I focused my master’s degree thesis on writing about Asian American comics presenting Asian popular culture as a way of ameliorating the image of Asians and Asian Americans, and in the years since, I have started to hope that this is a trend that exist in popular culture more generally. After getting into both The Boondocks and The Big Bang Theory, I have started to notice that even if one cultural group that has been dumped on (African Americans, nerds) is being shown in a positive light, usually the show still needs another group to dump on, and interestingly enough this alternate group tends to be Asians (1). I’m particularly disappointed in The Boondocks – after starting my PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity and learning about studies on inter-ethnic solidarity in America, I have to admit that I don’t really see this happening in popular culture. Basically, whether it’s the Indian character Rajesh Koothrapali in The Big Bang Theory or representations of China and Chinese people in The Boondocks, they are rendered pathetic, evil, or both even as nerds and African Americans get some positive spotlight. (The Big Bang Theory first; if you like, jump to The Boondocks).
The Big Bang Theory
Briefly, The Big Bang Theory is about four physics nerds at Caltech and their everyday lives, which involves a routine of work and nerdy hobbies interspersed with lusting after girls (most of whom they can’t get, though at the time of this posting, 3/4 have more or less stable relationships with women). As a nerd who likes games and comics and scifi (even if I don’t get the physics), I have been happy that the Big Bang Theory has sustained itself as a mainstream sitcom. I do find myself getting mixed reactions at the show as a sitcom though – should I be happy that nerds get some TV exposure as relatively more complex main characters, or should I be unhappy that they are the objects of ridicule? I understand, though, that this is a property of the sitcom – the ability to laugh at a figure of fear and loathing may lessen these feelings towards that figure, and so along with laughter the show is able to sneak in nuances that the audience might not be ready to receive otherwise (a good book on this is Darrell Hamamoto’s Nervous Laughter). So, while I feel ambivalent about nerds being featured on a sitcom, I understand that as a sitcom it might need ambivalence to further its point.
However, I believe that a sitcom about nerds doesn’t need to laugh at other cultures to further its point. First of all, the show dumps a lot on North Koreans, from Leonard’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Kim, who turned out to be a North Korean spy (S3E22), to Dennis Kim, the North Korean prodigy who Sheldon is nervous about in Season 1. It is interesting that they are both named “Kim.” Kim is a common last name in Korean, however purposefully naming two unrelated characters Kim in a work of fiction either betrays an absolute disregard in telling Asians apart, or an attempt to convey their relationship to the current North Korean regime, or both. Also, since the setting is Caltech (greater Los Angeles area), if there are Koreans on a show about nerds, the most plausible population to include would be the vast Korean American population in LA, however the show doesn’t mention these Korean Americans at all and resorts to North Korean nemeses.
But I want to focus on Rajesh Koothrapali. I can accept that as a recent arrival to the US, Rajesh has difficulties mastering North American popular culture (this is one reason I want to study popular culture academically, because his problem is also my mine, and I think it has real consequences). His faux-pas, such in the S06E11 Christmas episode where he inadvertently speaks sexual innuendos during a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is plausible and I can accept laughing at that as a part of a sitcom. However, there are other aspects of his representation that I find extraneous to the main idea of the show and also troubling / offensive. First, the consistent association of Rajesh with Indian tradition. In his apartment (helpful images and descriptions here): he has a tapestry on his bedroom door, and the cushions with “Indian accents.” As a Chinese person, I can’t speak for Indians, but a young Chinese physics nerd in Rajesh’s situation would most likely not have brush calligraphy or something hanging on his bedroom wall. Even in China this hypothetical young Chinese man would not have calligraphy hanging on his wall. There’s definitely nothing wrong with tradition or the decorative aesthetics of Asian traditional cultures, but in mainstream media Asians have a tendency to be associated culturally with their traditions only, as if Asians consisted of a rich cultural past but no present and no future. And if they have a present and a future, it’s most likely going to be a Western one. Bollywood and popular culture of South Asia is mentioned but this is often to laugh at it, for example when Howard does an imitation of Rajesh doing drunken Bollywood dancing after getting a the magazine “Bombay Badonkadonks” (video here). The made-up magazine is meant to sound silly and does not reference any real magazine, and we don’t see Rajesh dancing, only Howard doing an imitation of him with the goal of ridiculing him.
