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:
And now, let’s take a look at what’s new this week on DVD. “Sweet Home Alabama,” starring Reese Witherspoon …. Witherspoon finds genuine emotion hidden under a blandly familiar plot, and I’d like to kidnap her and sodomize her. Three-and-a-half stars. And now, back to my angry tirade.”
In addition to being hypersexual (magical penis, gets a lot of coochie, wants to rape Witherspoon), other mass media depictions remind us that Kim Jong Il is either effeminate, or better yet, a female.
In his first Colbert Report episode from Iraq, Stephen Colbert discusses being a little surprised about having to go to Baghdad, seeing as how the war was “over.” He jokes, “…so I naturally assumed you soldiers had moved onto the new war,….defending us against that old lady who keeps firing rockets into the Pacific Ocean [image of Kim Jong Il in sunglasses shown] – she’s good lookin’.”
In a similar stunt, the Saturday Night Live skit included the following bit from Sanz’s Kim: “I am no Saddam Hussein. I am Kim Jong Il, the great leader of the Korean people. Except, sometimes I am Mae Mae, a virginal schoolgirl. And sometimes I am Sung, a sexually flamboyant bon vivant, who somehow knows Italian.” Notice that the skit refers to Kim as the leader of the “Korean people,” not those of North Korea alone. Kim, then, could be understood as leading their southern neighbor, Korean Americans, and all those across the diaspora.
As I stated at the outset, it is not surprising that inflammatory rhetoric and countless jokes are made about an enemy, especially a dictator. But even in the case of Osama Bin Laden, we do not see as many references to him being female, gay, or devoid of sexuality. While there are countless racist depictions of him premised on inscrutability, I cannot once remember him being referred to as a woman, a virginal schoolgirl, or a flamboyant bon vivant. These racial stereotypes are very specific to Asian-descent men. The fine line, then, between humor and racism can start to unravel the more that these stereotypes are naturalized. Moreover, these jokes against Kim Jong Il are the same ones made about Asian-descent men writ large.
The point is, we have to take seriously the historical origins of the mockery and their real-life impact on all Asian American men. Even a quick glance through the internet reveals that any short, paunchy Asian man is tagged “Kim Jong Il!” Who would want to be associated with one of our country’s most vilified enemies? How does such an association affect Asian American men? While it may seem a stretch to the American public, my own research shows that experiences with racial and anti-immigrant inequities shape Asian American men’s dissatisfaction with their lives. It would be a stretch, then, to say that Asian-descent men are not seen in a racial manner or that their racial experiences have absolutely no impact. For instance, why, in recent times, have more Asian American men begun cracking in public, unusual given family norms of honor-shame and lifelong goals of complete inclusion into the mainstream? Without dismissing their actions or the other factors involved, Andrew Cunanan (of partial Asian ancestry) Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jiverly Wong (Binghamton, NY), and John Chong (an elderly man who went on a killing spree at a Catholic retreat) need to be understood within the context of what it’s like to be an Asian-descent man in the United States.
If influential figures claim immunity from racism-related charges because Kim Jong Il “brought it upon himself” or because “It’s just humor,” then few of us will know that we are being fed reheated servings of old racism. The same food poisoning that brought us “Osama Bin Laden the devil,” which carries over to all Muslims — or Sonya Sotomayor the not-American, which carries over to all Latinos — should make us think the next time we laugh at racism.
Nadia Kim is Professor of Sociology at Loyola Marymount University. She is the author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.
[Note from Joe: Sociologist C. N. Le has a fine blog, Asian-Nation.org, that I have used lately. It deals with an array of Asian American and other racial-ethnic/racism issues. See here.]