CULTURE & ARTS
04/21/2016 07:46 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2016

'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,' Outrage Culture, And The Fight To Save Racism In Hollywood

Outrage culture? Maybe that's because there's a lot to be outraged by.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix
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When Season 2 of Tina Fey's critically adored sitcom "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" dropped on Netflix April 15, one aspect was quickly singled out as something of a misstep by critics and many fans: the third episode, "Kimmy Goes to a Play!"

In the episode, a major black character, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), decides to jumpstart his entertainment career by putting on a one-man show exploring one of his past lives -- in which he was, he claims, a geisha named Murasaki. The show is called "Kimono She Didn't," and he performs in it in full geisha makeup and attire. 

Things really heat up when an online forum of Asian-American media activists find a poster for Titus's show and trash him as "a Hitler." Less than subtly, the group itself is called a forum to advocate "Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment." Get it? The initial caps are helpfully tinted a bright blue in the show, in case you missed it:

Netflix screenshot

"For her writers to call that group RAPE ... is really over the top, it’s really inappropriate. It seems like a lot of anger," Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, explained in a phone interview. 

Though the activists ultimately come to see Titus perform, with the sole intent of booing, they are completely won over by his sincerity, and the validity of any outrage they might have felt is never examined. For a sitcom known, in the typical Fey manner, for jokes with multiple twists and surprise punchlines, this episode felt hamhanded and one-sided to many. 

"Titus and what he's doing really doesn't come under questioning at all," pointed out Shaun Lau, cohost of the podcast "No, Totally!" "The group that is against Titus's portrayal literally has no legitimate complaint ... Not only have they not seen the show, but they don't represent any views whatsoever. They represent the view of being offended." And with no humanization or vindication of the outraged characters, the message comes through clearly: Such protests are uninformed, illegitimate, and easily dismissed.

That takeaway would be pretty convenient for not just Fey and the rest of the "Kimmy Schmidt" team, but for any media and entertainment powerhouses targeted by similar backlash over whitewashing, yellowface, and other racially insensitive choices. “A lot of people who are being criticized in Hollywood want to think, 'Oh, these people don’t know what they’re talking about,'" said Aoki.

The parodic treatment of media activist groups in "Kimmy Goes to a Play!" isn't just a hackneyed joke -- it's a tool in perpetuating the silencing of marginalized voices. "I fear that episode just created a new stereotype for studio execs to run wild with -- the 'Asian American outrage blogger,'" writer Mallika Rao told me in an email. 

Perversely, the effect of the episode is to set Asian-American activists, already the less powerful figures in a confrontation with media powerhouses, on their back heels. Responding to the injustice of a one-dimensional and mean-spirited depiction of Asian-Americans on the show only feeds into that same depiction. "It's kind of weird for me, as part of a media watchdog group to comment on the portrayal of a media watchdog group," Aoki pointed out.

In an odd coincidence, the "Kimmy Schmidt" season dropped right as multiple tempests over Asian-American representation in entertainment were already colliding. The dust had barely settled from a blow-up over two Oscars gags directed at Asians when two serious whitewashing controversies exploded: a trailer for superhero flick "Dr. Strange" featuring Tilda Swinton as a character originally portrayed as an Asian man, and a teaser photo from the manga adaptation "Ghost in the Shell" featuring Scarlett Johansson playing lead Motoko Kusanagi in a black wig. 

What's really bizarre, though, is that this keeps happening at such a frequency. Last year saw the backlash against Emma Stone's casting as a part-Asian woman in "Aloha." Six whole years ago, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" came out and flopped embarrassingly after intense outrage over the film's casting of white actors to play important characters of color. How is this still a thing? 

Maybe Hollywood is just giving people what they want, after all. Screenwriter Max Landis tried to use capitalism as an explanation for "Ghost in the Shell" being whitewashed, saying: “If you’re mad about Scarlett Johansson being cast in ‘Ghost In The Shell’ the truth of the matter is, you’re mad at the wrong people. You shouldn’t be mad at the film industry because they are operating out of fear.” Effectively, he argued, there aren't currently Asian or Asian-American actresses who could open a major movie, and studios are too scared of losing money to take a risk. 

As The Guardian's Ben Child points out, though, this doesn't even add up from a business point of view. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens just broke the all-time US box office record with two relatively unknown British actors, one black, in the lead roles," he wrote. On the other hand:

"...what if for every extra dollar casting Johansson pulls in at the box office, the studio loses two or three from all the negative publicity surrounding her casting? This is, after all, pretty much what happened to the JM Barrie prequel Pan, which is estimated to have lost Warner Bros $150m last year, and Gods of Egypt, which proved 2016’s first major box office turkey in February. Other examples of the disastrous financial effects of whitewashing include Cameron Crowe’s ill-fated Aloha, which failed to recoup its budget after casting Emma Stone as an ethnically mixed Hawaiian, and The Lone Ranger, which reportedly saw Disney write off $190m in 2013 after the studio decided Johnny Depp would make a great Tonto. On this evidence, the whole pro-whitewashing Hollywood template begins to look like pretty dumb as a financial model."

Still, studios, producers, and the whole Hollywood power structure have some skin in the game here. If the situation remains unchanged, they don't need to alter how they do business. They don't need to take risks. They can rely on pre-packaged, stereotypically all-American stars like Stone and Johansson for parts like Allison Ng and Motoko Kusanagi and continue to rake in profits.

Plus, on a human level, it's clear that Hollywood's decision makers would rather defend the choices they've been making than concede that their past creative defaults were racially problematic. Tina Fey's response to criticism over white actress Jane Krakowski's casting as a Lakota character on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" is a case in point: "There’s a real culture of demanding apologies," she said, "and I’m opting out of that.”

Opting out may not be the smart choice when it comes to keeping your audience happy, but it's the easier one. It's more comfortable to avoid painful accusations of racial insensitivity, even racism, then to consider the criticism and allow it to change your future practices. Episode three of "Kimmy Schmidt" brings to a head years of frequently ignored protest about under- and misrepresentation of Asian and Asian-American people in American media. The episode seems to say, "Okay, we Hollywood elite have heard you! You're mad! For no reason, so please shut up now." But while this spin is convenient for Hollywood's egos, it's neither fair nor useful in the long term.

As Child's breakdown suggests, audiences have become more aware of the value of positive and substantial representation of minority groups on screen, and awareness is only growing -- thanks in large part to the call-out culture engendered by watchdog groups. The R.A.P.E. activist plot is the lashing out of a beleaguered but still powerful establishment, hoping to defang protests that might shift their markets. 

It's bizarre, too, that in the same season in which a major character's arc is built on her embrace of her Lakota identity and her growing determination to destroy the racist mascot of the Washington football team, "Kimmy Schmidt" portrays Asian-American activists' concerns with yellowface and other misrepresentation as unworthy of consideration.

The knowing framing of social justice work as "outrage culture," which many defended the episode as adeptly skewering, is merely a way of erasing the offense that causes the outrage, like the gaslighting abusive boyfriend who calls all his exes "crazy" without referencing the poor treatment that elicited any erratic behavior from them. All we see is the outrage, because the hurt that led to the outrage is so normalized to us; but the continued outrage is a continued plea to change our ways.

The constant cycle of outrage? Maybe that's because Hollywood keeps casting white actors as Asian characters. And making jokes at Asian-American people's expense. And if we would listen, instead of opting out, that outrage cycle wouldn't have to continue like this forever.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Shaun Lau.

Follow Claire Fallon on Twitter: @claireefallon

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