Blogging for HONS 201: Feminism, New Media, and Health at Hunter College.

Pitch Perfect and Off-Pitch Stereotypes

Hanna Mae Lee in promotional materials for Pitch Perfect. They don’t even pretend to avoid the “Quiet Asian” stereotype! Via

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 I really don’t. Sometimes I just want to hang out with friends, see a movie, and have a generally good time when outdated, inaccurate, or just plain offensive images are shoved into my face.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.

Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect. Via Yahoo! Movies. Fair Use.

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.

*In spite of everything, I super enjoyed this movie — it’s fun, it has lots of funny women, and singing and dancing! Remember, you can be able to critique a piece of media while still enjoying it!


15 comments on “Pitch Perfect and Off-Pitch Stereotypes

  1. esbias
    November 4, 2012

    Very insightful and well-written post. Reminds me of the satirical portrayal of “the black guy” in “Not Another Teen Movie.” There’s only one, and he only ever says, “That’s wack,” “shiiieeet,” and some other stereotypical utterance I can’t remember off the top of my head ^_-

  2. mariamblog04
    November 5, 2012

    Reading this blog post reminded me of the character of Tina Cohen-Chang on Glee! She started out as the shy, awkward and very very quiet teenager. As the show progressed, her style and persona changed to a more rock inspired look and she became more vocal (more lines and singing more songs) but the issue remained that Tina was no Rachel Barry and was still ignored most of the time. Even though more Asian-Americans are being represented in the media they are portrayed sterotypically more than they are not.

  3. Pingback: That’s Not Racist! « Practicing Feminism

  4. Carol
    April 15, 2013

    This saddens me, I saw the Lily character as just one of those crazy friends I have (and slightly wonder if I’m in the same field). All those characters are supposed to be odd. The white ones are all Iconic of white stereotypes, and I couldn’t help but feel that Kimmy Jin was in fact incredibly racist. To see you’re one sided portrayal of this show as offensive sadly only continues to show racism that seems to flow through people. I’m so glad that I know plenty of non-racist individuals of all cultural backgrounds in my life. I hope one day you can get over your overt racism. In the mean time I’m just going to stay away from you.

    • kerishma
      June 28, 2013

      Fine by me! I wish I could have the privilege of seeing the world as colorblindly as you! 🙂

  5. Kay
    June 27, 2013

    Thank you, Carol. You just said exactly what was on my mind.

    A movie is suppose to basically be an acted out story. What’s the point of telling a story if the story itself is uninteresting? These characters are not insane or unique because of the stereotypes. Honestly would you want to watch a movie about a bunch of normal boring chicks that are just like everyone else? I understand that as an Asian American you feel offended, but we’re being a litte one sided here because I distinctly remember Lilly beatboxing in an underground club, and that is farthest from the normal quiet Asian stereotype. I’m sorry if you’re offended by the media, but maybe you wouldnt be so bothered if you didn’t think so negative.

    • kerishma
      June 28, 2013

      First off, I’m a bit baffled that to you, abandoning stereotypes is equated with “uninteresting.” There are ways of having well-rounded, engaging characters without deploying harmful stereotypes.

      Second, I do remember the Lilly scene you mentioned–we don’t see her beatboxing, just hanging out in a beatboxing club. And fair enough, beatboxing itself isn’t within the stereotypical Asian-American realm of activities (unless you count the Geeky Asian American Guy trying to be “gangsta,” but that’s totally different than this). But that scene in question was less than 10 seconds, and even though Hana Mae Lee had scratching coaching for the film, we hear less than 5 seconds of it total (in the finals number). OK, it’s one thing to be present as a minority, it’s another to slightly debunk a stereotype (while enforcing others, perhaps), and it’s completely another to be a DEVELOPED character. Fine, you could say the film focuses on too many girls to fully develop Lilly (or even Kimmy), but it’s a trend we see in the media at large.

      Trust me, I don’t like to think negative. As I stated in my post, I don’t go looking to be offended (being offended is just so tiring!). But when I do find something problematic, it’s not because I’m being negative, but because it perpetuates me on a daily basis. I’m sorry you can’t understand that through your privilege.

