Or, to be more precise: From Kim Jong Il to the Asian American Man: What Being Foreign, Female, and a Rapist Have to do with Both
In times of war or international tension, it makes complete sense that the United States would mercilessly mock their enemies, as any nation would. When the enemy is of fellow European descent, perhaps issues of ethnicity and nationality take precedence over those of race. When the enemy is Middle Eastern, Muslim, or Asian, however, racial code is used as the basis for mockery and insult. The use of ‘race’ in this manner is problematic precisely because it fits within a larger pattern of racial inequality.
Take the case of North Korea. There is no doubt that Kim Jong Il runs a formal dictatorship. There is no doubt that some of his actions and personal quirks are oppressive by any society’s standards. Neither of these things, however, gives opinionmakers and comedians a free pass to reinforce racist ideologies.
“It’s just humor!” some may say. But nothing is ever that simple. History shows us that U.S. politicians and capitalists constructed racist ideologies of Asian-descent males to use them for their labor and deprive them of settlement and citizenship. The U.S. government, for instance, used the 1875 Page Law to deny Chinese women entry and thereby prevent family formation. As sociologist Yen Le Espiritu eloquently argues in her book Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws & Love, it was Chinese American men’s feminized jobs and their lack of wives and children that gave birth to the effeminate, asexual, homosexual Asian man. Nothing is wrong with these gender-sexual identities alone. But essentializing as such a whole group for racially unjust purposes? That’s wrong.
Indeed, depicting Asians as sexually deviant has been a key foundation for denying them entry into, and rights within, the United States. Beyond stereotypes of asexuality and homosexuality, however, White Americans also hypersexualized Asian men. For instance, the government passed anti-miscegenation laws for fear that Filipino American men would rape and steal away White women. During the WWII years, as Espiritu shows, Japanese ethnics became the hypersexual Yellow Peril ready to multiply and take over the White race. Such notions allowed President Roosevelt to mass incarcerate over 120,000 Japanese Americans without evidence of the group’s “un-American” activities.
These real-life depictions of the racially inscrutable and sexually deviant Asian man have real-life consequences. In the 1980s, Chinese American Vincent Chin was blamed by two White autoworkers for the loss of their jobs in the U.S. auto industry (“the Japs’ fault!”); Chin lost his life to their baseball bats. In the 1990s, the U.S. government charged and detained U.S. citizen Wen Ho Lee for spying for China, a charge that was so baseless that the government exonerated him under a flurry of apologies. Still today, Asian American men are considered by most surveys as the least desirable men, leading to difficulty finding partners and low self-esteem. Furthermore, the Asian American Justice Center reports that rates of anti-Asian violence have long been high, in part because so-called “foreigner” competition is unwelcome in the United States. While these violent consequences repeatedly unfold, the message that Asian Americans experience no racism lives on.
In this racial context, newsmakers and entertainers have unselfconsciously recycled stereotypes that affect all Asian-descent men. One of the most common images is of the inscrutable Yellow Peril. Mostly non-Asian news anchors and cable pundits wring their hands over the “strange,” “unpredictable,” “twisted,” “abnormal” North Korean leader. While some of the labels have a kernel of truth to them, they are also inspired by, and reinforce, the longstanding notion that Asian people are somehow inscrutable. As MSNBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd aptly sums up, Americans tend to think, “Crazy ol’ Kim Jong Il, again.”
Entertainers have been especially ruthless. The writers behind the puppet movie Team America: World Police, also of South Park fame, are obviously satirists. But there is not enough of a separation between the “real” and “ridiculous” depictions of Kim to comfortably say that the Team America stereotypes have no negative impact. In the movie, the Kim Jong Il puppet brutally kills anyone who disagrees with him, like Swedish diplomat Dr. Hans Blix. He then switches into a melancholic mood and sings to himself the ballad “So Ronery” [translation: “So Lonely”]. As the Kim puppet wanders alone through his enormous Stalin-esque palace, he laments life as the inscrutable foreigner:
Sitting on my rittle throne
I work rearry hard
And make up great prans
But nobody ristens
No one understands
Seems rike no one takes me seriousry
And so Im ronery
A rittle ronery
Poor rittle me
The Kim puppet’s inability to speak English properly is an obvious play for laughs. It certainly reinforces the foreignness of Asians as well as their subordinate status, given America’s exalting of English as the only language worth knowing. In a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit, Latino cast member Horatio Sanz plays the “yellow man” leader, and draws on both notions of foreign inscrutability and sexuality to get laughs:
Sanz: “When I was first informed of the aggressive actions of the United States, my first response was violent anger. Then a lengthy crying jag, followed by sudden deep sleep for about two days. Then several hours of frantic masturbation, punctuated by more crying jags. Afterwards, I burned my thighs with matches.”
Also invoking racial foreignness and sexuality, Bobby Lee, a Korean American comedian on MadTV, self-stereotypes as the “Dear Leader” in skits like “The Kim Jong Il Show.” The variety show musical introduction includes the words “He’s a little man with a big dick.” During the show, Bobby Lee’s Kim forces North Korean peasant minions to salute him with honorific titles. As the leader probes for more accolades, the minion remembers to add, “Oh, and, ‘Babe magnet with a magical penis!’” In another scene, Lee’s Kim also performs a rap collaboration called “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb,” with a likeness of hip hop mogul Diddy. In it, Kim straddles a bomb and belts out that he gets a lot of tall blonde “coochie.”
In essence, we are supposed to laugh at the fact that Kim Jong Il frantically masturbates in response to U.S. threats and is a “well-endowed” womanizer who scores sexy White ladies. The jokes are funny because Asian-descent men are thought to be the precise opposite: asexual with little penises to whom White women wouldn’t give the time of day. Indeed, in “Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!” the Diddy impersonator reminds us of the truth: the “Dear Leader” has a “small salami.”
Yet, Asian-descent men are not just deemed asexual or insecure about small salamis; they are also hypersexual. That stereotype is evident in Sanz’s comedic turn as a Hollywood film-obsessed Kim Jong Il who violently fantasizes about another blonde, Reese Witherspoon: