Dear Olivia Munn

By Thea Lim, cross-posted from Bitch Magazine

While I was writing our weekly True Blood roundtable with my Racialicious peeps on Tuesday, Tami Winfrey Harris said:

Watching King Russell go rogue on national TV made me think of the dread many POC feel when the media spotlights a member of our race doing something bad, dysfunctional or stereotypical–that sense that the bad behavior of another will stick to you in a society that lumps every brown person together. I just pictured vamps across the States watching Russell and shaking their heads. Aw, shit! This motherfucker…My neighbor is going to be giving me all kinds of side-eye tomorrow!

Don’t worry if you don’t get the King-Russell-going-rogue reference: what I wanted to share with you was Tami’s observation that people of color often feel anxious, sad, angry or personally hurt when a member of their race does something stereotypical in public.

I rarely feel this way, despite the fact that I proudly identify as a woman of color. The reasons for this are various—the shorthand version is that, in the genetic lottery that was my parents’ interracial English-Irish-Chinese-Singaporean union, I came out looking pretty ambiguous. Unlike my sibling who looks pretty mixed but also clearly Chinese, I have Inverted Chameleon Face: wherever I am, I look like I’m from somewhere else. People can tell I’m mixed, but they’re not totally sure what I am. (So yes, this means that many a time people have asked me what are you?… the worst time was when dudes at a bar where I worked placed bets on “what I was” and then called me over to settle the debate.) Thusly, growing up in Singapore, folks always thought I was white. Now that I live in North America, I am never really sure if people read me as Asian, white, or Other.

So, I don’t know whether or not others associate me with any public bad behavior carried out by my people. And usually, because I identify as a mixed race woman of color, I feel equally steamed about racist or sexist or racist sexist behavior directed against any group—and this is why I write for Racialicious, pan-ethnic space for people of color extraordinaire—whether it’s the Oscar Grant verdict or the politics of transracial adoption. But I rarely feel personally hurt.

And then I came across Olivia Munn.

So I decided to write Olivia a letter.

Dear Olivia Munn,

There has been a lot of noise about you over the past two months. And it has mostly been about how you are a woman, and how that identity influences your career. Namely people have said that you are not funny, and that therefore the only reason why you got your incredibly coveted position at the Daily Show is because you are beautiful.

But I am writing to you today not to talk about lady business. Instead I want to talk about how we are both mixed race Southeast Asian high femme ladies, and you are the first mixed race Southeast Asian lady I have ever seen on American television (I am not counting Cassie because she had hardly a line in Step Up 2: The Streets). Your work at The Daily Show has made me feel sad, alone, and quite a bit like crying, despite the fact that I have a shriveled angry little anti-racist feminist heart, and it’s rare that things on TV hurt my feelings anymore.

I’m not going to argue about whether or not you got where you got because the male-dominated worlds of gaming and comedy value women who are beautiful, over women who are competently funny, because that horse has been beat to death. And also, comedy is pretty subjective and obviously you have a lot of fans, so clearly there is an audience for your style.

What angers me about your comedy, Olivia Munn, is how it is built on gleeful collusion with misogyny and racism. If we’re talking about the race stuff, unlike other comedians of colour (Katt Williams! Dave Chappelle! Russell Peters!) whose jokes—while hit or miss with the kyriarchy—rely on poking fun at white racism, your jokes generally rely on racist stereotypes about your own damn people, to get a laugh out of a racist white audience.

