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: Humor and Racial Performance in “Poser! The History and Evolution of the Peace Sign”
2 When asked how Wong Fu Productions, an independent production company, was representing Asian Americans in their work, the group answered, “We want to show that APAs (Asian/Pacific Islander Americans) are just normal people, and shouldn’t be stereotyped in the media and should have proper representation” (Pacific Citizen, “From Online”). Friends and coworkers Ted Fu, Philip Wang, and Wesley Chan make up the popular Wong Fu Productions (WFP) that has released numerous videos over the past seven years. Their “mockumentary” released on September 10th, 2009 titled “POSER! The History and Evolution of the ‘Peace Sign,’” became an instant hit, with the most views of any of their videos in a single day (Wang, “It’s okay to be a POSER”). The success of “POSER!” may be difficult to pinpoint, but through an examination of its humor, visuals, and message, this essay will explore how the video functions rhetorically. “POSER!” acts as a cultural message for American society and the following examination will investigate the ways in which this piece of rhetoric works. First, I will provide contextual information about rhetorical strategies for viewing “POSER!” in order to ground this text in a larger picture of rhetorical significance. By examining the video in terms of Cara Finnegan’s strategies of production, composition, and reception, I argue that “POSER!” functions as a powerful piece of rhetoric, whether intentional or not. The influence of the mockumentary’s rhetoric, however, comprises several elements, including humor, race, and persuasive message. While making a rhetorical analysis of the video, I will secondly discuss its societal significance in terms of race representation in media. Combining rhetorical and racial analyses, I will argue that Wong Fu Productions’ “POSER!” both reinforces racial stereotypes through racial performance and challenges hegemonic ideals of Asian Americans through rhetorical choices regarding its production and composition. All of these aspects work together
3 and influence one another in the reception of “POSER! The History and Evolution of the ‘Peace Sign’” by American society.
Rhetorical and Racial Modes of Analysis In examining “POSER!,” there are several elements to be broken down in order to understand how they cooperate and form a single, complex artifact. To do this, I will use three of the five “critical approaches” set up by Finnegan’s “Studying Visual Modes of Public Address” (252). The first approach will be in studying the production of the artifact, including aspects such as medium, genre, and the rhetorical creators (Finnegan 253). Applying these elements to the mockumentary will provide further context, as well as explain how and why the artifact is composed and received by audiences the way it is. My second approach of composition will interpret the actual “visual grammar” of the text, which also contributes to the success of the reception of the artifact. By exploring themes, color, content organization, and even historical knowledge, an idea forms of what the artifact rhetorically achieves (254). Specific to “POSER!,” I will use this broad approach to examine how the use of race is a rhetorical choice that holds much influence over the audience and its reception. Reception is the study of audience response to a text that may include attitudes or action derived from the artifact itself (259). I see the interpolation of the social factors of humor and race in this rhetorical analysis to be crucial in forming a complete picture of what “POSER!” offers society. A race analysis specific to Asian American representation in media will be important to my claim that “POSER!” both perpetuates and challenges dominant, White, normative ideas about different races. Asian Americans have had limited representation in media, and are most
4 commonly portrayed in the recurring roles of “young, passive adults at work in technology ads” who are viewed as anti-social and working alone (Mastro and Stern 642-645). Such representations relate back to other images that have circulated in society throughout history, in which Asians and Asian Americans have been placed into “peripheral roles, fetishized as objects, or portrayed as one-dimensional stereotypes” (Mok 186, 188). One popular stereotype is that all Asians look alike, which groups together an array of diverse Asian ethnicities under the umbrella term “Asian American” (Hamamoto 206; Mok 186). Indeed, this negative and ignorant thinking has been normalized into societal thinking, as contemporary advertisements still continue to use these notions (Angry Asian Man “Old Navy Commercial: All Asians—even Mannequins—look alike?”). These hegemonic ideals of Asian Americans that are present in “POSER!” can be further examined under a lens of rhetoric, race and humor in order to conclude how this mockumentary is a form of resistance to these normative views. This analysis, divided into three parts that follow the different sections of the mockumentary, is where I will now turn.
