Oh, man. As if we needed another reminder as to why cartoon art is a medium that can be used for evil as easily as good, comes now the next installment in a series of racist National Review covers trafficking in Asian stereotypical imagery.
You’ll remember, of course, that back in March 1997, the National Review released the infamous “Manchurian Candidates” cover seen here (which, due to the fact that the Internet was just a tot when that slice of tripe hit the newsstands, I was only able to find in embedded in a journal article written by Darrell Hamamoto, w00t!).
Asian Americans understandably reacted with stunned rage at the depiction of then-President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and Vice-President Al Gore in stereotypical Chinese garb, their features warped into exaggerated Asian caricatures (slanted eyes, buck teeth).
The National Review was unrepentant in the face of charges that the cartoon was offensive and inflammatory, responding, in part, that:
Caricatures and cartoons …require exaggerated features and, where a social type is portrayed, a recognizable stereotype. Thus, a cartoonist who wants to depict an Englishman will show him wearing a monocle and bowler hat, a Frenchman in beret and striped jersey, a Russian in fur hat, dancing the gopak, etc.
The first point can’t entirely be disputed: The cartoon medium often uses simplified, exaggerated features for emphasis, for satirical purpose and for ease in depicting broad emotion.
But it’s one thing to exaggerate features — Obama’s protruding ears invariably become giant jug-handles when he’s rendered, for instance. The Mike Ramirez cartoon below actually essentializes Obama’s appearance down to his ears — and still manages to make its point clear.
It’s another to incorporate racialized features that weren’t there to begin with: For instance, consider these images — a caricature of Obama from an “Obama Waffles” package, as gleefully sold during the right-wing ” Values Voters Summit,” and a close-up of Obama’s official portrait from his days as Senator from Illinois.
Apart from being overtly racist, the caricature on the box doesn’t remotely resemble Obama — with its pop-eyed expression, darkened skin, enormous, toothy grin and thick lips, it looks a lot more like…well, the picture below can speak for itself, I guess.
Going back to the National Review “Manchurian Candidates” cover now, what you see is that there’s more going on in the images of the Clintons and Gore than the typical flamboyant exaggeration used in cartooning. In addition to Bill’s bulbous nose and Gore’s pursed, almost sneering lips (both typical of their respective caricatures), you see…hmm…narrowed eyes… oversized, bucked teeth… a Fu Manchu moustache– hey, just about every racist synecdoche in the anti-Asian propaganda library! (At least the stuff that belongs above the waist.)
Just to be clear here: It’s one thing if they were simply drawn in Chinese clothing or doing quaint folkdances, as suggested by the National Review in its disgenuous response. That would arguably be in-bounds satirically (regardless of whether you find the political point being made to be fair or accurate).
But layering yellowface-propaganda memes into the picture transforms the caricature from an act of humor into an act of war. The images to the right are examples of what I’m talking about.
Even if you’re insensitive enough to racial propriety to want to give white people Asian features in order to prove a political point, that simply isn’t what Asian people look like, and never has been. The squinty, buck-toothed Asian person with bright yellow skin and eyes angled at ten minutes to two does not exist in nature. However much you soften it, those false features are in fact weapons of mass destruction, artifacts of an era where it was used to dehumanize the enemy enough so they could be killed without compunction.
For that reason, there’s no acceptable way they should be invoked in a casual popular context, any more than minstrel stereotypes or anti-semitic “Elders of Zion” caricatures have a place in everyday culture. Discouragingly, they remain persistent in media today — from entertainment (see left: Rob Schneider in 2007’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry“) to news and commentary. Well, actually not most news and commentary — it’s really only the profoundly racist right-wing organs that still blithely fart out the yellowface imagery. Like, for instance…the National Review.
This cover to the right is the current issue of the magazine, on stands now. As you can see, it depicts Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as the Buddha. Despite the fact that Sotomayor is Catholic and a Latina woman. While the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, was Hindu (before the whole Bodhi tree thing), and an Asian man.
The caption, “The Wise Latina,” frankly offers no real f*cking explanation for the image. I suppose it’s because the Buddha was wise, although you could just as easily have depicted Sotomayor as King Solomon if you’re looking for a legendary figure of wisdom; maybe it’s because to the raving radical Right, Buddha is seen as a proto-hippie and probably a pansy too, while King Solomon, that guy threatened to cut babies in half — not very pro-life, but not “empathetic” either. Badass!
