On “Sisters” and casual racism

It must be said that 2015 was a good year for women in movies. I have to hope that the multiple record-breaking Star Wars: Episode VII will go a long way to convincing studio executives that audiences actually want to see women at the helm of major sci-fi franchises. Not to mention all the gains made recently by women in comedy, thanks in no small part to two of my favorite women: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. When Leeman and I had a chance to enjoy that greatest of parental luxuries–seeing a movie in theater!–while visiting my family least week, of course I jumped at the latest Fey-Poehler offering, the delightful comedy Sisters.

I have so much respect for both of these extraordinary women — what they have done for women in comedy and what they have done for women in general. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in 30 Rock is a personal hero, assuring me that a smart, geeky woman might actually have something to offer the world. And, though I discovered her more recently, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope has become my new feminist icon. Which is why I was so frustrated and disappointed that the otherwise hilarious Sisters several times relied on cheap jokes that were pretty darn racists and homophobic.

As hollywood comedies go, Sisters doesn’t have so much a “plot” as it does a set up for its comedic exploits. Two adult sisters find out their parents have sold their childhood home so they throw one more big party to relive/redeem who they were as teenagers. Along the way, secrets get aired. Fights are had. Property damage is acquired. Everything works out in the end and a good time is had by all.

But a few jokes had Leeman and me looking at eachother awkwardly asking “Is this racist?” (Random thought: If you have to ask, the answer is probably “yes”) At one point, Amy Poehler’s character tries to strike up a friendship with a Korean nail stylist named “Hae-Wan,” whose name Poehler fails to be able to pronounce). Hae-Wan and her friends eventually show up at the main events, and become agents of party chaos. Hae-Wan (played by Greta Lee, who does a great job with what she’s given) eventually marries would-be class clown Alex and goes into business with Tina Fey’s character. That would all be well and good, but the character exists to be nothing … except Korean. She has no function but to be ethnically and culturally “other”.

A similar discomfort struck me in the depiction of a group of lesbian characters who exist to be … lesbians, basically. They all look stereotypically masculine, dressing in plaid and denim. And they come to a party armed with workman’s tools. It just seemed a bit … odd.

The film certainly does not suggest there is anything “wrong” with being a lesbian. No more than it suggests there is anything “wrong” with being Korean. Both groups of characters are, however, unambiguously defined exclusively by the features that distinguish them from “normal” (read: white, heterosexual) women. At its core — this is what amounts to discrimination. When a privileged group fails to see others as fully human. Someone like Tina Fey (who shares a producer’s credit on the film) should understand this. Someone who has worked hard to allow women to be depicted not just as woman but as fully fleshed out and complicated human beings should understand the importance of not defaulting to ethnic or sexual stereotypes to earn a cheap laugh.

Tina Fey recently declared that she will no longer apologize for jokes that her audience finds offensive. Which is legitimate, I suppose. Flat, formulaic apologies don’t do much for anyone. But I would hope she might spend some time considering why she and Poehler have gotten some flack for their problematic punchlines, whether in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidtthe Golden Globes, or (one of my admitted favorites) Parks and Recreation.

There has been pushback from people like Tina Fey to what they see as an easily offended internet culture that wants to destroy comedy out of a desire to be “politically correct.” However, the fact is Sisters was a genuinely funny movie. I dare say I gafawed more than once or twice. But those borderline racist and homophobic moments just weren’t funny. They came across as cheap shots. Some people as well question why we need to pick apart every perceived problematic element of popular culture. Does it really matter? But I would argue that when we are reminded every day of how deeply our society is entrenched in systemic, toxic racism — yes, it actually matters quite a bit. Whenever we see a group of people, whether people of color or sexual minorities treated as less than fully human for not being whatever we consider the default to be (in this case a white heterosexual woman) we need to call it out. And we need to push those people we respect–for me that means Tina Fey and Amy Poehler–to do better, because we know they are (or should be) capable of it.

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4 thoughts on “On “Sisters” and casual racism

  1. Racism is part of America’s DNA. Just look at the events going on today. White supremists taking over a federal building in Oregon. Just think if those folks were blacks or Muslims. We need to deal with this.

  2. JS says:

    Thank you for writing this! I was pretty disappointed by the cheap stereotypes of Asian and lesbians as well. Fey and Poehler could definitely do better.

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