Shane Gillis, Ms. Swan, and when it's acceptable to make fun of Asians
The comedian Shane Gillis was fired from Saturday Night Live just a few days after he was hired for the show’s upcoming season and the subsequent revelation of numerous offensive things he’d said on his (easily findable and publicly accessible) podcast since 2018 — among them, a repeated usage of “chink,” including a reference to Asian-American presidential candidate Andrew Yang as a “Jew chink.” Amid a brewing public outcry, Gillis offered a non-apology, and issued a petulant statement after the firing. (“I’m a comedian who was funny enough to get SNL. That can’t be taken away.”) Good riddance.
Nonetheless, Gillis has been taken up by the “political correctness is a scourge” faction, which includes various comedians, conservatives, and general Twitter losers who are increasingly concerned by “cancel culture,” a vague term that has come to encapsulate everything from jailing political dissidents to quote-tweeting someone with the thinkface emoji. Their logic is something like this: If comedians, who like to say that they are constitutionally protected for being racist without reprisal, aren’t free to (checks notes) say racial slurs, then comedy will die at the hands of Social Justice Warriors. If someone like Shane Gillis is penalized for (checks notes again) saying “chink” dozens of times in public, quite recently, like literally as recently as this year, then nobody will ever want to do comedy again. They’ll be too afraid of getting canceled for bravely uttering a racial slur.
Gillis, of course, has only suffered the indignity of being fired from SNL before appearing on SNL. It’s easy to imagine how he’ll stretch out his 15 minutes of infamy — already, he’s “reached out” to Yang, for what I assume will be the intellectual dark-web version of the Beer Summit. Once again, the burden of making amends will have transferred to the aggrieved party. Yang’s gesture, however apparently noble, is certainly useless at addressing the more entrenched problem, which is not just that Gillis himself is racist, but that thousands of people don’t think he was doing anything particularly wrong, and probably never will even if someone holds their hand. This form of racism isn’t necessarily built around hatred, but a benign disrespect. As with Stephen Colbert and the Oscars, when it was time to make fun of a racial group, a comedian picked the Asians because they assumed there could be no meaningful blowback. Gillis was just too stupid to be clever about it.
It seemed appropriate to me that, in the statement about his firing, he closed by saying he was “always a MADtv guy anyway,” referencing the Fox sketch-comedy show that went off the air in 2009. Earlier this year, I’d started thinking about one of the show’s most popular recurring bits, a character named Ms. Swan. Ms. Swan, portrayed by The Marvelous Ms. Maisel actress Alex Borstein, was an immigrant of unspecified origin who spoke in a halting cadence and pitched pronunciation, getting herself into comedic situations in which she looked manipulatively naive or actually stupid. It sounds ridiculous to describe on paper, but the joke was often simply that she sounded funny while saying literally anything (one of her catchphrases was “he look-a like-a man”), especially as the character became more entrenched with the audience.
To anyone of Asian descent, Ms. Swan was painfully recognizable as a crude stereotype. She had a severe bowl cut; her porcelain skin was flushed with rouge; she worked at a nail salon; she wore the sexless muu-muus of many grandmothers; and her accent immediately evoked every callous impersonation of an Asian woman. In a letter to the editor, a Times reader pointed out that on MADtv’s official website, a list of the show’s old sketch titles revealed that Ms. Swan’s original name was Ms. Kwan — a traditionally Chinese surname — before it was changed. Some Asian activists protested Ms. Swan’s existence at the time, but back in pre-9/11 America, the social climate wasn’t like it was now. Not enough people cared. “If [Asian activist Guy Aoki] believes my nutty little character on a late-night sketch comedy show is a depiction of him and his ‘people,’ then, as Ms. Swan would say, ‘He needs to take a chill pill!’” Borstein wrote.
In January, I spoke with sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen about the specific connotations of Borstein’s character. “Chinese immigrants and other Asian immigrants have always been made fun of for not being able to assimilate, not being able to communicate, being linguistically different,” she said. “Their language was parodied; they were always speaking gibberish; they were totally unable to blend.” She referenced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, and wasn’t fully repealed until the 1960s. “They were the first group that was targeted with race-based immigration restriction,” she said. “America became the gatekeeping, xenophobic, anti-immigrant nation based on that initial fear of people who were really considered alien.”
If a depressing percentage of Americans aren’t even learning that slavery was bad, it’s not surprising that whole swaths of historical violence against other marginalized groups remain relatively obscure among the greater population. Still, ignorance of history doesn’t explain how Borstein had condescendingly pushed back against the suggestion that the character mimicked an Asian woman. It doesn’t explain Gillis justifying repeatedly and emphatically using slurs in a barely humorous context as pushing the envelope.
An increasingly common belief among Gillis’s defenders is that many people who claim offense are making it up — Gillis himself said he’d be “happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.” This smugness elides the agonizing work that every Asian has had to do when considering how seriously they should take this, or any incident of racism they’ve encountered in their life. I’ve been called a chink plenty of times. Sometimes, I confronted the person saying it; others, I realized it just wasn’t worth it, for various reasons.
Condescending appeals to the high ground aside, it should be obvious, in 2019, that patience and open-heartedness are not our best methods for fighting the malice at the heart of racism. The pain of Asians is not something to be disregarded or pushed down, even as Borstein, Gillis, and Yang all believed, at some point and in their own way, that the aggrieved should just try harder. It’s not clear why this expectation consistently falls on Asians. None of us think combatting a bad comedian is the first priority of forging a path toward collective liberation; we’re just trying to say that it sucks. It’s that simple.
It can be particularly tricky to locate Asian-Americans in America’s racial context — they’re simultaneously model minorities held up as an example for everyone else, and also perfectly okay to mock. They’ve made amazing advances in some areas, and remain far behind in others. But one thing has definitively and meaningfully changed: Making fun of them no longer comes without repercussion. Anyone who’s scared by this should be.
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