Culture Feature

Why Do People Hate Awkwafina?

The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is fuzzy, but Awkwafina's unprecedented success as an Asian-American woman should be celebrated.

"The Farewell"

Nora Lum, AKA Awkwafina, has blown up in recent years.

After maneuvering YouTube fame — with viral hits like "My Vag" — into a comedic rap career, her over-the-top persona was adapted into breakout comic-relief roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight in 2018. She followed that up in 2019 by showing off her dramatic chops with a Golden Globe-winning performance in The Farewell.

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Culture News

Is "Crazy Rich Asians" Star Henry Golding Fostering an "Attack Pit Bull"?

He's also being accused of being a "Heartless human being," but the truth is more complicated.

Chaos broke out in a Los Angeles park on Wednesday when Henry Golding and Liv Lo Golding's foster pit bull, Stella, attacked a smaller dog.

The victimized dog, a five-pound terrier mix named Lulu, ended up with a gash on his neck that required a trip to an emergency pet hospital. Five hours and six staples later, Lulu was allowed to go home in a cone of shame.

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CULTURE

Late Capitalism Diaries: Comedy Central and Awkwafina's New Marketing is Pure Evil

They have found the key to making my morning commute even more unpleasant

NBC News

Comedy Central has a new show starring Awkwafina, and you are not allowed to watch it.

I don't care how much you love Awkwafina's music, her character in Crazy Rich Asians, or her Golden Globe-winning performance in The Farewell. You can and should keep enjoying all of that stuff. Awkwafina is fun and weird and talented, and she's doing some great stuff with her career. I would give her a TV show too, but I will not watch Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, and you shouldn't either. Because watching her new show would be an endorsement of the inhumane treatment that I and tens of thousands of subway riders have endured this past week.

Nora From Queens

"Please remember to wear headphones when listening to music. Even if your playlist is straight fire."

"This is 103rd Street, Corona Plaza. And no, this is not where the beer is."

"This is a Manhattan-bound 7 local train. All the stops, baby!"

When I first heard these announcements on the 7 train last week, I was naïve, bright-eyed, and I still had some hope for the world. I happened to have borrowed my wife's headphones for my commute that morning and was blessed by the fact that they were a little louder and a little better at blocking outside noise than my own. Awkwafina's voice still cut through my music, but in a muffled, indiscernible way. It was only after her scream at Mets-Willets Point, "The Mets?! I love the Mets! 'Cause I'm from Queens," tore through my aural defenses that I knew something weird was going on and decided to pay some attention to the announcements.

I began freeing one ear from the headphones as the train arrived at each stop, tilting my head to listen to the energetic announcements of this young MTA employee, imitating the usual robotic messages, but following them up with a cute little riff. I was certain that, whoever this voice was, they were in the train's conductor booth trying to add a little joy and surprise to the drudgery of the daily commute. What other explanation could there be? But then I had the sudden realization that I recognized the voice…

Awkwafina Golden Globes

Could it really be? I knew that Awkwafina is from Queens, and she had just won a Golden Globe. Maybe she thought it would be fun to leverage that success into putting on a little impromptu performance for the borough. Her riffs weren't exactly brilliant, but she was clearly just going off the top of her head and having a little fun with it, so who cares? I hadn't yet heard about her new show, but, I thought,even if it was a publicity stunt, it seemed like a good one. Awkwafina doing a one-time, surprise stint as the 7 train announcer would be a fun, weird story that all the 7 train commuters would be telling their friends.

I was so certain that the announcements were live that, when I got off at my stop, I ran along the side of the train for several cars, thinking I might snap a picture of Awkwafina in the conductor's booth and have some proof for skeptical co-workers. The alternative—that the MTA would make a deal to replace their usual recordings for an entire week—seemed impossible. Would they really add that kind of insult to the daily injuries of a cramped New York City commute?

7 train crowd Flickr user NYC Subway Rider

Would they really make us all—tens of thousands of us—listen to the same lame "jokes" every day? Would Comedy Central's marketing team really rush out some lazy, free-associated copy, get Awkwafina to phone in a quick recording session, then replay the result on a loop—louder than the normal announcements and interspersed with reminders to watch her show? I was so innocent then. Looking back on the man I was a week ago, I can only grieve for that sweet, sensitive soul who still believed that there were lines that capitalism wouldn't cross.

