On Race in Pitch Perfect: In Dialogue, There is Hope

Kimmy Jin

An ongoing (and ultimately uplifting) message board conversation I had around the representation of Asian Americans in Pitch Perfect (2012). It began in March 2013 with a third party’s statement:

SherylLC: I loved the movie overall, but what was with the tired Asian cliches?

RottenBeauty: Yes, I know personally any time I see a white person who is not 100% friendly I think it is because the creators just hate white people. [/sarcasm]

Me (WhatShihSaid): @RottenBeauty: That’s not quite the same, though, is it? White people have the privilege of being widely represented, such that ‘whiteness’ is not referred to as visible Otherness. So, when a white character behaves poorly, we don’t associate the bad behavior with whiteness. We think of it as a standalone act.

It’s markedly different with minorities. First of all, how many Asian Americans do we see in film and on television? Not many. So few, in fact, that we naturally see every Asian American character as a prototype – representing not only their own person, but also an entire race (the term ‘race’ is based on Census categorization, not on my own opinion).

And it’s not just in film and on television. If a white man shoots down an entire theater or school, we don’t comment on his whiteness. Again, it’s seen as a standalone, individual act. If an Asian or Black man does it, you bet that’s the first thing reported. When you’re a minority, you are so underrepresented that every instance of representation is assumed to speak for the entire category.

So, I do think it matters that – when there are less than twenty Asian characters with significant parts in film and television every year – that the two Asian characters in this film perpetuate existing stereotypes. Because right here, we have 10% of the year’s quota, and that 10% says some pretty negative things that the audience will take to represent 100% of the Asian American population.

Not quite the same.

RottenBeauty: Oh but it is…exactly the same. Because if you see an Asian character behaving like a bitch and you make any kind of assumption about Asian people…you are stupid. Being widely represented isn’t a privilege and the blatant and repeated misuse of that word is getting ridiculous.

Asking to be treated differently is asking for privilege, which is not something any ‘group’ majority or minority should ask for.

There are stereotypes about any and every ‘kind’ of person that exists, some of them have roots in reality, others pure fiction and none of it harmful in and of itself.

What people remove from situations is intention, offense is something people take but is rarely given. Every individual movie, setting, casting situation, those involved should be assessed on an individual basis, because to tar it with ‘this is how Hollywood thinks of [insert apparent minority]’, it is too broad and rarely focused on anything useful or even vaguely solid.

Racism exists, homophobia exists, sexism exists, bigotry in all of it’s forms exists…but you that doesn’t mean you need to try and see them where they don’t exist.

Should we address a culture that supports and condones bigotry? Hell yes. But just because a person featured within a film, or television or even in real life acts a certain way and happens to fit under the banner of some minority does not mean that it was ABOUT that minority. A sense of logic is what should prevail.

And then there is, of course, the fact that some of the minority characters in this film…where the best characters in the film.

Sensitivity is not a bad thing, up until a point. I have seen a LOT of this ‘check your privilege’ (I’m not saying that this is YOU in particular) that attempts to make a basic, primitive and baseless assumption about how ‘privileged’ people are based on race, gender, sexual orientation, HEIGHT, weight, religion, physical status and gives you a ‘score’ that seems to be letting you know how loudly you are allowed to complain.

None of which is helpful, all it does is further alienate people and point out the apparent differences between people who are, let’s face it, just NOT that different. It pushes yet more stereotypes about people based on race, gender and a bunch of other things. I has good intentions . . . but it fails on almost every level because it removes the human factor, the essence of an individual.

Racism (and it’s relatives homophobia and sexism) is a word that is used…with far too much ease and without real effort to have or reach an understanding. Which is a shame, in my opinion, because it tends to dilute the genuine issues that exist within the world.

A white person may be able to see a whole bunch of white people at any given moment…but I think there is something wrong in a culture that calls that ‘representation’. I would never want to identify as white…that is far too broad a term, hell most people I have ever hated have been white by sheer statistics. People can choose to identify however they wish, but I personally consider it ridiculous to define yourself by something that is such a small part of WHO you are.

Congratulations if you are still with me at this point, I am 30-odd hours without sleep and everything I write now feels somewhat like a stream of consciousness that I hope at least makes sense on a fundamental level, even if you don’t agree with it.

Me (WhatShihSaid): Frankly, your post is a bit scattered. But I’ll do my best to respond, because I believe in dialogue:

Being widely represented isn’t a privilege and the blatant and repeated misuse of that word is getting ridiculous. Asking to be treated differently is asking for privilege, which is not something any ‘group’ majority or minority should ask for.

