Hey all — I didn’t see very many movies this week, but the few I did catch were excellent. I’m saving those reviews for next week, however, because we need to talk about something important. I’m devoting the entire newsletter to it, and I’d appreciate it if you shared this with anyone in your life who needs to hear it.
How Hollywood enables anti-Asian hatred
When I was a teen and early 20something, I mistakenly assumed that everyone processed movies and games and TV shows the same way, with a consistent detachment. And I assumed that, when we saw something problematic, we universally understood it to be distinct from our real lives: This is just something some character does, not a reflection of our society.
Over the past decade, it’s become clearer to me that there are three problems with those beliefs: 1) They’re not true in the first place: Media literacy is an under-taught and under-appreciated privilege; 2) Even if they were true, media can affect us subconsciously; and 3) Media selection matters: What we choose to let into our bubbles and what we keep out, the diversity of what we consume, is both a reflection of and an actor upon our psyches.
I have been thinking this week about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the pop culture I have watched in my life has dehumanized Asian people, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Austin Powers to Family Guy and far beyond.
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings on Tuesday that left 8 people dead, this is a painful and necessary self-examination we all need to undertake. The people who commit hate crimes learned, from somewhere, that their victims were not worthy of human life; without knowing how they process media and what they chose to watch, we cannot rule out the possible influence of pop culture.
That’s why I have a bit of required reading for you, written by Caroline Framke in Variety: How Hollywood Is Complicit in the Violence Against Asians in America. It argues that movies and TV shows have trained us to regard “Asian” not as a normal adjective, but as a stand-in for a bunch of stupid and inaccurate stereotypes, which were being invoked almost immediately after the shootings. You should read the whole thing, but here is the kicker:
Refusing to indulge racist jokes isn’t suppressing free speech, but pointing out hate for what it is. As much as laughter can be a tonic, terrible moments like these have proved just how effectively it can also be wielded against the vulnerable, when laughing at someone results in laughing away their suffering, history, and humanity. Nothing, especially not some cheap attempt at a cheaper joke, is worth that.
My default assumption — perhaps one that I will come to regard as too naïve in another decade’s time — is that most of the racism and other bad stuff perpetuated by Hollywood is the product of laziness, ignorance, and a misconception of “free speech,” rather than outright malice. When art is made by committee, and the people in the room are only there becuase of who they know, it’s easy to rationalize cruelty away: “It’s just a joke, who are we gonna hurt?”
Part of the remedy to these decades of dehumanization is better representation for the people who have been discriminated against, both as characters and as powerful executives behind the scenes. But the people who have power and influence now and in the future must be held accountable for this faulty mode of thinking. It was never sufficient for creators to apologize “if you were offended,” but the bar is even higher now: The creators of hateful works should be made to see that their (laziness? ignorance?) can trigger horrible ripple effects for everyone, not just the targeted group.
Every writer, every director, every person whose work reduced Asian people to punchlines or political punching bags had a choice somewhere along the line, and they made the wrong one. Regardless of intent, we as media consumers must be vigilant for and critical of racism in our media when we see it.
This is not hard to understand: These were human beings who died, and their lives mattered.
Yesterday, I made a donation to the Atlanta chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Association. From their about page: “Being seen and heard in the public narrative gives us the power to shape the policy and cultural change needed to gain agency over our lives, families, and communities.” Donate here.
Leave your reactions, questions, and recommendations in the comments below.