Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Avenue Q" and Asian stereotypes

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?

15 comments:

  1. god i hate avenue Q as well. watched it in london 2 years ago and it was an utter waste of my time and brain cells. the puppet sex was extremely disturbing.

    only decent part i remember was the 'we're all a little bit racist' and 'schadenfreude' skits. LOL

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  2. Didn't dig the puppet sex, JJ?

    Prude.

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  3. not one bit. haha... completely destroyed my childhood memories of sesame street and the muppets. i think someone told me before that yoda is the lovechild of kermit the frog and ms piggy. hahaha....

    yes i am a morally conservative prude. sue me. :P

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  4. Thank you Eurasian Sensation for so eloquently verbalizing exactly how I felt after seeing Avenue Q a few weeks ago. I'm amazed that this character (or "caricature", I should say) has survived for so long on Broadway. Actually, there's nothing wrong with the character herself, it's just that ACCENT, that is like scratching nails on a blackboard. Why why why? The creators and writers of the play MUST have heard some sort of backlash about this, no?

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  5. @ Tineke - yup, that was a really bad accent. And I'm someone who tends to find a lot of humour in Asian accents; provided they're done reasonably well of course.

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  6. The satire of Christmas Eve Jan't directed towards Asian-Americans; its directed towards Americans inability to tell the different ethnicity of "the orient" apart. That's why she gets offended when Brian calls her oriental. In addition, she alternates between l and r: some languages have issues with one, but no Asian Americans just reverse all, as Christmas eve does. in short, the ones being lampooned are the Americans who don't realize how absurdly inaccurate of a stereotype she is.

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  7. @ cheezebawl2003:
    Interesting point. I thought that was a possibility, but I'm not sure. It's quite a comment thread in stereotype-based humour these days (sending up the ignorant stereotype by portraying an outrageous stereotype), and it relies a lot on having a very savvy audience who recognises it as irony. I'm normally one such person, but this one was a bit problematic for me.

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  8. @ cheezebawl2003:
    Thanks for breaking down the satire of Christmas Eve and how that character (if done right) actually portrays the absurdity of the stereotype.

    This is important for people to understand and I hope that I can uphold it and convey it. I may be playing the role of Christmas Eve in a community theater production. I want to ensure that my performance succeeds in what you so deftly analyzed. I am not Japanese-American (I am Filipino-American) and would not want to offend any Asian ethnicity.

    There have been too many cringe-inducing Asian stereotypes in the past. But satire and parody, if done right, can actually teach and open one's eyes and perceptions.

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  14. Stumbled upon this blog post while researching dialect coaching for the actor playing Christmas Eve in an upcoming production of Avenue Q. You might be interested in what Ann Harada, who played Christmas Eve in the original Broadway production of Avenue Q and is an Asian American from Hawaii, had to say about her character's accent in an interview for broadway.com:

    Did you ever hear from people who objected to the portrayal of Christmas Eve?
    There are always going to be people who are offended by that. And to those people, I just say: “I’m sorry you were offended, but you’ve completely missed the point of the entire show.” I’ve never had a problem with her, because to me she is not a stereotypical character. To me, a stereotypical character is someone whose entire reason to be there is to provide some sort of comic relief because they speak funny. Whereas Christmas Eve’s humor comes out of the situation. To say that you can’t present an Asian person on stage with an accent is wrong, because it’s not like there aren’t Asian people in the world who have accents. To me, it’s not that I’m making fun of her; it’s that she is a very real, funny, flawed person who happens to have an accent. Maybe people might start out thinking of her as a stereotypical character, but I would hope by the end of the show they would see she is not. She’s bright and accomplished and frustrated—she’s a fully fleshed character, and that’s why I love her and would never be insulted or offended by her. So what, she happens to have an accent. She needs to have an accent, because that’s the way the show is structured. If people are offended by that, I just have to throw my hands up and go, “Well, you don’t get it!”

    Read more: http://broadwayworld.com/article/AVENUE-Q-On-Broadway-Exit-Interview-With-Ann-Harada-We-Ruv-You-Christmas-Eve-20090911-page2#ixzz2Hvj6yjtj

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  15. Just ran across this blog. As an Asian-American who grew up in the 70's and 80's (Generation X), I can say unequivocally that you missed the point of Avenue Q and Christmas Eve. Avenue Q successfully captures the experiences of Generation X in many ways and Christmas Eve is one of them.

    In the 70's, "diversity" was "hip" and there was always the token minority thrown in for things geared toward kids. And it was always too blatant as in: "Minorities are different, but they're still like you and me!" For example, you'd have Billy, Sue, Peter and Great Son of Chief Humuhumunukunukuapua of the Land of Many Ancestors (but we call him Fred). The minority character was always defined by their ethnicity and barely explored.

    Christmas Eve is a send up of that. A minority that's waaay too obvious of a minority. Unlike her 70's and 80's counterparts though her character is fully fleshed out and three-dimensional, thumbing a nose at the absurdity of having a token 2-dimensional character without treating them as a regular character. I thought she was hilarious.

    Happily, we've mostly moved beyond that and can now laugh at how silly it is/was.

    Having said that, it's clear that some productions of Avenue Q do not get the point of the character. It's too easy to have Christmas Eve just be a stereotype for comic relief. For those productions, I say boo on you.

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