Next is the question of Rajesh’s sexuality. Before Howard married Bernadette, there were numerous jokes that Howard and Rajesh were like a married couple, with Rajesh often in the role of a woman in the relationship (helpful video here with some of the key moments). For example, S3E06, where Rajesh loses his Patang fighter kite due to Howard chasing after a girl during a competition, Howard tries to make up for it by buying Rajesh a new kite, to which Rajesh says “Buying me something pretty isn’t going to make our problem go away.” In this scene, Howard is clearly playing the stereotypical male part who tries to placate his romantic interest with gifts, whereas Rajesh is playing the stereotypical female part who insists on emotional understanding. I am not arguing for a throwback idea of gender roles where men have to be “manly,” whatever that means. However, there is a tendency to believe that Asian men are less masculine than men of other ethnicities, and the depiction of Rajesh contributes to this tendency. In addition, while it can be argued his feminization comes from the nerd stereotype and not the Asian stereotype, as it progresses to Season 6, Rajesh is the only person who doesn’t have a stable romantic relationship (correction: As of Feb 2013, it seems he has a shot with Lucy). In studies of ethnicity, we have talked about “intersectionality” a lot. This is when categories of identity, for example ethnicity, class, and gender, while each having an effect on how a person is treated in society, can have greater / different consequences when compounded together. A classic example is that in a workplace setting, being Black or being a woman means less chances at job promotion, so being a Black woman means even less of a chance at promotion (I think Kimberlee Crenshaw wrote this? But I can’t find it anywhere). Rajesh seems to be an example of how being Asian and being a nerd compounded on each other makes him even more feminized than the rest of the main characters. As he says when “creating a scene” at the end of S5E19, even if he gets a girlfriend, he will be known as the guy who did so after Sheldon.
Finally, somewhat related to the first, are digs at India and the fact that Rajesh is not a “real American.” This is the category that I find the most offensive. In S4E9, Howard’s comment about an Indian version of the board game Monopoly goes thus: “Indian Monopoly’s just like regular, except the money’s in Rupees, instead of hotels you build call centers, and when you pick a chance card, you might die of dysentery.” As if building call centres is India’s own economic initiative, rather than due to Western companies outsourcing and seeking cheap labour. And after all the SARS and H1N1 problems, the last thing audience need to think about Asia is that it’s the origin if the world’s epidemics. Although Howard ends with “FYI, that was racist,” this doesn’t really ameliorate what he said before. The humour is with the insult towards India, and the rational afterword doesn’t cancel the humour. However, the most troubling episode (S4E7)is when the FBI investigates Howard’s friends to find out of Howard is fit to join the Defense Department. Rajesh feels so nervous about his legal status in America that he tries all kinds of antics to prove that he is American (video here), such as singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He doesn’t get the whole song, and the humour in this scene is that first he is not a real American and second he fails at pretending to be one. While his claim that part of his reason for loving America is the “rampant obesity” can be a critique of America, a foreigner in the US being afraid of the consequences of being foreign should not be a laughingstock. This is the concern of survival for many people in the US, whether they are here legally or not. I have family who was deported from the US based on insignificant reasons (and believe me, my family falls squarely under the model minority stereotype; they won’t even report a crime, much less commit one), and I myself have been interrogated for hours upon crossing the border. This part of the episode made me feel slightly ill. Gene Yang, creator of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, said in an interview that the stereotypical character of Chin-kee isn’t supposed to an outright figure of humour: “He’s meant to come off the page and slap you in the face. If you’re laughing at him, I want you to do so with a knot in your stomach and a dry throat.” In American Born Chinese, this works; Chin-kee is represented in such an overboard manner that he is definitely a satirical figure meant to mock the ridiculousness of the stereotypes, especially since the end of the graphic novel reveals that he is a disguise. However, Rajesh is realistic enough that he may not be read as a satirical figure, and the laughter in the background of this episode invites an outright laughter at his distress. As a nerd, I really enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory, but as an Asian nerd, sometimes I’m not exactly on board.
I have been thinking about the figure of Rajesh for a while now, but what made me finally put finger to keyboard on Asian stereotypes is an episode of The Boondocks. Briefly, The Boondocks is a cartoon, based on a comic strip series, which explore the social issues of race through a Black family, the Freemans, living in a White suburb. The tone of the show is aligned with its central character, Huey Freeman, who is a mature, intellectually complex and politically conscious 12-year old, who must deal with Grandad’s lack of concern towards socio-political issues, his younger brother Riley’s blind adoration of all African American popular culture, the ignorance of their White neighbours (and larger society as a whole), and what he sees as an unmotivated and misled generation of African Americans. I started watching this series because my formative teenage years were spent in Vancouver, which is inundated by Chinese people, and I feel that I need to understand the popular cultures of other ethnicities. Not really having a good in-road to African American pop culture (I confess that I don’t like the sound of rap and hiphop, or any popular music, for that matter – my family grew up with Tchaikovsky and Debussy and the like. I’m not judging popular music to be “base” and classical European music to be an epitome of culture; as a student of pop culture, I actually think the reverse. But due to my upbringing I don’t find pleasure in popular music and I don’t understand its aesthetics), I decided that a cartoon is probably the best place to start, especially since the creator, Aaron McGruder, has sometimes described it as an anime. So far I have enjoyed it, since not many cartoons (or any fictional series, for that matter), tries to handle social commentary about ethnicity.
