Pitch Perfect And Its Far-From-Perfect Portrayal of Asian-American Women

By Guest Contributor Nisha H.

Cast poster for the film “Pitch Perfect.” Via mockingjay.net.

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.

Hana Mae Lee as Lilly in “Pitch Perfect.” Via 8asians.com.

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 Onthe 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.

(L-R) Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Becca (Anna Kendrick), Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) via craveonline.com.

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.

Jinhee Joung, who plays Kimmy in “Pitch Perfect.” Via imdb.com.

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).

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.marsan.39 John Marsan

    My favorite (played by Jinhee Young) and least favorite characters (Hana Mae Lee) in the movie are the two asian girls.

  • TheBaker xx

    I totally agree with you.

    The movie was enjoyable as a whole but the Asian stereotype made me cringe. They were so blatant about it too. The moment I saw Kimmy bring quiet and all, I was like Noooo… I know how it’s gonna be for the rest of the movie regards to her character.

    And I hate it that Lily was portrayed as a weird Asian. To hear “I ate my twin in the womb” is really weird. Given that some may argue that despite of her weirdness, she was still accepted by the group. That is beside the point. We are talking about racial stereotypes here.

    On a lighter note, I love Fat Amy. She was hilarious.

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  • p

    A million points to you for posting this!!

  • Mica

    I agree that the portrayals of the Asian
    Americans in this movie drew from stereotypes, especially in the case of Kimmy,
    but I disagree that it was to the extent the author is suggesting. For example
    I do think Lilly’s quietness did initially strike me as another Asian stereotype
    but watching her throughout the movie, she became one of my two favorite characters. She said what was on her mind even if people
    didn’t listen, she had her own style, and wasn’t afraid to be weird. I disagree
    with the author when she says she “she becomes wholly unrelatable to
    movie-going audiences due to the combination of her eccentricity and lack of
    audible speech.” Yes, I agree that people do not expect these random thoughts
    coming from the “quiet” girl, but I think this is why I connected to her. I
    along with my best friend, I usually say offhand things under my breath, and I
    thought it was great that Lilly got to be portrayed as the unique/weird girl
    without being ostracized from the group.

    While it may not have been the best
    portrayal of Asian Americans (it’s hard to say what would be, given the
    diversity of personalities and traits of Asian Americans) I definitely
    preferred it to the tired “piano-playing prodigy.” I also disagree that Rebel Wilson’s character,
    aside from her calling herself “Fat Amy,” gets most of her laughs from her
    weight. I think it comes from her willingness to do or say whatever she wanted,
    and her genuinely comedic improv skills. She was confident, talented, and my
    other favorite character alongside Lilly.

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  • http://blog.leeandlow.com/ Hannah

    Thank you so much for posting this. This is *exactly* how I felt watching the movie, too. It’s frustrating because aside from the terrible Asian stereotypes (there were others, but I think the Asian ones were far and away the worst) I found the movie to be pretty enjoyable and funny. I hate that the lazy use of bad stereotypes ruined what would otherwise be an awesome guilty pleasure movie, and it brings up a question which I come back to often: how much are you allowed to enjoy something when you know it is problematic?

    Because of that, what’s been hard for me is finding the right way to talk about the movie with people. I happened to get tickets to an early screening, so I ended up seeing it before most people, and a lot of my friends were really excited about it. When they asked me how it was, it was hard to know exactly what to say. If I just said, “It was really funny,” I felt like I’d be complicit in endorsing some of the movie’s problematic stereotypes. But when I tell people about the race issues the movie has, usually their eyes glaze over or they just write me off as nitpicky about race issues (especially since I am almost always the person among my friends to bring those issues up).

    It’s annoying that so often when I like a movie or TV show, there’s a “but” that comes with it. I don’t want to sound like a broken record about race issues, but on the other hand, if I don’t point them out I feel like I’m part of the problem.

  • http://blog.leeandlow.com/ Hannah

    Thank you so much for posting this. This is *exactly* how I felt watching the movie, too. It’s frustrating because aside from the terrible Asian stereotypes (there were others, but I think the Asian ones were far and away the worst) I found the movie to be pretty enjoyable and funny. I hate that the lazy use of bad stereotypes ruined what would otherwise be an awesome guilty pleasure movie, and it brings up a question which I come back to often: how much are you allowed to enjoy something when you know it is problematic?

    Because of that, what’s been hard for me is finding the right way to talk about the movie with people. I happened to get tickets to an early screening, so I ended up seeing it before most people, and a lot of my friends were really excited about it. When they asked me how it was, it was hard to know exactly what to say. If I just said, “It was really funny,” I felt like I’d be complicit in endorsing some of the movie’s problematic stereotypes. But when I tell people about the race issues the movie has, usually their eyes glaze over or they just write me off as nitpicky about race issues (especially since I am almost always the person among my friends to bring those issues up).

    It’s annoying that so often when I like a movie or TV show, there’s a “but” that comes with it. I don’t want to sound like a broken record about race issues, but on the other hand, if I don’t point them out I feel like I’m part of the problem.

  • J.

    “a hypersexualized Lilly would not have been seen as believable
    characters because these are traits not typically associated with
    Asians.”

    I disagree. The hypersexual East Asian woman is not all that uncommon a stereotype.

  • samira

    I liked the movie, but I found the representation of people of color very off-putting. Not only were the two Asian-American actresses that you mentioned playing characters that relied on cheap stereotypes for laughs, the other person of color, Ester Dean (playing Cynthia Rose) was also a bundle of stereotypes. Not only was her “otherness” emphasized by her being the only African-American woman in the group, she was also a lesbian and had a gambling problem. While both of these could have been explored in a meaningful way, the movie took both of them as excuses to make horrid jokes (“oh she’s a lesbian! how awkward…”).

    The thing that’s even more frustrating though, is that Ester Dean is a solid pop songwriter (making hits for Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna) and is signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Why couldn’t she have been an integral character in Pitch Perfect who helped to remix songs along with Anna Kendrick’s Beca? Why was she reduced to a series of outlandish stereotypes, just like the two Asian-American actresses in the film?

    I liked it, but…the treatment of people of color was awful.

    • Emma

      I totally agree, I was floored by the way she/her character were treated. Especially the whole aggressive lesbian who’s just trying to cop a feel all the time…really messed up.