I rewatched the Harold & Kumar trilogy recently. I was surprised to walk away from them, which paint their scenes with stereotypical characters, with an understanding that the movies actually were countering all those stereotypes.
It seems paradoxical: using stereotypes to fight stereotypes.
We think of stereotypes as a bad thing nowadays. And it’s true. Pigeonholing people from certain demographics into a limited number of “roles” in society screws with our self-image and potential to grow, among other things.
Take the Indian gas station owner: he (rarely she) is stingy, thickly accented, and futilely trying to move up in society. Watch any episode from The Simpsons with Apu, and the stereotype will become clear. This trope paints South Asians in North America as foreigners with an eye for money but no means to achieve economic mobility. But that is quite far from reality.
As humans, we are quick to make judgements, to put people into boxes. Comedy movies—and humorists at large—can make great use of this tendency to draw laughs. They set us up to believe or expect one thing, and when our expectations are proven wrong or reversed, we tend to find it funny.
There is a lengthy history of racial humor drawn from exaggerated or inaccurate depictions of racial minorities, be it pervasive stereotypes or even Blackface. But Harold & Kumar encourages the audience to laugh at the very ridiculous nature of these stereotypes.
Tackling Asian stereotypes
Harold and Kumar combat tropes about Asians and our diaspora through humor and, well, stereotypes. Each movie in the trilogy takes a different “stereotype strategy” to promote an image of the Asian diaspora separate from the typical and harmful tropes seen in Hollywood in the ’90s.
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle draws humor from the vast differences between the protagonists and the stereotypical Asian Americans they encounter. Through these interactions, they depict all the stereotypes as humorous.
The movie is a series of scenes in which Harold and Kumar run into stereotypical Asian Americans, like the “Indian doctor.” The humor in those scenes comes from how different the pot-chasing protagonists are from those stereotypes. For example, Harold has a hard time holding a normal conversation with the Korean American students’ club at Princeton. We laugh at the awkwardness in the conversation that stems from the vast difference between the “nerdy Asian” students and Harold, a relatively normal working guy with an affliction for pot.
It’s scenes like this one, when scattered throughout the movie, that give us the sense Harold and Kumar stand apart from the stereotypes Hollywood would have cast them in. By the end, the movie is able to even place Kumar into a stereotype in an interesting way. When Kumar encounters an Indian gas station owner, we expect that Kumar could not be more different from the blatant stereotype. However, we end up seeing a sort of camaraderie between them as they exchange words in their mother tongue. Kumar, like any other human, embodies parts of certain tropes but not others.
Taking a turn on ‘white people tropes’
Harold & Kumar Go To Guantanamo Bay includes several stereotypes of white people to show the ridiculousness of the premise. It also flips the history of racial humor on its head by exaggerating the tropes of white people.
In this sequel, the characters run into incestuous Alabamian siblings, the KKK, and a racially insensitive federal agent — all tropes applied to white people. The central plot of the movie involves Harold and Kumar running away from their supposed accusation as a North Korean spy and a member of Al-Qaeda. So the central irony of the movie is how they run into stereotypes of white people while being stereotyped by white people. It is designed to make us think about how strange it is the public considers stereotyping of Asian Americans to be mainstream.
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas creates and breaks stereotypes for other racial groups to start a dialogue about cross-cultural relationships. The movie works to show the ingrained biases within the Asian diaspora, and gives a script (pun intended?) for us to build those bridges.
Much of the central conflict in the movie revolves around Harold trying to impress his father-in-law (and, by extension, his wife Maria) over the holidays. Her father is a tough family man with a soft spot for the holidays and an eye for perfection when it comes to all things Christmas.
This conflict sets the stage for the intercultural themes that the movie brings. At first, Harold cannot see past the muscle and machismo of Maria’s father. Her father cannot see Harold as anything more than a small-minded but nerdy Asian man. The two eventually come to see each other a bit more for who they are by the end of the movie.
The movie sprinkles in scenes with other cross-racial sensibilities as well. For example, when Harold and Kumar look to purchase a new Christmas tree, they encounter Lamar and Latrell, two Black salesmen who embody certain tropes often ascribed to Black men. After Harold and Kumar purchase a tree, Lamar and Latrell argue with each other over which of them will get to play which role. It reveals that they in fact were not stereotypical at all, and were rather using stereotypes and Harold and Kumar’s internal biases to help them sell Christmas trees.
Stereotypes as the “currency of jokes”
Comedy movie producers who actively work to distance themselves from stereotypes have a tough task, given how tropes are often the currency of jokes. Of course, harmful ones should always stay out of the conversation, and I would hope we have moved past the point that we need to blatantly point it out. But, I think what matters more is how stereotypes are used to further the broader dialogue of the movie, rather than have its mere presence as the butt of a joke.
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