The Office: all Asians look alike

by guest contributor Ansel

On December 14, the NBC show “The Office” aired its Christmas episode titled “A Benihana Christmas,” written by Jennifer Celotta. As a big fan of the show, I was interested by the previews for the episode which seemed to include a joke about two Asian women looking alike. So would “The Office,” a show known for being ironic and clever and in-the-know, be putting their satirical spin on the old stereotype? To my disappointment, they didn’t. In fact, in my personal opinion, one can argue that the show just played with the stereotype for laughs. It’s a more insidious sort of racial joking– the writers, producers, actors etc know the stereotype is politically incorrect, but they use it for laughs, anyway. They’re supposed to be a “smart” show, but that’s not going to stop them from pandering a little bit, either. I’ll explain.

First, the show has occasionally included references to race and has proven a tendency and talent for skewing stereotypes. The pompous main character, the boss of the office, is Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell. Michael is often seen embarrassing himself by revealing his cringe-inducingly poor understanding of race relations towards minorities; however, the laughs are at Michael’s expense, not minorities. A few episodes ago, Michael’s boorish and dimwitted understanding of Indian culture during a Diwali celebration led to a lot of chuckles at his own ignorance, and not at the expense of Indian culture or heritage. Michael is arguably the embodiment of the Ugly American, and the funniest thing about it is, he doesn’t know it and would be horrified if he found out… because he thinks he’s quite tolerant and well-educated about racial issues.

Hence, the irony, a form of humor “The Office,” like many other smart shows, revels in.

However, what makes the treatment of Asians in “A Benihana Christmas” different?

I’ll provide a recap of what happens, you decide. I can only say that it left me feeling disappointed. I won’t make some statement that the episode was in fact racist or overtly offensive, but I will say something about it seemed a little off and left me puzzled.

Recap: Michael Scott has just been rejected by the woman he thinks he loves and is moping around the office. To cheer him up, office brownnose Andy (Ed Helms) invites him and the other guys to the Japanese restaurant Benihana’s for lunch, which Michael calls “Asian Hooters.” Jim (John Krasinski) and Dwight (Rainn Wilson) accompany them. At the restaurant, the guys get drunk on “Nog-a-sakis” (an eggnog/sake concoction) and Andy and Michael start eyeing two cute waitresses, one of them named Cindy. Andy suggests they invite the two women back to their office, where an office party is starting, offering Michael the prettier of the two women to invite.

Cut to the guys stumbling into the office with two giggling Asian waitresses… except that these two are DIFFERENT Asian waitresses than the two that were seen at the restaurant. The problem… no one makes a comment about it, continuing to refer to the two women as the same two women who were their waitresses in the restaurant.

Click links below to see pictures of the two different “sets” of Asian women:
Cindy and the other Benihana waitress
Different waitresses

Hopefully, this is a producers/writers’ gag on the audience. Will the show’s audience realize that these two Asian actresses are different from the first two Asian actresses? Or will the audience not notice, just as the four men don’t seem to notice, thus playing again on the “Asians all look alike” stereotype? Hahaha. Clever, right?

Things get worse as Michael begins to mix up which waitress is “his.” He’s seen drunkenly singing karaoke to the wrong waitress. When asked by his employees which woman is his, he stumbles until finally admitting, “Well, you know, all waitresses look alike” to the amused guffaws of his coworkers. Yes, I’m sure you meant “waitresses.”

The final kick in the teeth is when Michael finally identifies the “right” waitress and conspicuously uses a black marker to mark her arm. Of course, Michael has to physically tag an Asian woman to distinguish between her and another Asian woman. Soon after, the two women leave, citing the party as disappointing. Agreed.

The episode concludes with Jim and Michael sitting on a couch, talking about women troubles. Michael informs Jim that he marked the waitress’ arm because he “couldn’t tell them apart.” Cue… incredulous laughter from both. I’m told that shooting that scene, both Steve Carell and John Krasinski continuously broke character by cracking up so much during that line. And the episode ends.

I’ll make one remark: the fact that the stereotype of “All Asians look alike” was never actually stated aloud during the episode somehow makes the episode more troubling to me.

What if this had happened? Two new Latino coworkers join the office. Michael and Andy act oddly around them, not wanting them to come near their desk or their things. A joke is made about how “Oh you know, you never know if you can trust the ‘new people’ around your stuff.” They watch every move the Latinos make. But their white coworkers just laugh over their behavior. No condemnation. The underlying sentiment being the stereotype that the Latinos might be prone to stealing. Never stated aloud, but the intention quite clear anyway. Everyone understands the underlying intention. Everyone seems “in on the joke.” But is that right? Is that funny?

That’s why this episode left me hanging. The “Asians all look alike” stereotype, though never vocalized, was just met with the knowing laughter of other coworkers. The show’s audience is expected to understand the gag. Jim and Michael are red-faced with giddy laughter after Michael admits he tagged the Asian woman’s arm to distinguish her. Something doesn’t feel right to me.

The best thing you as the reader can do, if the recap has gauged your interest, is to view the episode yourself and consider how it makes you feel. Consider what the intent of the running gag might be, and also consider its execution. I have to say again, that I was mostly disappointed by the episode. Apparently it will be re-aired this Thursday night at 9:00 pm if you missed it.

If you saw the episode, what did you think?