Dear How I Met Your Mother,
I have been a fan of your show since I was introduced in the second season. In fact, friends and I marathoned the entire first season on a day off with our ribs hurting from laughter. Even with the decidedly more frequent comic misses of this season and the last, I have watched. And I was sad to find you in the news over this latest bout of televised racism, so I finally watched the latest slap bet episode. I wanted to see if I agreed with the accusations over yellow face.
And I took notes. Here is what I wrote:
- Starts ok, with a frustrated kung fu teacher over Marshall’s desire only to learn about slaps, ignoring the thrust of the century’s old tradition. Seems fine.
- Little kid tells Marshall that he needs to seek out three teachers: speed, strength and accuracy, wahoo gratuitous Asian-stereotype fonts. Less ok.
- Cue “Asian” music. Do we really have to do this guys? Why does Robin have chopsticks in her hair?
- Children’s book: The Slapping Tree. HERE COMES THE FONT. And the eyes. It doesn’t make this joke funny and if you thought it was funny it doesn’t make it funnier.
- WHAT. TED. MUSTACHE. WHAT. FU MANCHU JUST DIE ALREADY.
- Why Boyz II Men…I’m so confused.
You can see I had some feelings. Capital letter level feelings of frustration. And I was not laughing. The slap bet episodes are usually comedic gold mines and this one simply doesn’t deserve to be among them. It’s not comedic and unfortunately, it is racist. It’s not the full blown yellow face of old as in the original Fu Manchu movies, but it is nevertheless playing on stereotypes that the Asian American community has battled for decades. And it does so in a manner that adds nothing to the comedic intent of the show. I know I’m not the first to point this out.
While some have taken to Twitter to say that the uproar is uncalled for and the episode is not racist and that Americans just need to have a sense of humor, I have to disagree. You put Robin and Lily in tight cheongsams and then you put chopsticks in their hair. You gave Ted a freaking Fu Manchu mustache and then as a calligrapher I believe he was using a feather quill, which adds just a small element of extra stupidness to a poorly constructed episode. I’m not trying to be a Debby Downer here. I believe it is possible to make jokes about race. I even believe a cast of white actors and actresses can make a show that is an homage to the Kung Fu genre of movies as Carter Bays has said was the intent in his Twitter apology (though I would of course prefer inclusion of actual Asian Americans). And I wish you had done those things, it might have been rib-splitting. Sadly you missed the boat entirely.
And yes, this is not the worst of incidents of televised racism nor is it likely to be the last. But the point of the outcry is not that we as Americans lack humor and perspective. It is to say that we have both humor and perspective and we expect more of our television. We expect shows that incorporate perspectives traditionally not represented. We expect dynamic representations. And I, at least, expect that if you are going to unearth stereotypes about race with your all-white cast that you make an effort to debunk it. You could have made a joke out of the mustache and maybe you would’ve messed that up too, but in the way you made your characters “Asian” you instead normalized this racist presentation of Asians / Chinese. And you did so with some insidiously entrenched stereotypes. The one acknowledgement that the episode was going to egregiously sideline the Kung Fu tradition was insufficient, but perhaps the only time I thought there was hope for your “silly and unabashedly immature homage.”
So I am happy that you are being forced to deal with Twitter in the form of #howimetyourracism because I can only hope that it will help you grow. I hope you will read Kai Ma’s brilliant piece on some of the greater issues at stake, including people of color in entertainment and the dangers of reaffirming racial stereotypes. America has an opinion. Asian America has an opinion. We are calling you out.
In my dream world, there are dynamic Asian American cast members, writers, producers, and generally POC in positions of creative control. But for now, I want you to understand why this was problematic, why it was racist, why it was not ok. I want you to consider seriously how the representation of Asian Americans on television (including by whites intent on parody) affects how we as a community are seen by a wider public.