The Problem with Problematic
This awards season came and went, and while many criticized this year's contenders on quality, many critics had qualms with Licorice Pizza for some unsavory scenes.
The Best Picture nominee follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a high schooler and budding conman, as he navigates sunny San Fernando Valley and bumps into its sleazy businessmen, narcissistic superstars, and movers and shakers in the 70s.
It also follows 20-something Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as she encounters these characters—many sexist and racist—along the way as Valentine's muse and love interest, but also as a young woman striving to find purpose.
Based on real moguls and celebrities, the movie portrays restaurateur Jerry Frick, who opened Mikado, the first Japanese restaurant in the Valley.
In a scene, he and his Japanese wife are talking to Valentine's mother, a copywriter, about his restaurant ad.
As she reads it aloud, he puts on an offensive Japanese accent to communicate with his wife, who does not speak English. His "accent" makes him almost cartoonish in how racist and foolish he is, and meanwhile, his wife tunes it out to give her input.
Many Asian critics, understandably, disapproved of the scene, saying this depiction mocks her character and stops the movie dead in its tracks.
Others said she has no retort, and doing so makes her passive to his racism and not allowing room for a teaching moment.
Yet there are several things to pick apart, at least for me, an Asian woman, from these criticisms.
Portrayal of racism is deeply uncomfortable and potentially traumatic for those who have experienced it, but the context of this scene, while maybe handled incorrectly, has a purpose.
Alana and Gary are seeing this world for what it is, and Alana herself experiences similar fetisization as a Jewish woman while trying to get scooped by a talent agency.
As Paul Thomas Anderson says in an interview, it would be a disservice to gloss over the racism of the time, and especially to deny that this never happens now (more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents as of August 2021 were reported since the start of the pandemic).
Granted, his full response to criticism came off a little misguided as he asked the interviewer how he should feel about the criticism. Yet all in all, the scene stems from his own experiences having a Japanese mother-in-law, who was often talked to in a similar Japanese "accent."
Frick is no hero, and he is to be mocked relentlessly as a bumbling bigot. The butt of the joke is not his wife—it's him. It's also heavily implied she leaves him later in the movie after he introduces his "new" Asian wife. Which shows his actions do in fact have consequences, it just doesn't look like a woke retort or other characters intervening.
Asian critics have said they felt uncomfortable in theaters while watching the scene, as white people seemed to laugh at the accent rather than Frick himself. While the scene was a bit clumsy, those critics are missing the mark, and we shouldn't tailor movies to ensure people have the "right reaction," because regardless, these audiences will relate to the racist or the sexist or the fetishizist anyways. Sanitizing racism, or expecting some jarring and unnatural response from the character who is the victim, does a disservice to those who have experienced these very real situations and have had very real reactions.
As an adopted Thai girl of two white people, I remember encounters with adult white people who talked to my child self as if I maybe couldn't grasp English, despite growing up in the States.
I remember the weird looks people gave my family, as adoption was not entirely that common.
I remember being called the Asian girl from Pitch Perfect, the extremely quiet and extremely bizarre outsider.
To deny these ever happen to people like me is doing more harm than good.
We should be OK with "problematic" characters because people are problematic. Because people will disappoint you, and they will hurt you, and they're not Disney characters—they may never change.
It's also not right to go full reactionary and say we're too "sensitive" or "weak" as we champion more diversity and equality in media.
I'm not trying to be a "pick me" for racists, as I was told on Twitter for my opinions about Licorice Pizza.
That's not what I'm trying to do here.
I simply believe ignoring past and present injustices benefits no one except the perpetrators.
There are certainly scenes portraying racism done in poor taste, which miss the mark or are done sinisterly. But to completely reject scenes that set out to show, rather than tell, that this is what happens is counterintuitive to the whole movement of wanting to make things right.
In Ava Duvernay's When They See Us about the Central Park Five, young boys of color in Manhattan were targeted and accused wrongly of assaulting a white woman, and the cops treat them as less than. The movie is based on the real-lived experiences of the Central Park Five, and sanitizing any of those scenes would do an injustice to the men who endured cruelty and discrimination both during and after the trial.
The film being based on those experiences and history may have more leverage when it comes to depicting these scenes, especially when its message is clear and it is familiar with its audience already.
However, it shouldn't be out of bounds to do the same in any other media that tries to earnestly depict our ugly past by showing rather than telling.
Another example: Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The second half shows the U.S. marines in Vietnam as they unravel and begin to be exposed to the horrors of war. It's supposed to be ugly. And in one scene, some talk to a Vietnamese sex worker, and they say offensive things, such as how all the sex workers have diseases.
Although the scene stands out for its, albeit racist, dialogue where the woman speaks in broken English, the scene is portraying what was all too common during that time in Vietnam—white men being crude and offensive and treating the Vietnamese women, especially the sex workers, as less than. The Marines are not the good guys here, and they become more sinister and evil as the movie progresses, and they descend further into the war. The movie is a harsh critique of the Vietnam war and its racism and evil wrought onto Vietnamese people.
Many find it uncomfortable, but uncomfortable isn't a bad thing when portraying real historic events and their damaging consequences on our present.
On the flip side, the rallying culture war cry from the right is that movies poking the bear cannot be made today. For example, it's been said that you couldn't make Blazing Saddles because they see it as an unabashed satire where it finds humor in being offensive.
Yet, ironically, the joke is on the white bigots in the movie. If the jokes were punching down at our protagonist at his expense, it would be in poor taste. Since the bigots are depicted as dim-witted, incompetent, and ignorant, it should be clear they are the ones to be laughed at.
It's good that racism within the movie business is being sussed out and exposed after years of systemic racism in the industry. But it's also important to remember that depiction is not an endorsement, and flattening all media into "good" and "bad" and basing media consumption on morality, whether that be books or movies or shows, would make an incredibly dull and even more ignorant world than we live in.
We cannot and should not run from our ugly past, and we have to keep our racism and ignorance and prejudice the butt end of the joke. Glossing over our dark history and our dismal present minimizes the traumatic experiences people like me have known their whole lives.
Why tell these stories if they shouldn't be told at all?
*Feature Photo: Licorice Pizza (MGM)