Pretty good take down of Get Out's anti-asian slant.
By making this critique, I’m not attempting to deny the existence of anti-black racism by Asians (and other minorities). But in a social thriller that literally lights a fire under white American racism, the nameless Asian’s few seconds on screen are decidedly odd. If the person’s history, his particular brand of racism, and where he stands within the social hierarchy go unexamined by the film, why throw in an Asian character at all?
Perhaps Mr. Tanaka actually reflects mainstream American culture’s longstanding discomfort with Asian men. This trend can be traced back to the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That film featured Mr. Yunioshi, Holly Golightly’s creepy and also unpartnered Japanese neighbor (cinematic bonus: Yunioshi was played in buck-toothed yellowface by Mickey Rooney). Then there is the beloved 1996 movie Fargo. Amidst a mostly white cast (the film is set in Minnesota), we meet Mike Yanagita, a former high school classmate of the protagonist Marge Gunderson. During their brief scene, the oily Mike tells Marge that his wife has died of cancer; he starts crying—and then uses it as an excuse to snuggle up and hit on her, even though she’s clearly repelled and also enormously pregnant. Mike is later revealed to be a pervy, never-married liar who still lives with his parents—and he has no bearing on the larger plot, a murder investigation.
Then we have the endearingly creepy Lan Duk Dong (whose very name is, of course, an Asian joke), from Sixteen Candles (1984). He’s slightly more consequential in the ensemble cast, but accompanied by a treasure trove of stereotypes: thick accent, goofy mannerisms, the sound of the gong announcing his appearance, a girlfriend who’s supposed to emasculate him by being bigger and stronger than he is. That character went on to become a kind of racist playbook for belittling Asian men. Eric Nakamura, a founder of Giant Robot magazine, called it “every bad stereotype possible, loaded into one character.” The New Yorker artist Adrian Tomine even produced a comic strip about how much this character negatively affected his life.
These Asian characters all rely upon a specific series of stereotypes about Asian men—perpetual foreigners, inscrutable and so not to be trusted, sexually aberrant. In some ways this reflects Asians’ odd liminal space in society. The “almost white” model minority stereotype denies Asians their own stories while simultaneously engendering resentment from other minority groups who see Asians as bypassing them on the economic ladder. In actuality, this stereotype merely obscures the real issues of systemic racism, which undermines Asian-Americans as well.
In 1992, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, “We Koreans Need an Al Sharpton,” lamenting that a rap song calling for violence against Korean grocers was greeted by the music-loving public as perfectly acceptable. But Get Out shows that the model minority stereotype hasn’t gone away.
Rich Asians, like the Tanaka character, certainly exist. But poor Asians also exist; it might surprise people to know that in New York City, the ethnic group with the highest rate of poverty is Asian Americans (pdf).
Moreover, the little we see of Tanaka suggests he is entitled, privileged, and clueless, ignorant of the horrific legacy of violence against blacks in this country. But by putting Asian Americans in a quasi-privileged position, we tend to gloss over racism and violence Asian Americans have faced. Consider the Japanese internment camps. And as Erika Lee, author of The Making of Asian America: A History points out, “the largest citizen-led mass lynching in U.S. history involved Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in 1871″—in which 17 Chinese immigrants were murdered by a crowd of 500.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, Asian bodies are still literally being inhabited by white people. White actors, including Tilda Swinton as the Wise One in Dr. Strange, Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, and even John Wayne’s terrible Genghis Kahn, consistently portray Asian characters. Yet, few outside the Asian-American community bother to note this real-life horror, which snuffs out the economic lives of Asian-American actors and deprives Asian-Americans viewers—per-capita, the most frequent moviegoers in the US—of the chance to see ourselves onscreen.
Get Out is a smart movie that succeeds on many levels. But most people go to the movies to learn about the world around them. If what they know about other ethnicities is largely confined to what they see in pop culture, then filmmakers—even those limning social issues—must check for biases that inadvertently appear in their work. Otherwise even smart movies can wind up reinforcing the very stereotypes they set out to critique.