But seriously: If they wanted a figure of wisdom and empathy, why not caricature Sotomayor as someone who’s of the right gender and a coreligionist, at least: Mother Teresa? That would have preserved the necessary level of corrosive offensiveness, right? Too close to home?
Whatever. As it is, the cover is just stupid and meaningless, as well as offensive — to women, to Latinas, to Buddhists of all backgrounds (note: The National Review guys are of the same ilk that went ballistic when Rolling Stone depicted Kanye as Jesus)…
…and yes, to Asians. But it bears mentioning that it registers as EPIC FAIL even in the offending Asians category.
Because, unlike their “Manchurian Candidates” cover, where at least they picked the correct racist stereotypes to parade, the “Wise Latina” cover puts the hideously slanted eyes and bucked teeth of East Asian yellowface stereotype onto an image inspired by a Northern Indian man of Brahmin descent.
In fact…. you can see the original image of Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha that the artist used as a reference (it’s actually quite a popular icon). Notice any differences?
As usual, National Review has been quick with a completely absurd and totally disingenuous retort to the appalled reactions they’ve been getting from, you know, everyone. From editor-in-chief Rich Lowry:
I take it the theory is that we don’t think Latinas can be wise so we had to make her look somewhat Asian. Or something like that. What these people don’t understand is the entire concept of caricature (or of a joke). Caricature always involves exaggerating someone’s distinctive features, which is all that our artist Roman Genn did with Sotomayor. Oh, well. Keep it humorless, guys, keep it humorless.
No, Rich, the theory is that you took a Latina woman and turned her into a North Indian man with horribly racist East Asian-stereotypical features because you guys are clueless morons. And actually, that’s kind of funny, in that Lowry and the National Review don’t quite get that the joke, ultimately, is on them.
NEW! Kate M. pointed out an image similar to the one of Sotomayor as the “wise Latina.” This one is of Newt Gingrich as a “guru” and ran in the liberal magazine Mother Jones:
Is this more or less offensive than the Sotomayor example cover? The thing that I think distinguishes the two is that Gingrich’s features are not exaggerated into a warped stereotype of Asian features, possible the most offensive element of the Sotomayor caricature.
Jeff Yang is the editor-in-chief at Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Blog and the Asian Pop columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. You can follow him on Twitter and friend him on Facebook.
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Duran — June 19, 2009
I'd love to see what us WASPs look like when painted in caricature by Asian, African, and middle-Eastern cultures. Any links?
Trabb's Boy — June 19, 2009
Your assessment seems spot on. The thing about using group stereotypical features in caricatures is that it is making some broad statement about the group. Sometimes, it's just emphasizing "otherness," as with the exaggerated slanted eyes in East Asian stereotypes, and sometimes it's pointing out some supposed character flaw in that group, as with the bug eyes intended to say that black people are stupid and easily scared.
When you see this sort of thing used against white people, which you certainly do, it is a broad brush saying that whites are smug, beligerant, stupid, callous, etc. It is just as unfair a sweeping generalization, but from the position of privilege that whites hold, we can take it. It doesn't threaten our exalted position. That is why it is not offensive. For people who have to be smarter, work harder, and get luckier than most whites in order to get ahead in the world, sweeping generalizations interfere with the attempt to achieve social parity, so it is offensive.
I've always thought that the philosophy of Democrats could be summed up as "Kick up. Kiss down." For Republicans, it is "Kiss up. Kick down." How's that for a sweeping generalization?
Duran — June 19, 2009
>> I’ve always thought that the philosophy of Democrats could be summed up as “Kick up. Kiss down.”
>> For Republicans, it is “Kiss up. Kick down.” How’s that for a sweeping generalization?
Um. You're forgetting about small family farmers (courted via ridiculous subsidies by Republicans), and Hollywood and trial lawyers (lustily courted by Democrats), all of which are exceptions to your generalizations. But maybe that was your point. One can only wish that our political parties espoused as simple principles as "kiss up, kick down". In truth, the only real principle is "money to my constituents, nothing to yours". However, it is held equally by both parties, which makes tarring with the big brush much easier.
Trabb's Boy — June 19, 2009
Duran, Oh, please. There are very few "small family farmers" anymore. The subsidies are marketed to the public that way but they almost exclusive go to giant agrobusiness firms now. And the whole point of trial lawyers is to give individuals a small opportunity to fight giant, filthy rich corporations.