“POSER!” as Perpetuator, Performance, and Resister Against a sunny, blue-skied background, a prestigious building is shown in the opening shot of “POSER!,” as a narrator describes the “Formosan Agency Of Broadening Ethnology, also known as FAOBE.” Although at surface level, this video appears to be like any traditional documentary, attention to the aspects of production make audiences realize that it is actually a parody of the documentary-style genre, a mockumentary. In looking at the chosen medium that WFP releases their videos—YouTube—“POSER!” is viewed as entertainment, due to the humorous nature and the idea of YouTube as a leisure website. Also, depending upon whether or not viewers are familiar with Wong Fu Productions, they may already know the group’s genre
5 is humor, although this knowledge conforms to stereotypes of Asian men being funny and of being technology savvy. Considering the medium and circulation space of the video, WFP rhetorically communicates to audiences hints about their humorous work. Since humor is both timely and defined by “highly personal tastes,” it is worth noting how the race of WFP affected the production of “POSER!” in its jokes for an intended audience (Dudden 9, 10). It is no coincidence that the abbreviation “FAOBE” is phonetically identical to the term “fobby” which derives from FOB, or “fresh off the boat.” This term was originally created in a derogatory manner, marking someone as being too “Asian” or “ethnic,” and was rivaled by the opposite term “whitewashed” for being too assimilated (Pyke and Dang 149). In the last few years, however, the term has been reclaimed by the Asian American community and turned into a term of endearment reserved for intraracial use (Angry Asian Man “To fob with love”; Pyke and Dang 159). The men of Wong Fu Productions know that they have a large Asian American fan base, and their use of cultural humor reveals their targeted audience, although it by no means limits non-Asian Americans from understanding the video. While being inclusive of all races as possible audiences, WFP sets up an inside joke in the first shot of the mockumentary, signaling the humorous genre of the video as well as targeting Asian Americans. This subtlety demonstrates the first way in which WFP resists White, dominant culture by asserting humor meant for one group in society into their video that is distributed through mainstream society. The following scenes of “POSER!” introduce the mockumentary’s experts in three distinct sections of history, classification, and development, which can be viewed under the approach of composition. Historian Dr. Dennis Tsai begins with a brief historical account of how the peace sign became popularized, complete with a scene of an Asian couple in “Shanghai
6 1941” posing for a “traditional” photo using the gesture, which mocks the documentary style of using old video clips and suggests that Asians have endlessly been using the peace sign in photos. Although this notion is problematic since it reinforces the idea of “it’s just the way Asians are” when they pose for pictures, it also shows longevity and expertise in the act of posing. Asian and Asian American expertise is a theme continually shown in the video, and is also reflected in the choice of using Asian American actors as the three doctors. Again, these roles present the contradiction of both hurting and helping images of Asian and Asian Americans. Using Asian faces reiterates the stereotype of them being lab coat wearing scientists who are unaffiliated with any friends or family (Mastro and Stern 642). Their mere visual presence, however, breaks the norms of Asian and Asian American representation by allowing them to take on positions of authority as the main characters; by increasing Asian American representation, WFP challenges the lack of Asian faces in contemporary media. Furthermore, the doctors’ speech in clear, intelligent English breaks stereotypes about all Asians having accents or being foreigners, and—especially with Dr. Kim’s colloquial speech patterns, using “totally” and “duh”—differentiates them from being Asian, but Asian American (Mok 186). Racial stereotypes, music, and color designate the classification section’s composition. After Dr. Tsai’s explanation of “photographic posing accents” (PPAs), which continues the mocking of documentaries and scholarly-sounding acronyms, the taxonomist walks the audience through PPAs of White, Black, and Asian people in the “Office of Ethnic Mannerisms” (OEM). With a clipboard in hand, Dr. Kim is presented as an expert, although her feminized qualities— language use, haircut, dangling earrings—unfortunately present her as the object of the male gaze, whether that be by Asian or non-Asian men. The music in the background is light, bouncy, and feminine, which can be viewed as perpetuating the “cute Asian girl” stereotype (Mok, 191-
