When three Asian American children were trotted out in front of a national audience as both the props for and the butt of a joke delivered by Oscars host Chris Rock, mainstream attention was momentarily placed on the extent to which Asian Americans face racism. Ironically enough, Rock’s joke simultaneously demonstrated anti-Asian racism while it relied upon the model minority stereotype, a trope that has long served to obscure anti-Asian racism.
The problems with the model minority myth are legion. I am not here to debunk the model minority myth—thereismuchacademic and popularwritingonthesubject—but to examine one effect of its prevalence in public discourse: confused narratives of Asian American aggrievement.
For weeks we have endured endless chatter about #OscarsSoWhite and how to better increase diversity in Hollywood. Now that the awards season has officially ended and the Academy Awards have been handed out, I can finally give my two cents about this.
At the age of 51, Chris Rock has evolved far beyond being the brash stand-up comedy of his early days. His latest film projects (Head of State,I Think I Love My Wife, and Top Five) are characteristically funny, but what makes them resonate is their meta-textual commentary on race, politics and Chris Rock’s personal life. With his latest slate of films, Rock no longer simply entertains; he expresses himself and explores the world around him as part comedian, part philosopher, part public intellectual.
In particular, Top Five offered insight into Rock’s reflections – oftentimes wistful and self-critical — on being a Black man in White Hollywood, and the distance that this placed between him and the rest of Black America. It’s a fantastic, deeply intimate film that deserves a wider reach than it received, but it is not without its flaws. Others have written about Top Five’s bad gay joke, but fewer have mentioned that Chris Rock slipped in some cringe-inducing and completely unnecessary anti-Asian jokes over the course of the film.
It has been a little while since I’ve seen Top Five, but at least one joke involves Rock grilling Rosario Dawson’s character – who plays Rock’s love interest — about her dating history, incredulous that a past boyfriend was Asian. The implication, of course, was that Asian and Asian American men are bad in bed. Dawson rejects the remark by pointing out that Asians make up a large segment of the world’s population and therefore – of course – Asian men are good at sex, but the damage is done. As others in the theatre laughed at yet another comedian made yet another joke about the (untrue) stereotype of the “small Asian penis”, I felt angered, betrayed and marginalized as an Asian American woman.
What was perhaps even more frustrating was that the inclusion of these objectively racist jokes in Top Five was totally unnecessary. Top Five is otherwise a smart, well-written, and racially nuanced film that offered a compelling deep dive into contemporary Blackness. So: why did he also include the totally pointless, unfunny, and lazy humour of Asian-bashing and gay-bashing?
That’s pretty much how I feel about Sunday night’s Oscars.