If you haven’t had a chance to see The Interview in select screenings yet, don’t fret—you’re not missing much. Especially if you’re an Asian American or Asian Pacific Islander (API) woman like myself.
Imagine a film that features a mostly white male speaking cast, add in some racist depictions of minorities and a gaggle of hypersexualized women, then throw in a few punchlines about the phonetics of Asian languages, a tiger, some gratuitous explosions that embody American superiority and congratulations, you’ve seen The Interview.
A lot has been written about the damage this film has caused (ahem Sony hack). But little has been said about the social consequences of The Interview, and the marginalized groups who truly lose out when movies like this garner worldwide attention.
As an API-identified woman, I can attest to the fact that seeing someone who looks like me on TV or in a film carries with it an almost primordial sense of excitement. I can physically see myself in the character, and as a result, I subconsciously identify with her/their persona. For instance, when I first learned that Sandra Oh was not only a lead actor on Grey’s Anatomy, but also a widely accepted fan favorite and critical darling of the series, I felt an unmistakable sense of pride.
In some ways, Oh (and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes) spoiled us by giving birth to Oh’s character, Cristina Yang. As a result, it’s hard not to feel anything less than disheartened by even “harmless” negative portrayals of API women knowing full well that a character like Yang is capable of being written, acted and adored.
If you’re wondering why I’m waxing poetic about a character now long gone, it’s to reinforce just how rarely API women are given substantial or noteworthy roles in this industry. The numbers don’t lie: According to a study conducted by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the percentage of identifiably Asian individuals in speaking roles in the top grossing films from 2007 to 2013 was an abysmal 4.4 percent. When the status quo is as disappointing as it is, it’s hard not to become extremely critical of the limited representation we’re given.
In The Interview, actor Diana Bang, who plays Park Sook-Young, is treated as the first rung on a ladder of archaic, overly sexualized tropes leading the way to a platform of racial insensitivity. Audiences are introduced to Sook-Young through a sexualized lens: Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) travels to a remote location in China where he’s met by quasi-Dominatrix Sook-Young, who barks out orders in acerbic, clipped sentences. Rapoport’s response? “Damn. She was sexy.” You can imagine it’s only downhill from there.
The only other identifiably Asian women characters are featured in a 30-second, scantily clad, booze and narcotics-filled montage of Dave Skylark (James Franco) and Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) out-partying each other, and unsurprisingly, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for speaking roles there either.
Whether it’s Bang’s character personifying the more than half-century-old Orientalist stereotype of the “Dragon Lady” or two silent, half-naked Asian women kissing each other in front of the giddy and intoxicated male gaze, API women can’t catch a break in The Interview.
To be honest, I wasn’t surprised or caught off guard by the portrayal of Sook-Young in the film. How could I be, when the movie is written by, starring and marketed at almost entirely white, heterosexual men? And yet there’s something innately wrong with accepting these old, worn-out stereotypes as wearable every new year. It’s unnerving and endlessly disappointing to see API women fetishized into nothing more than sexually depraved, 15-word-a-feature screen fillers.
Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Islander individuals who are forced to accept films like The Interview as the closest we’ll get to box office validation are very, very tired, and we refuse to accept the white flag-bearing nonchalance of calling this “mindless entertainment” and shrugging it off. We’re tired of rolling our eyes at films like The Interview and being spoon-fed the idea that these outdated, damaging tropes should be seen as “progressive,” “self-aware” and even “indispensable.”
We’re tired of seeing entire nationalities subjected to cultural ridicule and erasure. We’re tired of being told our multiple choice options for the test of our validation are limited to exoticized, demonized, ridiculed, emasculated or all of the above.
And most of all, we’re tired of being the perpetual punchline to a joke we—and every generation before us—never agreed to be a part of.
Photo courtesy of Matthew McQuilkin licensed under Creative Commons 2.0