7 192). As she turns to examining the PPA-ing subjects, however, the audience’s gaze shifts from Dr. Kim to those people behind the glass window, transferring the view of Dr. Kim as object to an authority figure that has power over her subjects. While the gaze used here perpetuates normative views of Asian women, the shift of Dr. Kim to a person with power suggests the breaking of such stereotypical thinking. The performance of racial stereotypes couples with music as Dr. Kim classifies them. The first shot of the White people is behind a white-framed glass window that resembles a portrait frame, directing the audience gaze. The bright, sterile, white room and background behind the subjects points the gaze solely on them. As Dr. Kim describes how White people do their PPAs, acoustic music begins playing, stereotyping them as much as their visual actions and appearance. As two Black people come into the examination room, a stereotypically funky jam replaces the acoustic music. The Black subjects are both wearing shades of blue, with this “cool” color alluding to their cool attitudes and behavior when using the peace sign. As the White and Black people show off their respective PPAs, stereotypes of each race are emphasized, as Whites like bunny ears and rock music while Blacks like utilizing material objects (“bling”). Seeing how several racial stereotypes play out for multiple races, viewers are invited to laugh at the over-exaggeration of these performances emphasized by music and the light tone of Dr. Kim, who even introduces the Asians by saying they “by far, have the most extensive collection of poses. It’s actually super-duper hard to keep up.” Dr. Kim also mentions that these PPAs are used by both Asians and Asian Americans, differentiating the terms, and again challenging the notion of all Asian-looking people being the same (Mok 186). How this scene resists this misconception is notable. As the doctor goes through the many different gestures of Asians, some of the names used to describe them
8 reference social knowledge specific to Western culture such as “the mantel,” “the Peak-a-Boo,” “vogue,” “the Thinker,” and “Home Alone.” It is not in the physical gestures themselves, but in the naming (taxonomy) of the PPAs, that this scene of “POSER!” actually asserts the Westernized and “American” identities of Dr. Kim and the Asian Americans in the room, allowing non-Asian viewers to connect with the Asians through cultural references rather than being distanced by “Otherizing” racial stereotypes. Additionally, the connections set up by cultural tropes is strengthened by the presence of humor, which abstractly, but competently appeals to the “perceptual responses of the audience” and making the blatant stereotypes more digestible (Sternthal and Craig 13). Finishing its racial stereotyping of others in the research and development scene, the mockumentary continues its humor through mocking the “self” using the racial performativity of Asians. Dr. Julio Gonzalez discusses the important job of “CGIs—cute girl innovators” as creators of new PPAs, which also highlights the Asian and/or Asian American woman as stereotypically small—physically as well as by age—and funny by use of bizarre gestures. There is, however, the token Asian guy (“cute guy innovator”) in this scene, although he is feminized by his job of posing in cutesy photos, especially in contrast to Dr. Gonzalez who is presented as the authority figure and older in age than the CGIs. The cute guy innovator conforms to stereotypes of Asian men as being effeminate, but is also the goofy character that brings much humor to the scene (Mok 191). In fact, all of the CGIs are presented as cute, funny, and conforming to stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans. Constructions of racial identities have been enforced “as social devices that mark boundaries of inclusion and exclusion” in society, and can be seen in “POSER!” as performative, or internalized within those who are racially marginalized from the mainstream public (Lei 160;
9 Pyke and Dang 151). Mocking Asians and Asian Americans allows WFP to take part in racial performativity by writing, producing, and circulating a video about “Asianness” and what Asians do. In knowing that “POSER!” is a mockumentary, though, audiences infer that WFP is making fun of the racial stereotyping that is occurring throughout the video, knowing that identities are much more complex than photo posing and race. Hegemonic ideals of dominant society regulate the identities of, and racialize, people of color, causing performance to become one’s identity (Lei 179). In this scene of “POSER!,” the CGIs showcase wacky poses, but posing can be interpreted as not only a gesture, but as a signifier of race and identity (minus the “cute animal poses”) for viewers to either categorize or identify with. Thus, racial performance in “POSER!” that is based on stereotypes mocks the racial “self” in order to present WFP’s message in a more palatable package. In exploring the final scene of “POSER!,” the audiences’ reception of the work are vital in assessing the persuasive success of the video. Whether intentional or not, WFP created this mockumentary with a purpose and message for audiences to accept. At the end of the research and development segment, Dr. Gonzalez discusses failed PPAs as part of the creative process, save for one particular gesture familiar to all Asians and Asian Americans: the “slanty eyes.” He explicitly says that, “it is not okay to do this pose,” and as the light background music cuts off to dead, serious silence, Dr. Gonzalez states, “it’s racist.” This message is clear, but reflects the larger, more disguised message of the overall mockumentary that challenges dominant ways of thinking as well as racism that continues in popular media (Disgrasian “Joe Jonas: Look Me in the Chink-Eyes”). Since such blatant forms of racism like the “slanty eyes” are widely known to be unacceptable (except among celebrities), this statement is humorous in that it creatively incorporates something serious into the ridiculous scenario of PPAs and CGIs. As “POSER!”