    • Danielle
      July 7, 2013

      What the heck? Kerishma’s observations are totally spot on. I just saw this movie, and while I enjoyed the plot and the music, I was really turned off by the stereotypes. The problem is that you all want to mindlessly enjoy your racial stereotypes, thank you very much. They aren’t about you, so of course you are unbothered by them. These stereotypes are pretty pervasive in mainstream movies in the U.S. I am getting sick of that myself. I want you to have a little imagination and realize how amazing it would be to have fully realized and well developed characters who are people of color, women etc. And Carole, calling the author racist is idiotic. I want you to go look up the word “racist” right now, so you can learn how to use it correctly AND actually understand its’ meaning.

    • marzydotes
      July 28, 2013

      I guess this is someone’s way of saying that Asian-Americans should just lighten up and laugh at racist stereotypes to make other people feel more comfortable in their own view that racists stereotypes that have already been done ad nauseum are hip and all that. Lily beatboxing? Yeah, blink, sneeze and you miss it! That’s more than you can say about the rest of the portrayal of her character. The fact is, they had two Asian-American female characters and both were stereotypical…

      I’ll stick to movies that aren’t racist as I wouldn’t find a minstrel show entertaining either.

  6. Steve
    July 16, 2013

    Interesting article. Like you, I’m not one to really go around looking for racial stereotypes, and I generally think people nitpick a little bit too much. But when watching this movie last week for the first time, I thought the stereotypes involving those 2 characters were pretty surprising and came out and hit the audience over the head. There wasn’t really any attempt to be subtle, and there wasn’t much counterbalance. Lilly’s character was funny, so I’m willing to cut her a little more slack. Kimmy’s character … not so much on the comedy. What was her best line? “The white girl is back.” (?) Really didn’t add much at all in terms of comedy or character depth. Really no point to her character at all, other than to add in an uncomfortable stereotype.

    One quibble (not just with your article, but several of these “Pitch Perfect stereotype articles popping up):

    Few people actually mention Donald’s character – the South Asian (yes, South Asian counts as Asian) Treblemaker. His ethnicity played no role whatsoever in the film, and it was pretty refreshing for him to get screentime based on his talents alone. You could have swapped him out for a white dude without changing a thing. So when people harm on the 2 East Asian female characters, no one points out they did a good job with avoiding stereotypes with Donald’s character.

    • kerishma
      July 16, 2013

      Yes, I am aware that South Asian qualifies as Asian–I am South Asian myself! I did think they did a good job with his character, though one could argue that his role was minor enough that it didn’t even matter (just like those two girls in the Bellas who they joke, “Who are you?” “We’ve been here the WHOLE time!”). But Utkarsh Ambudkar is pretty awesome, and I love me a rapping desi!

      Thanks for reading!

  7. marzydotes
    July 28, 2013

    Yeah I’d like to see him in a better film.

  8. Kris
    March 5, 2015

    I know this is an old post but saw it and thought I would add my 2c 🙂 I actually really enjoyed Kimmy Jin’s character, and thought it broke stereotypes as far as I am been exposed to (I am not American, nor Asian). My idea of the stereotypical Asian girl from films is quiet, smart, neat and somewhat submissive in terms of doing what is expected of her. I really liked seeing a bit of a bitchy Asian female character. I am not saying I am right or wrong, but wanted to give a different perspective.

  9. anothervoice
    May 7, 2015

    By some miracle of chance I had managed to avoid Pitch Perfect until today, when my son insisted I sit down and watch it with him. I had heard that this movie was somewhat of a culture phenomenon when it first came out, but I’ve pretty much avoided it, as well as Glee, etc.

    But I watched it with him (apparently a sequel is about to come out) and I was, kind of…. taken aback, I have to admit. Really, the whole thing kind of left a weird aftertaste for me.

    Just a white American here, neither Asian or Jewish (well, we’re not entirely sure about the last one), but wow. I actually had to go looking for others who saw it too, cause I was wondering if I was just being too critical.

    This one slapped me right in the face. And it all just seemed so gratuitous. It wasn’t like they set these stereotypes up to knock them down. They were just…. there. Without any purpose at all. In this day and age.

    I know I’m not saying anything new here (and I’m WAY behind the pop-cultural curve) but I do find comfort in knowing that a segment of the viewing population observed the same B.S. and is calling it out.

    Thanks for this blog.

  10. hanacherian
    November 15, 2015

    I know this post is old but for all you guys saying that there isn’t any racial stereotypes have you seen the second movie? It’s so offensive, there are not only stereotypes directed towards Asian Americans but also towards all the girls in the movie along with the Mexican girl who says the most stereotypical and outrageous things.

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