Some of the ambivalence I feel about The Big Bang Theory I also feel about The Boondocks, though I didn’t expect the cartoon to be so critical of African American culture. I cannot judge whether the criticisms are true, for example the attacks on BET for purposefully trying to make African Americans stupid, but if the audience is not African American, the show might perpetuate stereotypes of African Americans as stupid. But anyway, I’m not going to discuss this matter since it’s not something I know much about. I want to discuss how the series represents Asians, with a focus on S3E04, “The Red Ball.” I had hoped that being influenced formally by anime, the series would exhibit thematically a confluence of concerns of people of colour, and by and large, I was disappointed. Thematically, the series cites Asia mostly in terms of martial arts, with the character of Bushido Brown as an epitome of cultural fusion in this regard, as evidenced by his name. I could argue that The Boondocks stereotypes Asians by reducing them to martial arts figures, but compared to what happens in “The Red Ball,” the “Asia-martial arts” association in The Boondocks is less significant.
The first episode where alarm bells came on was the Season 2 episode “Stinkmeaner Strikes Back.” A neighbourhood terror, Colonel Stinkmeaner, had been accidentally killed by Granddad in Season 1, and in this episode, he trains in Hell and comes back to take revenge on Granddad. There is a sequence showing Stinkmeaner training in Hell. Given that the series focuses on martial arts a lot and has beautiful fight sequences, I can accept that Stinkmeaner training in Hell would involve martial arts. However, what I don’t understand is why Hell has Chinese architecture, or why Satan (I’m assuming it’s Satan) is wearing traditional Chinese clothing. Stinkmeaner can be said to have no racial/ethnic politics – that is, he’s not like Uncle Ruckus, who has internalized White supremacy and hates everything Black, but rather Stinkmeaner is mean towards everyone – so arguably, his evil has no racial implications. But I read martial arts in The Boondocks as providing a kind of agency, a set of skills that Huey, and to a certain extent Riley, can use to metaphorically fight the system. For a body of skills that for Huey represents agency and mastery is made evil by Stinkmeaner and then associated with being Chinese is problematic and does have racial consequences. After all, it’s not made clear what cultural influences Huey’s martial arts draws from, whereas Stinkmeaner’s martial arts is directly tied to both Satan and China in a visual move where Hell and Chinese culture are bizarrely conflated.
Anyways, more disturbing is the Season 3 episode, “The Red Ball.” The premise is that Ed Wuncler, the corporate magnate who has the town under his thumb, is getting ready for an annual kickball tournament with the team sponsored by his rival, the Chinese businessman Mr. Long Do (the “Wushung /Woodcrest Junior/Senior Harmonious Kickball Tournament), and to win, he forces Huey to join as the star player, despite Huey’s reservations. Like the move in The Big Bang Theory, where it is North Koreans represented in the show instead of Korean Americans, “The Red Ball” features people who are nationally and ethnically Chinese while we don’t see any Chinese Americans in the show at all. So, first of all, Asians are again rendered as perpetual foreigners.
Arguably, this show targets Ed Wuncler and his exploitative capitalism. His betting all his banks and everyone’s accounts and the Freemans’ house on the tournament is a critique of his shady business practices, but right after he admits this, he says “You think I’m bad, just wait till the Chinese take away all the freedoms you enjoy – freedom to complain, freedom to have as many offspring and assault rifles as you like, the freedom to surf the Internet for pornography of your choice.” Okay, the pornography thing is a critique of “freedom” conceived in the West as being really not as big of a deal as we’d like to think, but what this statement boils down to is that no matter how crappy the American system is, it’s a lot better than the Chinese one, so be grateful. Despite the premise being the 12-year old Huey militating against both members of his own community and the White majority for structural changes, the message this episode is totally antithetical to the spirit of the show.
