In this supposed time of racial enlightenment, what's the difference between laughing at racism, and laughing with racism?

That's the question being posed by watchdog group Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which is targeting Fox's sketch show Mad TV and's animated series Mr. Wong for their buck-toothed, language-mangling portrayals of Asian Americans. Guy Aoki, president of the Los Angeles-based organization, says that in a time when "blackface" or other racial stereotypes are quickly condemned, "yellowface" gags, "dragon lady" references and Asian barbs still pass through unquestioned.

"It's kind of come back again," Aoki says. "It's this thing that, not matter how long we're in this country we're always put out as the foreigner, the racial oddball. We're just saying enough is enough."

Most recently, the group sent a letter to Fox, calling on the network to remove Mad TV's long-running character Miss Swan--a babbling nail salon owner with a weak grasp of the English language, who's played by non-Asian regular Alex Borstein. Aoki calls the portrayal "an affront to the Asian-American community."

"We've gotten a lot of complaints about this character," Aoki says. "We also don't feel comfortable that they have a white actress playing an Asian person. If you want to do this, why don't you get an Asian actress?"

Fox responded in a statement, saying that Mad TV is an equal-opportunity offender, and that in the tradition of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, "it relies on broadly drawn characters and caricatures of all races, religions and creeds.

"Miss Swan has been a part of the show for the past three seasons and is one of the most popular characters," the network says.

Miss Swan isn't the only character sparking debate. There's Mr. Wong,'s controversial animated series starring a slouching, narrow-eyed, yellow-skinned Asian man whose episodic adventures (with titles like "Yellow Fever") are introduced with a thunderous gong.

"They've got this sickly, yellow-skinned guy with buck teeth," Aoki says. "The humor is based on his race, and they haven't wanted to change the character. And Icebox is trying to get these things on TV."

Icebox, which bills itself as an edgy forum for writers to develop their ideas for television, defends its show with the requisite Internet defense--standing by the creative freedom of Mr. Wong's writers, which in turn gives viewers "the opportunity to view cutting-edge, unfiltered content."

"A series like Mr. Wong is an example of such freedom, and may not be to everyone's taste," the statement reads. "It is not our intention to offend our audience, but we believe the best programming has always come from pushing the established limits."

But "cutting edge" is up for debate, Aoki says, especially with Icebox's yellow, buck-toothed hero throwing karate chops and sporting a demeanor reminiscent of Mickey Rooney's Asian caricature in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

So, in this time of progressive thinking, are Mr. Wong and Miss Swan funny commentaries on old stereotypes, or just plain insulting?

Netizens have flooded discussion sites with debate over Mr. Wong's intent. Some Asian-Americans have acknowledged it's the kind of crude Internet humor that shouldn't be taken seriously. But others say it's a huge step backward in attempts to erase Asian stereotypes.

"This is powerful stuff," writes one viewer at soc.culture.asian.american. "Marriage of 1950s U.S. racism and Year 2000 technology. It's shocking to see such crude caricatures."

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Share

We and our partners use cookies on this site to improve our service, perform analytics, personalize advertising, measure advertising performance, and remember website preferences. By using the site, you consent to these cookies. For more information on cookies including how to manage your consent visit our Cookie Policy.