"This is 69th Street, which is definitely, definitely not funny in any way."

"This is 33rd Street. In other news, the number 33 is a palindrome. Wait, can numbers be palindromes? Oh, and check out Awkwafina is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central."

"This is 52nd Street. If this is your stop and you asleep…well, that sucks."

www.youtube.com

By the time I was out of work and ready for my commute home, I had found out that the MTA truly had, for the first time, sold advertising for the train announcements. Because we are not people trying to live our lives; we are a captive audience—consumers, densely packed into tube where we have no choice but to listen. On the way home, I kept my wife's headphones firmly in place.

"This is 34th Street Hudson Yards. Hope you like weird architecture! Oh, and check out Awkwafina is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central."

By the second day, I was back to using my own, sub-par headphones, and they were no match for Awkwafina's voice. I heard every announcement, and they were already grating. The normal announcements are familiar and benign enough that they're easy to drown out, but the extra volume and emphasis from Awkwafina's voice refuses to be ignored—forcing the entire train to listen to the same tiresome routine. I started to pity the employees who have to sit through the same "jokes" dozens of times in each shift. That takes more bravery than the troops.

MTA conductor Thank you for your service Getty Images

"This is 82nd Street, Jackson Heights. And please remember, a train car is the worst place to clip ya toenails. Oh, and check out Awkwafina is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central."

If this marketing works—if people in Queens and Manhattan end up watching the show—what comes next? Gilbert Gottfried selling insurance while he announces your bus stop? Sofia Vergara promoting a Modern Family spin-off while the L train is stuck in a tunnel? Is this how they're planning to fund necessary repairs and updates to MTA infrastructure? By selling off every portion of public life—every point of access to our eyes and ears—to the highest bidder? This is not a better solution than raising taxes on the pied-à-terres of the ultra-wealthy.

Today is the last day of this promotion, so this afternoon should hopefully be the last time I hear:

"Oh, and check out Awkwafina is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central."

"Oh, and check out Awkwafina is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central."

"Oh, and check out Awkwafina is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central."

PEN15 Pictured: A better show you can watch instead

But I know those words will haunt my dreams, so I must beg you not heed her call. No one in New York should reward this marketing. Just to be safe, don't watch it even if you're not in New York. It's a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story in which Awkwafina plays a younger version of herself. Sounds great. Almost as good as PEN15, which never disrupted my commute. Watch that instead.

CULTURE

Brenda Song on "Crazy Rich Asians" Role: When Are You "Not Asian Enough"?

It's not her fault she's played mostly Caucasian roles.

Despite being born to a Hmong father and Thai mother, Brenda Song is a consummately American actress–so much so, that the Californian recently told Teen Vogue that she was once deemed too American to play an Asian-American role.

Known–nay, beloved–as a Disney Channel legend for her roles on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (2005-2008) and Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006), not to mention (as elder millennials fondly recall) Nickelodeon's 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd (1999-2002), Song was the only actress of Asian-American descent that many of us saw on TV throughout the aughts. "I don't think people realize how ahead of the curve Disney Channel was," Song said of her Disney tenure. "They were colorblind casting way before anybody else. They were giving me TV movies since I was 15 that people would never even think about. They were just telling stories and wanting kids to be able to see themselves on TV at a young age."

Brenda Song Through the Years | Amphibia | Disney Channel youtu.be

Yet, the 31-year-old said that she was not given the opportunity to audition for Jon M. Chu's $238 million-hit Crazy Rich Asians, despite being a fan of Kevin Kwan's book series and asking her managers if she could vie for a part. She was told "no." "Their reasoning behind that, what they said, was that my image was basically not Asian enough, in not so many words. It broke my heart," she shared. "I said, 'This character is in her late to mid-20s, an Asian American, and I can't even audition for it? I've auditioned for Caucasian roles my entire career, but this specific role, you're not going to let me do it? You're going to fault me for having worked my whole life?' I was like, 'Where do I fit?'"

In response, Chu has taken to social media to clarify that, if that was the message Song received, he certainly didn't send it. He posted, "Would these words ever come out of my mouth? Nope makes no sense. I feel horrible she thinks this is the reason. The fact is I love Brenda Song and am a fan. I didn't need her to audition because I already knew who she was!"

