Finally got around to seeing Avenue Q last week, the award-winning musical described as Sesame Street with an X-rating. And a good thing it was too, it was very clever and had some extremely funny moments. Its been around since 2003 but this is the first year it has opened in Australia.
If you haven't seen or heard of it, this promo video has some highlights which give you an idea:
However, one thing was bothering me throughout the performance. It was the Asian character, a Japanese therapist named Christmas Eve (?). It was as if someone who had never actually met an Asian person was creating an Asian character based on vague stereotypes they'd heard of.
Now, I know that Avenue Q has a lot of fun with stereotypes; in particular, Rod the closeted gay Republican is virtually a checklist of gay stereotypes (interest in theatre, overly dramatic, etc, etc). And I know that the play deals with stereotypes and racism very cleverly in their song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" - pointing out that although racism is wrong, we are all guilty of it at times and we need to acknowledge it.
"Ethnic jokes might be uncouth/But you laugh because they're based on truth."
There is something to be said for the above line. Stereotypes would not carry any power if they were completely untrue. Despite Rod's stereotypical nature, anyone who has met a number of gay men knows that there certainly are gay guys like that. They certainly aren't all like that, but some are, let's not deny it. The Christmas Eve character, on the other hand, comes across as the most dimwitted characterisation of an Asian I've seen recently.
Sample line: "The more you ruv someone, the more he make you clazy. The more you ruv someone, the more you wishing him dead!"
Even in the ensemble numbers, anytime she had a solo verse you could hear Chinese music suddenly work itself into the arrangement. And in her verse of "It Sucks to be Me", there's a bit where she sings "sucka-sucka-sucka-sucka-sucka..." which made me cringe. Not sure if it was intentional, but that's too close to "suckee suckee" for comfort.
I can't believe the writers didn't make her say "Me ruv you rong time" and "Me so solly!"
Am I being too sensitive? Hey I'm not Japanese, why should I care? I dunno, but this sh*t bothers me. There seems to be a widespread belief in the comedy world that Asians are fair game for mocking, and folks get away with poking fun at Asians in a way that would be totally unacceptable if it were at, for example, black people. This is not to compare the status of the Asian and African diasporas in the West, which is often quite different. And it is still not as acceptable to mock Asians as it is to mock white people. But in the case of mocking white people and white culture, the acceptance of this comes from the white dominance of society in socioeconomic and political terms. But have Asians come so far so as to be fair game?
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with Asian people and their ways being the butt of jokes. Damn, anyone who reads this blog at all will know that I love that sh*t. But if you want to make fun of Asians the right way, you gotta either be Asian, or you gotta understand Asians somewhat.
For example, Indian-Canadian standup Russell Peters bases a whole chunk of his act on taking the piss out of Chinese people. And Chinese people love it. Why? Because Peters has a good handle on not only the Chinese accent, but on the culture. He actually knows what he's talking about, which is why his riffing about Chinese rings true.
But Avenue Q's representation of Asianness is way down at the unevolved end of the humour spectrum. While the character may be said to be Japanese, she is actually a composite of Japanese, Chinese and Korean accents and cultures. It's the old "Asians are all the same" trope again.
So is it irony? Are the writers actually having fun playing with this stereotype? Or did they just get lazy when designing their Asian character?