This episode also precludes any sympathy for Chinese people. Huey, after seeing the Chinese team play, agrees to play, even if he’s not playing to defeat them for Wuncler. Mr. Long Do’s granddaughter Ming, who is the team’s captain, then feeds Huey a sob story about how she was plucked from a young age to train in kickball for the Chinese state, and that if she lost she would be sent to a prison camp for athletes who have failed their country. At this point the episode goes into a series of montages: a woman forced to perform on the balance beam while rabid wolves circle beneath her if she falls off, a man doing a foul shot with prison guards pointing guns at his head, and a man jumping hurdles where the hurdles are replaced by rows of spikes. Ming tells Huey that she also longs to walk away from the game, however she is not so lucky to have that choice, because she doesn’t live in America. Another shot for how we should be grateful for America. And later we learn that this story is entirely untrue, that she made it up purposefully to make Huey underperform. Despite Ming’s story of the prison camp being a lie, the visuals of this sequence still reinforces the idea that China has cruel and unusual forms of punishment , especially since China’s issues with human rights is circulating in the popular sentiment. Also, while reinforcing this, the episode also suggests that even if the average Chinese person suffers from the Chinese system, they are not to be given any sympathy, because their complaints are a part of a duplicitous strategy to undermine American ascendency.
Most disturbing of all is the finale of the game, where the two teams are tied, and the Woodcrest side of the crowd is rooting for their team. This would just be a “rooting for our team” spirit with no nationalist or racial undertones, except the song that everyone is singing is “America the Beautiful.” We see Tom Dubois’s family singing in the foreground, and more spectators in the background, including ostensibly an African American, and of course the kickball team consists of African Americans like Tom himself and Grandad. Later there is also a scene of American flags waving among the spectators. Never mind that Tom’s wife Sarah is an advocate on behalf of civil rights; never mind that his mixed race daughter Jazmine often feels that he doesn’t fit in; never mind that Huey has spent his life trying to change racial inequalities in American society; when it’s up against the Chinese, Americans of all other ethnicities and backgrounds are a part of America the beautiful. Right after the song ends, Huey pitches Ming in a Dragonball-esque confrontation, suggesting that Huey is the embodiment of all the patriotic American sentiments displayed earlier by the audience. I’m frankly disappointed in Huey for tagging Ming with the ball even after her ankle and his arm are broken, or disappointed with the episode’s writers for shoehorning Huey into this role. It would be more in Huey’s character, and the spirit of the show, for him to at least realise in the last moment that he’s playing into Wuncler’s schemes. This episode had potential for examining how two children of colour, Ming and Huey, become tools in petty games of transnational capital, but instead it boils down to a message of forgetting American racial inequalties to defeat a common Chinese enemy. I’m not even going to count all the times variants of the phrase “yellow motherfuckers” popped up.
The theoretical underpinnings of this post largely came from a book we read as a part of an Asian American Studies directed reading course last term, which is Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. In this book, her argument is that the increasing liberal attitude in America towards queerness and homosexuality is due to a need to bring together American citizens after 9/11 to face the new villain, which is the terrorist. The argument tuned me to the fact that just because one group who has been discriminated against is now accepted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the problems with discrimination are fixed, because frequently it just means they’re not as much of a threat relative to some new group. Of course, this dynamics doesn’t apply only to different sets of groups, like queer Americans and Middle Eastern terrorists, but also work within one large set. Even as Asian Americans are ostensibly the model minority and bringing capital to America, I think The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks show a latent distrust and fear towards Asians.
Sorry if the second half of this post made no sense. I wrote it right after I drank a concoction of gin and chocolate milk, which for some reason seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyways, as Riley would say, haters gonna hate, and I realize that I might be sounding like a hysterical academic in this post, so I want to end on a positive note. The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks are really quite good shows otherwise. Especially The Boondocks – the episode on Obama’s election was a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be, as I was expecting a cartoon about African Americans to be unreservedly jubilant about Obama. And also well done is the “The Booty Warrior” episode where Tom finally gets some character development, and where Huey gives a graduate-level definition of the prison-industrial complex (I cheered out loud when I was watching that part). I’m really looking forward to the next season. As for The Big Bang Theory, the best moments that ameliorate some of racism that Raj faces is when he does an American accent. It’s hard to say why those moments are funny, but they’re absolutely hilarious. I think at a basic level, it’s suggesting that Raj’s Indian accent isn’t a shortcoming that he wants to overcome, like a stereotypical English learner would, but rather, his Indian accent is something he consciously chooses against sounding like an American. I’m looking forward to the book by Shilpa Davé, Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American TV and Film, and I’m hoping Raj is in there somewhere. Also, I noticed on Wikipedia that originally the role was supposed to be Indian American until Kunal Nayyar was cast, and because he was “so Indian” the character also became as is. Not sure how we can say how much of Raj is the writers and now much is Nayyar’s being “so Indian,” but that’s something to look into. Here’s to hoping that Raj’s relationship with Lucy works out.
Also, when I taught comparative film as an English course in China, I was really annoyed that in The Departed, which is a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Chinese terrorists replaced Thai drug dealers as villains. Not that I wanted Thais to remain drug dealers – that’s a stereotype Cantonese media needs to deal with. But in a remake of a Chinese film, it seems making Chinese people villains is a poor move.