Regardless, operating under the belief that she was rejected for being an inadequate representation of her own race, Song came to terms with the criticism. "I got myself together and said, 'Brenda, there is only one you, and you can't change who you are. You can't change your past.' I am so grateful for every job that I've done," she said. "All I can do is continue to put good auditions out there, do the best that I can — that's all I can ask for."

Song now stars in Hulu's Dollface. She plays Madison, an effervescent young publicist whose energy sets the show's quirky tone. Kat Dennings and Shay Mitchell co-star in the female-created show, which is a characteristic Song praised: "I've always been a part of male-driven projects and it was amazing [to be] literally going to work every day and hanging out with my girlfriends."

From London Tipton (a non-Asian name) to Madison, Song's success has been predicated on an unusual mix of Asian erasure and respectability politics in American media. In a time when Asian actors still only account for 1% of Hollywood's lead roles, playing into the stereotypes promoted through TV tropes is, in cold terms, the only way for many actors of color to succeed. For instance, in 2017 Paste explored "Industry Bias, Whitewashing, and the Invisible Asian in Hollywood," quoting an unnamed casting director who actually said, "Asians are a challenge to cast because most casting directors feel as though they're not very expressive." In another casting director's words, the reason Asians haven't been featured in American media is because they (yes, all of us, apparently) are "very shut down in their emotions … If it's a look thing for business where they come in they're at a computer or if they're like a scientist or something like that, they'll do that; but if it's something were they really have to act and get some kind of performance out of, it's a challenge."

In response, #ExpressiveAsians trended on Twitter to call out the deep racial bias and false stereotypes at the core of Hollywood's shut-out of Asians and Asian-Americans. Yaoyao Liu of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival critiqued the tokenization of Asian characters, emphasizing "the importance of not simply including Asian performers in media, but of casting them in roles more meaningful than portrayals that are, at worst, perpetuations of racist assumptions or, at best, ineffectual lip service to substantive calls for diversity."

Most pointedly, Liu notes: "Even though the #ExpressiveAsians on American televisions today defy certain stereotypes, they remain within the parameters of being educated, middle class, and culturally assimilated; in other words, they capitulate to the standards set by respectability politics...Respectability politics refers to the policing of certain behaviors or values within marginalized groups in accordance with mainstream (read: white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative) codes of conduct. In the context of Asian Americans in media...prominent characters...toe the line of acknowledging their identity-based difference in a manner that is fully comprehensible and palatable to white audiences. For example: they have Asian names but they don't speak English with an accent... Nothing happens on screen that would alienate their white viewers."

Indeed, the first role to cement Song as a beloved figure in millennials' childhoods and, in many respects, an Asian American icon, was Wendy Wu. "The beginning of the end of Disney's promise of an all-inclusive cast," the film captured the cultural and cognitive dissonance that painfully characterizes the Asian-American experience. In describing "How Wendy Wu Homecoming Warrior Taught Cultural Acceptance," Nyah Hardmon wrote, "Wu was this preppy Chinese-American who struggled with the grips of her culture. Like most second-generation immigrants and other culturally and ethnically diverse people of this country, Wu didn't feel connected with her home country. She turned her nose at Asian cuisine and distance[d] herself from her Chinese heritage. Eventually, Wu comes to terms with who she is and the history of her family, but it definitely wasn't an easy conclusion."

It's no wonder we still root for Brenda Song. Her continued success from child actor to comedic female force is a living manifestation of the impossible dream of all people of color: to live in a world that doesn't erase culture and racial identity and histories of oppression under the demeaning guise of being "post-racial" or "color-blind," and where no one asks us to prove we're worthy of being seen.

TV

The Price of Prejudice in 2019: A "Crazy Rich Asians" Screenwriter Refused to Be Paid Less Than Her Male, White Co-Writer

The gender pay gap is ingrained in the very fabric of American capitalism and our weird Hobbesian individualism—but that doesn't it make it any less sh*tty.

What's the difference between $110,000 and $800,000? It's a trick question with two answers: racism and sexism.

