The Asian guy in 'Get Out' is just another tired portrayal of Asians in Hollywood
The results are in: Get Out is a modern masterpiece. Jordan Peele's directorial debut boasts a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was celebrated by critics for slyly obliterating the myth of a post-racial America by twisting horror-film conventions into social farce.
The horror in Get Out is framed around an innocent concept: Chris, a young photographer, is meeting his girlfriend's parents. "Do they know I'm black?" he asks Rose, as he gets ready to leave his Brooklyn apartment. The next day, at a cocktail party at Rose's parents' bucolic country estate, a gaggle of rich white liberals approach Chris with cringe-worthy banter. "I do know Tiger [Woods]," says a white golf pro, unprompted. A little later, an older white woman asks Rose, "Is it true what they say?" gesturing toward Chris' crotch.
Get Out explores the effects of white privilege in relation to black bodies, with one exception: a Japanese character named Hiroki Tanaka. He's a flyby character — go to the bathroom and you'll miss him — and an important symbol of nonwhite sources of black oppression.
Tanaka, seemingly out of nowhere, asks Chris, "Is the African-American experience an advantage or a disadvantage?" His presence is jarring, both because race is framed as a black-and-white issue up until that point and because Tanaka, the only guest who's without a partner (minus a blind man), delivers the question in a thick Japanese accent — in a rare twist, Tanaka is portrayed by an actual Japanese person, Yasuhiko Oyama. The trope of the neutered Long Duk Dong foreigner in a self-proclaimed "woke" horror film? Scary!
As a Japanese man myself, Tanaka's stereotypical setup left me stunned and confused. Symbols are powerful, but so is representation. Although Tanaka symbolized a vital point about nonwhite complicity, his representation felt one-dimensional, his setup hasty and unresolved. As the token Asian guy, Tanaka's character, whitewashes all Asians into the model minority. It's no coincidence he's Japanese, what comedian Ali Wong calls "fancy Asians."
The myth of the model minority — diligent, subservient, mathematically inclined high-achievers — situates Asians in opposition to blackness, obliterating any solidarity. Both minority groups share similar experiences when it comes to misrepresentation and erasure in Hollywood. The model minority myth also negates more specific issues like the bamboo ceiling and the stereotype of the emasculated, undesirable Asian-male-turned-punchline for Steve Harvey's talk show.
Since Get Out is a social commentary, Peele probably intended Tanaka's accent to signify that anti-black racism spans continents, that even an inscrutable foreigner has access to privileged white spaces that both exclude and commodify black bodies. His presence as the lone Asian at a party full of white couples hammers home Tanaka's role as a symbol, a comical, self-aware commentary on historical caricatures of Asianness. His question about the "African-American experience" could acknowledge his lived awareness that race is a construct, with a specific set of privileges and hardships the white guests seem happy to ignore.
That's a lot riding on the shoulders of one character given one line to recite in less than a minute of screen time.
Still, Tanaka sparked compelling conversations about Peele's intentions in relation to Asian privilege.
For some, Tanaka's character represented a call to action.
"Now it's our job, as Asians, to recognize our complacency under the canopy of white supremacy and realize that like black folks, we have nothing to gain by siding with whiteness," NextShark's Ranier Maningding wrote. "It's time we wake the fuck up and 'Get Out' of this cycle of anti-blackness."
Would Peele's point about anti-blackness been lost if he created a Japanese character who wasn't so blatantly other? What if he was American and partnered, like everyone else at the party? What if, in making his very important point, he didn't bolster tired representations of the perpetual foreigner?
Based on the commercial success of Get Out, it's worth considering that Tanaka is one of the most prominent depictions of an Asian person moviegoers will see this year, at least until whatever John Cho has coming out next. This says more about Hollywood, where Peele knows firsthand that roles for minorities are rare commodities, so it's a pity he couldn't present Tanaka with a little more grace.
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