10 makes fun of Asians Americans, it simultaneously demands respect for them by viewers through subtle messages. Further investigation on how the mockumentary is received by audiences deserves more attention, specifically in the concluding section on FAOBE’s “educational outreach program.” The doctors explain that the program “brings together different ethnic groups to share their cultural PPAs” as shots of Black and White and Asian people interacting are displayed. Each group is portrayed as being complete amateurs at performing each other’s PPAs, with the Black people showing White people how to utilize material items for posing, and Asian people showing the Black people cute posing gestures. These three races are shown posing together, presenting a hopeful image of a diverse, integrated social landscape. Audiences are persuaded that this cross-cultural, cross-racial interaction is positive, resisting social norms that “otherize” different races. From the perspectives of non-Asian American viewers of “POSER!,” this message of racial inclusivity and interaction breaks stereotypes of Asians being cliquey, while Asian American viewers see the need to interact interracially. A production aspect of examining the creators’ relationships can also be noteworthy to the analysis of audience reception. Fans of WFP know that the group continually tries to represent Asian Americans in their videos, so having people of different races is eye-catching visually and conceptually since there exist misconceptions of Asians and Blacks hating one another (Hamamoto 174-175; Kim and Lee 631, 633). Knowing that WFP are Asian Americans who have relationships with people of different races lets the audience identify with them since they likely have interracial friendships, as well as builds a stronger image of interracial coalitionbuilding (Kim and Lee 633). Although not all races were represented, “POSER!” functions as a
11 positive image of cross-racial interaction and empowering piece of rhetoric for Asian Americans in contemporary media.
Humor and Persuasion: POSER! As Challenging Hegemonic Norms Philip Wang, who wrote “POSER!,” expressed on the Wong Fu Productions website that he was “concerned that people would think the content was racist” (WFP, 2009). Indeed, as I have examined, the video emphasizes racial stereotypes, but the purpose of the mockumentary sets out to do more than just make fun of everyone. Making fun of people, in fact, gives “POSER!” its purpose in that it communicates to the audience that WFP can laugh at themselves as Asian Americans. Through this lens of humor and laughter, WFP invites people of other races to also laugh at themselves so that they can all share in the laughter together. By noting how ridiculous and invalid stereotypes of oneself are, one can more easily understand how stereotypes of racial others are equally dismal and inaccurate. Similarly, the power of laughter in media is significant to gaining audience acceptance, especially with controversial issues such as race. Wong Fu Productions sidesteps most of this difficulty by employing humor as a rhetorical device that allows audiences to better relate to the video in a more agreeing mood than a serious documentary would. By distracting audiences with entertainment and amusement, their reception of the mockumentary’s message is well-received rather than met with contestation (Sternthal and Craig 14). Thus, “POSER!” breaks down stereotypes held between races through its humor. Beyond racial stereotyping, “POSER!” is a rhetorical artifact that empowers the general youth population and, more specifically, the Asian American community. Through its use of young people, a targeted age group of ages 13-30 was implied in the video, which is consistent
12 with American values of who can make change—such as greater racial equity—happen in society. While the video included mostly Asian American characters, White and Black people were also present, promoting cooperative, interracial relationships among everyone. It is important to note that Latin@s, Native Americans, and Arab Americans were not represented in the video, but that this may be yet another way that the mockumentary conforms to mainstream media representation. With large Asian American representation, though, the video both reinforces stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans, as well as challenges their lack of representation in dominant culture. This mockumentary sets up several contradictions, illustrating the complexity of issues of race and culture, even within a humorous setting. While classifying White, Black, and Asian people as having distinct cultural styles for posing that were some inherent “ethnic mannerisms,” the last scene shows these racial