Crazy Rich Asian screenwriter, Adele Lim, has left the franchise after being offered significantly less than her male, white co-writer, Peter Chiarelli. On Tuesday, The Hollywood Reporter published that Lim had walked away from the sequel to the $238 million hit film, which is based on Kevin Kwan's best-selling trilogy. Lim's publicist has confirmed that disparity in pay is what drove Lim to leave the creative team.

While Lim refrained from giving specific numbers, sources at Warner Bros. state that Lim and Chiarelli were given "industry-standard" quotes, meaning that writers' pay scales are based on their previous credentials. The problem with this is that major studios infamously fail to give equal opportunities to women and people of color. For instance, before Crazy Rich Asians Chiarelli was credited with two feature films, 2009's The Proposal (as writer) and Now You See 2 (as a story developer). On the other hand, Lim was a veteran TV writer and producer with 12 prior writing credits, from OneTree Hill and Private Practice to Reign and Fox's Lethal Weapon. Yet, Chiarelli was reportedly offered between $800,000 and $1 million to work on the Crazy Rich Asians sequel.

Chiarelli suggested splitting his pay with Lim in order to keep her on board. As Lim told The Hollywood Reporter, "Pete has been nothing but incredibly gracious, but what I make shouldn't be dependent on the generosity of the white-guy writer." She added, "If I couldn't get pay equity after CRA, I can't imagine what it would be like for anyone else, given that the standard for how much you're worth is having established quotes from previous movies, which women of color would never have been [hired for]. There's no realistic way to achieve true equity that way."

The gender pay gap is ingrained in the very fabric of American capitalism and our weird Hobbesian individualism—but that doesn't it make it any less sh*tty. Whether we're talking about the average full-time working woman earning only $0.80 for each dollar a man earns or U.S. female soccer players making only $0.38 for every dollar their male counterparts make, 2019 is still a good time to call out gendered and racial pay discrimination. In Hollywood, Grey's Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo (who became TV's highest paid actress after 14 seasons) has long been outspoken about the entertainment industry's unfair treatment of women. As she frankly told The Hollywood Reporter, a young successful actress is paid "certainly less than her male co-star and probably with no backend. And they're going to pimp her out until she's 33 or 34 and then she's out like yesterday's trash, and then what does she have to take care of herself?"

crazy rich asians screenwriter The Hollywood Reporter

Similarly, pay disparities between people of color and white actors continue to plague TV networks and major film studios. In 2017, Asian American actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park allegedly left CBS's Hawaii Five-O due to unequal pay. For writers, Lim describes studios treating people of color like "soy sauce"—only hired to add cultural touch-ups and create a veneer of legitimacy to a "diverse" screenplay, but not taken seriously as professional writers. "When I came on, we basically talked about how I grew up in this culture," Lim said. As a woman with a Chinese Malaysian background, she brought a much-needed female and Southeast Asian perspective to Crazy Rich Asians' writing room: "Important doesn't begin to describe it when you're talking about describing a culture and a family that the world⁠—that America⁠—hasn't seen before. You want it to come from an authentic perspective." She added, "Even if it goes over the head of the mainstream audience, the Southeast Asians of the world can see it was very much done for them. It's very much a love letter to all those people."

Crazy Rich Asians inspired high hopes for better representation of Asian Americans in mainstream media (which has been, thus far, a failed promise), but the development of the sequels was at glacial pace even before Lim's departure. Director John M. Chu says there's "still too much work to do. Our focus isn't on the timeline, it's on getting the story right," mostly because "there's too much responsibility and too much precedent from the first movie" to disappoint viewers. But the entertainment industry's deeply ingrained sexism and racism will continue to derail hopes for fair media representation as long as society's basic standards, like a fair living wage, remain biased.

FILM

A Case Study in Diversity: How "The Farewell" Teaches the Unteachable

Lulu Wang's The Farewell offers a prime case study on why culturally diverse voices are so necessary in our modern Hollywood landscape.

A24

Writer/director Lulu Wang's The Farewell offers a prime case study on why culturally diverse voices are so necessary in our modern Hollywood landscape—especially if we want interesting, original movies instead of endless franchise reboots.

