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

Natalie Portman Had the Perfect Response to Rose McGowan's Criticism

Rose McGowan had harsh words for Natalie Portman this week, but Portman channeled the drama into a message of solidarity

Rose McGowan came at Natalie Portman hard on Wednesday, saying that her Oscar's dress was "deeply offensive."

The dress in question featured a Dior cape that had been specially embroidered with the names of prominent female directors who didn't receive nominations that many people feel they deserve. The names included Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), and Lulu Wang (The Farewell).

Calling out the Academy for overlooking female talent has been a popular theme this year, from Issa Rae's "Congratulations to those men," while announcing the nominations, to Chris Rock and Steve Martin's onstage joke that there's something missing—va*inas. All of which could be seen as callbacks to Natalie Portman's 2018 comments at the Golden Globes, when she introduced the directing category by saying, "here are the all-male nominees."

Natalie Portman at the Golden Globes

But apparently this sort of "activism" does not exactly impress Rose McGowan—at least not on its own. It's understandable that McGowan—whose 2018 memoir Brave detailed her experiences of sexual assault at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and others—would have some strong opinions on how to fight back. She attributes the decline of her acting career to her efforts to resist Weinstein's attacks—after he (allegedly) raped her in a hotel room in 1997.

She also names several other women whom she claims were similarly punished and is working on a follow-up memoir, Trust, about learning to move forward. She has championed the #MeToo movement and made it her mission to change the toxic misogyny within Hollywood—that uses and abuses and discards talented young women. In that light, her problem with Portman's fashion choice was not so much with the cape itself, but with Portman failing to back up the sentiment in her professional life.

In a post on Facebook, McGowan made her point clear, accusing Portman of being "an actress acting the part of someone who cares." She decried the idea that members of the media would refer to such a superficial expression of solidarity as "bravery" and addressed Natalie directly, saying, "Natalie, you have worked with two female directors in your very long career-one of them was you. You have a production company that has hired exactly one female director- you… You are the problem. Lip service is the problem. Fake support of other women is the problem."

Rose McGowan Rankin

While McGowan's claim overlooked some shorts and anthology movies, others have noted that of the seven feature-length films that Portman's production company, Handsomecharlie, has been involved in, only Portman's own directorial debut, 2015's A Tale of Love and Darkness, was directed solely by a woman. That paints a pretty clear picture of a problem, and it would obviously be hard for Portman to deny it. Fortunately, she didn't. She didn't go on the attack or get defensive. She came out with a statement on Thursday striking a tone of hope and solidarity.

She started out by agreeing with much of McGowan's criticism, saying, "I agree with Ms. McGowan that it is inaccurate to call me 'brave' for wearing a garment with women's names on it. Brave is a term I more strongly associate with actions like those of the women who have been testifying against Harvey Weinstein the last few weeks, under incredible pressure." She then went on to acknowledge that she hasn't worked with as many female directors as she would like, while also calling out systemic issues that prevent female-helmed projects from getting made and taking the opportunity to name check a host of talented female directors who deserve more work:

"In my long career, I've only gotten the chance to work with female directors a few times—I've made shorts, commercials, music videos and features with Marya Cohen, Mira Nair, Rebecca Zlotowski, Anna Rose Holmer, Sofia Coppola, Shirin Neshat and myself. Unfortunately, the unmade films I have tried to make are a ghost history… I have had the experience a few times of helping get female directors hired on projects which they were then forced out of because of the conditions they faced at work… So I want to say, I have tried, and I will keep trying. While I have not yet been successful, I am hopeful that we are stepping into a new day."

Natalie Portman We Should All Be Feminists A pregnant Natalie Portman speaking at the Women's March 2017

While McGowan's anger is understandable, Portman handled the situation perfectly. She took the energy of that discontent and the criticism and channeled it toward opening the conversation to the larger issues that prevent female directors from getting work—issues that one small production company can only do so much to address. With luck maybe this conversation will begin to push Hollywood institutions to rethink the sexist calculus that robs so many talented women of work.

