A Japanese-American friend of mine believes that there is no more marginalized group of people in Hollywood than young Asian-American men. I believe him. That’s not going to stop me from making stupid jokes at the expense of people who are different. I’m not a racist. I just like laughing at racism. That’s an important distinction. Someone somewhere is singing this song, so I’ll just link to it and move on.
There’s an old Doctor Who serial that I really love. It’s not the most PC choice of viewing material, but God, it’s entertaining. The story involved a Chinese magician named Chang who uses his hypnotist powers to lure women underneath his theater for his master, a powerful sorcerer who is trying to regain his strength, to feed on them. That’s just one element of the story, but if I keep going, we’ll be here all day. What makes the story (which is called The Talons of Weng-Chiang for anyone who is curious) so controversial is not its characterization, which takes a stereotypical character and subverts the assumptions that others make about him (when the Doctor asks if they’ve met before, Chang responds that perhaps all Chinamen simply look the same to him), but the casting: he is played by a white man in yellowface.
On the commentary track for this episode, John Bennett, the actor who played Chang, expresses regret that the role was not given to an Asian, but no shame over taking the role. Why should he? It’s not his fault that the producers were too scared to give the role to someone with the right skin tone, and if he didn’t take it, someone else would. He’s very good, anyway, giving a convincing and nuanced performance despite the layers of makeup and the ease with which the character could become a caricature. But as my friend would no doubt point out, Asians are the only group of people left to whom Hollywood will deny roles by changing the ethnicity of the main characters. If The Talons of Weng-Chiang were made today, Chang would be played by an Asian. That’s about all that’s changed. These days, we have movies like The Last Airbender, in which the main characters should be Asian yet the lead actors are all white, and 21, which is based on a true story involving a group of Asian students that was made into a Hollywood movie starring Kevin Spacey and the Ewan McGregor lookalike from Across the Universe. Hooray for progress?
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes people use it to gloss over the problems with times gone by. I use it to cast them in a different light. I know many people who consider the 1950s a lost decade because it was a time that, on the surface, was idyllic. The world portrayed by Leave It to Beaver and memorialized by countless retro diners was a perfect place to live if you were white, male, straight, and Christian. Otherwise, it could be pretty rough. But I’m not going to hold that against the white, straight, male Christians who lived through that period so long as they remember that their comfort came at a cost. Some people feel guilty for the sins of their fathers. I say it’s never too late to make amends.
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is The Venture Bros. It’s an absolutely hysterical Adult Swim show that parodies Jonny Quest, The Fantastic Four, and about a million other targets. I’ve never watched Jonny Quest; I just love the idea of taking everything that viewers loved as kids and mocking it shamelessly. What is the past for if not to be dissected and viewed from every possible angle? Just don’t overdo it. You’ll forget what the main purpose of learning history is: to inform the future.
I’ll close with a video clip I was directed to recently by one of my favorite humor writers. This is basically what would happen if you gave a bunch of twelve year-old kids a budget and adult actors who were willing to perform in their film. It’s hilarious in ways that are simply impossible for any parodist to mimic. The “ninjas” look like rejects from Mortal Kombat on their way to a Pride Parade. Their weapons of choice are time-honored ninja weapons like pole-arms and boomerangs. It’s hilarious, is what I’m trying to say, and more than that, it takes me back to a simpler time, a time when I didn’t give a shit about things like that because I just wanted to play with my toys. Adults can revisit that if they like. They just have to remember that some of those toys were banned for good reason.