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A still from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) overlayed with an image of Regina George from Mean Girls (2004). Editing by Aimee Anctil.

Slander in Cinema

Written by
Aimée Anctil
and
April 15, 2021

Many find it difficult to appreciate older films (by older films I mean ones from the 2000s) to their fullest extent while they realize that a lot of these films contain racist stereotypes and problematic rhetoric. The issue is, movies from this era can’t really be given that same “oh, that was from a different time”; it’s not really that different a time, a mere couple of years ago. The excuse that movies are from a different time and therefore excused are not useful. While certain films may have harmful stereotypes or even instances of homophobia or racism in them, you can still appreciate them as films. However, it is important to acknowledge that some aspects of the film are not okay. You can't defend it by saying it is a pop culture classic. They can still be found problematic and should be treated as such. You can be supportive of it as long as you are also being critical of it.

Slander in Cinema
A still from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) overlayed with an image of Regina George from Mean Girls (2004). Editing by Aimee Anctil.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The Other

Let’s take Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) for example. This film is a little over 11 years old. Of course, the production is what one would call *chef’s kiss* as it has incredibly witty dialogue, well-rounded characters, fully-fleshed out backstories and overall, a fairly star-studded cast. Although fairly critically acclaimed, this film has a lot of overlooked racism, homophobia and even pedophilia. Sure, having a cast with several characters of colour and queer characters within the storyline makes Scott Pligrim vs. The World sound pretty diverse, but its portrayal is widely lackluster. It misses the mark of being inclusive by a long shot by portraying the diversity characters in the film more as caricatures.

There are several Asian characters portrayed in the film, Knives Chau, Matthew Patel, Kyle and Ken Katayanagi, while each offer Asian representation, I would not necessarily call it ideal representation. 

Knives is a 17 year-old dating Scott a 23 year-old. Some blatant nonchalant pedophilia, but thats the least of our issues while dissecting this movie. Knives’ character is written in such a way that she upholds the fetishization of Asians within media pining after older White men (which we will touch on once again when we discuss Mean Girls). Knives is used to emphasize her Asian identity as “other.” She is a small, docile, doting girlfriend to Scott. Her character does not really evolve past this. Later, she does change into this caricature of a “dragon woman”, a harmful stereotype of the evil, hyper-sexualized Asian villain seen in films from early Hollywood. She assumes this edgier persona in attempts to win Scott back. This only further reinforces her fetishization as she adopts an evil personality, with a coloured streak in her hair emphasizing her exoticness. Knives, of course, specializes in martial arts. Definitely not stereotypical, at all. This transformation occurs to appease Scott’s changing desires, from a quiet school girl to edgier manic pixie dream girl. This reinforces the idea of the fetishization of Asian women serving as a means to please White men’s perception of Asian beauty. 

Matthew Patel serves as a means to bolster a stereotype of effeminate Indian men. He is criticized profusely by Ramona for being undesirable. Ramona says she only dated him because he was “the only non-White guy” at her school. This is harmful as it perpetuates the trope of White people dating BIPOC to wash their hands of any alleged racism, or to make themselves seem more immersed within the world of diversity. Essentially as a means to appear as ‘other’. Ramona further dissociates herself from him by saying she was only with him briefly and just kissed him once, hyper-accentuating how unattractive he is. The stereotype that Asian men are undesirable and unmasculine pervades reality. These unflattering depictions can project socially constructed biases that dictate desirability.

Don’t get me started on the Bollywood themed fight scene, its so many levels of wrong and racism mixed up into each other. During this fight sequence, Patel throws fireballs, emphasizing the stereotype of mysticism of Indian men. The musical portion of the fight certainly does not read as an homage to Bollywood. It serves as a means to mock southern Asian culture with its inclusion of an unrealistic Indian accent and poorly choreographed Bollywood dance moves.

The Katayangi twins offer the ridiculous trope of the silent ‘other’, extenuating the “mysterious and dangerous” nature of the ‘other’. The twins are the least fleshed out characters of the film, to the point of one of their key powers being listed as “being Japanese”. To top off excessively diminishing caricature of Japanese men, one of the brothers is depicted wearing a “rising sun” Japanese flag as his shirt. Which, for those of you who may not be aware, is an offensive symbol. It was the symbol of the Japanese Empire from the late 19th-20th century, and was sported during the 2nd World War, representing the years of exploitation and militarism. Overall, not a great move on the costume department.

Finally, Roxy Richter, Ramona’s queer ex-girlfriend, the White girl who has “ninja magic”. Yikes :). Ramona in attempts to stop Scott from asking any questions about Ramona’s bisexuality, sums up her relationship with Roxy as a means to ‘get the gay out’. Roxy's character is used to fetishize lesbianism. Scott defeats Roxy by hitting her “weakness” in the back of the knee, ending in a climax… The film hypersexualizes the entire identity of lesbians into the tropes of it merely 'being a phase' and a means to please the male gaze. Yeah not a fan of that 'representation' either.

