While Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film Licorice Pizza—a coming-of-age tale paying tribute to Anderson’s roots in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up—is up for three nominations at the Oscars, including Best Picture, a shadow hangs over the plucky comedy-drama. From pretty much the day it was released, the film has faced accusations of anti-Asian racism, which have only ramped up in recent days, ahead of the Oscars on Sunday. And, to add further insult to injury, neither Anderson nor the film’s most biggest names, Alana Haim and Bradley Cooper, have offered satisfying responses.
Now, activists and experts are expressing concern that racist scenes in the movie, in which white, male characters mock Japanese women’s accents and struggle to tell them apart, could have unsettling, real-world implications.
Carol Park, a researcher at UC Riverside’s Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies and Asian American, tells Jezebel portrayals of Asian women as “voiceless, lacking agency,” as we see in Licorice Pizza, can have consequences in an already fraught time for Asian-American communities and Asian women.
“These renderings contribute to how people feel emboldened to enact violence upon others, if they think that that person isn’t going to fight back, and have this preconception that Asian women are quiet, not going to do anything,” she said. “We need real depictions of our communities, our strength, how we fight back.”
In one of the controversial scenes, Jerry Frick, the white owner of a local Japanese restaurant, speaks to his first Japanese wife Mioko and then his second wife Kimiko, in mock, exaggerated, Japanese-accented English. Both women respond to Frick in Japanese without English subtitles, prompting some Asian-American women critics to accuse the film of treating the only nonwhite, Asian characters in the film as voiceless and interchangeable props. In another scene, Cooper Hoffman’s Gary Valentine mistakes Kimiko for Mioko—drawing on the stereotype that all Asian women or women of a certain race look and act the same.
Criticism of the scenes ahead of the Oscars this weekend comes amid a jarring rise of reported attacks and harassment disproportionately targeting Asian women. Earlier this month, on March 16, many mourned the anniversary of the Atlanta spa shooting that killed six Asian women, carried out by a white man who—by his own admission—seemed to view Asian women as menacing sex objects who posed a threat to society.
Despite this, Licorice Pizza director Anderson’s responses have been entirely lackluster and, frankly, offensive. “It’s kind of like, ‘Huh?’... It’s funny because it’s hard for me to relate to,” Anderson told Indiewire of the criticisms back in February. “I’m lost when it comes to that. To me, I’m not sure what they—you know, what is the problem? The problem is that he was an idiot saying stupid shit?”
Park takes particular issue with Anderson’s defense of the scenes. “You can’t say it’s just ‘part of the narrative,’ because that’s what creates harmful stereotypes and makes them acceptable, in the first place—when you start to minimize it,” she said. “We’ve seen this forever, dismissing offensive portrayals as part of the storytelling, showing this was the environment or the society back then. But it’s still not acceptable.”
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, tells Jezebel the notion that such portrayals of Asian women are acceptable because they’re set in a supposedly bygone cultural era is problematic, because “this is actually happening.”
“It’s not a thing of the past, it’s behavior and stereotyping Asian women face, particularly from white men, every day,” Choirmorrow said. “People can’t say something is just art for art’s sake, as if that doesn’t have impact on people’s real, everyday lives.”
At the same time that Licorice Pizza is up for Best Picture, it’s joined by Drive My Car, the first ever Best Picture nominee from Japan, and one of only 12 non-English language films that have been nominated for the category. Non-English language films, television shows, and art, particularly from Asian countries, have been making waves in recent years, between Parasite winning Best Picture in 2020, Squid Game ranking as the top title on Netflix for months last year, and widespread popularity of k-pop groups in the west.
“We’re seeing so much consumption of and fascination with our cultures now, but it’s often this simultaneous acceptance and objectification, exoticization,” Choirmorrow said. Someday, instead of more depictions of Asian women that advance racist tropes and attempts at comedy, she wants to see “a woman of Asian heritage just playing a role that anybody could have played.” Choirmorrow hopes such films will be met with the same critical recognition and popularity as Licorice Pizza, yet “another movie about white people that reduces Asian women to caricatures.”