Friday, June 5, 2015

Stop calling Emma Stone's character "Asian" you bourgeois dorks

Liberals are up in arms over the decision to cast cracker-white Emma Stone as a character who is a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian. Her Hawaiian identity is particularly central to her character: Entertainment Weekly describes her as a "Hula dancing expert with a functional knowledge of Hawaiian folk guitar who rhapsodizes about the islander spiritual energy mana" etcetera etcetera.

Sure, okay. Racist casting is gross. But why are we calling her Asian?

I really don't want to be pedantic about this or slap on the wrist people who've noticed an obvious problem, but I think the way they're articulating themselves demonstrates a real analytical poverty on the left. The Chinese and Polynesian cultures are radically different and distinct. It is an extremely relevant point that Stone's character is specifically Hawaiian, as opposed to literally anywhere else in Asia or the Pacific islands.

Lumping them all together as some generalized Other in a way that ignores absolutely crucial distinctions and specifications is more or less the dictionary definition of Orientalism. This is not some arcane academic point - it's an obvious problem with obvious historical consequences. In fact, turns out that Orientalism has been a much bigger problem for many, many more people than racist Hollywood casting is ever going to be. Why are we casually playing into this?

After all, if you want to talk about the heritage of Stone's character in a generalized way, there's a category that has the advantage of not being racist AND being a lot more analytically useful: proletariat. You can talk about how the bourgeois film producers are exploiting workers by trying to cast a rich person as someone they'll identify with, and then you can talk about how this exploitation parallels the bourgeoisie's historical exploitation of all kinds of cultures and peoples.

Alternatively, if you want to get specific and talk about race and culture, you can specifically talk about Chinese people, and then you can talk about Hawaiians. But there isn't some kind of middle ground where you get to mash those two histories together into one distinctively "Asian" experience, as if mere proximity imposes some kind of historical identity upon both.

What I'm really getting at here is that class is a great way to talk generally about these issues, and the alternatives are often variations on ad hoc cargo cult intersectionalism, riddled with precisely the inconsistencies and ideological grossness that the rigors of class analysis helps us avoid.