A Thin Line Between Stereotype and Satire: The Daily Show’s “Asian Correspondent” Olivia Munn

by Latoya Peterson

Reader Martha tipped us to this Daily Show segment with a new face:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Spilling Fields – Vietnamese Fisherman
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The segment was about equal parts loss and win, so let’s break this down…NBA Jam style!*

They’re On Fire

Actually finding someone Asian American to report on an Asian American issue? Novel concept, Daily Show. They tapped model-actress Olivia Munn (of Chinese and German Irish descent) who is fluent in Vietnamese to host the the segment.

Puts Up a Brick:

However, Munn is not Vietnamese, though her mother was raised in Vietnam.  Munn was raised primarily in Japan, so the daily show once again uses a pan-ethnic brush to paint all issues.

They’re On Fire:

TDS actually highlights the plight of the Vietnamese community and how they are impacted by the oil leak.  The coverage of the disaster in the Gulf plays nightly, but much of the analysis focuses on BP and it’s culpability- not the communities impacted by the spill.

Puts Up a Brick:

Peel and weep shrimp? The spilling fields? This shit is worse than napalm? It appears that the only point of reference for Vietnamese people in America is the Vietnam war.

They’re On Fire:

Some of the better jokes lampoon the conventions of news shows and the Daily Show itself, like Samantha Bee cracking “we already have a sexy news bunny,” or the various representatives of minority groups fighting over space. Wyatt Cenac was especially funny, mentioning he’s “still down there covering Katrina.”

Puts Up a Brick:

The joke isn’t as funny when it’s a little too true – especially on the Daily Show.

Puts Up a Brick:

Positioning yet another divide between black folks and other minorities.  The exchange between Cenac and Munn had some weird overtones. “The Asians?” “The blacks” with the behind the hand motion? Really?

Puts Up a Brick:

Jasons Scott’s casual racism is played for laughs.  Key line: “Oooh, Asian [correspondent]! What’s that mean, you report the news, then half an hour later you want more news? Boom! What, you slide the stories under the door?”

Boomshakala: Aasif Mandvi

Aasif Mandvi makes the whole set, beaming in via satellite to call shenanigans.  “The Asian correspondent around here is me,” he proclaims defiantly, leading to an interesting back and forth about who is considered Asian.  (It should be noted Mandvi also holds the titles of “Asia Correspondent” and “Middle East Correspondent.”) But there is still a some strange symbolism going on.  I cracked up when Mandvi hollered “I’m so Asian, John, I’m ninja!” – but again, is that all being Asian is? So far, we’ve got the Vietnam War, jokes around food and delivery, and now ninjas. (Later, Mandvi throws in a third eye joke.) Still, he vanishes along with the other correspondents allowing Munn to finish the bit on her own.

Race Complicated by Gender

Friend of the blog Sulagna broke down her feelings on Munn’s appearance, noting the particular tension between race and gender on the Daily Show:

This essay started out as a way to explain why The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was breaking my heart. However, thanks to recent events, it…evolved.

It happened one day when I was shifting through the archives on The Daily Show website and their page on Wikipedia; on a whim, I began trying to find the Daily Show correspondents who were women of color.

Well guess what?

They’ve never had one! [...]

One thing I’ve realized is that while the Daily Show delves into issues of racism and sexism, they rarely go into gendered racism / racialized sexism. Perhaps this has to do with the make up of their staff. They have had about seven women correspondents overall, and the writing staff only recently (within the last year) added two women to their all white (except for Wyatt Cenac) all male writing staff. It’s hard to complain about something that is so replete across all television shows and the entertainment industry in general. However, that does not exempt them, and the fact that the Daily Show was a victim of this hurt a lot more, especially since they actually address issues of racism and homophobia and sexism and the usual general stupidity and silliness.

So what should they do? Hiring a woman of color would be a good start. And lo and behold: when I was thinking of writing this essay a couple of days ago, the Daily Show added a new correspondent: Olivia Munn. [...]

I was surprised to see Olivia Munn, because I didn’t know her for her comedy. She is also a bit younger and I would say less experienced (maybe differently experienced? Has she done stand-up?) than most of the other correspondents. There are plenty of female comedians of colorincludingAsian” (rather than “Asian-y“) ones that could’ve been introduced within the show. Olivia Munn is also biracial, which is a significantly different experience from monoracial individuals (that is not to say that her experience is invalid but it is different).

However! Olivia Munn is the first woman of color correspondent (who knows Vietnamese and studied and lived in Japan), and she has only been on the show for all of about six minutes. I hope that the show’s staff realizes Olivia’s potential, both as an individual and within the context of the show—and I hope it’s funny, too.

The Daily Show creates a strange dynamic for those of us who watch television through an anti-racist lens.  They simultaneously lampoon racism while perpetuating it behind the scenes (and sometimes on camera), but one has to admit the make up of the Daily Show is a far cry from the inception of the show.  Here’s to seconding Sulagna’s hope that they utilize Munn’s potential as a correspondent – and not as another token to add to their diversity roster.

*Don’t ask me why I randomly thought of NBA Jam phrases as a way to frame the post, but there’s a new version coming out for the Wii!

Classic:

2010: