Although these days, Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao is predominantly seen stumping with husband Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, Chao has built an impressive history as a public servant in her own right, breaking through a number of barriers to Asian Americans in Washington.
Her career in politics began in the Reagan Administration when Chao, a Republican, worked as Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration of the US Department of Transportation. She went on to serve as Deputy Secretary of Transportation and later as Director of the Peace Corps under President George H.W. Bush. Eventually, she was appointed as the 24th Labor Secretary under the junior Bush, and became the only Cabinet member of George W. Bush’s administration to serve out his full two terms. Chao is the first Asian American woman to be appointed to any of these positions, including as a Cabinet Secretary — the nation’s highest appointed office.
A staunch conservative, Chao has politics that are very nearly the polar opposite to my own. There’s very little I agree with when it comes to Chao’s philosophy (less that I agree with when it comes to her husband Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), but no one can or should deny Chao’s accomplishments as a forthright and powerful Asian American woman in politics.
That’s why, in my mind, there is absolutely no justification for the racist, anti-Asian tirade of Kathy Groob, a Kentucky-based Democrat and founder of the Elect Women PAC, earlier this week.
So, I just got off the treadmill and checked into my Twitter, only to discover that Stephen Colbert — the only contemporary satiricist I’ve written as truly understanding the art of satire — apparently forgot the rules of his craft (Update: apparently it was some poor schlub at Comedy Central who doesn’t know these rules): satire is not a thin veil for your hatespeech.
Roughly two hours ago, Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) Comedy Central tweeted through Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report persona (@ColbertReport) the following tweet:
The Asian American blogosphere has been up in arms for the last month over Seth MacFarlane’s latest endeavour, a sitcom called “Dads” picked up by Fox that aired its premiere episode last night. The controversy lies in the pilot’s liberal use of anti-Asian, anti-Latino, and anti-woman “humour”, notably in a scene featuring Brenda Song’s character, Veronica, dressed in a schoolgirl outfit that was included as a preview clip in the Fox website. As summarized by columnist Jeff Yang in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Well, I’ve watched the two available episodes of the show, spent the past month speaking to individuals involved with the production, and even obtained a copy of the original script for the pilot, which airs tonight, and I now feel confident in responding to Suebsaeng and Maerz as follows: “Yes,” and “Very.”
It isn’t just the demeaning subplot that requires Brenda Song to dress up in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit to help her bosses Eli and Warner, played by Seth Green andGiovanni Ribisi, score a capital infusion from Chinese investors. (Despite the writers’ apparent confusion between Chinese and Japanese pop cultural motifs, that gag is essentially more misogynistic than racist — and in an era where women in technology feel increasingly embattled, turning a smart, professional producer at Warren and Eli’s successful videogame company into a glorified booth girl is particularly ugly.) And it’s not the flippant use of the term “Orientals,” or even the extended scene in which basically the entire cast — including Song — mocks the minute size of “China penises,” over and over and over.
What makes “Dads” so deeply and fundamentally racist is that it is MacFarlane’s entitlement fantasy, in which the only castmembers of color are women who exist to serve and service the spoiled little boys’ club at the show’s core.
A bunch of folks have weighed in with similar vehemence on Seth MacFarlane and the racism of “Dads”. To date, I haven’t. Here’s why: I just don’t think MacFarlane deserves it.
First of all, I’m not even sure what I have to offer about “Dads”. The schoolgirl outfit, the penis jokes, the casual sexual harrassment — they’re all in-your-face, cheap, low-brow, unapologetically racist and sexist humour. In fact, part of its “appeal” is its obviousness; MacFarlane has always capitalized on the guilty pleasures of taboo comedy that depends, in part, upon the mutual understanding that it is taboo. So, when it comes to “Dads”, everyone involved (from the writers who write it, to the actors who speak it, to the viewers who watch it, to the bloggers who rail against it) already knows it’s offensive. Therefore, why would anyone need to read my reaffirmation that this racist thing is indeed racist? Saying “Dads” is racist amounts (at least a little bit) to stating the obvious.
The newest iteration of Fox’s Tuesday comedy block premiered to largely solid last night, kicking off the night with controversial Dads. Fast National ratings give the sitcom a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, besting last year’s comparable opener for Raising Hope by 24 percent.