Sady at Tiger Beatdown has done a great job of talking about how your comedy requires you to consent to misogyny, or at least smile painfully while something f-ed up happens around or to you:

…[Attack of the Show] continually cast her in misogynist skits that “proved” to the audience that they could control her and she would like it: Skits that played to the audience’s frustrations with women, their feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, and their continual rage that real-life girls couldn’t be controlled by mashing the buttons on their PlayStation consoles. One golden example of this — so effective, apparently, that they repeated it over and over again — was the comedy/technology news chestnut I like to call “We Can Make Olivia Put Her Mouth On It.” It went like this:

ANNOYING FRAT DUDE HOST WITH BAD RYAN SEACREST HAIR: Guess what, presumed-to-be-male audience members? A new piece of technology, relevant to your interests, has come out today! And now, Olivia Munn will lick it.
MALE LIVE AUDIENCE: (Creepily.) Wooo!
OLIVIA MUNN: Oh, no, I’m not going to lick that!
RYAN SEACREST HAIR: Oh, yes, you are, Olivia! Lick it! Lick it because I am a man, and told you to!
MALE LIVE AUDIENCE: (Extremely creepily.) Woooooooooo!
OLIVIA MUNN: (Licks it.)
MALE LIVE AUDIENCE: (At this point, creepy enough to merit several dozen restraining orders.) WWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
RYAN SEACREST HAIR: Wow, you sure do like to lick it, Olivia!
OLIVIA MUNN: Ha, ha ha ha ha! You are so funny!
[END SCENE.]

Sady included this video of you on Attack of the Show, when Kevin Pereira presses a balloon against your ass with his crotch until it busts. I—again—was surprised by how much that video upset me, because it is so incredibly clear (unless you are a great actor) how much you did not want what happened to happen to you. At the end the camera pauses on your face, and it genuinely looks like you want to cry—as the creepy, mostly male audience cackles with delight. In the same article, Sady has this to say about the misogynist nature of your career:

The fact that it was [Munn's] job to appease her audience’s geek misogyny, and that she built a brand that gave her misogynist audience what they wanted (read: hot bikini pics) doesn’t mean she’s a bad evil slutty bimbo. It just shows that she was smart enough to capitalize on her fan base, and that hot bikini pics were the surest way to keep that particular audience interested. Ain’t none of this slut-shaming. Girls have to get by, and if you are a girl and work in the entertainment industry, this is one of the ways to do it. It’s depressing, but it’s true, and hating on individual players for seeing the options open to them and taking them isn’t cool. Or feminist.

I agree with Sady and I can see that your options on Attack of the Show were to be the pretty girl who liked being physically humiliated, or be fired. But I don’t think that the way you were subject to misogyny on AOTS is similar to the way racism bolsters your comedy on the Daily Show.

On Attack of the Show, you tolerated misogyny, because AOTS is an inherently misogynist space. On The Daily Show, you don’t tolerate racism, you actually bring it with you, and carry it out. On Attack of the Show you were the butt (often literally) of the joke, on TDS, you make the (racist) jokes. And The Daily Show, while fairly racist at times, is not inherently racist. How do I know? Because out of all the correspondents of colour, you are the only one who consistently bases their jokes on racist stereotypes.

Out of the three segments you’ve done on TDS, the only one that I have found fairly funny was the one that didn’t rely on racism or xenophobia: this bit about SB1070 in Arizona. The Kremlins 2 segment leaned strongly on the idea that Russians are stupid, foreign accents sound ridiculous, and Arabic is weird and yicky. But the one that takes the White Racism Collusion cake, is your first segment, the one that started it all: The Spilling Fields.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Spilling Fields – Vietnamese Fisherman
www.thedailyshow.com
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Just so we’re all on the same page, I thought I would break this segment down into: what you said, and which racist stereotype it corresponds to.

1. What you said: Vietnamese words, in a very poor Vietnamese accent, punctuated by American swears

Racist stereotype: East Asian languages sound like gibberish! Like cuss words! THEY’RE FOREIGN!

2. What you said: “No one is forgetting about the blacks, ok?”

Racist stereotype: All black people do is complain and whine about non-existent racism! (Even when they are talking about Hurricane Katrina, one of the US’s worst humanitarian crises, which oddly enough, mostly affected black people!)

3. What you said: (in response to Aasif Mandvi saying he’s Asian) ”No you’re Indian… Asian-ish.”

Racist stereotype: Asia only has maybe, two countries in it, say, China and Japan?

