it, and you don’t get to pretend that group didn’t do the shit they did and isn’t doing the shit they do and hasn’t put some other people in the position they’re in, when you decide how you’re gonna treat those other people. Invoking cultural and racial stereotypes your bunch invented and/or made negative is something that’s gonna have a racist kind of impact unless you have some really good counter-contexts to make it not be that way.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    Look, you’re not listening to what I am saying. You also might not quite understand what ‘absolute’ means. I can keep going on, but this is going nowhere. So I’ll leave you with something Bill Cosby said:

    “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

  • FmF

    Personal opinion is that if it was done out of hate it is not racist, it can be insensitive and offensive, that’s probably why it was not taken well.As a comedy HIMYM is kind of piss poor and by not having the humor to subjugate the parody they where going for just amplifies the focus on the questionable aspect in this episode.

    Also it don’t help this show falls in to the Friends paradigm,the city they are in is one of the most diversely populated city in the world and you can play find waldo with any one who have a skin tone darker eggshell.

    And for your entertainment here’s a computer singing off a list of all the African Americans who had speaking roles on Friends. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUc0vbSlanM

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    Oh man, I cannot stand Friends. I didn’t like it when I was growing up and I can’t take it now.

  • Brosano

    Your personal opinion is wrong–racism is not just intentional malevolence but also systematic erasing and deprivileging of others, even unintentionally so. :-)

  • FmF

    Same here but, I tend to dislike most sitcoms. Hell I think Signifiedwas just crap. Oops I meant for the first line to say “if it was not done out of hate it is not racist”. Beside nothing they could do can top Kung Pow, Shaolin Soccer, Kung fu Hustle, or that one movie where the women could shoot death
    laser from her nipples as kung fu parodies.

  • Brosano

    If you get slammed for it, it is only because “you choose to get offended” is a silly argument as to whether or not the offense taken is legitimate. Sure, I choose to be offended by something that is problematic and racist because it is problematic and racist, and I recognize that as morally wrong, intentional or not. The show’s creators apologized–a mea culpa is a start, but not a solution. If it was just this show, then that would be one thing, but in this respect James is right–Kung-Fu Panda, Big Trouble in Little China, Kung Pow!, etc., these are all little individual events of appropriation, racism, exoticism, that add up over time and consistency of exposure.

    There is a huge difference in cultural context between the Chinese poking fun at their own mythology and creating these tropes and white people who have no grounding in those tropes recycling them without the surrounding context.

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    I love that you’re username is Brosano!!

  • Brosano

    And I love the 47 Bronin!

  • FmF

    Seinfeld* I had a long week ok.

  • FmF

    Racism-a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

    Literally there cannot be racist without a feeling of somekind towards the person of said race, what your describing is call offensives or insensitive. There are many things in regard to race that are these things but without the belief that one is superior to another it is not racism. Are these things wrong, yes very much so and I do not think we should allow them to go unnoticed on such a large scale but I do not label every idiot as racist because they are idiots. I don’t blame you for thinking this way, because racism have been used as a broad term for so long to describe negative race relation its meaning is kind of gray to most people.

    Also never start a debate off with “Your opinion is wrong” unless you’re running for office. You will not get a meaningful well thought out conversation when you basically say a person thoughts on the subject does not matter and often elicited a angry response.

  • Brosano

    I’m not starting a debate–you are the sort of person who wants to pretend that dictionary definitions are the absolute and final arbiter of what we can and can’t call racism, which is whack on multiple levels. Also, your “opinion” actually is wrong. One: “It’s not racism” is not an opinion; it is a statement either of fact or belief, two: what you may have meant by this is that “I do not believe that this is racism”, but that belief is false.

    While this is insensitive and offensive, it is so in a *highly* racialized way. Simply calling it an ‘insensitivity’ erases literally all of the racial context that goes with it–and all of the racist context that goes with it–and implies that it is some sort of stand-alone event with no position in the greater tapestry of systemic racism, which it is not and never will be. When you resort to some sort of linguistic cover as a defense under the “let’s be precise about what’s going on here” drapery, you ignore the broader frameworks in which people generally get away with shit like this without having to examine any sort of internalized prejudices they may not be outwardly thinking about, but are sure as hell still acting on.

  • Brosano

    Just FYI, I linked a friend of mine who’s a lecturer at Elizabethtown College–she teaches some classes on intersectional feminism–and she wants to use this post to start a discussion in one of her classes! Somebody considers you lecture material. ;-)

  • http://ypcomic.com Jamie Noguchi

    Wow! I’m honored. Or horrified.

  • FmF

    First please do not make judgment on my character base on a 15 second internet conversation. I have been around here so long I’m sure Jamie would have done something to keep me from posting if I was bad as you think I am.Though I suspect he thought I was a bit of an ass more than once.I know I would.

    Where did I state this should be ignore, where did I state this is not as bad as racism, how can I erase any form racial imagery in this episode with just changing what you call it, am I a wizard, where did I say this is not a racial issue, where did I put my house keys? You seem to be
    reading a lot in to my words and making a lot of assumptions.I am not a poet, I do not mince word, my words do not have any other meaning than what they are intended for. Is this event bad yes, do I understand people being upset about this yes, Should they be angry at the people of this show yes, Should those people who made this apologies yes, should this be ignore fuck no. Just because I believe this was done by mistake by very very stupid people with little over-site does not mean I’m not equally as upset or disgusted by this as any other act of hatred. I don’t even have
    problem with other people calling this racist. Look for any of my response to
    The Last Airbender movie and you can see how much I hate this bullshit.

    We are just arguing semantics about a word and by doing so we are both doing a disservice to the conversation by not discussing a possible solution or how this came about. We both agree this is wrong and we both agree this should get called out. At this point continuing on this path would only subvert it more, so I propose to a truce of ideology while asking how would you prevent similar issues from occurring in the future? Oh never mind I found my keys.

  • Anon

    But your opinion *is* wrong.

  • Anon

    Pepe Le Pew is racist tho. I am not sure what point you are trying to make here.

  • http://about.me/jmcfrancis James Francis

    And by that measure, every joke about Canadians is also racist. But there is a difference between racism and caricature. If we confuse the two, it’s really a never-ending spiral based on how easily an audience is offended. Meanwhile it does nothing to lessen actual racism in society.