Yellow Peril Rides Again

When you have two major yellow peril movies released in a year, it’s safe to say you have a significant problem. Variations on the yellow peril trope have always been swirling through US society, but it seems like they are about to be whipped up again, playing on fears about the economy, North Korea, and immigration. That combination could prove to be vicious for the Asian community in the United States, and in some cases, it might turn deadly. Which makes it critically important to talk about, and illustrative of the fact that, yes, what happens in pop culture matters.

So, in April, we had Olympus Has Fallen, in which evil North Koreans try to take over the United States. And then there was Red Dawn last October, again involving brave (white) resistance against nefarious (Asian) invaders. Both films, as Marissa Lee of Racebending pointed out, reeked of white nativism—the idea that to be ‘American’ is to be white, and everyone else is ‘other.’ This sets up a world in which anyone of colour becomes an enemy of the United States, and right now Hollywood is riding hard on the idea that North Koreans are out to get us (hardly a new idea—it’s come up in recent Bond films, and of course has been around since the Korean War to some extent or another).

People who are exposed to this kind of media are obviously also exposed to the ideas within. These aren’t just fun action films. They carry insidious messages that sneak their way below the skin and into the mind of the viewer, and potentially set up very unpleasant consequences. Alexander Abad-Santos, writing at The Atlantic, discussed, for example, the tide of racist Tweets that appeared in the wake of Olympus Has Fallen.

Think on this for a moment: people went to a movie, a piece of fiction, something widely understood as a form of entertainment that is in part enjoyable because it is not a reflection of reality, and they came out of that movie spewing racist epithets and talking about how they wanted to ‘kill every fucking Asian[1. Ah yes, ‘Asian,’ a broad, unspecified category summarising exactly how poorly the speaker understands the complexity of Asian identities, cultures, and communities.].’ And not just one or two people. A lot of people. Going to the movies fanned the flames of racism for them, either validating or sparking anti-Asian racism and making them feel comfortable expressing it.

Now, naturally, movies have a self-selecting demographic. People going to a specific film approach it with their own preconceptions and it’s safe to say that at least some people going to yellow peril movies also believe that ‘Asians’ are evil and bent on destroying the world, or at least taking over ‘America.’ (Because, as we known, Asians are not American.) So, obviously, after being fired up for two hours in a movie theatre, those people are going to emerge triumphant and they will trumpet their racism to the world, just as people who attend a rally get energised and proceed to evangelise about whatever the subject was, whether it was marriage equality or gun rights.

But also, some people just go to the movies because they want to have fun, and they may not apply a specific critical lens to the films they’re watching. Not everyone needs to be a critic all the time, but when people approach jingoistic media without being aware of it, and they don’t examine the messages it contains, the result can be, well, emerging from a movie theatre and talking about how you want to buy an AK so you can go apeshit on some ‘Asians.’

And this is not just talk, because these kinds of attitudes translate into actions. They mean that when confronted with Asians in their communities, people behave in a racist manner, whether it’s being rude to the Chinese woman who runs the grocery store, heckling the Thai candidate for City Council, or bullying the Japanese girl at school. Those actions can have serious consequences, making members of the Asian community in the United States feel unsafe, limiting chances for progress and social engagement—for example, it can be very difficult for nonwhite candidates to be elected in primarily white neighbourhoods and communities.

It creates a world of racial stratifications, and it creates a very clear and present danger. Remember how in the wake of the 11 September attacks, anyone who ‘looked Muslim’ was targeted for attack, and that included a number of Sikhs, because of their turbans? Rest assured that if North Korea did attempt military action against the United States, Asians in America would be in danger, because the kind of people who beat people with tire irons in the believe that this will somehow solve political problems don’t care about racial and cultural distinctions like ‘uh, I get that you’re mad at North Koreans, bro, but I’m actually Indonesian. And a fourth-generation American.’

And, of course, this kind of media normalises the nature of such attacks and makes them acceptable in the first place. The very reason that people are singled out for attack is because of enduring social attitudes about racism; the fact that attackers can’t even get the race of their victims right is just insult to injury.

Films like this aren’t just harmless entertainment, not when they carry a heavy burden of messaging and social conditioning wrapped into their very spines. If something is entertaining to one group and not to another, there’s a strong chance that entertainment or fun is occurring at the expense of the other group. When you’re talking about resistance among marginalised groups, such as Black humour based around white people, that’s one thing. But when you’re talking about the reinforcement of social dominance, as is the case with white audiences eating up anti-Asian racism, that is an entirely different kettle of fish.