This week (January 13-17, 2014, for those of you reading in THE FUTURE!) saw both the nominations for this year’s Oscars (Well, last year’s really. The ceremony is this year, but all of the eligible films were released last year. You get the idea.) and the airing of an episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother that caused a bit of controversy. Admittedly these two things have little to do with each other beyond happening in the same seven day period, but, as I’m the one writing this post, I’m talking about them both, dammit.
As has been true since…pretty much since I had children, I have not seen all of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I haven’t even seen most of them. To be honest, I’ve seen one, Gravity, which our beloved site-mistress and I discussed in a prior post. Of the remaining films, the current frontrunner seems to be 12 Years A Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is possibly best known in geek circles for his awesome performance as The Operative in Serenity (And “awesome” is not a word that I throw around lightly). The movie is, by all accounts, very well done, powerful, and plain wonderful.
It’s also reportedly very tough to sit through. I saw Schindler’s List in a theater shortly after it came out, and, once it was over, no one in the audience spoke. The packed house filed out silently, too overwhelmed to speak. I’m glad I saw the film, but I haven’t had any desire to see it again. I certainly can’t say that I enjoyed it. Enjoyment is irrelevant in this case. I have a friend who compared films like 12 Years A Slave and Schindler’s List to eating your vegetables. They are experiences that you should have whether you want to or not.
Now I am in no way suggesting that films like this shouldn’t be made. Absolutely these stories should be told, and I am happy that, in this age of sequels, blockbusters, and franchises, studios will still spend the millions of dollars required to make these films. Yes, films are a wonderful medium for entertainment, but they can also do so much more.
The problem here is me. I rarely get to go to the movies, and even finding time to watch a rental can be tough. I tend to fill those coveted bits of time with movies that I know I will enjoy.
Looking at that list of Best Picture nominees, I know I want to see American Hustle, Her, and possibly Philomena. Meanwhile I know I should see 12 Years A Slave. It’s just really hard to convince myself to do so knowing that I’m going to spend pretty much the entire running time being angry and/or upset.
The second event this week was the airing of a new episode of How I Met Your Mother. In the episode, Marshall, played by Jason Segel, tells the story of how he traveled to China and Cleveland to learn the secret of the perfect slap (For fans of the show, this makes perfect sense). In his story, each of the masters of slapping that he visits are portrayed by the actors who play three of the other main characters on the show, Colbie Smulders, Josh Radnor, and Alyson Hannigan. After the episode aired, charges of racism flew, and one of the creators of the show, Carter Bays (who also co-wrote the episode), took to Twitter to apologize.
To summarize his statements, he and his co-writer/co-creator, Craig Thomas, set out to make a loving homage to kung fu movies and felt terrible that they offended anyone.
Obviously we’re getting into some sensitive areas here, but this is my take on the episode. It was a loving homage to kung fu movies.
Bays and Thomas obviously love kung fu films and wanted to play with the genre on their show. Because those films originated in another culture, does that mean that Bays and Thomas are not allowed to touch them? Based on Quentin Taratino’s Kill Bill films and RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fists, I would say that the answer is no.
The issue is more about the casting. I completely understand how putting three Caucasian actors into costumes (and a mustache in Ted’s case) that you would traditionally see on Asian actors in a kung fu film is treading a dangerous line. In watching the episode, though, I can’t say that any of the actors made any attempt to “play Asian.” Ted in particular was just Ted with a mustache. And really that was the point of the story. Marshall used his wife and friends and their personality traits in his tale. I completely believe Bays and Thomas that there was no intention to make fun of Asians in any way.
We’ve seen denigrating performances before. Perhaps the most famous example is Mickey Rooney as a Japanese character in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a casting decision and performance that I look back on in horror and amazement. From my perspective over 50 years later, I find it near impossible to understand how anyone could have thought that it was remotely appropriate. I am glad that I live in an era with far more cultural sensitivity.
So what is the difference between Kill Bill and this episode of How I Met Your Mother? Besides, of course, the budget, action scenes, level of profanity, amount of blood, and so forth. I think it really comes down to a very simple edict: do not have Caucasian actors playing Asian characters or, in the case of this episode, characters who could be perceived as being Asian. One line of dialogue in each scene establishing that each character was actually from somewhere else (Canada, New York, Cleveland) could have made for a funny joke and may have headed off the entire controversy.
- Alan Decker
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