Friday, February 8, 2013

Asian American Women Portrayed in Pitch Perfect AKA I Am So Disappointed


I settled down to watch Pitch Perfect about two months ago. A little late in the game, I know, but this was a feel-good, sugary movie that I felt I needed to ease the pain of finals and papers. It looked so right, what with the college acapella and the Spring Awakening love of my life Skylar Astin as the male lead. And it is, objectively, a fun and easy film. But as minutes rolled by, I found myself increasingly let down and so incredibly disappointed at the depiction of the only two Asian American women in the film. 

We first meet Kimmy Jin, the college roommate of Beca, the white female protagonist. Throughout the length of the film she is mentioned only by her full name “Kimmy Jin”, an affectation I have been noticing more and more in how Asian Americans are being addressed in mainstream media. 

Note: In the upcoming film 21 And Over (starring once again the wonderful Skylar Astin and another love of my life Justin Chon…I mean why not, right?) the main character portrayed by Justin Chon is only addressed as “Jeff Chang”. Is it mainstream America’s backhanded joke, a little elbow nudge and wink-wink to each other as if to say, “Asian Americans have such generic names, let’s add this ongoing albeit useless joke of having to call them by their full names”? I’m going to go ahead and say yes, that’s what they’re trying to say.

"Jeff Chang" and the people who call him "Jeff Chang"

But the character of Kimmy Jin, she is depicted as nothing less than “worst freshman college roommate ever” in conjunction with, what I interpreted as, “Cold Asian Female”. And this film holds no punches in portraying Kimmy Jin’s CAF-ness, a young dragon lady indeed. Placed in obvious juxtaposition to the white, friendly and spunky Beca, Kimmy Jin immediately gives Beca the cold shoulder upon meeting her for the first time, refusing to even answer any of Beca’s questions or greetings, again, the very first time they meet! Listen, I understand depicting a standoffish character, but aren’t you trying to push her CAF-ness a little much here, Pitch Perfect? The first time they meet, really? But of course, the film makes use of Kimmy’s outlandish first-meeting silence by being able to insert a great and not-tired-at-all “No English?” joke by Beca.

We want colder, Kimmy! Colder!

Kimmy’s coldness continues throughout the film, where Kimmy Jin would actively ignore Beca, roll her eyes and tell Beca’s friends they were being a nuisance to her studies, and my favorite; hang out exclusively with her other Asian American friends. When Kimmy and Beca first meet and make their way outside to the school’s fair, Kimmy makes a beeline to a tent of some manifestation of the school’s Asian American club, where the other Asian Americans greet Kimmy as if she were the prodigal son.
The guy in the middle is totally one of Channing Tatum's nerd friends in 21 Jump Street, right? Hey, dude!
In a later scene, Kimmy Jin and two other Asian American friends return to her dorm, and upon seeing Beca inside, Kimmy says, “The white girl is back”. See, the joke here is that the white girl is marginalized. Weird right?? Reverse racism at its finest!

The other Asian American female in Pitch Perfect is Lilly, a member of the film’s underdog acapella group “The Barden Bellas”. While I was shocked and uncomfortable at the depiction of Kimmy Jin, Lilly’s character had my jaw dropped and cringing simultaneously, a hard feat! With wide eyes, Lilly would mutter short sentences in what I would describe as the middle point between a whisper and a mouse’s squeak. And this is how she speaks throughout 95% of the film

Wait, this is an actual promotional picture?

There was absolutely no subtlety in this character. Lilly is nothing more than a caricature of an Asian female, doused in insecurity, shyness, submissiveness and pigtail braids. Some may try to argue that Lilly was saying some really warped and weird things in her non-voice like “I ate my twin in the womb” that supposedly makes for an interesting, juxtaposing nature.

I argue the fact that an Asian American woman made to talk in a quivering whisper throughout the whole film overshadows any other nuance in her character. Just like the fact that her non-voice was just a build up to reveal at the very end that she is, surprise! a master beatboxer. More Asian juxtapositions! This beatboxing fact was revealed in the last five minutes of the two-hour film. Lilly’s Asian caricature voice was built up for two hours only to reveal at the very end that she breaks all of those stereotypes the film itself created in her character? The damage has already been done, Pitch Perfect! Guess what, the joke doesn’t pay off.

All we’re ultimately left with is the perpetuation of Asian American female stereotypes straight out of early 20th century Americana. We have two Asian American women in a popular film garnered at younger generations, and what do we get? One dragon lady and one mute. I mistakenly expected better from a 2012 teen film. Especially in the age of Glee and the show’s celebration of diversity and support of the marginalized—Oh wait.

More on that later.

Note: The character of Donald, played by Indian American Utkarsh Ambudkar, was great. Congrats there. 


  1. Hey Stephanie,
    I just watched Pitch Perfect myself and as an American born Asian, I have never been so pissed at the portrayal of Asians. Really for once I'd like to see just a normal character...who happens to be that really so hard to imagine?It's not that Asians should NEVER be poked fun at ( since..I get it.. we all should laugh at ourselves sometimes) ...the problem is...that's ALL THERE IS in the media. There's absolutely no balance. anyway thanks for noticing this, I appreciate that not everyone buys this ignorant caricature that is, in my opinion, the cheapest shot at a comedic character.

    1. "the cheapest shot at a comedic character"- exactly! Thanks for reading!