In other words, while “Dads” didn’t do that great, it certainly did adequately enough to give Fox executives breathing room. While Nielson ratings don’t give us the “approval ratings” breakdown of TV viewers, it’s almost certain that the free publicity from the race-blogging blogosphere’s widespread coverage of “Dads” contributed at least in part to those numbers. Jeff Yang draws a similar (somewhat self-effacing, somewhat cheeky) conclusion at the end of his column:
And now comes this — a show whose pilot seems designed to provoke Asian Americans in order to generate as much buzz as possible. Yes, most of it is negative. But there will be a significant number of people who tune in just out of curiosity.
So call me a conspiracy theorist — but is it possible that media creators have begun to make trolling the Asian American community a part of their promotional strategy — with columns like this one accidentally complicit? Maybe there’s a method to this madness after all.
I don’t know that I buy that this is a deliberate marketing strategy, but the metric effects of online outrage are undeniable. Consider another thing that I didn’t comment on until now: that horribly racist “Asian Girlz” YouTube music video by a band called Day Above Ground that no one has ever heard of, but which received incredible, viral coverage on social media for a couple of weeks, resulting in nearly 58,000 YouTube clicks on the aforementioned video. Like “Dads”, “Asian Girlz” is blatant racism and sexism; and, like, “Dads” our outrage gave the band exactly what they were looking for — internet fame.
Seth MacFarlane is Day Above Ground writ large: he wants our attention. He needs our attention. Our attention pays his cell phone bill. He’s in the TV/movie game because he’s a class clown who never outgrew the role.
The problem is that’s because Seth MacFarlane isn’t very good. In fact, he’s a shitty, lazy writer. We need no more evidence of this than the fact that everything he has done to date is the same one thing he did when he pitched “Family Guy”. Seth MacFarlane has one big idea, and he’s dead set on riding that mangy donkey into the ground. “Family Guy”, lauded as MacFarlane’s best work, follows the story of an Archie Bunker-esque middle-aged doofus, his incredibly hot wife, his misfit daughter, his socially maladjusted and mildly autistic son, his precocious infant, and a talking stuffed animal as they make wildly inappropriate jokes at the expense of themselves and others in between fourth-wall breaking over-the-top vignettes. Not surprisingly, that also largely describes “American Dad”, “The Cleveland Show” and even “Ted”.
MacFarlane isn’t edgy or ground-breaking. He’s a bad, unimaginative writer who camouflages his lack of talent with jokes that are designed to shock or outrage; in so doing, he challenges his viewer to laugh (at something that’s objectively not funny) or be one of those folks who “can’t take a joke”.
The problem is that shock for the sake of shock is the worst kind of lazy writing. In fact, this might even be the current opinions of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, once known for helming the most shocking (and scatological) show on television. In the 15th series episode “You’re Getting Old“, Stan celebrates his tenth birthday and suddenly sees everything as shit and is bored by it; this has been interpreted by some (myself included) to be (at least in part) a pointed reference to Stone and Parker outgrowing the show’s infantile humour.
Yet, MacFarlane is still relying on shock-schlock. Thus, we have “Dads”, which we should have predicted would be exactly as bad and as offensive as it is based on everything we’ve already seen. That’s why I haven’t seen a minute of “Dads” (and, to be clear, I also haven’t seen “Asian Girlz” either). In fact, if anything outrages me about “Dads”, it’s less that Seth MacFarlane and company can write stuff this terrible, and more that there’s a constant market for this kind of intolerant media. There are people who will buy Seth MacFarlane’s garbage, and do so eagerly.
Unlike “The Simpsons” or “South Park” (the two shows that are typically seen as “Family Guy””s conceptual predecessors), MacFarlane’s humour isn’t taboo humour as vehicle for social commentary. It is taboo humour for the sake of relishing in the taboo. It is taboo humour that encourages us to demean those who are different from us. It is media bullying. And, we are all complicit in MacFarlane’s ongoing success because we consume it. We watch it. We talk about it. Some of us even think it’s good or funny or edgy (hint: it’s none of those things). In so doing, we keep a talentless (and bigoted) hack, and his inexcusable hatespeech, relevant.
Like the overgrown class clown that he is, MacFarlane wants nothing more than our attention. So yes, we can point out his racism and his sexism (and his ageism and his ableism and all his other -isms), and indeed, to some degree, our community has some personal responsibility to ourselves to comment. We can protest “‘Dads” or any of his other Hollywood endeavour. We can organize picket lines, and call up corporate sponsors, and threaten to boycott. We can write entire screeds about how his projects are hateful and despicable and shouldn’t exist.