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.

CJ Entertainment

In most regards, the 2020 Oscars are already a disappointment.

In a year full of cinematic diversity, from Lulu Wang's brilliant The Farewell and Greta Gerwig's revitalization of Little Women to Lupita Nyong'o's haunting turn in Us, the major category Oscar nominations are all too blatantly white and male.

Across all four Best Actor/Actress categories, 20 nominations in total, only one POC was named––Cynthia Erivo for her leading role in the Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet. Apparently Awkwafina's Golden Globe-winning performance of a Chinese-American woman coping with a looming familial death from two conflicting cultural perspectives in The Farewell was not worthy of a spot over Charlize Theron playing former Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

Awkwafina the farewell A24

The Best Director nominations are also, once again, entirely male, with Greta Gerwig getting categorically snubbed, despite Little Women receiving nods for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. But at least that's better than the Oscar's treatment of Lulu Wang, who got snubbed entirely. Todd Phillips' Joker, on the other hand, received 11 nominations, more than any other movie this year, which says pretty much everything anyone needs to know about the 2020 Oscars… Or at least it would, if not for Parasite's Best Picture nomination.

In the entire history of the Oscars, only six foreign language films have been nominated for both Best International Film (formerly "Best Foreign-Language Film") and Best Picture. All of them have won the International category, but none have ever taken home the grand prize. After all, for an International Film to win Best Picture, that would require the Academy's overwhelmingly white male voting body (as of 2018, out of 8,000 members, 84% are white and 69% are male) to agree that a movie made by a POC outside of Hollywood is better than anything produced from within (and, more importantly, to actually read subtitles).

A lot of people were surprised by the 2019 Oscars when Green Book––a movie about race relations from the perspective of a white director, white writer, and white protagonist––beat Roma, Alfonso Cuaron's intimate portrayal of a poor Mexican housekeeper. In retrospect, the Academy's choice makes sense. Roma feels like an art film, whereas Green Book practically shouts, "It's okay, white people, we solved racism through friendship!" Considering the Academy's demographic, it was the obvious choice.

But that was 2019, and this is 2020. If the Oscars hope to maintain any glimmer of relevance in the new decade beyond just another masturbatory awards show where Hollywood elites pay lip service to diversity while endlessly patting white men on the back, Parasite needs to win Best Picture.

song kang ho parasite CJ Entertainment

For one, Parasite absolutely deserves it. Bong Joon-ho's darkly comedic thriller about South Korea's class divide is unique, impactful, and more timely than any other film this year. Its themes surrounding ambition, desperation, loss, and social immobility both feel specific to South Korea, and maintain a universality that connects with audiences around the world. Joon-ho's direction and writing (he was also nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) were spot on, approaching all of its characters with distinct empathy while subjecting them to some of the most brutal, unpredictable twists of any thriller in recent years. The acting was phenomenal too, and it's worth noting that Song Kang-ho's omission from the Best Lead Actor category displays a clear failure on the Academy's part to recognize the humanity of Asian actors and characters.

Still, Parasite seems better poised to win Best Picture than any international film in years past. That's not to knock any of the international Best Picture nominees that came before it, but rather to comment on the modern era. People are more globally connected than ever, thanks to the Internet, and Parasite falls into an overwhelmingly popular, accessible genre and encompasses universally appealing themes. In other words, the only barrier to entry is the subtitles.

It's time for Hollywood to recognize that as the world becomes more internationally connected, white western media can no longer be considered the end-all and be-all of cultural influence. Bong Joon-ho is living proof that some of the most important, talented artistic voices of our era are not white, American men and that diversity is a gift to creativity.

CULTURE

The Farewell's "Foreign Language" Categorization Proves the Golden Globes Are Racist

The only possible justification for categorizing Inglourious Basterds as "American" and The Farewell as "Foreign Language" is racism.

A24

"Many talented people of color were snubbed in major categories," said Ricky Gervais during his contentious host monologue at the 2020 Golden Globes. "Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about that; the Hollywood Foreign Press are all very, very racist."