performances crumbling, as each group share their gestures for someone of any race to perform. Racial performance, although set up as fact in the first half of the video, is refuted in the ending, demonstrating the inaccuracy of racial stereotypes and performances. Asians and Asian Americans were portrayed to fit the stereotypes of bookish and smart experts, as well as the cute girls posing for pictures. At both ends of the stereotype spectrum, however, these representations simultaneously challenged hegemonic norms in dominant society that doesn’t allow Asian faces to preside in prominent media, which makes “POSER!” and WFP examples of how Asian Americans can be portrayed in the mainstream. Through the Wong Fu Productions mockumentary short, “POSER! The History and Evolution of the ‘Peace Sign,’” circulation of a message of cultural acceptance, as well as increased visibility of Asian Americans in media are achieved. Humor is the key component of the video’s success in persuading audiences of different races of the importance of interracial
13 relationships and questioning of racial performances. Through the power of laughter in this mockumentary, WFP invites others to laugh with them as they make fun of Asians and Asian Americans, allowing for bonds of humor to bring viewers—Asian and non-Asian—together in identification with recognizing and embracing differences. Although the video may not reach all ethnic identities, it is still constitutive rhetoric that brings a large part of the Asian American community together in solidarity for a part of Asian American identity. Viewed through the lenses of production, composition, and reception, with elements of race and humor analyses, “POSER!” functions in the greater society as a counterdiscourse to dominant ideals that marginalize Asian Americans and other people of color from representation in media and mainstream culture. When asked what messages they wished to convey in their films, the men of Wong Fu Productions replied, “we just want to tell good stories in a good way” (Pacific Citizen “From Online Filmmakers to Entrepreneurs”). Their growing, interracial fanbase would enthusiastically agree that Wong Fu is achieving just that.
14 Works Cited
Dudden, Arthur Power. “American Humor.” American Quarterly 37.1 (Spring, 1985): 7-12. Finnegan, Cara A. “Studying Visual Modes of Public Address: Lewis Hine’s Progressive-Era Child Labor Rhetoric.” The Handbook of Public Address. (2010): 250-270. Hamamoto, Darell Y. Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. Kim, Claire Jean and Taeku Lee. “Interracial Politics: Asian Americans and Other Communities of Color.” PS: Political Science and Politics 34.3 (Sept. 2001): 631-637. Lei, Joy L. “(Un)Necessary Toughness?: Those “Loud Black Girls” and Those “Quiet Asian Boys.”” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 34.2 (2003): 158-181. Mastro, Dana E. and Susannah R. Stern. “Representations of Race in Television Commercials: A Content Analysis of Prime-Time Advertising.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 47.4 (Dec. 2003): 638-647. Mok, Teresa A. “Getting the Message: Media Images and Stereotypes and Their Effect on Asian Americans.” Cultural Diversity and Mental Health 4.3 (1998): 185-202. Pacific Citizen staff. “From Online Filmmakers to Entrepreneurs.” Pacific Citizen website. 18 Sept. 2009. JACL. 11 Dec. 2010. <http://www.pacificcitizen.org/site/details/tabid/55/selectmoduleid/373/ArticleID/415/ref tab/36/title/From_Online_Filmmakers_to_Entrepreneurs/Default.aspx>. Pyke, Karen and Tran Dang. “FOB” and “Whitewashed”: Identity and Internalized Racism Among Second Generation Asian Americans. Qualitative Sociology 26.2 (Summer 2003): 147-171.
15 Sternthal, Brian and C. Samuel Craig. “Humor in Advertising.” The Journal of Marketing 37.4 (Oct. 1973): 12-18. Wang, Jen. “Joe Jonas: ‘Look Me in the Chink-Eyes.’” Weblog post. 18 Mar. 2009. Disgrasian. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://disgrasian.com/2009/03/joe-jonas-look-me-in-the-chink-eyes/>. Wang, Philip. “It’s okay to be a POSER!.” Wong Fu Productions. 11 Sept. 2009. Wong Fu Productions, LLC. 13 Nov. 2010. < http://wongfuproductions.com/2009/10/its-okay-tobe-a-poser/>. Wong Fu Productions. “History.” Wong Fu Productions. N.d., 2010. 11 Dec. 2010. <http://wongfuproductions.com/about-us/history/> Yu, Phil. “Old Navy Commercial: All Asians—Even Mannequins—Look Alike?” Weblog post. 7 Dec. 2010. Angry Asian Man. 8 Dec. 2010. <http://blog.angryasianman.com/2010/12/old-navy-commercial-all-asians-even.html>. Yu, Phil. “To fob with love.” Weblog post. 14 Oct. 2009. Angry Asian Man. 13 Dec. 2010. <http://blog.angryasianman.com/2009/10/to-fob-with-love.html>
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