Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
In February 2011 we called out CBS for its depiction of an Asian character, “Bryce” Lee in it’s upcoming series Two Broke Girls. After an email conversation between Racebending.com and CBS’s Office of Diversity and Communications, CBS offered us a DVD screener of the show to preview and submit feedback. Two Broke Girls premieres on Monday, September 19th.
Our initial concerns about the character of Han/Bryce/Rice Lee (played by Matthew Moy) came from the casting sides, where Lee can’t wear his pants correctly, can’t speak English properly, and doesn’t understand the concept of holidays. In the pilot a lot of these cliched stereotypes have been removed– mostly because Lee’s role in the episode is greatly reduced compared to the sides.
Even though most of the offensive lines/scenarios are nowhere to be seen in the first episode, from an Asian American perspective the character is still a problematic stereotype. “Bryce” Lee plays like a caricature of failed American Idol contestant William Hung. Perhaps this was deliberate, since Two Broke Girls has a very 90’s-sitcom aesthetic, but the character is anachronistic. Because the actor clearly sounds like an American actor attempting to affect a foreign accent, and given the character’s emasculated personality and ignorance about English is played for stereotype-based laughs, it’s hard to see this Lee resonating with Asian American viewers at all.
While the character is not as horrifying as initially proposed, our feeling is the Asian American community will likely still view Bryce Lee as a regression from the same studio that brings us multidimensional roles for Asian Americans on shows like Hawaii 5-0.
We do want to applaud CBS for featuring a comedy with two strong women in lead roles. But in the pilot, minorities seemed to exist to add, well, color–ranging from Bryce Lee’s broken English, to the lusty Eastern Europeans, to the black lesbian with poor boundaries, to the black guy who greets the girls at the door and randomly makes offensive statements (like a cringe inducing Duke rape joke).
The best characters in comedy are ones that audiences can both laugh at and laugh with. Kat Denning’s role in Girls, Max, is a perfect example of this. The audience can both laugh at her circumstances and at her wisecracks. Being laughed at can be marginalizing and hurtful; being laughed with helps build connection and empathy. (This balance is why CBS’s Big Bang Theory is successful with geek viewers, rather than alienating.)
Historically, minorities have frequently been laughed at, and have only rarely been laughed with. This is the fear we have with the character of Bryce Lee. The type of derision many Asian American immigrants face in their daily lives is not a laugh track. Dispelling assumptions people have made about you (because of crappy media representations and stereotypes) is no walk in the park, either.
We really appreciated having the opportunity to preview the show and to send in our feedback. CBS has made a strong effort to support diversity, which is why Two Broke Girls feels like such an inconsistent letdown. Because Two Broke Girls is set in Brooklyn, it offers CBS an opportunity to develop a very diverse cast. 65% of Brooklyners are people of color; one out of five are Latino. This is something CBS and the production of Two Broke Girls can take advantage of, rather than avoid. While it could have been a lot worse, this characterization of an Asian American is still far from ideal.