Asians: Lazy TV Writers’ Favorite Punchline

I just caught the tail end of one of my favorite shows, How I Met Your Mother. It’s a show well known for its inventive comedy, so I was taken aback to hear Robin say this to her ex-boyfriend in a voicemail (not sure if its the exact wording, but it comes close):

And tell that Asian slut you’re pictured with on Facebook…I’ll kill her too.

It’s not the death threat that’s bothersome–that’s just a bitter ex talking. It’s the “Asian slut.”*¬†Why is that supposed to be funny?

I’m trying to imagine a writers room, the same writers room that came up with Robin Sparkles and Slap Bet, that somehow thought using “Asian” as an adjective would make Robin calling the new girlfriend a slut even funnier.

Why is “Asian” used to punch up the line? If Robin had said “black” or “Hispanic slut,” it would have sounded grossly offensive. Same with any other ethnicity. So why it it okay for “Asian” to be used in the same way, and considered hilarious?

It could be the lack of specificity. If Robin had instead said “Japanese” or “Pakistani,” it might have seemed too direct, too wounding, too personal. By using “Asian,” perhaps the broadness of the term is supposed to dull the impact.

I should be clear: In no way do I think the character of Robin is racist. It’s the HIMYM writers who gave her that pejorative to say. And it’s not just them. There are plenty of instances when I’ve heard phrases like “Asian driver” or “Asian hooker” or just plain old “Asian guy” casually uttered in sitcom conversations, followed by the canned laughter of a studio audience. (The concept is neatly illustrated by the image accompanying this blog post.)

I’m not sure what’s supposed to be so humorous about it. It seems that “Asian” is viewed as the easiest comedic shorthand for communicating a person’s foreignness or exoticness, especially in contrast to something thought of as traditional or All-American.

I just wonder if proud Vancouverite Robin would be bothered if she heard someone referred to as a “Canuck slut” on television. After all, the only group TV writers make fun of more often than Asians? Canadians.

*And yes, I fear the Google searches that will come my way due to this post.

4 thoughts on “Asians: Lazy TV Writers’ Favorite Punchline

  1. I just have to say thank you for posting on this incident that happened on a show that I really love. When Robin dropped the “Asian slut” line, I couldn’t believe it, I had to rewind it and play it again – yes, she said it. I came to the same conclusions that you did – it’s somehow more acceptable to drop an Asian joke in a sitcom to get a laugh (“Black skank, White whore” don’t seem to cut it comedy-wise and they shouldn’t, of course, but imagine the uproar?), Robin isn’t racist, it’s the weirdo writers. But I have to say that it felt like a slap in the face. You’re the only one who had anything on the web to say about it but I’m glad there’s at least someone who didn’t think it was funny.

  2. Great post =)
    I completely agree. Asians are The constant joke.

    The practice of yellowface, unlike blackface, in popular media (e.g. Mr. Wong web series) and films (e.g. The Last Airbender, Dragonball Z) is seen as a legitimate form of ‘comedy’ or casting practice, and viewed as ‘socially acceptable’ by many non-Asians (and also, unfortunately, by some whitewashed/ill-informed Asians) to laugh at or engage in, which is absolutely ridiculous.

    This ‘it’s okay’ attitude by non-Asians to joke about Asians, and the ‘you’re overreacting’ or ‘get over it’ attitude towards Asians who do take offence to these jokes (e.g. Rosie O’Donnell’s ‘ching chong’ comment on The View, and her ‘get over it’ response to the offence taken), may be due partly to:

    (1) the foreign-ising of Asians (it’s always ‘okay’ and standard practice to ridicule and mock out-group members; unfortunately, many other people of colour have also taken on the majority’s prejudiced views on Asians), and

    (2) the false labelling of Asians as model minorities (in most multicultural nations with white majority societies), which ‘elevates’ Asians to ‘non-whinging’ status as differentiated from other people of colour who ‘don’t seem to be doing as well’ but ‘whinge’.

    In effect, because we are ‘doing so well’ despite being racial minorities in historically oppressive and racist societies, we aren’t completely ‘victims’, and so ‘fall between the cracks’ – mocked because we’re ‘foreign’ and ‘alien’, yet we are not considered oppressed enough and therefore not legitimate candidates for society’s racial sensitivities, unlike some black and brown folk are.

  3. Most of the shit rom-coms I watch the male lead has an Asian-American work-place friend who talks constantly about women/sex or tries to use dirty slang. I think it’s supposed to be funny because Asian guys are, like, total nerds. See: Dexter, Life As We Know It… and loads of other movies whose names I don’t remember.

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