I'm sorry to get off topic here, but really, your examples stink.
Sarah — June 19, 2009
Another possible reason that the National Review chose to portray Sotomayor as the Buddha: many representations of the Buddha (though not the particular one that this cover was based on) depict him as quite fat. Shall we add sizeism to this cover's list of offenses?
Duran — June 19, 2009
Dude, there are way more family farmers than there are major Hollywood personas and rich trial lawyers. Look it up. The Republicans have also been supremely effective at building up a cult of belief in the family farmer as an American good (while kowtowing to agribusiness).
Please explain to me how a law firm taking 30% of a major torts award is in any way fair, beneficial to this country's culture, beneficial to this country's economy, or beneficial to the victims.
Oh, while you're coming up with bullshit, please also explain how awarding millions of dollars to a victim is in any way useful for our economy or culture.
maotsedan — June 19, 2009
just a quick note: thanks for doing what you do - this post is a reason I LOVE this blog!
F. — June 19, 2009
The post mentioned "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"... don't forget Eddie Murphy in "Norbit" doing yellowface as "Mr. Wong."
As for cartoons, I'm surprised this particular cartoon published last year wasn't mentioned: Hillary Clinton, Obama and Bush Jr. with exaggerated Asian physical features poking a caged John McCain with sticks, a sick and insulting reference to his years tortured by the Viet Cong. http://www.racialicious.com/2008/08/04/rolling-stone-cartoon-gook-ifies-mccains-opponents/
I'm not attempting to defend the "National Review"... but the "right wing" media isn't the only user of this sort of imagery. That McCain cartoon was published and defended by Rolling Stone.
Asians are always easy targets when it comes to vilification and mockery in any American cultural arena, including politics.
Hillary Clinton's physical depiction in particular has been negatively associated with the Chinese or with Asians repeatedly... in the 1999 NR cover, the McCain cartoon, and Matt Drudge poked fun at her last year as "Feeling Japanese" http://thinkprogress.org/2009/02/03/drudge-hillary-japan/
TF — June 19, 2009
Just a note on the example of Sotomayor given. I have to say that when I first saw the image, I just thought of it as caricature, and nothing more. I completely disagree that it is "yellowface" imagery. Just as the poster pointed out that Obama is caricatured with large ears, Sotomayor is caricatured with "slant eyes" and "bucked teeth", because her eyes do resemble what westerners consider "asian" eyes, and she has a large toothy smile. Look at the photo of her in wikipedia, and look at the cover again. It's a caricature, nothing more.
As for the Buddha imagery, I thought it was just a comment on both her "wisdom" quote, and for her judicial history and perceived political views. Many political analysts have discussed her as a political moderate, a centrist, someone who isn't really leaning right or left. I thought the Buddha image was playing off the media perception that Sotomayor walked "the middle path", and was a judge who looked at things neutrally and reasonably, rather than as someone who held extreme viewpoints either right or left.
I don't know, I could just be naive, but I wouldn't be so quick to shout "racism".
Elena — June 19, 2009
Duran: "I’d love to see what us WASPs look like when painted in caricature by Asian, African, and middle-Eastern cultures. Any links?"
You can see some XIXth century Japanese woodblocks portraying westerners here, for example. For a more modern, pop-cultural view, follow the pointers at the TV Tropes page for Phenotype Stereotype.
Elena — June 19, 2009
Sarah: "many representations of the Buddha (though not the particular one that this cover was based on) depict him as quite fat"
That's not Buddha (who was a rather ascetic guy), that's Budai/ Hotei, one of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Sarah — June 19, 2009
Elena: Thanks for the clarification.
Liz — June 20, 2009
Thank you for sharing Jeff! Your analysis is Spot-On. I'll be checking out your blog soon.
Mac Mintaka — June 20, 2009
A coincidence has me working on my own representation of the Buddha, tonight.
Mac Mintaka — June 20, 2009
A coincidence has me working on my own representation of the Buddha tonight.
Jess — June 22, 2009
Rob Scheider is part Filipino.
F. — June 23, 2009
Jess, just because he is part Asian doesn't excuse him from or justify him for mocking Asians.
Aya — July 5, 2009
Hm, I found it a bit strange that you apply this "slanted eyes, buck teeth" stereotype to "Asians". I think all of such images I saw, just as the pictures posted in your entry, are showing one exact sort of Asian people - Japanese.
Please correct me if I'm wrong, please.
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