HBO’s “Sopranos” and the VT Massacre

by guest contributor Jenn Fang, originally published on Reappropriate

(Hat-tip to reader A.) Last night on HBO’s Sopranos, an episode entitled “Remember When” aired in which the character of Junior Soprano, who has been institutionalized, befriends a young, mentally-ill Asian American man named Carter Chong, and played by Ken Leung (Quill in X-Men: The Last Stand).

According to the Wikipedia write-up of this episode, Carter ultimately feels betrayed by Junior when Junior decides to take his meds, and attacks him.

In A.’s email, he writes:

The internet is already abuzz with the fact that last night’s episode of HBO’s “The Sopranos” featured a young, mentally disturbed Asian male with violent tendencies. People are drawing all sorts of ignorant “parallels” to the Virginia Tech massacre, all weighted on the fact that the character was an Asian male. If it had been a white male or a black male, of course there would be no such “comparisons” made.

Keep an eye on this story. The episode was written and filmed six months ago, and I guess the broadcast timing is unfortunately coincidental ONLY if the viewer connects ALL Asian males with ONE violent Asian male they’ve seen in the news. A lot of ignorance and racism is coming out from many just because of this one episode. Let’s address this.

Of course, this character has nothing to do with the Virginia Tech massacre last week, and Carter Chong couldn’t possibly be a reflection of Seung Cho; as A. points out, this episode was written and shot several months ago and only aired last night due to a coincidence of timing.

And yet, some viewers seem to insist that the episode and the shooting are related, as an eerie “not connected but I insist they are karmically related” kind of way. On the forum, “Television Without Pity”, one viewer summed up the subplot as ”young Asian man with severe anger management problems and a history of gunplay”, while another commented “[t]he Asian having deep seated aggression problems was just too spooky.” Gotta love how in that second quote, Carter Chong is “the” Asian. One viewer commented, “I think most of us, even with no direct link to the horrific shootings, felt a little uncomfortable watching tonight. Whether fiction or not it was reminiscent enough of what happened to serve as a memory cue for an event that is probably hard to stop thinking about even without direct reminders.” However, a fourth viewer wrote:

A member of my immediate family was taken from us this week in the VATech thing, and I debated on whether or not I wanted to watch Sopranos tonight (ultimately I did since I’m a grown man and can realize that this is fiction). I did find the young asian male to be terrifyingly similar to what I envisioned the man who murdered my cousin to be, so it did weird me out for most of the episode. I just kept telling myself that I was overreacting because it’s barely been a week, so this is one of those episodes I’ll probably have to wait a while to rewatch. I’m sure it was unintentional, just unfortunate timing.

Other than both Seung Cho and Carter Chong being Asian: what’s the connection? Oh yes: a racially Asian man with mental illness is automatically associated with violent mass shooting sprees because Asian craziness is a factor of one’s skin colour, whereas the countless depictions of White men with mental illness are non-threatening because White craziness has nothing to do with Whiteness.

Again we see the inability of mainstream america to distinguish between a person of colour’s race and his actions, be the actions positive or negative. Seeing one Black man dunk a basketball or rap a song is proof positive that all Black men are capable of such feats, and an example of one Korean American man who succumbed to the violent nature of his mental illness is evidence that all Asian Americans with mental illness will be Seung Cho re-incarnated. (Even more telling the conflation of a Korean American with a character who is ostensibly Chinese American). Such irrational connections are never made when the targets are White.

I don’t have to watch last night’s episode of The Sopranos to know that Carter Chong and the Virginia Tech Massacre are not related. But, of course, there are those who see one Asian face and think they’re seeing us all.