I realize I’m late here, but come on. This article in The Atlantic is so shockingly bad I’m amazed it was published (and continues to be referenced, which is how I saw it months later). Because there’s no immediately visible comment section, I’m actually gonna use this blog post to retweet it. The very title, “Are Audiences Smart Enough to Handle Ambiguity?” is a question answered by itself, but before we continue, let’s have some context. There’s a movie Licorice Pizza, and some Asian people got mad because of an allegedly racist character speaking racistly to Japanese characters. Says Randy Boyagoda:
“Within the larger context of the movie, these scenes suggest that the teenage Gary needs to grow up. He’s an irrepressible hustler and showman keen above all to impress and win over Alana. Here, he’s a witness to Jerry’s racism who doesn’t seem to see anything wrong; he smirks while Jerry babbles. Meanwhile, as an audience, we get to laugh at Jerry over his ignorant and offensive assumptions, and we get to feel assured and valorized that we are so much more enlightened than he is, decades later. The opposite, anxious reading seems, by comparison, dubious. Who could possibly sit through these scenes and want to be like Jerry, or feel like Jerry has legitimated misogynistic Japanglish?”
He goes on to compare the scene to other movies that have sparked similar controversies, how things have gotten better, etc. However, this is a classic example of an old American standby: ironic racism, and in 2022, I thought we’d moved past that. How many more diminishing Dave Chappelle specials do we need? (At least four). The racism in these scenes cannot be solved by film analysis because that’s simply not how racism works. Christ, we’re going back to square one here, with “You don’t get to decide on others’ behalf,” just as PTA’s own “I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021” in a New York Times interview is some very old stuff. It’s not just disingenuous to say “People were racist back then, so I have to include racism in my movie,” which itself is sensible, but as a response to this kind of outrage, it’s misdirection. For so many in the past, and evidently into the future, it’s only a very familiar incuriosity that leads one to these conclusions.
So it bothers me that this author takes a mathematical approach to an emotional problem. Asians in the audience saw something on-screen that they deal with in their own lives. It’s a different, immediate kind of racism that can’t be rationalized by context. Granted, when this emotional problem balloons into scary Internet outrage, which can be scary but whose power is vastly overstated, the conversation has moved on from individual grievance. But to then assert that the outraged reading of the film reduces it to a “racist or not” question is presumptuous — and mostly, imprecise. For all this talk about audience, do you even know who you’re talking about? Who are you talking about? You’re attributing individual readings of a film to an institution, to an advocacy group. You’re flailing, and that’s always gonna read a certain way.
And this is part of why the culture war gets so exhausting — the chief reason being it’s a smokescreen by Republicans — because we’re never really arguing about the same thing. In his call to arms directed at no one (filmmakers, audiences, who knows), he’s necessarily delegitimizing the response of individual viewers, as if they’re all the dreaded culture warriors he’s so wary of, all engaged in this nebulous discourse. And because of that, ironically, he is weighing in on whether the scene is racist or not — by saying it’s more than racist, that it’s racist and whatever else, he’s arguing that outrage isn’t the correct response, and that there even is a correct response. But in an artsy-fartsy way, the response is itself vague and mysterious, in tune with the ephemeral joys of cinema.
If he had just said, “Your reaction as a viewer is obviously legitimate, which is what I’ve been awkwardly stabbing at with this bullshit call for wide-ranging interpretations, but when that reaction joins a mindless collective, it reminds me of a weakness I myself exhibited at a younger age,” that would’ve made for an equally weird article, but far less douchey. I mean, he opens with a little history lesson about Plato, suggesting the scope of his thoughts instead of joining an existing dialogue. But that’s not really the issue at hand. Boyagoda self-identifies as “South Asian” and “brown,” and notes that he experienced this exact kind of racism growing up in Canada. “The challenge I faced, again and again, was whether to get upset and thus, to my mind, prove that I was a fragile loser.” He fought back. Or accepted it. I can’t really tell, actually. Is he making the argument that other Asians mocked for their accents should also fight back or that an advocacy group condemning Licorice Pizza is the wrong kind of fighting back? Or not to fight back at all?
It’d be more dramatic to tell you that in reading this article, I saw myself reflected back, but honestly? I’ve grown past this, or am at least aware and ashamed enough not to defend whatever ironic racism or outright racism I’ve internalized. Yes, when I was in high school, I sold out a bit of my identity to feel accepted. But things change. I no longer view “white American” as the global cultural center, because there is no center, and therefore, others kinds of people to my mind aren’t defined in relation to it. You don’t have to take PTA’s side here. People like that have enough defenders. We don’t have to play that additional role.
Lately on QNA, we’ve been talking about how in the past, we rejected parts of our identities out of fear of simple identification. “I’m not just a Korean,” I’d say, but there’s nothing wrong with “Korean,” so there is no “just.” Still a work in progress. There have been trespasses against Asian-Americans I should’ve reacted more strongly to, and some trespasses I still worry people overreact to. Unless it’s in response to actual physical violence, Asian-American outrage will always be suspicious to me first. Whether it’s the misinterpretations inherent to #CancelColbert or the Lindsey Ellis thing, to the impossible-to-explain “Where do you come from?” which has become the poster child for an entire people, I have issues. This author clearly has issues, too, but he’s probably a grown man and should know better than to present as some kind of post-outrage paragon, centering himself and his own feelings while railing against others — and doing so in a borderline deniable, cutesy way.
It’s an equation of outrage with weakness, the kind we ought overcome, and before I make the kind of sweeping statements I’m so upset by here, I’d rather just say why? If this is a knee-jerk, just think about why that is. Ass.