On Monday, the first day of school, we had the privilege of having Bee Vang, “Thao” in Gran Torino and Dr. Schein come and present a workshop about race, masculinity and media activism surrounding the movie “Gran Torino”.
“Thao” as well as Bee Vang are Hmong. The Hmong are a relatively unknown group of people because they do not have a nation-state. They are mountain people who live in Thailand, Laos and China. During the Vietnam War, Laos was considered neutral territory and therefore could not be used as a fighting zone. But the CIA, gave Hmong men guns and training and used them as a special “secret” army. Now many Hmong refugees from Laos live in the United States. I highly, highly recommend The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It explains a lot about the Hmong people and what it is like to be a refugee in a place that makes absolutely no sense to you.
I should explain that this is the first Hollywood film to show the Hmong people, it was thought that this would be the movie that made them famous, where people would finally learn who they were. Instead, it was a disgrace to Hmong traditions and culture.
What was so interesting about Bee Vang and Dr. Schein’s presentation was their discussion of the blantatly obvious immasculinity of Asians in Hollywood films and how this is somehow socially acceptable. Why, they asked, is it ok for the white perspective to dominate? Because we view “White” as postcultural, beyond race whereas groups like the Hmong have “too” much culture, that needs to be stripped away in order to assimilate to society, to become part of this universalized, postcultural culture.
When they started talking about the gender and sexuality attributes given to Asians in movies, I was honestly shocked at the vulgarness of it. I am so used to seeing things like that, that I wasn’t even noticing them happening. It is so depressing to me. The example they used was the scene from “The Hangover” where they begin to drive in the car, they find a shoe that appears to be a women’s shoe that’s a men’s size 6, then a used condom. Next they hear some banging in the trunk and think it’s their friend. Instead it is an Asian man, who does not speak clear English, does karate and beats up 3 people, where he says “are you going to fuck on me?” There’s this implication for some reason that Asian men are homosexuals and are always the ones “taking” rather than receiving. The white man is normalized, the Asian man is desexualized or feminized, and the black man is hypersexualized.
In the movie Gran Torino in the barbershop scene, Thao is called a “dick smoking gook”. I’m not going to explain what that term means here, but it’s worse than you can imagine. Hollywood terms movies like “The Hangover” or name-calling “comedy”. In reality, all of these movies are perpetuating the stereotypes we like to believe exist less these days. “White people sell movies”. We have to find a way to counter the hegemony not only of hollywood, but the discourse of media. If we continue to let things like the scene in The Hangover “slide” we are accepting a racist reality.
I don’t want to go into all of Bee Vang’s stories about his experience with Hollywood here, but let’s just say that I could not believe the insensitivity given to the Hmong on the set. They even had a cultural consultant on set and this movie “claims” to have gotten approval from the Hmong community, but let’s face it. Hollywood wants money and they could care less who they bring down to get there. Racism sells. That’s why the Asian guy in the Hangover is “so funny”.
This workshop frustrated me but also made me extremely happy that there are people like Bee Vang and Dr. Schein out there. Now it is our job to help promote this awareness, just like I’m trying to do here. I can’t give justice to how wonderful the presentation was here, but I hope this gives you all some insight into this notion. I hope it helps you understand that there is always more than one way to see a story. Sometimes it feels like things are meant to be the way they are, I’m here to tell you there’s always room and time for change.
If you’re interested in seeing a visual understanding of racism, go to youtube and watch the Gran Torino Barber Shop Scene. Then watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMaIOFMg64M which is Bee Vang’s recreation of this scene where they play extreme Asian stereotypes to show how ridiculous stereotypes are. The most interesting to me, is the guy barber, who instead of just being a “normal” Asian, he embraces his homosexuality and in this respect, gives himself agency and surpasses the hegemonic subjectivity.