Blogging for HONS 201: Feminism, New Media, and Health at Hunter College.
I don’t walk around looking for things to criticize. I don’t spend my time sniffing out items of pop culture to complicate or deem problematic. Believe it or not, I don’t like being offended. I really don’t. Sometimes I just want to hang out with friends, see a movie, and have a generally good time when outdated, inaccurate, or just plain offensive images are shoved into my face.
This is what happened to me last night, when all I was trying to do was have a fun girls’ night out at the movies. I saw Pitch Perfect, a film that centers on an underdog college a capella girl group made up of ragtag misfits. But wasn’t the overdone plot map that offended me, but the shallow and stereotypical characterizations of the non-white and fat characters.
I am an Asian-American woman, and what first caught my attention was the characterization of Beca’s (the protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick) roommate, Kimmy Jin (Jinhee Joung). Kimmy Jin is cold, Kimmy Jin is (mostly) silent, and Kimmy Jin is always referred to by her first and last name (lest we forget she is Korean-American). Upon meeting Kimmy Jin, Beca takes Kimmy Jin’s silence as a lack of ability to speak English, and repeats her questions with exaggerated slowness and volume. I personally think Kimmy Jin had it right there – stupidity and racism (I doubt Beca would have behaved that way with a silent white roommate) of that degree don’t even merit an answer. Kimmy Jin is only happy and social when hanging out with fellow students of the Korean Association, and pointedly refers to Becca as “the white girl” to her face on one occasion. The cold, hard, distant characterization of Kimmy Jin plays right into aspects of the Dragon Lady trope of Asian-American women.
Also baffling was the portrayal of Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), a member of the central a capella group, the Barden Bellas. Lilly is astoundingly silent, whispering her lines so quietly that half the time I was left wondering what she was saying (and wondering how the hell she got into a singing group). Wow, a soft-spoken Asian girl! How revolutionary! It’s not like it’s been done a billion times over!
In addition to her silence, Lilly is identified with indescribable weirdness – when she can be heard. Racialicious contributor Nisha H. writes,
The first time I managed to catch one of Lilly’s whispered lines is when she reveals that she ate her twin in the womb. Earlier in the film, she makes a snow angel in a puddle of vomit. This type of strange behavior, though I’m sure comical to some, only serves to portray her as even more of an oddity. She becomes wholly unrelatable to movie-going audiences due to the combination of her eccentricity and lack of audible speech. This portrayal of Lilly as someone unrelatable only feeds into the Otherization of Asians as a foreign, strange race, one very different from the white women in the movie.
After I emerged from the theatre, I remarked to a friend that the portrayal of the two Asian-American in the film was troubling to me. She pointed out (in reference to Kimmy Jin) that she knew and observed that many Asian-American students who tended to socialize solely with other Asian-Americans. I don’t think that that’s inaccurate – it’s not unusual to want to hang out with people who you can relate to, and you can often find people with similar experiences within the ethnic/national/religious group that you belong to. And I’m not saying that quiet Asian-Americans don’t exist. But when these are the only images of Asian-Americans being circulated, it becomes highly problematic. It’s like that for any marginalized group; yes, Sofía Vergara fits the stereotype of the Spicy Hypersexual Latina Bombshell (and proudly so), but when it is used to identify and characterize all Latin@s, it’s obviously intensely problematic. No ethnic group is a monolith, yet the media insists on representing them in that way.
And it wasn’t just the Asian-Americans. The humor of Rebel Wilson’s character, named Fat Amy, is unsurprisingly based on her weight. While I yearn for a characterization of a fat character like Melissa McCarthy’s in Gilmore Girls, more often than not I see fat characters like Melissa McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids. As blogger Phat Ally puts it, fat people aren’t allowed to have “normal” personalities in the media. Their personalities are weird, are crazy, are deviant – are ultimately Othered, and their weirdness as comic relief is amplified by their fatness.
Asian-American visibility in mainstream media is on the rise. From Lucy Liu’s kickass portrayal of Joan Watson on Elementary to Mindy Kaling on her own show, The Mindy Project, it’s disheartening to know that there are negative stereotypes that refuse to go away. Sigh.