The culture war is a conversation.
While it is ultimately a conflict, more often than not this takes the form of ideas and criticism being slung back and forth across the trenches. To be heard is a minor success, but to be actually understood is victory.
Within this conversation it’s undoubtedly artists, especially those who have garnered celebrity status, who have the most powerful voices.
In 2014 the eponymous host of The Colbert Report featured a segment on his show about “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”. Given his popularity it reached far and wide, and was eventually viewed by a Twitter activist who created the hashtag #CancelColbert in response.
As it was meant to call attention to and ridicule the outrageous fact that a national sports team is named after an ethnic slur the response was out of line. It was a classic case of [obvious] satire being taken the wrong way, but by inadvertently contributing to what has been dubbed “a fake year of outrage’ this person’s misstep resulted in others who campaign for better representation and the like being worse than silenced, which is to say, ignored.
Despite calling out from what is ostensibly the same side, the misstep of a single loud voice meant that others were unheard.
The exchange between artist and critic is rarely ever an even one, and only becomes more difficult given the sensitivity surrounding such personal creative endeavours.
Lena Dunham is the star and creator of HBO’s Girls, and received enough disapproval about the lack of diversity in a show set in New York City that she was asked about it by NPR. She responded that “[she takes] that criticism very seriously,” and that very same year had Donald Glover playing Hannah’s Black boyfriend on the show.
While the presence of Sandy on the dramedy was a beneficial one, with arguments between the two capturing the tension that can be present in interracial relationships [including such exchanges as: “I never thought about the fact that you were black once.” / “That’s insane. You should, because that’s what I am.”], Glover’s character faltered in that he was very much a response to criticism.
The Season 2 premiere, bearing the painfully self-aware title “It’s About Time”, features Hannah and Sandy having sex a scant three episodes in. As a stumbling block to their relationship the character’s political conservatism is interesting, but also bears the marks of a writer being overly conscious of audience’s expectations and seeking to overturn them.
In spite of their elevated status artists are nonetheless human like the rest of us. Given that their work, and consequently their own lives, are under such scrutiny it only makes sense that their contributions to that conversation might be touchy, to put it lightly. That being said, there’s always the idea of not taking part in it at all.
As the co-creator of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey shared in an interview with The Edit magazine that:”
“…my new goal is not to explain jokes. I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
At the Television Critics Association Awards the comedienne told Vox contributor Caroline Framke that:
In other words, Fey has declined to be a part of that conversation, at least as far as responding to criticism. While she is more than happy to create [which is her right and vocation as an artist] she does not express any real desire to engage with those who might be offended by her content.
While the concept of a creative who refuses to acknowledge negative responses to their art is a fascinating one, it’s also a near impossibility. Entertainment must be, by definition, entertaining, and one can only gauge their success by listening to their audience. There will always be voices of disagreement, and much of art is created with the effort to lessen the number of detractors, a portion of it is created with those voices in mind.
The issue is that, in spite of feigning disinterest in her critics, Fey takes part in creating an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that directly addresses them.
“Kimmy Goes to a Play!” is the third episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s 2nd season, and as straightforward a message to critics as there ever could be. It feels like the singular voice of a creator speaking to those who have found her art lacking, only that instead of online critics in general the focus is turned to Asian American activists.
Before the audience even sees who these people are they’re allowed to see what they stand for, with the group in question being-
When members of RAPE are finally seen on-screen they’re portrayed as, to take a page from Tumblr user kershima’s book, “unreasonable internet jerks who aren’t interested in a conversation, just in yelling at people”.
After falling into a literal panic over not being offended by the performance like she thought she would be one of the activists has trouble breathing-
Which, and some may miss this, is a direct reference to the final words of Eric Garner, a Black man who died after being put in an illegal chokehold by an NYPD officer. The slogan “I can’t breathe” has been adopted by Black Lives Matter activists as a rallying cry and reminder that their voices will not go unheard.
Here those three words are reduced to a joke that pokes fun at the oversensitivity of Asian Americans. Not content to stop there, the show actually has that very person beamed up to who knows where mere seconds later:
The message is clear.
“You’re not interested in conversation.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You would literally cease to exist if you didn’t have something to be outraged over.”
What’s more, by introducing the concept that the Asian American activists are protesting-
-and ultimately framing them as being in the wrong it excuses yellowface. The only ones who object to it being done are wilfully ignorant and almost effortlessly proven wrong, so how could the practice actually be offensive? Earlier on Titus, the character above, opines that the internet is “just anonymous hosers criticizing geniuses,” a statement that is likewise never refuted.
Two sides; hosers and geniuses. Less a culture war than one force completely routing the other, a more powerful and pervasive voice that presents ideas without concern for those who might wish to retaliate.
At almost any point in history this would be an ugly thirty minutes of television, but it only worsens when joins the chorus that has been belting out these past decades, and in particular throughout the last week.
Last Tuesday the Doctor Strange trailer premiered, featuring Tilda Swinton as the character of The Ancient One, originally an elderly Tibetan man.
Then on Friday a picture of Scarlett Johannson as she’ll be appearing in Ghost in the Shell was posted online, followed soon after by news that the studio had considered altering her digitally to make her appear more Asian.
“You’re so worthless to us that we would rather alter a White woman’s face than cast an actual Asian person.”
On that very same day the 2nd season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, with “Kimmy Goes to a Play” began streaming on Netflix.
The culture war is a conversation, and while some voices ought to be disregarded what ends up taking place, regardless of intention, is an exchange. Art is created and an audience response, and consequent art is affected in turn.
By “[opting] out” and exercising her “freedom not to care” in regards to critics, and especially those who are Asian American, Tina Fey communicates a very simple stance:
“I will continue to be heard, but I will not hear you.”
But even outside of an unwillingness to acknowledge detractors there’s a blindness and deafness to the cultural context in which her work exists. An episode in which a non-Asian person plays the role of an Asian has to occur within the same world where more White actresses playing Asian women have won Oscars than actual Asian actresses. It’s a world where rampant inequality exists in the entertainment industry in regards to Asians.
At the end of the day art is subjective, and others may have a completely different takeaway from “Kimmy Goes to a Play!”
The reality is that I can do just as much as anyone else, which is add my voice and my voice alone to the conversation.
For me, personally as an Asian-Canadian, “Kimmy Goes to a Play” feels like a gut punch.