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August 15, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Freaky Friday

As you know, I have always remembered Rosalind Chao in The Joy Luck Club sitting proudly in the rain with the memory of her ancestors (see previous post).

As depressing as the movie was to me as a child, this scene remains inspirational.

I ask the world: Is it so hard to create more strong Asian characters like Rose?

Then I saw Freaky Friday and the world answered “…Yes, it’s totes very hard. Obvi”

I’m referring to the 2003 Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Lee Curtis Freaky Friday (If you’re thinking of the Jodie Foster version, bless your heart).

I’m a fan of the movie actually. Lohan is great.

But

Do you recall the Chinese restaurant? It’s where the whole switcharoo is set in motion via very ancient Chinese fortune cookie. Do you remember the hostess? Well it’s Rosalind Chao! The actress that played Rose in The Joy Luck Club!

Chao is in full blown “ah so” Asian lady stereotype. Let us count the ways in which this Asian character offends.

1. She works in a Chinese restaurant (The only places Asians work are Chinese or Sushi restaurants, dry cleaners, corner grocery stores, and nail salons)

2. She constantly grins (She is always happy).

3. She constantly ingratiates (She just wants to please you).

4. She has an outrageous Chinese accent (Me love you long time).

5. She has an ancient Chinese secret (Slanty eyes = sneaky).

5. She is snappy, impatient, and embarrassed by her crazy old Chinese mother. They babble angrily in Cantonese confusing a frightened Lindsay Lohan (When foreign people get angry they can’t control themselves. They lapse into their native tongue a la Ricky Ricardo).

As I saw Freaky Friday just a few days after re-watching The Joy Luck Club these caricatures seemed all the more gruesome.

It seems little has changed since Mickey Rooney’s buck toothed Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

…Except now an actual Japanese actor can play Mr. Yunioshi. I guess that’s something.

***

Did they really need to mess with this?

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4 Comments

  1. “Is it so hard to create more strong Asian characters like Rose?”

    Watch “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or any of the many pictures produced in Asia. I know, I know… you want to see these women in the Hollywood mainstream. There are a bunch of Canadian pictures staring Sandra Oh as lead (She’s Korean, but she’s almost always playing Chinese roles). I think Maggie Q’s going to be on TV in “Nikita”. Probably just another example of fetishism, but at least she’ll be kicking butt. If you comb through the Hollywood stuff, I’m sure you can find roles, even if they are small, that are giving you what you’re looking for. Just keep looking.

    Speaking of caricatures: I’d love to hear what your take is on Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Wong in “Norbit”!

    Reply
  2. Back when Giant Robot was all about anime, kung fu movies, and generally just a helluva lot more fun, Adrian Tomine interviewed Gedde Watanabe about his steroetyped portrayals of Asian men (specifically, Long Duk Dong, the performance that most haunted Tomine through high school). Watanabe’s response, as I recall these many years later was “Do you support Asian theatre? No? Then shut up, because I take movie rolls to support my theatre work.” I paraphrase there.

    Reply
  3. Hello Kitty

    Hi Kartina,

    I recently discovered these posts and am delighted. I am a first year Gen Xer ABC (American Born Chinese) who has always been interested in media images, especially film.

    I’ve long had mixed feelings about Rosalind Chao and the roles she has taken. Work is work, I suppose. What irks me in the FF clip is that Ms. Chao speaks in a “Chinky”–yes I am sticking by that pejorative term–voice, but her Mandarin (not Cantonese) is heavily laced with an American accent. She is not a native speaker in either language. Anyway Ms. Chao could have played that part in many ways, but she (or the director) chose to go with stereotyped mannerisms. My criticism is not aimed soley at Ms. Chao, but she is a prominent and well known name in the roster of ABC actors.

    Pei-pei could have been played in a subversive way, adopting the mannerisms of Chinese restaurant lady, but with a wink or nod to let the audience know she is more than a familiar stereotype. Eddie Murphy did this in his early films, when he broke the fourth wall, glanced at the audience while sending a silent message, “Yeah, I’ve got to do this bit as a black man, but you and I both know this is a joke, and I’m way smarter than what the writers and directors are telling me to do, so roll with me while I get this ridiculous business out of the way, and then we can move on to smarter stuff.”

    I’d have to watch FF in its entirety again to see how and why the Chinese restaurant/fortune cookie gags were incorporated. Maybe it was just a cheap joke, a tired old joke. One that people don’t really laugh at anymore, and should be shelved.

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  4. I enjoyed Freaky Friday a good deal when I first watched it, as well. However, Rosalind Chao’s performance is just cringe-inducing and unnecessary (as is the incredibly trite fortune cookie device).

    But let’s be real here, this isn’t just about how Asians are portrayed, it’s about how non-whites are portrayed, if they can even get a gig at all. As a white man, I can only imagine the bizarre reality of seeing nothing but white people portrayed on the movie screen and on television. I get sick of the Hollywood induced bubble. On the other hand, though, it must be difficult when you have to put food on the table and you’re getting offered stereotypical supporting roles.

    Talented non-white filmmakers can’t seem catch a break. I applaud Tyler Perry for trying to make uplifting movies and bringing black cinema out of the gang and marijuana cellar, I just wish he were a better filmmaker.

    Ang Lee has done well but unless his movies are about white people, he has to make them in China (it’s telling that his most successful foreign film in the US was a martial arts fantasy). Though he did manage to break a different cultural taboo with Brokeback Mountain.

    It hasn’t gotten any better in the years since Freaky Friday. Ken Jeong is an exceptionally gifted comic actor, but the Pearl Harbor joke in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard fell flat, and his turn in The Hangover was just wincing. If he was going for satire, it didn’t work.

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