Let me just say that this whole thing sucks. It’s not the worst thing in the world, there are far more important things to be angry about right now. Google “FCC net neutrality” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. But this doesn’t help, and it sucks. As I type, there is an unfinished draft I’m working on in my WordPress dashboard, “The 10 Best Episodes of How I Met Your Mother.” I love this show. I will defend this show. The show is like a concert that is still playing well into an encore set. Some people have already up and left for the parking lot. Others are standing with their arms crossed, just milling about until the band plays its final note. For me, I’m still cheering and screaming for the guys to keep on rocking.
Which I shouldn’t be. This week’s episode, titled “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra” is the ultimate cognitive dissonance. This is a real test to my love and devotion to something that — what others see is a television program — I see as both family and a comfort blanket. It is the show I put on Netflix after a trying day. It is what I put on before I head out to a party or bar crawl. It’s what I put on when I’m not quite mentally or emotionally prepared for a heavy drama. (Or a book.) It’s what I watch when I think a new fling is about to start. It’s what I watch when I’m heartbroken.
And this week they totally fucked up that goodwill I had towards it.
So what happened? This week’s episode, “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra,” is focused on Marshall telling his gang an elaborate tale about how he learned to strengthen his face-slapping skills. It’s silly to read that but it’s been a running gag since season two, so just go with it. The episode utilized old tropes and visual cues of kung-fu movies, and for the first few minutes I was absolutely thrilled. Unfortunately, those minutes passed and I was left looking at bad Halloween costumes.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The characters dressed up in costumes. And that’s it. Offensive costumes, costumes that strip mined generic Asian iconography and mutated it to look pseudo mystical and yellowperilish, but no one mimicked Mickey Rooney in Breaktfast At Tiffany’s. So there have been some progress in the last fifty or so years. Shitty progress. But still, progress. But still, also shitty.
I should have known something was going wrong from the beginning, but a part of me chose to ignore it. When Marshall began his story, he goes to a kung fu school asking for slap training. He’s turned away when the sifu tells him that kung-fu is an intricate, complicated martial art that is not to be taken lightly. Marshall again asks, how do I slap someone really hard? It’s a comedic moment, and the juxtaposition is played for laughs. That should have been the red herring for me, but it wasn’t. A little boy comes out of the corner and starts telling him — in a vaguely Engrish accent — about a magical slap technique. It has some mystical nonsense label, “The Slap of a Thousand Suns” (later changed to “Million”) that, again, is meant to evoke the absurdity of martial arts movies.*
Here’s what surprises me: I didn’t notice how white the characters were until Marshall was speaking to the little Asian boy. It should have been obvious way, way back in season two when Wayne Brady was introduced as Barney’s half-brother. It should have been obvious when Robin dated Enrique Iglesias and Kal Penn. It should have been obvious at literally every second in the past nine years, but for some reason it never clicked until Marshall was face to face with this little kid. “I know these characters are white, but they’re also so white” is something I recall saying to myself when I watched. Don’t be confused. I refer to their whiteness not by the literal skin color — there is and shouldn’t be absolutely anything wrong with that at all — but to their ideals. To their perceptions. “This is funny, right?” whiteness. The laughs that soared Psy to popularity in the western hemisphere whiteness. Dave Matthews Band whiteness.
It’s a common sitcom gag to replace the core characters of a show with different personas when spoofing genres. Look at Community to see how well it can be done. Marshall travels to Shanghai to meet the masters that will teach him slap-fu, and guess who the masters are:
Credit: Angry Asian Man.
What the fuck.
I again refer to Community. In true fashion when bullshit like the above happens, people who thought this wasn’t a big deal argue with their own: Community lampooned Italian culture in a mafioso-themed episode. Except that they didn’t. Community spoofed mafioso movies that happpen to feature ethnically Italian characters. The characters of Community spoofed the roles those characters function in the film, not the characters themselves. It also spoofed The Godfather right on the nose.