Part of what makes The Farewell so unique is the specificity of its perspective. The story—which is almost entirely true and gained traction as a This American Life segment before being turned into a movie––follows Billi (Awkwafina in a brilliantly reserved performance), a young Chinese-American woman who discovers her Nai Nai (grandmother in Mandarin) is dying from lung cancer. Billi travels back to China to see Nai Nai and say her farewell, but there's a problem: Nai Nai doesn't actually know that she has cancer, and her family is determined not to tell her. As such, the family organizes the wedding of Billi's cousin, Hao Hao, as an excuse for everyone to gather in China.

This sets the stage for an emotionally fraught balancing act whereby Billi and her family need to feign excitement for a celebratory event that mainly exists as an excuse to say goodbye to a beloved family matriarch. But more than that, the premise allows Wang to explore the differences between American and Chinese culture surrounding family, illness, and death.

lulu wang Writer/Director Lulu WangJessica Lehrman

In American culture, individuality supersedes everything else.

Freedom of choice feels like a necessity, so naturally, we believe that if we're dying, we need to know in order to make proper preparations and plan the remainder of our lives accordingly. Having grown up in America, this is Billi's frame of mind.

But in Chinese culture, family far outweighs the individual. Many Chinese families are tight-knit in a way that American families are not. Oftentimes, Chinese families function as cohesive units wherein everyone, from siblings to cousins to grandparents, live within close proximity to one another and are involved in many elements of each others' lives, from elder care to child-rearing.

From this perspective, freedom of choice is not nearly as important; what's important is not making your family worry. This results in a reliance on "good lies." If you know you're sick, you hide it from your family so they don't worry unnecessarily. And if you know someone else is sick, you bear that burden for them so that they can continue living without stressing about the inevitable. It works out, because you trust your family implicitly to make decisions in your best interest.

In short, the American and Chinese perspectives could not be more opposite. But while many previous films, both American and Chinese, have explored these perspectives individually, it takes the perspective of someone with a foot in both cultures to adequately measure them up alongside one another.

Billi may be American for all intents and purposes, but she spent her early childhood in China and cares deeply for her Nai Nai. Her love for her family, along with pangs of guilt for not embracing her Chinese heritage more, tempers her automatic inclination towards the "righteousness" of Western philosophy. While she beats herself up internally for lying about her Nai Nai's health, she ultimately accepts her family's wishes. Even if she would prefer to be told the truth if she were in her grandma's shoes, she understands that her Nai Nai probably doesn't feel the same way. After all, her Nai Nai is culturally Chinese.

Ultimately, Nai Nai survived––both in the movie and real life. Wang's real-life experience took place over six years ago, when her own Nai Nai was given a three-month life expectancy. She's still alive to this day.

the farewell nai nai A24

It's hard to discuss a movie as impactful as The Farewell without delving into anecdote.

Watching as a white American with zero foreign cultural ties outside of "looking vaguely Jewish," I approached the matter with a thoroughly American perspective.

At first, I fully agreed with Billi's initial response to her family's proposal: shock and anger. It seemed cruel to let someone die without even giving them a chance to decide how they were going to spend their last few months. But by the end of the movie, I no longer felt so sure. Perhaps my initial outrage at customs unlike my own betrayed a deep-seated sense of cultural superiority. I didn't like that about myself, and I appreciated The Farewell for helping me see things from a different perspective.

My girlfriend, who's half-Chinese (she was born in America, but her mother is a first generation immigrant) had a very different reaction. We had recently seen a Bollywood video that was supposed to take place in New York City. It was funny, because their idea of New York was a giant American stereotype.

"Imagine if almost every movie you ever saw about your own culture was like that Bollywood video," my girlfriend said. "Then you see something like this where everything, from the dialogue to the set decorations, are spot on. It hit close to home."

Wang approaches cultural differences in her film with a softness and complexity that stems from an understanding of both American and Chinese culture but, more importantly, the space in-between, which is occupied only by people who have been torn between the two.

Diverse perspectives such as Wang's offer a limelight to unique cinematic experiences that most people would never have exposure to otherwise. And movies like The Farewell lead to cultural understanding, discussion, and introspection that simply isn't possible without them. They highlight the ongoing need for representation in Hollywood movies, and they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how diversity can be a force for good.

THE FAREWELL Trailer (2019) www.youtube.com