He Who Laughs Last. . .

30 Jun

Perhaps you’ve met Ranjit and Chad, the Indian pitchmen for Metro PCS who use strong accents, offbeat humor and a catchy ethnic soundtrack to sell the phone’s services. While many debate whether or not the campaign’s stereotypes are racist, offensive, or in bad taste, I don’t ask that question. On the surface, they are all of the above. But once viewers realize the true significance of Ranjit and Chad’s slapstick routine, they’ll see that it’s the duo and their Southeast Asian brothers and sisters who are getting the final laugh.

Every group introduced to mainstream America through media has been subjected to the same thing–overly-simplified stereotypes that boil a complex and diverse group of people down to a couple of silly cultural caricatures. Think of it a societal hazing: A right of passage that each emerging group in America must endure to before fully integrating into society. Classic westerns depict deeply tanned Whites with feathers, painted faces and broken English as Native Americans.

Classic TV women were always ditzy damsels or impossibly perfect housewives.  And don’t get me started on Blacks. Mammies or maids for women. Smiling, shuffling simpletons for men.

 Jackie Chan and other Asian Americans were reduced to culturally-awkward folk with bad English and a mystical mastery of warfare. Thankfully, the newest addition to America media have managed to speed up the process. One break-out television season or two, and America welcomes the group with open arms. But even in 2011, the introductory roasting continues. Homosexuals in media must be depicted as drama queens–always dramatic, flamboyant and the center of attention, before Apple Pie America can accept more complex and–gasp–masculine versions of men who like men. Lesbians in media are either overly masculine or overly sexualized. There is no in-between. And now Southeast Asians are getting their turn to be the butt of the jokes and the subject of mockery. Here, they are reduced to funny accents and failed and awkward attempts at acculturation.

But what happens when the hazing doesn’t end? When the silly stereotypes used to introduce a people to television, print and other media are stuck in American subconscious and are not replaced by more complex and realistic cultural depictions? When the debasing characterizations carry over from TV LAnd to reality?

Well, Ranjit and Chad won’t have to worry about that. While they’re masking their words in a heavy accents and dancing on television, the people they represent are busily making inroads in every segment of society. Who’s laughing now? I guess I should note that several more “Americanized” Indians have already successfully crossed over. It’s also important to note that those who’ve managed to escape the stereotype trap have abandoned their accents altogether.

 
But wait. Does crossing and acceptance mean being merely White Americans with different outer shells? Is that the ultimate goal? Is that the American dream? For each group to be so assimilated that all ethic characters are interchangeable pieces who each share the same experience and backgrounds.  Hmmmm. . .then who gets the last laugh?

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