“Isn’t that what How I Met Your Mother is doing? With them fulfilling the role of kung-fu masters?” Yes, but also NO. For the record, real kung-fu masters do exist, and here’s what a real kung-fu master looks like:
I bend at the idea that HIMYM is spoofing kung-fu movies. There are plenty of stereotypes of that genre to pick a part from to form an “homage” of sorts. The Cabin in the Woods spoofed the horror genre, not any one particular movie. But what else could they do?
The answer: BE CREATIVE. Or, better yet, STEAL and BE CREATIVE about it.
How fucking awesome would it have been if the “kung-fu masters” that Robin, Lily, and Ted played weren’t tired old stereotypes but badasses straight out of a Jet Li epic? Imagine instead of being found in a noodle house wearing chopsticks in their hair, they were nomads, hermits, or nobles? Imagine Ted not in a fu manchu mustache, but a Sun Wukong or Ip Man costume. Imagine Lily not in that whatever the fuck she was wearing but instead in the elegant dress Hui Ying-Hung wore in My Young Auntie? It’s hard for maybe you or someone to imagine there’s a difference, but take it from a guy who watched these movies growing up: There is.
Back in October there was a big uproar over blackface and cultural misappropriation being stripped and regurgitated as bad Halloween costumes. Well, any Halloween that discussion rears its ugly head, but it was awful this past year. Predictably many people didn’t think it was a big issue, because perpetuating stereotypes OF COURSE doesn’t at all lead to the unspoken, unacknowledged treatment of entire populations as second- or third-class citizens, even if unintentionally. No, of course that doesn’t happen.
I wish not to restrict anyone’s freedoms (it’s hilarious I have to type that when talking about the freedom to ridicule entire people) but I’ve come to fully define my stance on the issue as thus: If you need to resort to cheap stereotypes, you fucking suck. Go ahead and wear it, but you still suck. And why do you suck? They key isn’t that you’re being funny, it’s that you’re not being funny well.
Making your characters spoof Asian isn’t bad by itself. Making them spoof horribly is the WORST.
I had just finished playing Sleeping Dogs DLC when I watched this week’s episode, specifically the one that spoofed movies like Enter the Dragon and The 36 Chambers, so to see this kind of genre masturbation from a show that is near and dear to my heart, hell yeah I was cheering along at the beginning. I lost it (in the good way) when the screen went black and the title of a faux kung-fu movies popped up the first time. I lost it (in the bad way) when I saw Ted’s fucking mustache. See, I trust Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and after this I still want to. They’re absolute pop culture geeks, from the winged eagle WWF/E belt to the Metropolis poster in Ted’s room, they have the intelligence of nerds but the appeal for a mainstream audience. It was always funny to me back in high school that The Big Bang Theory was perceived to be “the nerd show for nerds” when I always felt like HIMYM knew how to make nerd jokes — “You should have seen what I did after the Phantom Menace premiere,” Barney quirks about his decapitated Storm Trooper helmet that he threw up in just moments before — that didn’t come off as pandering. After the backlash showrunners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays apologized on Twitter, and they seemed genuinely sorry for it. I get that television has a fast turn around time, but there is also an intense pre-production phase. I ask this any and every time a similar fiasco happens: Did no one notice any of this was fucked up?
The show did redeem itself for me with a guest appearance by Boyz II Men, which makes this sucks even more. My favorite show and my favorite band in an episode that has my most HATED thing in all of pop culture.
I can’t help but remember how Marshall acted in the kung-fu school early in the episode. It sums up EVERYTHING that I hate about the reaction towards such faux pas. A white dude comes into a culturally sensitive ground with lame intentions. After being taught what it really is about, dude still ignores it for dumb fucking reasons.
Also, ignoring all of the yellowfaced nonsense, it was just a bad episode. Even if they did the kung-fu spoof well, it would not have salvaged this episode. Lowest point in the entire season, and we’re in the home stretch.
Dear Carter Bays and Craig Thomas,
I love you guys. But seriously, WTF? Sincerely, Eric.
*Isn’t “thousand suns” how the survivors described the nuclear bombs that were dropped in Japan, 1945?