Hm. You don’t think being the only race (Census category) that is widely represented in film/television is ‘different’ treatment from, say, every other racial group that can’t enjoy the same level of exposure?

You mistake privilege for something that must be asked for. It’s possible – and more often the case – that people enjoy privilege without asking for it. They don’t ask for it, but they don’t refuse it (or extend it to others), either.

But just because a person featured within a film, or television or even in real life acts a certain way and happens to fit under the banner of some minority does not mean that it was ABOUT that minority. A sense of logic is what should prevail.

Well, yes. It should. But it doesn’t. And that’s the problem.

I have seen a LOT of this ‘check your privilege’ (I’m not saying that this is YOU in particular) that attempts to make a basic, primitive and baseless assumption about how ‘privileged’ people are based on race, gender, sexual orientation, HEIGHT, weight, religion, physical status and gives you a ‘score’

I’m sure there are those that do so, but I haven’t. So, even though you deny that this is about me necessarily, you are implying that it’s relevant to the points I made. And it’s not. I have no desire to score privilege. But I do believe it’s important to address and unpack.

that seems to be letting you know how loudly you are allowed to complain.

If your knee-jerk assumption about my post is that it comes from a place of indulgent griping, then you mistake me and embarrass yourself.

I would never want to identify as white . . .that is far too broad a term, hell most people I have ever hated have been white by sheer statistics.

That’s my point. You have the luxury of identifying as an individual, and not as some representative of all white people. Minorities don’t. Believe me, I’d love to. I’m not relegated to stereotype and category by personal choice. Few people are.

All in all, I suggest you engage more with sociological texts. None of what I’m saying is new. The research is out there, if you care to confront it.

RottenBeauty: I thank you for your concern I can assure you that I don’t feel embarrassed, except in some small way when you talk about not having a ‘choice’ in how other people see you . . .as though that is something exclusive to a minority of any kind.

We don’t, any of us, get to decide how other people see us.

Privilege can indeed be ‘given’ but the notion that seeing pale faces is a privilege in any way is ridiculous and antiquated. Minorities, majorities, in betweens can identify as whatever you want to, pretending otherwise is ridiculous. If you choose not to that is your call, but you should not pretend that someone in a minority has no choice in the matter.

To be honest it seems like a weird . . .standpoint, it is flagrantly untrue to begin with and takes away a basic power that is yours to take any time you want.

I did not state that you endorsed such lists but I was drawing a comparison in thought processes, one that seems to simply something and in the process . . .kind of loses out on some important details.

Every day of any person’s life involves people defining them, pigeonholing them, breaking them down into labels and/or stereotypes that may or may not fit or feel important.

On the topic of Pitch Perfect; every single one of those characters within the movie had serious personality flaws. Every depicted rage, gender and sexuality had negative traits so I cannot see any logical reasoning or rationale for why the two Korean characters to be an exception. I don’t see a reason to create rules due to race, that doesn’t seem inclusive at all to me, merely a well intended but short sighted effort the again only highlights the apparent differences.

Me (WhatShihSaid):

We don’t, any of us, get to decide how other people see us.

True, we don’t get to decide absolutely. But some have quite a bit more sway than others. And there are some patterns in how each minority group is generally perceived. It’s beyond just not being able to decide. Because the perception isn’t random.

Privilege can indeed be ‘given’ but the notion that seeing pale faces is a privilege in any way is ridiculous and antiquated.

I’m curious to see your research. Because the notion of white privilege is pretty well-documented by social sciences. So, where’s your research – proven to have statistical significance – that debunks the salience of white privilege? Otherwise, you’re just talking out of a hat. Which is fine, but forgive me if I lose interest. I’d like to see ‘ridiculous’ backed by some reputable data, please and thank you.

a basic power that is yours to take any time you want.

Power isn’t just in the faculty of doing something. It’s also in the ability we have to influence. So, sure – a biological male can identify as a woman, but until she convinces others that she IS a woman, her passport’s going to say ‘male.’ No one’s going to let her into a woman’s bathroom. She might even get beat up for wearing a woman’s clothes.

Similarly, an Asian American actor might step into an audition, hoping to be fairly considered for the male lead. But the casting director wants to hire a white male actor – not for any reason dictated by the script, but just because it’s an action film and Hollywood likes its heroes to be white. It will sell more tickets. No matter how much that Asian American actor ‘identifies’ as a male lead, or even ‘identifies’ as no different from a white male, he’s not going to get hired. This is a common casting-couch story. Asian Americans make up 5.8% of U.S. population, and less than 1% of the entertainment industry. And of that 1%, how many get to be male or female leads? These numbers are statistically significant, and tell us that how others perceive minorities DOES make a real difference.

