The Latest How I Met Your Mother Features Some Meta-OrientalismS

Monday's How I Met Your Mother episode had some bloggers asking "What is up with the yellowface?" After watching it myself, this show had me asking the same thing, as well as wondering if the orientalism on display had any legitimate place in this particular storyline.

This episode was centered around Marshall dealing the penultimate slap to Barney, after the latter lost the Slapsgiving bet way back in season 2, which for some reason was framed as a Kill Bill homage. For this one, Marshall really wants to put the hurt on Barney, physically and psychologically, so he tells this simultaneously lazy and elaborate story about how he traveled to China and then Cleveland (I don't know) to learning the art of slapping from three "kung fu masters." These characters were played by the other main actors on this show - Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, and Alyson Hannigan, themselves. Huh?

The lazy part involves the myriad stereotypes that Marshall's story includes — what with the silk robes and the hairstyles that the main actors have to wear in order to look Asian, as well as lines like, "You want to learn the slap of a thousand [or million] exploding suns," and people repeatedly referring to a lot of money as "much gold." There's also some obligatory flute music playing in the background, showing that HIMYM really has its bases covered when it comes to shallow homages to kung fu movies.

The interesting part is that the show also seems aware of how silly its portrayal of Chinese/kung fu/whatever culture it is. In fact, there are many hints that Marshall made up the whole thing to mess with Barney, what with his detour into having sex with the teacher played by his wife's portrayer, him going through the trouble of obtaining a fake jukebox to slap and then break, and then his luring Barney to the "gongxing forest," where he will slap him in front of four women and a tiger (this turns out to be four white women crocheting a blanket of a tiger). The story even begins with Marshall asking an actual Asian dude to teach him to slap well, and him saying, "This is a kung fu school." The jokes even work somewhat, when they act as nods to HIMYM's characters, such as Marshall's aforementioned affair with Lily's master, and the section featuring Ted's master being titled as, "The Some-Might-Call-It-Nitpicky-But-It's-Really-Just-Thorough Schooling of the Calligrapher."

Still, if I were Barney, my disbelief at this whole ruse would also include some disdain for Marshall's random use of Asian culture and people as props, especially when it involves white actors dressing in ethnic drag to accomplish this. It's pathetic that Angry Asian Man's Phil Yu, whose post I linked in the second paragraph, has to say something like, "At least nobody taped their eyes back," when it comes to the mild-yet-present yellowface going on in this episode. It does make sense, story-wise, to use the main characters to play the prominent "Chinese" characters in this episode, but it was annoying that the HIMYM writers contributed even more to the underrepresentation of Asian actors on TV shows.

If I sound like a broken record, then it's because this problem comes up in Hollywood and real life all the time. It's insulting to reduce an entire racial group's culture to a costume, or to a couple of particularities in speech, and then to people outside that race to perpetuate these tropes. For a How I Met Your Mother storyline about a slap bet, it's also pointless.