[UPDATED] The Politics of Inclusion: Masculinity and Heteronormativity in “8 Angry Asians”

Last night, Asian comedy group Stir-Friday Night brought its run of “8 Angry Asians, Starring Scarlett Johansson” at Second City to a close. The hour-long show consisted of a series of short comedy sketches, bits specifically tackling Asian American issues mixed with a number of “race-blind” shorts. While some parts of the show fell a little flat, it was still a good experience to attend a show where for once, rather than being the butt of the joke, Asian Americans got to tell the jokes.

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Promotional photo for the show. The eight people pictured are both the writers and the actors. They come from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Indian backgrounds.

The comedy world is fraught with all kinds of problematic humor, with comedians targeting all marginalized groups as the butts of their jokes. A comedy show completely written, produced, and performed by Asian Americans is a powerful feat in itself in a genre dominated by cishet white men, especially when Asian Americans are so often the ones targeted by comedians. “8 Angry Asians” is clearly written for an Asian American audience. In contrast with Asian American media and art produced for white audiences, such as Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, “8 Angry Asians” does not attempt to explain its Asianness, providing outsiders with a glimpse of what Asian Americans are really like. Instead, it offers political humor, such as the line “Fuck Scarlett Johansson,” interspersed with apolitical sketches featuring characters devoid of racial markers.

However, “8 Angry Asians” is not impervious to the influences of mainstream comedy and the world we live in, and the show still participates in the upholding of hegemonic norms perpetuating sexist and heteronormative narratives. While the writers of “8 Angry Asians” attempt to combat racism within the larger genre of sketch comedy, they still fall into the traps of sexism and heteronormativity. For example, several sketches in the show feature couples, but all of these couples are heterosexual pairings. The only bit that features a queer character is a scene in which a transgender woman comes out to the man she’s seeing (even though Stir Friday Night has no transgender cast members.)

One particularly problematic bit is a sketch in which a woman returns to the home she lives in with her boyfriend. She tells him about how she just returned from helping her friend clean out her apartment following a nasty breakup. The woman brandishes a book her friend let her take, since for some reason she had two copies of the book. The boyfriend panics, saying the book is haunted by the breakup and opening it will unleash negative energy into their apartment. The woman shrugs off his concerns and opens the book, which allows the couple to hear past arguments between her friend and her ex.

In these arguments, the woman’s friend is portrayed as a stereotypically irrational and overemotional woman. In one argument, she is heard blowing up at her then-boyfriend for leaving an empty can of Sprite on the coffee table. At the end of the sketch, the transmission of negative energy is shown when the woman snaps into a demonically-possessed state and asks her boyfriend if he wants to get married.

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This sketch upholds sexist stereotypes, constructing the female as crazy, overly emotional, and irrational in contrast to the sane, logical, and rational man. The bit depicts romantic love with a woman as a burden, and employs the sexist trope of marriage as a form of male enslavement. Some maintain that placing Asian American bodies in traditionally white models (in this case, white gender stereotypes) is progressive, arguing that this form of representation combats the Otherization of Asian Americans, showing that “we are just like everyone else.” However, I, along with many others, believe that the substitution of Asian bodies into existing dominant narratives is not an effective method of subversion. The desire to conform to white gender stereotyping can be seen as an expression of Asian American men’s reaction to their hegemonic emasculation. As Chou discuses, Asian American men attempt to conform to the image of white masculinity, painting themselves as intellectually superior and unemotional.

The exclusion of queer identities in “8 Angry Asians” also upholds hegemonic norms. By portraying solely heterosexual couples, the show perpetuates the construction of Asian America as a heterosexual entity. Asian American art that excludes queer identities contributes to the chasm between racial and sexual identities. As Takagi discusses in Maiden Voyage, “many [gay and lesbian Asian Americans] experience the worlds of Asian America and gay America as separate places.” “8 Angry Asians” renders queer Asian Americans invisible and essentializes the Asian American experience.

While Stir Friday Night’s “8 Angry Asians” is betraying hegemonic norms in some ways, the group still needs to address ways in which it perpetuates sexist and heteronormative narratives. By only presenting heterosexual depictions of Asian Americans, Stir Friday Night supports the idea that heterosexuality and Asian American identity go hand-in-hand, further marginalizing queer Asian Americans. As Un Jung of the Visibility Project says, “A lot of times we focus on one particular identity…there’s a whole spectrum of identities I could really be a part of.” Increasing representation of queer Asians helps bring the intersections of these identities to light.

There is also the possibility that the writers of “8 Angry Asians” intentionally exclude queer Asian Americans from their sketches, operating under the assumption that queer Asian Americans simply aren’t funny. This assumption is largely due to the fact that the use of humor is associated with power. The equivalency of humor with power can be seen in the common notion that women aren’t funny. Similar to the way in which men marginalize women, cishet people marginalize those with queer genders and sexualities through humor. The use of humor in this manner is a large motivating force behind the grossness of mainstream comedy. After all, who is a person going to poke fun at if they themselves are marginalized? In order to address the erasure of queer Asian American humor, we must work to destroy the pre-set norms of sketch comedy and instead find ways to construct alternative models for humor, one which does not rely on it as a tool for power and the marginalization of minority groups.

While Stir Friday Night is giving a voice to some Asian Americans in show business, some narratives the group supports erase or mischaracterize a large chunk of Asian America. It is important to acknowledge these shortcomings in order to recognize the heterogeneity of Asian Americans and work to break down the walls that have been built to separate Asian American and queer identities as well as Asian American men and women.

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