So, you see, identity doesn’t just stop at what we call ourselves. Others apply it to us, and what they apply can limit what we get to be and to do. Perception isn’t just an internal sleight-of-hand. There are external conflicts to identifying one way while society perceives you in another. You can hand-wave all you want, but these consequences are real – not imagined.

Again, I recommend that you consult some sociological texts. Because, deliberate or not, you are making claims about sociological states of being. And that’s beyond personal opinion. Your claims require evidence. Using data/literature, show me how my points are ridiculous.

Alternatively, you could also take two steps back and admit what is obvious: That your opinion isn’t based on any facts at all. It’s just an opinion.

That is where the conversation ended in March. To my surprise, it was revisited this week:

RottenBeauty: Hello, long time no debate. I’ve been thinking about our debate here for the past few days and decided to try and find it. Not because I want to hassle you or rehash some argument with you, but I guess to…apologise to you?

The concept of white priviledge is something that has made me mad and I’ll admit my view was tainted because of how it is used . . . I should never read things people say on tumblr.

But, I think I have often made the mistake of thinking that my view is one that is shared by a significant amount of people.

My view being that race means nothing about a person other than the shade of their skin and has zero value determining their worth in literally anything. I have found that, in my opinion, science has not been able to produce anything genetically different about one race to the next . . .I am white and I have roughly the exact same amount of genetic differences between another random white woman to myself and say…Zoe Saldana…unfortunately.

In my ideal word race is not even really used as a word, since the anthropological rationale for using it in the first place (differences in the human skull) seem to actually be false (since you apparently cannot tell with any form of accuracy what race someone was based on the skull).

But I have been rudely and horrifyingly reminded recently that my view is . . . not shared by all. A recent argument on two youtube videos has really made me re-analyse a lot of things. One video was a clip from the Sopranos where Tony is rude to a suitor of his daughter due to his race. I found an alarming amount of people defending the way he handled it and the fact that he felt there was something to ‘handle’ there. My view was that race was of little importance and that cultural heritage, while it IS important, is not as important as making sure you are not a hateful and exclusive person, and to say it was met with aggression is . . .putting it mildly.

Another argument sprung up because of a woman who was thrown off of a plane for talking on the phone (while it was grounded…they didn’t throw her out in flight), she was undoubtedly a rude and aggressive person but she happened to be a black American woman and I had the displeasure of coming across a number of people who felt that their anecdotal evidence about these “beasties” (as they actually refer to black women) is accurate and representative of black woman as a statistical majority. I can assure you it was a stomach turning concept.

And even more recently I have become embroiled in debate (you may notice I have a habit of debating, it’s not on purpose, I simply cannot keep my mouth shut or my fingers still) about the representation of women in media, mostly video games. In that I feel women are under-represented and often poorly represented in video games, movies, television and other media platforms.

I realised that my opinions apply to other issues as well, ethnic minorities also face a major exclusion that does not represent them in reality. Combine that with how many of their appearances are…well…unflattering doesn’t make for a pretty picture.

What I encountered the past few days were people who feel that “marketing” and “supply and demand” are perfectly good excuses for this behaviour and i found that premise to be thin at the very best.

So, given that I vocally opposed you on this topic I felt that it was fitting for my apology and admittance of ignorance should be equally public and in the same place. So i searched for this thread.

I do not find any problem with the Asian women within this film, considering all the women were . . .well, they all had their issues and I found the characters to be some of the more hilarious ones. But I do now understand that movies do not exist in a vacuum and you cannot separate them from the system that binds them all together.

I don’t know if you will receive this response but I hope you do.

I always insist on trying to keep my mind as open as possible and, to me, that means a willingness to be proven wrong and accept that when it happens. So this is me doing this. Thank you for the knowledge you shared and your part in the insight I gained.

Me (WhatShihSaid): RottenBeauty, thank you for the lovely message. Truly. I’m moved that you came back to our conversation – so often, these conversations are difficult to start, and even harder to sustain. I find the Internet to be an interesting domain – ripe with opportunity for diverse dialogues, and yet for all our ease of access, it remains more appealing to embrace those we agree with, and reject those we don’t. For all our ease of access, I’m not sure how readily we socialize ourselves to different experiences, perspectives and insight.