But for Seth MacFarlane, the deepest cut will be if we just stop paying attention.
Update (5/8/014): Following a better-than-expected ratings start, Dads hemorrhaged viewers over the last season as people stopped tuning in to see how racist MacFarlane could be. By the end of its season, Dads averaged a mere 4.2 million viewers with a Nielsen rating of 1.8. Not surprisingly, Fox officially cancelled the show today.
Last night, Miss America happened. I was watching Breaking Bad.
I think pageants are regressive and boring, and when they’re not that, give us all more fodder to laugh at stupid pretty people when they are both pretty and stupid, which (let’s face it) is just kind of mean. But, other people think pageants are important.
Last night, the second consecutive Miss New York won Miss America, proving she is the most beautiful woman of average intelligence to be wealthy enough to compete in pageants at this level. This isn’t notable except this year’s Miss America is Nina Davuluri, a 24-year-old South Asian American woman from Syracuse, New York.
As if we needed any evidence that all people, whether Far Right extremists or self-described liberal progressives, can be guilty of racism.
Last week, a local Portland-based cycling “tactical urbanists” group launched a weekly group ride bicycle-based “fight against auto-centric infrastructure” that they called “Veloprovo“. The ride was designed to tour Portland streets that the organizers deemed “complete” and designed to accommodate bicycles, and to also “challenge the ‘tyranny of pollution‘ that the ‘capitalist automobile’ has wrought upon urban space”, while also planting broccoli shoots and sunflower seeds on the side of the freeway as “an act of rebellion”.
I shit you not.
Whatever happened to just meeting a group of friends at the local bike shop and riding down the shoreline just for the fun of it?
(Aside: I actually agree with the sentiment of Veloprovo. I’m an occasional cyclist who also finds the design of urban streets baffling when it comes to sharing the road between bikes and cars. I just find the left-wing pretension of this “advocacy” really eye-rollingly dumb. Planting seeds is not a rebellious act. It’s gardening.)
Anyways, in Veloprovo’s original write-up about their inaugural ride, ride organizers posted a photo of an Asian man who joined the group. This man was unknown to the organizers, and stood out to them, presumably because he looked different?
How different, you ask? Well, he was wearing a LiveStrong t-shirt, and according to other attendees, “he had all brand new “stereotypical biker gear,” didn’t speak with anyone and was filming everything.” And, oh yeah, he’s Asian.
Clearly, he doesn’t fit in, right?
Organizers went on to wildly speculate that this Asian gentleman was actually a local, prominent police captain named Chris Uehara, who was an undercover infiltrator secretly monitoring the groups activities, which was proof to participants that Portland is a “police state”.
The only resemblance between Uehara and the LiveStrong man? They are both stocky Asian men.
This shit is racist.
Why? Because here are a few incredibly asinine assumptions that have to be made in a person’s mind in order to conclude that this unknown person must be the local police captain:
This Asian man doesn’t belong at your ride.
This Asian man must be up to no good.
All Asian people look the same.
There’s only one stocky Asian man in all of Portland, and he’s the police captain.
Police captains in Portland have the time and/or the desire show up undercover at your local “anarchist” bike ride in order to keep tabs on you and your group.
And seriously, thinking any one of the above five things is enough to get a pretty big “fuck you”. But all five and simultaneously?
Of course, there’s absolutely no way that the LiveStrong man was perhaps some random Asian dude who went out on this local group ride because it was, y’know, a public group ride. Perhaps he was new to the area and looking to make some friends while seeing the sights? Perhaps he had recently just sold his car and purchased a brand-new bike and associated gear in order to get around the relatively bike-friendly city that is Portland, Oregon while being a little more active? Perhaps he didn’t talk to other people because he arrived at the group and immediately realized he wasn’t dressed right? Or perhaps because he didn’t speak English very well and felt like taking time to warm up to the group? Or, perhaps because he felt a little uncomfortable because everyone around him thought he was a fucking undercover cop?
In short, the average person, armed with basic critical thinking skills, and who is not a racist douchebag* (see below) would realize that the Livestrong man was not Captain Chris Uehara.
