Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Walking A Fine Line: Satire, Stereotypes and 'Single Asians'

A video showing members of the Mixed Company of Yale University singing group dancing to their adapted version of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” entitled “Single Asians” is forcing people to ask an age-old question: should we or shouldn't we use stereotypes to challenge oppression? While I do not think there is a definitive answer to this question, I think it is important to have the conversation.

If we are trying to laugh at stereotypes to debunk them, what happens when some of us are laughing in agreement with the stereotypes? While stereotypes can be used in a satirical manner in order to try and reveal to the audience that their ways of categorizing the world are not only laughable, but dangerous, most popular culture bolsters stereotypical thinking rather than subverts it. As Harry Allen asks: "does Yale’s 'Single Asians' debunk or traffic old stereotypes?"

Recognizing the difference between comedy that attempts to shine a light on negative aspects of society in order to encourage those laughing to examine the faulty beliefs we are taught about certain groups versus comedy that highlights those stereotypes merely to suggest “ha, ha, aren't those stereotypes funny?” can be tricky. This video could be an empowering opportunity for Asian women to use these stereotypes to foster a dialogue about the place of Asian women in US society. On the other hand, it could merely be yet another chance to laugh at Asian women. Does this video critique racism and sexism or does it merely bolster it?

I'd love to know what you think.


  1. WOW. Yea I'm gonna have to say wow. That is not progressive at all. It totally plays on stereotypes and is not empowering AT ALL. That is my opinion at least, but I was cringing through the whole thing. I think there is a tact to using comedy to address stereotypes, although still tricky. I hate to say it, but I find this degrading, although I find the original "Single Ladies" degrading and sexist as well.

  2. Omigod! This is shameful! I can't believe those Asian ladies thought it was funny to produce this video. I'm at a loss for words to describe how degrading this is to us Asians. And to think that they're attending Yale. Shame on them.

  3. Well wasn't this why Dave Chapelle ended his show? Too many folks were enjoying the satire as reality. It's also interesting how people can be allies on certain issues or certain people but engage in racism/sexism/transphobia with others. For ex. a man being opposed to racism when it comes from whites but engaging in gender racism against women of their "group". So much indoctrination, so little deconstruction of ALL the privileges we possess.

  4. Well, I laughed, and I'm an APA feminist. It has to do with in-group and out-group humor. Like, I can rag on "my people" but if someone else were to go there? I'd jump down their throats. Heh.

    Call it satire or postmodern ambivalence, there'll always be an uneasy line between the laughter of recognition that consolidates a community around shared experiences and values versus the unkind or undiscerning laugh of the outsider who can't sift the grain of truth from a larger stereotype.

    I think there's a locational issue: I live in the SGV--San Gabriel Valley--in southern California. Not five minutes away from me are young people who live the stereotype with seemingly little self-awareness about it or their own subject positions.

    But because being APA doesn't "scan" very well on the East Coast, I think you run into trickier issues of stereotyping. For every seeming stereotype-affirming person (who may be an FOB) here in California, there's also the stereotype-busting APA hiphop artist, filmmaker, mail carrier, nightclub owner, bus driver, Hollywood executive (yes, there are APA execs), Silicon Valley coder/entrepreneur, or what have you. The context is richer.

    As for the east coast/Yale? I doubt there's the same richness and variety in Asian Americans in New Haven. I can only sympathize.

  5. I do think it is an uneasy line. I find laughing at the stereotypes against my own group empowering when it is in-group. If you read the comments about this video at YouTube, you definitely can tell some are simply laughing at APA women.

    Perhaps we can talk about how we can have that liberating humor that puts it into context...

  6. A media savvy friend, Jenn Pozner, just asked me about the video. She had a good suggestion for the women and the videomakers: to put urls to more pointedly APA feminist organizations at the end of the video. Wld've been nice. Had I been their faculty advisor/mentor, I might've suggested such a thing. (I'm a recovering academic. But I'm sure my colleague Theresa Tensuan at Haverford would've encouraged them to do the same had they gone to her for advice.)