So, your response means a great deal to me. It means a great deal because the work of unpacking race, class, gender, orientation (among other manners of identity) can’t be singularly accomplished through the looking glass of any one group or iteration. Our experiences codify what we see, and what we see often determines the range of realities we are willing to entertain and accept. In the day-to-day, my particular intersection of identities – woman, Asian American, able-bodied, middle-class – allow me to see and experience certain realities, through which I formulate an understanding of the world. In truth, of course, the world is still much bigger than what you and I know, combined. That seems obvious when said aloud, but in the day-to-day, it’s difficult to operate with the kind of humility that reflects upon our limits. It’s incredibly human to defend what we viscerally know about the world, and to doubt what we cannot tangibly feel. This is why we struggle to reconcile how one person’s privilege could be another’s pain. And even if we’ve reconciled having and not having, we struggle to acknowledge that ‘not having’ is not the same as ‘having nothing’. The experience of ‘not having’ can itself be instructional, valuable and enriching. So – even in a quest to treat people equitably – we have to consider the deep reality within each and every human experience.

A tall order, indeed.

I am really sorry to hear about your recent run-ins with blatant racism. This will sound strange, but sometimes I am less afraid of blatant racism – that which we can tangibly point to and address – than I am of its invisible offspring. This conversation we’ve had illustrates (in many ways) the invisibility of certain inequities – such as the limited representation of Asian Americans in film, and within those limited representations, some persistently stereotypical portrayals. As a collective, we don’t often wonder why there are so few Asian American actors – and even less Asian American leads – in film and on television. I grew up thinking that I was Caucasian, because that seemed to be the closest representation of my ethnicity that I could see onscreen. So, while I knew I was Chinese, I also situated myself as ‘white’ on the black-white paradigm. Growing up, I also craved for female characters that represented the kind of daring, fun and intelligence I associated with women in my own life. I looked for characters that weren’t just wives and girlfriends, but also heroines and anti-heroines – rich, complex, powerful representations. Needless to say, such characters were few and far between.

My concerns are only a very small subset of what our culture should unpack and improve upon. I comment on them because I feel them most viscerally, but I know that people feel marginalized for all manners of identity that stretch miles and miles into the distance, recalling our troubled history and reminding us that history lives on in the present in ways that we are often too eager to disown. And it’s just not fair to believe that racism, sexism, ageism, ableism – blatant or subtle – have disappeared. It may be comforting and much easier to believe we are completely overcome, but avoidance doesn’t make it so. Avoidance makes it worse.

So, thank you for coming back to this conversation. Thank you for taking it head on, and including us in your reflective process. I look forward to our continued correspondence.

In dialogue, there is hope.


10 thoughts on “On Race in Pitch Perfect: In Dialogue, There is Hope

  1. While I largely agree with your position, I’d like to know whether Asians are entering the entertainment industry at the same rates as those of other races. I agree that institutionalized discrimination is a huge barrier keeping Asians off the screen, but I have a feeling another big reason might be that Asians aren’t stepping up in great enough numbers. (Mostly speculative; I tried looking up some hard numbers but I couldn’t find any in my admittedly brief search.)

    As for Pitch Perfect, I assume you think the super quiet girl (Lilly) was reinforcing the quiet/shy/submissive stereotype of Asian women? Personally, I don’t think she quite fit that usual stereotype. What stereotype was Beca’s roommate Kimmy-Jin fulfilling? A mean/unfriendly stereotype? I didn’t know there was one for Asian women.

    • There are far more actors wanting to be on TV and in the movies than are chosen. Any producer could make any movie with entirely Asian actors, if he wanted.

      Casting calls tend to be very specific. It’s fairly unusual that someone is cast for a part against the scripted race.

      • Fair enough – would that then be an argument that not enough Asians are entering the screenwriting business?

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  3. Interesting debate indeed. I love this movie and, coincidentally, just watched it again tonight. When I first encountered the character of Kimmy Jin in this movie, my first thought was, “An unhappy, unfriendly Asian person…how revolutionary!”

    There continuously endures the stereotype of “model minority” for people of Asian descent in this country – that they are nice, pleasant, hard-working, unassuming, and take up as little space as possible. Additionally, there are the stereotypes of Asian women – quiet, shy, docile. Kimmy Jin was quiet, but she was anything but shy and docile. She was actually kind of a bitch. And that’s the part usually reserved for the black girl (Bring It On), the blonde head cheerleader (Mean Girls), or the re-head (Clueless).

    As for Lilly – I again did not see her as reinforcing any stereotype…other than that of being psychotic.

  4. People who travel the world a lot, understand and are much more empathetic with different peoples they meet.

    Like White Americans and Europeans being in a minority position in places like Japan or China for example, know what it’s like to be stereotyped and treated like a “different/mutant.”

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