CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother got a beating this week for a tasteless yellowface kung fu tribute that aired on Monday. The episode, titled “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment In Slapmarra,” featured Jason Segel’s character learning “the slap of a million exploding suns” from martial arts masters. The masters were portrayed by the show’s all-white cast, Alyson Hannigan, Josh Radnor, and Colbie Smulders; all donned silk robes and spoke with stereotypical Asian accents framed between flute music and wind chimes. The show also utilized the Fu Manchu mustache and “chinky fonts” to boot.
HIMYM execs have since apologized on Twitter, but the slap-laced episode, at the time of this writing, is still available online. What’s problematic here — other than the lazy writing — is that HIMYM doesn’t feature Asians or people of color in its regular rotation. So a white person in a Fu Manchu mustache is one of the few “Asian” representations ever featured on the show. There are no other Asians on the show that are authentic (read: can speak English and lead normal lives as human beings). It’s one-dimensional and harmful. It feels a little like a slap of a million exploding suns.
The episode also reveals a broad anxiety about entertainment: The only reason an episode like this could even air is because Asians in Hollywood — as actors, writers, producers, network heads — are so underrepresented.
Which is why after the episode aired, Asian-American Twitter got pissed. The #HowIMetYourRacism tag, unfurled by activist Suey Park (of #NotYourAsianSidekick fame), peppered our feeds in tweets like this:
And it’s not surprising. The last couple years there’s been a noticeable shift in the demand for diversity in television: HBO’s Girls was under fire for the girls’ all-white NYC and the legitimate, widespread criticism around SNL’s cast lacking diversity led to the recent hiring of two black female writers and one black female performer.
Still, yellowface — along with blackface and redface — is a shockingly stubborn remnant of a much less racially sensitive time. (It’s occurred as recently as Katy Perry’s American Music Awards geisha misstep last year.)
What has always been so disturbing about yellowface, blackface, brownface, and redface, is how far the industry is willing to go to not employ people of color. Instead of hiring an Asian-American actor to portray an experience written by an Asian American writer — an experience that can certainly include a penchant for kung fu — television has historically, aggressively, employed white artists to write about and portray non-white people.
But this practice continues in entertainment for reasons far more complicated than the refusal for white Hollywood to employ entertainers and performers of color. Whites donning theatrical make-up and costumes to display blackness, brownness, or Asianness is utilized for white viewers to explore and have fun with their collective fears and anxieties surrounding the other.
According to the show’s apology, posted by its co-creator via Twitter on Wednesday, HIMYM simply wanted to create a “silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved.” But despite their well-meaning intentions, this is by-the-book yellowface. It’s white people acting “silly” or “funny” when acting Asian, in a performance written for the enjoyment and consumption of non-Asian viewers. And it cements nasty racist stereotypes. Silk-robed women in accented English pouring tea? The lotus blossom. Fu Manchu? A perennial foreigner and criminal archetype that has been featured in pop culture for almost 100 years. These are caricatures that have been plaguing Asian Americans for generations.
Even journalistic coverage of then-Knick Jeremy Lin was especially revealing: ESPN’s “chink in the amour” snafu and MSJ Network’s fortune cookie advert made it abundantly clear: Americans, well-intentioned or not, simply don’t know how to write about Asian people.
Which is probably what happened here. It’s not wrong to acknowledge and celebrate aspects of Asian culture. It’s not just white people that like this stuff — Asians have a thing for martial arts and noodles, too. (What we don’t do, however, is put chopsticks in our hair. We actually eat with them.)
But let’s be compassionate for a moment: The creators have a self-described love for kung fu. They tried to write about Asians and Asian culture. They were having fun. But they wrote it wrong. They don’t know how.
The fact that people aren’t human beings is the definition of racism. In this episode, Asian people aren’t humans. They are things. They’re a joke. And they’re not even portrayed by Asian people. And for the record, hiring writers and actors of color isn’t just to educate the whites in the room about what’s racist. Perhaps having them in the room will help ideas like Monday’s episode from getting kicked around in the first place.
Kai Ma is a writer, journalist and editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of KoreAm, an indie monthly for which she earned the national New America Media Award for Best In-Depth and Investigative Reporting for her feature story on gay marriage and the Asian-American vote. The views expressed are solely her own. You can follow her on @kai_ma.