Gervais' monologue seemed to rub a lot of Hollywood's elite the wrong way, but that's for good reason. Examining one's own hypocrisy is oftentimes uncomfortable, and Gervais, in spite of his recent transphobic Tweetstorm, made some saliently "woke" points at the Golden Globes. As Gervais pointedly "joked," the Golden Globes are, indeed, racist. To prove that, one need not look further than the categorization of Lulu Wang's The Farewell as a "Foreign Language" Motion Picture.

The Farewell, directed by Chinese-American filmmaker Lulu Wang, tells a deeply personal story about a Chinese-American girl's relationship with her family. It is a distinctly American story (Wang has been living in the US since she was 6) told from the perspective of a Chinese-American girl whose life experiences hinge on the crossroads between two cultures. While much of the film's dialogue is spoken in Mandarin, the American upbringing and cultural sensibilities of the main character, Billi (Awkwafina), is both essential to and inseparable from the narrative thrust.

First things first, let's get technicalities out of the way. Technically, the Golden Globes categorize a Foreign Language film as "a motion picture drama, musical or comedy with at least 51% non-English dialogue." So yes, technically The Farewell meets the criteria. But technicalities have long been used as justification for upholding racist practices, so if we truly want to assess whether or not the Golden Globes' categorization is racist, we need to examine their Foreign Language category not from a technical standpoint but from a practical one.

Practically, "Foreign Language" categories of major awards shows have, perhaps somewhat misleadingly, been used to distinguish foreign-made films from American-made ones (The Oscars recently changed "Best Foreign Language Film" to "Best International Feature Film). In other words, the basis for categorization is typically the country of origin, rather than the actual language. This makes sense, because categorizing an American-made movie as "foreign" based on language alone is, effectively, a form of Othering Americans who grew up in non-white communities. In their adherence to such a technicality, the Golden Globes are an outlier.

The bigger problem, however, is that the Golden Globes don't actually apply their criteria across the board. Since 2000, the Golden Globes have nominated six American-made movies for their Foreign Language category: Apocalypto, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Kite Runner, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and now, The Farewell. But at least one Golden Globe-nominated movie that technically fits their "Foreign Language" criteria is missing from the list: Inglourious Basterds. That's because Inglourious Basterds, over 70 percent of which is spoken in French, German, or Italian, was apparently still eligible for "Best Motion Picture - Drama."

Inglourious Basterds The Weinstein Company

So what sets Inglourious Basterds apart from the other "Foreign Language" movies on the list? With the exception of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which had an American director but was produced by a French company in French-language, every other entry primarily features non-white characters having "foreign" experiences in "foreign" countries. Inglourious Basterds, even while not primarily spoken in English, is a distinctly American story about mostly American characters from an American perspective. Therefore, the Golden Globes decided that in spite of it meeting the "Foreign Language" criteria, Inglourious Basterds is still "American."

But here's the thing: The Farewell is just as "American" as Inglourious Basterds, if not more so. The only possible justification for categorizing Inglourious Basterds as "American" and The Farewell as "Foreign Language" is racism.

In a year when not a single female director was represented in any of the "non-Foreign" categories, and non-white actors were underrepresented in almost every other major category, the Golden Globes made a conscious decision to categorize one of the best female-helmed, POC-centric movies of the year as "Foreign." Stranger yet, Awkwafina was nominated for and (very deservedly) won "Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Drama" for her role, while the movie was deemed ineligible for the matching category. Of note, Awkwafina's win made her the first Asian-American woman to ever win Best Actress at the Golden Globes.

Awkwafina Golden Globes Mike Blake / Reuters

Ultimately, if any members of the Golden Globes' audience took offense to Gervais' roast of their hypocritical sensibilities, perhaps they should take a moment for introspection. Of course it's admirable to use one's platform to advocate for social progress. But how much progress can one really tout while on the stage of an awards show still mired in the Othering of Asian-Americans in 2020? At what point do we accept that Hollywood, too, continues to uphold the same racist institutions it pretends to condemn?

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