By Guest Contributor Nisha H.
Pitch Perfect is a film that tells the underdog tale of a nearly-defunct a capella group, the Barden Bellas, rising through the collegiate ranks again and reclaiming former glory. It also features not one, but two East Asian female characters, providing writers with ample “Asians and music” stereotypes to riff off of, such as the piano-playing prodigy or Asians with perfect pitch (this movie is called Pitch Perfect; would this not have been the most perfect stereotype to use?).
But instead of the brilliant Asian musicians that I thought might grace the screen, I instead found myself looking not at two characters but two caricatures, with a world of missed opportunities to draw on positive stereotypes. This isn’t to say that the usage of positive racial stereotypes is much better than the negative ones; it’s just that if writers are going to insist on reducing ethnic characters to easily digestible, tired tropes, I’d rather have them draw on one of the “positive” stock stereotypes over the negative ones. With limited visibility of Asian Americans in the media, you want the few instances where you do get represented to be positive.
Unfortunately, this was not the case with this movie. Far and away the film’s most offensive Asian character was Lilly (Hana Mae Lee). It’s not clear how Lilly got the stamp of approval to join the Barden Bellas, as her defining characteristic is that she cannot speak or sing above a whisper. She may have other personality traits, but it’s impossible to discern as we are unable to hear her 99 percent of the time.
The “quiet Asian who is too meek to talk normally” joke wasn’t funny initially and yet was still repeated. I went from rolling my eyes the first time it was brought it up to being legitimately upset by the fifth or so time Lilly says something and everyone’s response is, “What?! I can’t hear you!” Sometimes her character is just flat-out ignored because no one can hear her.
Remember how The Little Mermaid got all that criticism because Ariel gives up her voice to Ursula just for a man? Yeah, just switch the two films and use Ursula as a metaphor for film companies, filmmakers, and screenwriters who snatch away ethnic characters’ voices in exchange for allowing them a small part in their films.
In a time where Asian Americans are slowly making their way into pop culture with roles that don’t pigeonhole them–Lucy Liu in Elementary, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, John Cho in Go On—the role of Lilly takes Asian Americans a step back. All we see is a rehashed, played-out representation of the meek and submissive Asian woman. Asians as a whole are a feminized race, and yet Asian women bear the double burden of simultaneously existing to two groups that are both supposed to be submissive. We see the product of this double burden in Lilly, expected to be so docile as both an Asian and a woman that she can barely even speak.
There’s also the issue of Lilly just being plain weird; this is not the cutesy, “aren’t I adorable”-weird that Zooey Deschanel gets to play week after week in New Girl but just flat-out weird. The first time I managed to catch one of Lilly’s whispered lines is when she reveals that she ate her twin in the womb. Earlier in the film, she makes a snow angel in a puddle of vomit. This type of strange behavior, though I’m sure comical to some, only serves to portray her as even more of an oddity. She becomes wholly unrelatable to movie-going audiences due to the combination of her eccentricity and lack of audible speech. This portrayal of Lilly as someone unrelatable only feeds into the Otherization of Asians as a foreign, strange race, one very different from the white women in the movie.
That said, the white female characters are also problematic in their own way. Fat Amy’s (Rebel Wilson, and that’s how the character is identified) humor came almost exclusively from her weight, while Stacie’s (Alexis Knapp) defining feature was her hypersexuality. And yet Lilly still rubbed me the wrong way the most, as her character’s humor was the only one that was strongly linked to her race.
An Asian actress could have played any of those other roles, but somehow the “quiet” trait–one of the biggest stereotypes about Asians–was the one assigned to Lee. In the same way that we hear jokes about Asian homelessness being a myth, a “Fat Lilly” or a hypersexualized Lilly would not have been seen as believable characters because these are traits not typically associated with Asians. But passivity? That’s something that Asians can always do. This was a conscious choice to make the character as easily understandable to the audience as possible, and drawing on racial stereotypes is one of the most efficient ways to do this.
The saddest part of all of this is that Lilly could have been a really badass character. Lee took beatboxing and scratching lessons with a DJ in preparation for her role, and yet we’re only given a two-second glimpse of her scratching in the ICCA finals (thought it was a pretty cool two seconds). But these possibilities are left behind in favor of boring, humorless “quiet Asian” jokes.
Maybe this wouldn’t have hit quite so hard if the only other Asian female were portrayed as a normal human being. Enter Kimmy Jin (Jinhee Joung), the Korean roommate of protagonist Becca (Anna Kendrick). If the Dragon Lady trope was watered down and embodied in an 18-year old college roommate-from-hell, it would take the form of Kimmy Jin. Though the movie only draws on the “cold and mean” aspects of the Dragon Lady, it draws on it pretty hard. Kimmy spends the majority of her screen time glowering at Becca, spurning any friendly advances she makes, and associating only with her brethren from the Korean Student Association.
Kimmy is initially so unrelentingly cold and silent towards Becca, that Becca even questions her ability to speak English. Hey Becca, here’s a thought: maybe Kimmy hates you because you assume she can’t speak English based on her race. Becca the protagonist also has a strange compulsion to refer to her roommate by her full name. It’s almost as though she’s afraid the viewers will forget Kimmy isn’t white if she just uses her first name. We get it–she’s Korean. You can just call her Kimmy.
Again we get a portrayal of an Asian who remains distant due to her lack of talking, who is not easily understood as a person and ultimately remains somewhat “mysterious.” What we end up walking away with from Pitch Perfect are two poor, highly limiting representations of Asian women in film. Asian women are either quiet to the point of having a speech pathology or, if they can talk, they are still cold and won’t say much to you. Either way, they are shown as being different, with that difference solidly rooted in their race.
Listen, I went to a high school and university that were both 50-75 percent Asian, and having grown up around Asian people for the majority of my life, I’d like to point something out that may not be evident from this movie: Asians are actually normal. They are, believe it or not, capable of speaking over 10 decibels, can be warm and friendly, and often even have friends outside their own race.
Shocking as this may seem, the writers of Pitch Perfect seem to be largely unaware of this. Overall, the movie is fun and lighthearted, but its enjoyability factor was reduced by the constant repetition of tired, racially based jokes.
Lee and Joung both played their parts admirably and drew laughs from the audience when they were on-screen, but it’s unfortunate that talented Asian-American actresses are forced into roles that lack depth and rely heavily on their race to sell jokes. With Asian visibility in the media slowly on the climb, we don’t have to settle for ethnic caricatures anymore. Let’s hope Hollywood realizes this and starts creating characters that aren’t reduced to their skin.
Nisha H. is a recent college graduate from the Bay Area. Having majored in Gender & Women’s Studies and Molecular Biology, she intends to eventually pursue medicine. In the meantime, she enjoys writing feminist and racial analyses of pop culture (see above).