Ok so that last one is not so much a stereotype as much it is willful ignorance on the part of a Western population who refuse to acknowledge that Asia is a ginormous continent that encapsulates countries like India (and hey, Kazakhstan! And Syria!), by insisting that Asian means “Chinese-looking.”

Which allows us to segue into:

4. What you said did: Allowed your first segment for TDS, about Vietnamese people, to be called “The Spilling Fields.” Get it, spilling rhymes with Killing, as in the Killing Fields?

Racist stereotype: Ha! Ha! There are so many small and insignificant countries in Asia that I can’t keep them straight or figure out that the Killing Fields, one of the most shocking instances of genocide in the past fifty years wherein 200,000 people died, actually happened IN CAMBODIA NOT IN VIETNAM.

Even when your family is from Vietnam, Olivia? You’re really going to go along with this?

5. What you said BONUS! From a web exclusive for the Daily Show talking about your new book: Mimic your mother’s Chinese accent for a full minute, followed by the statement: “Seriously mom, you’ve been in America for a long time. Lose the accent.”

Racist stereotype: Immigrants don’t speak English properly because they’re too lazy to bother learning how to talk like Americans.

These five jokes are only funny, if you think racism is funny. These five jokes are for white people, not for Asian people.

It actually hurts to see you up next to Wyatt Cenac and Aasif Mandvi, who do not, for the most part, feel the need to make jokes about their own people in order to be funny… often their jokes revolve around white ignorance or discomfort with people of color.  The line between comedy and racism in jokes about race is often: who is this joke for? Is this comedian laughing with people of color, or at them?

As Kate Rigg says:

I’m offended when I see comics get onstage going “…and then I went to the Laundromat. Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong!” Then I’m fucking offended. When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!”

Or as I have said in the past about Russell Peters, (even though I have since retracted some of my Peters love):

Latoya used the phrase “in house jokes” to refer to jokes that communities of colour will only tell to each other. These are jokes that are only funny when told by the people of colour they make fun of, to an audience of colour. Peters’ jokes are different – while they definitely would not be the funny if told by a white person they work for all stripes of audiences, because they aren’t crafted for a white audience.

…There can be great power in creating your comedy/writing/art/blog posts for readers of colour, even when your audience is white. Jokes that are for ourselves don’t marginalise or exclude white folks, they just don’t focus on them. Many writers and artists of colour I know are driven primarily by the desire to make art for us, which in itself seems revolutionary when so much art has existed to marginalise us.

Not only do your jokes exclude me Olivia, they are at my expense.

Even if, once upon a time, you had to suck up the misogyny of Attack of the Show—and other male media outlets, like Playboy, which tried to force you to pose naked against your will—now you are famous enough that you have power, and you have choices. And yet, instead of standing up for us, like Wyatt Cenac, Aasif Mandvi, or even, so help me God, Ken Jeong, you side with white racism, and you sacrifice your people. You sacrifice your own freakin’ mother.  And don’t think I haven’t noticed that the strident racism of your comedy is even more problematic because you have a white daddy, and therefore have white privilege. I have a white mama. I see what you’re doing Olivia. I do.

And don’t tell me that you think we live in a post-racial, post-feminist world. I have read your frankly heartbreaking accounts in interviews of the sexism and the racism that you and your mother experienced in your life.

So look around you. How many other mixed race Southeast Asian ladies do you see on TV? How many Southeast Asian people, period, do you see on TV?

We have no one until now, and what we get, after all we’ve been through—after all the racist sexism, after the yellow fever, after the mail order bride websites, after deportation threats, after not being taken seriously, as competent, or smart, or human, every day of our lives because of how we look—what we get, is you?

That’s some f-cked up shit.

I’m not even asking you to stand up for us, or make progressive comedy—even though that is, supposedly, what TDS does. Just stop with the racist jokes.

Because all of us—even you—deserve better than this.

Yours truly,

Thea Lim

Thanks to Elisha and Ryan for the image and Anthony for the language consultation!