    My fave, for lowbrow, in-your-face-SUCKA humor and APA feminist commentary is Big Bad Chinese Mama: http://bigbadchinesemama.com.

    Problem is, racist engendering so hyper-feminizes APA women that we have to REALLY be over the top to pierce the cultural deafness/make a point. Like, aggro, f-bombing, hell-on-wheels biatches loud. See, part of white privilege among white liberals is to grudgingly acknowledge or make a space for what you fear. Nobody's scared of APAs.

    It's a fun voice I sometimes indulge in too, but it's not an everyday mode nor should it be simply to be heard.

  7. Yeah, Cyn, Chris and I were talking about this video yesterday, and my opinion was that context is key. I think humor has always been an incredibly useful and powerful tool for discussing/critiquing oppression. But it's always tricky navigating between the kind of humor that rises to the level of satire (that which uses humor to critique stereotypes/abuses of power/etc), and the kind of humor that isn't satire so much as a flimsy excuse to reinforce the stereotypes ostensibly critiqued.

    I could see using this video in a number of positive ways: as a beginning point for a classroom or public discussion about stereotypes of APA women; as the preface to a documentary or writing project about media coverage of APA women; as something fun for APA women to laugh at within their own spaces.

    But contextless on YouTube, there's a lot opn to interpretation. I thought it was funny, but that's because I'm a progressive antiracist feminist media activist. I've been involved with anti-racism activism since I was a 13 or 14 year old kid in Brooklyn, and have always had Asian friends with widely differing personalities, talents and career paths (meaning that I recognized the stereotypes the Yale women were mocking as harmful limitations promoted by media, and fully recognized that the women were mocking the stereotypes in effort to debunk them). Similarly, Cynematic above found it funny from her own positioning. But without context, I'm sure there are a lot of people who would see the video as confirmation of their stereotypes and enjoy it as such.

    My suggestion would have been for the women to record a 15 or 30 second "PS" at the end of the video, about the ways in which these sorts of stereotypes impose harmful limitations on APA women, and negatively impact their lives. (Of course, using less scoldy sounding language than I just did). Or even better, they could have done a mock "The More You Know" public service announcement parodying those cheesy tolerance PSAs on NBC, something like, "Stereotypes about APA Women are false, limiting and damned annoying. So quit it." (followed by those cheesy NBC chimes, and the words, "The more you know").

    And if they didn't want to do that, then at least a text screen that said something about APA women's rights groups, with links to resources, orgs, etc. -- even that itself could have contextualized the video as political.

  8. Agreed Jenn.

    Comments at YouTube are a battle royale and launching anything into it is perilous. Strong framing's needed. Perhaps being all of 20 and doing this video is an experimental foray into cultural critique.

    The two things I personally think are interesting about the video are the ABC/FOB dynamic and the strong dose of people-pleasin' that undercuts the message somewhat. Is it possible to articulate a more immigrant-friendly distance from recently immigrated Asians if you yourself are born in the US? And with regard to sugar-coating the pill, how far do you go before the pill ceases to pack a punch?

    Boldness may just be something that's both class-bound in its expression and/or a function of just not giving a shit as you get to be an older feminist. ;)

  9. Cyn,

    I am the Dean for Intercultural Affairs at Bryn Mawr College. Who is your friend at Haverford?

  10. Theresa Tensuan (mentioned in a comment up above). We went through the UC Berkeley English PhD program together. I think she's taught classes at Bryn Mawr before.

  11. Hi Chris, just found you via Twitter, go figure! Anyway, I feel like this will get the message across to other Asians, but most of those outside that community will probably just laugh along and totally miss the underlying message. And, well, that's kinda defeating the purpose, right?

  12. It's very tricky.Here in Australia we seem to be getting it sorted but it gets very borderline sometimes.These days also, people seem to have forgottten that brand of humour called satire!! I was most amused to be sent a youtube video of some well known aussie comedians doing their thing with some shock horror comments from Britains who just didn't get it.