Claiming that the script writers were unaware of these stereotypes is overtly disillusioned, these details were clearly intentional. Especially for a film that edited out every instance of blinking to achieve a comic book-esque style.

Mean Girls and “Cool Asians”

Next up, let's talk about Mean Girls. This 2004 comedy was a major hit and its witty quotes are well known for their meme-ability. But unlike a fine wine, this film’s comedy did not age all too well. Boy oh boy do we have a lot of racism and homophobia to unpack.

Cady Heron; the protagonist of the film is known for being homeschooled her entire life in Africa, until she moves to an American highschool. The ridiculously racist jokes about being White even though she's from Africa. Cady later goes on to interact with Black students of her high school with the assumption all Black people must be African and speak Swahili. Cady introduces herself with “Jambo” and is confused once none of them understand. This is either oversight, or more realistically overt racism from the writers, as Swahili is not the only language within Africa. Cady being from Africa should probably know this. The racist undertones.

Janis Ian; the mean ‘not lesbian’ girl. Oh boy they like to say d*ke in this movie. Beyond the slurs, Janis’ character, though many viewers identify her as a lesbian, does not bode well with the idea of being called a lesbian. She continually acts disgusted with the idea of ever being referred as a lesbian by Regina George. Janis’ reaction is still written rather harmfully and stigmatizes lesbianism.

Damian Leigh; the gay best friend. Need I say more? He is essentially the butt of the overused joke. Although, the writing for Damian’s dialogue is very witty, several ‘inconspicuious’ homophobic statements and jokes are included in reference to or by Damian. The whole oh all gay men are flamboyant and feminine is certainly perpetuated throughout the movie with the inclusion of jokes like “I want my pink shirt back!”, because of course only a gay man can own clothing thats pink.

Kevin Gnapoor; the allegedly unattractive president of the Mathletes. This portrayal of an Indian student is similar to Matthew Patel, but hides the racism through the guise of ‘nerdiness’. The model immigrant standard is placed upon Kevin as he is referred to as smart and incredibly good at math. He is not given many more personality traits other than his intelligence and flirtiness which is perceived as unattractive by the “Plastics” and Cady. Once again adding to the stereotype that Asian men are unattractive and effeminate.

The “Cool Asian” Trang Pak, much like Knives, upholds the submissive stereotype of Asian women. She is fetishized and engages in pedophelia with Coach Carr, a much older White man. The film later depicts Pak physically fighting Sun Jin Dihn as it turned out Dihn was also in a relationship with the coach. Two underaged Asian girls fighting over a man in his late thirties. Pak also does not speak English, similar to the Katayangi twins, this trope accentuates the mysterious nature of the other. Pak is depicted saying “n**** please” in vietnamese, but the actual translation was ‘come on please’. Tina Fey seems to be rather reliant on tropes to get across a rather racist message under the thin veil of comedy. Also, the name Trang Pak is rather confusing, if the character is allegedly Vietnamese, why is her first name ‘Trang’ Vietnamese, but her last name ‘Pak’ Japanese? Overall, it seems as though very little research was done on how to properly portray a Vietnamese character. The writers clearly relied on what little stereotypes they knew and scraped together a mess of offensive tropes to create Trang Pak.

Also why are all the friend groups in this movie divided by race?

Mean Girls pretends that it is subverting the genre of harmful tropes through its use of comedy. In reality it is only further perpetuating them. Mean Girls play their use of racism or homophobia as jokes, essentially trying to emphasize the toxic environment of high school, but the jokes do not read as such. The alleged jokes read as stereotypical understanding of diversity obviously concocted by a non-diverse writer’s room.

Relying on the guise of comedy to assert hurtful stereotypes and racist rhetoric is not subverting a genre. It's playing into a tired form of comedy that no ones laughing at anymore, it's just plain offensive.

Feigning denial of tropes while still outright portraying them, and in no way denouncing the tropes for their harm, is still engaging in the very damage the tropes contribute to.

Writers and storytellers of all kinds must be aware of the position of power they hold. The ability to occupy a platform to assert your political agenda or views is a privilege. If used incorrectly it can perpetuate damaging stereotypes. Although writers may mean well when attempting to portray BIPOC or LGBTQ+ characters, they must stay cognizant that they aren’t writing in such a way that it misrepresents these characters to the degree of fetishization and outright villainization. 

Often people overlook the harmful stereotyping and outright racial slander that movies portray for comedic effect. The idea of tarnishing their beloved films and associating them with the reality that they uphold damaging conceptions seems out of question for folks who remember the 2000s endearingly. We must keep in mind that while we can appreciate art, we must also criticize it for what it is. No art is without flaw, and no film is without its biases.

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