But, of course, Maus writes:
The man in these photos appears to be the same man wearing a PPB uniform and identified as Cpt. Chris Uehara in a Portland Public Schools video from September 2012. Tracy Mattner was on the Veloprovo ride Sunday. She spoke to the man and is sure it’s Cpt. Uehara. “I spoke to Officer Uehara, who identified himself by his real first name, Chris.” she shared via email today. “He did not identify himself as an officer, but claimed to be a bicycle activist and enthusiast. When I asked how he heard about the event, he simply said he was at the “Tar Sands Ride.” Later, during group introductions, he stated that he had sold his car to buy the brand new bike he was riding.”
Another person on the ride, Nicholas Caleb, says having an undercover officer on the ride is a sign that we live in a “police state.” Caleb says the group has publicized everything they’ve done, held public meetings, videotaped their speeches, and so on. “You’d think when you do that, there’s no way you’d be the target of police surveillance.” “It’s scary,” he added, “But, we’re going to keep going forward with our positive ideas and creative energy.” Caleb said the man he suspects of being Cpt. Uehara was suspicious because he had all brand new “stereotypical biker gear,” didn’t speak with anyone and was filming everything. It’s worth remembering that the Portland Police has a history of secretly monitoring bicycle-based activism.
It turns out that days after Veloprovo posted their original article, local reporters from the Oregonian Janie Har and Helen Jung picked up the story and accused Veloprovo of racism. Jonathan Maus (who tweets at @BikePortland) unleashed a flurry of defensive tweets that first accused journalists of not knowing the context, and that then rationalize his conclusion by saying that people are “evolved to notice ppl that look different. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
I know. This is a level of stupid that amazes. But this story has a happy ending. Why? Because, it turns out that the self-important Jonathan Maus was oh-so-very-publicly wrong on this one. It turns out that the LiveStrong man named “Chris” who showed up at Veloprovo ride was not Captain Chris Uehara; he was Krisapon Chaisawat. Having recently moved from Key West, Kris is a 35 year old food server who doesn’t speak English too well (thus why he wasn’t very talkative during the group ride) and had joined the Veloprovo group to “meet people”.
2.I eat gummy bears by tearing them limb from limb and eating their heads last.
3.I cried when Spock died in Star Trek II
4.I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur.
5.If you asked me to tell you my favorite movie, I would have a hard time not saying Titanic
6.When I die, I want a steaming hot Reuben sandwich shoved in my mouth during the open-casket part of the funeral.
7.When I was little, I pretended my bike was a horse named Satan.
8.i’m single but it does mean im gay
(Aside: Kris, if you ever read this, I too cried when Spock died in Star Trek II, I too like the movie Titanic even if it’s horribly cliched to love it, I decapitate my gummy bears before I eat them, and I now really want to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would like to be a dinosaur.)
Kris’ wife (presumably an indication that #8 has been rectified) saw Maus’ Veloprovo post last week and urged her husband to contact the group and clear up the confusion racism.
I regret the misunderstanding. I went with my gut because I felt the story was worth publishing with the information I had. However, I published it without 100% confirmation about the man’s identity. That was a mistake. When I published it, I didn’t fully respect or appreciate how it might make people feel if I was wrong. For that I am deeply sorry.
Maus has also offered to have Kris join them on future rides and to buy him a drink. Because, y’know, alcohol solves all of the world’s racism.
In the end, Maus is just happy to have “learned something” from this experience. Like, y’know, that not all Asians look the same. Or that, y’know, the police don’t care enough about your little “tactical urbanist” group of sunflower-planting cyclists to send the damned police captain undercover to spy on it.
Because, after all, we people of colour are just here to teach you these things. We aim to please.
Never mind that this all is stuff you should have already known.
Update: Okay, so I’ve had a chance to read Jonathan Maus’ apology posts and his wrap-up of his meeting with Captain Chris Uehara. I also got a chance to read this post by Veloprovo participant Jess Hayden. And, I gotta say that I’m impressed. Maus and Hayden acknowledge their privilege and apologize unconditionally for their roles in this fiasco. While I cringe at the concept of boiling this all down to a “teachable moment”, it’s nice to see some of the folks involved chastise their fellow bloggers and commentors for trying to rationalize and justify what they acknowledge as a product of internalized racism. So, I take back the “douchebag” comments above; these folks are not douchebags, just misguided.
Let’s just not let this happen again, m’kay, guys?