Ethics, Stereotypes, and Holly Golightly

"Andy Hardy, the Asian Years"

A Bronx woman, Ursula Liang, has started a petition against Brooklyn Bridge Park’s “Movies With A View” series showing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the 1961 Audrey Hepburn classic that gave us “Moon River” and one of actress Hepburn’s most endearing performances. Why? Well, the movie, which has long been popular for summer screenings in New York City and elsewhere, also contains a pre-political correctness performance by Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s comic Japanese neighbor, “Mr. Yunioshi.”

Rooney’s performance, in my opinion, was cringe-worthy even in 1961, one of director Blake Edwards’ not uncommon excesses in vaudeville humor, placed in a context where it didn’t belong. It is a scar on an otherwise marvelous film, but there is nothing inherently wrong with comic stereotypes. Stereotypes are a staple of comedy, and have been forever; the question is whether a particular stereotype is cruel, gratuitous, harmful, or funny. Some stereotypes are cruel and funny.

Objections like Liang’s are impossible to justify logically or ethically, but they persist among  political correctness bullies unabated. I have asked some of these to explain to me, for example, why the Asian character in Edwards’ film is more offensive than the stereotypical nerds in the hit TV show “Big Bang Theory,” the stereotypical Jewish and WASP characters in Woody Allen movies, or the stereotypical black buffoons in Tyler Perry movies. Who has decreed that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” intends Rooney’s cartoonish portrayal as a critical commentary on anyone but Truman Capote’s fictional Japanese character? Why, in “Gone Witth the Wind,” is Butterfly McQueen’s idiotic “Prissy” sufficient to have that film labeled racist, despite Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammie” in the same movie, arguably the most admirable character in the story? Would Rooney’s portrayal be acceptable if the actor was Japanese? “Long Duck Dong,” the comic Chinese exchange student in “Sixteen Candles” played by an Asian actor, is easily as stereotypical a comic portrayal as Rooney’s Mr.Yunioshi, but it is still funny, and so far, nobody has called for boycotts of that John Hughes classic. Marilyn Monroe is a stereotype in “The Seven Year Itch”;  in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Cate Blanchett plays a Russian Communist right out of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” Mel Brooks’ Western spoof “Blazing Saddles” ends with a sound stage full of  flaming queens, slap-fighting cowboys while they do synchronized swimming routines.

So what?

The usual argument against stereotype comedy is that it is a form of cultural bullying, using unattractive portrayals to keep minorities in a subservient and oppressed status, ridiculed by the power-wielding majority. Somehow, I don’t think the Chinese who hold America’s financial obligations and the Asians who are dominating our colleges are threatened any by Mickey Rooney wearing false teeth and goofy glasses. The most egregious comic stereotypes in popular culture right now are white, middle class males. The fat, moronic fathers in “The Simpsons” and “The Family Guy” make Mr.Yunioshi seem like Cary Grant.

There is no end to the kind of cultural censorship Ursula Liang is advocating. The problem, if there is one, is always self-correcting: once the culture decides that a stereotype is no longer funny, it has no value and disappears. Indeed, the Japanese stereotype in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in 1961 a remnant of the “no tickee, no shirtee” vaudeville sketches and anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II, has been dead for decades. Now it only serves as an interesting reminder of how American attitudes have changed, and an oddity, as well as fodder for debates over the use of stereotypes in drama. This is a plenty of justification for leaving Mr.Yunioshi,and the film, alone.

As always, there’s an elegant and effective remedy for Laing and anyone else who find Rooney’s portrayal objectionable. They can go see another movie. For everyone else, throwing out Holly Golightly, “Moon River,” George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn to avoid five minutes of out-dated burlesque from Mickey Rooney is just plain silly.

10 thoughts on “Ethics, Stereotypes, and Holly Golightly

  1. I particularly detest the backlash against classic films due to what is now, for good reason, in bad taste. I can’t imagine Holiday Inn being banned because Bing Crosby wore black-face, for example. I love popping in my Looney Tunes dvds and seeing Whoopie Goldberg’s disclaimer that certain jokes and representations are, of course, politically incorrect, but aren’t edited out or put in a vault for historical reasons. This stuff is a window into past cultural norms and sensibilities! Instead of learning from them, we have over the top PC-ers trying to whitewash history.

    That’s all folks.

    • Everywhere but Turner Classics, the “Abraham” number is censored out. For some reason, Fred Astaire’s blackface number in “Top Hat” usually is left in—perhaps because it’s terrific, and an homage to Bill Robinson.

      • You’re kidding?! I thought Irving Berlin was more or less off limits. That makes me even happier that I own the DVD.

        • Gosh…when I first wrote that a question/exclamation mark combo seemed perfect, but I realize now it makes no sense.

  2. This argument reminds me of the people who think that Birth of a Nation shouldn’t be shown because of the racist point of view but the people who don’t want it shown ignore the fact that it is a ground breaking film in that it invented the structure b which films are told today. Yes it is racist but it is also genius. Admiring the second doesn’t mean we agree with the first and it also allows us to discuss racism both back then and now.

  3. I always find it strange how it is okay to stereotype and ridicule white males, but any other stereotype is out of bounds.

    I think you bring up the biggest and most well known stereotypes. I think the one that kills me is how all gun owners have to be inbred, red-neck racists.

    What happened to judging people not on their skin color, their religion, their nationality, or anything else, but basing our opinions on the character of the person?

    Martin Luther King Jr. would be ashamed and distraught over what has happened to our nation.

  4. “Somehow, I don’t think the Chinese who hold America’s financial obligations…are threatened any by Mickey Rooney wearing false teeth and goofy glasses.”

    But you should probably be careful, just in case.

  5. No, Jack, no! Not “The Simpsons.” No! Aieee! …. OK, sorry, I feel better now. Actually, “The Simpsons” goes to a great deal of trouble to actually show that those stereotypical bunglers really do go beyond the stereotype. Homer is an oaf, but he’s fundamentally a good-hearted oaf who can, in the end, be counted on to do the right thing and come through for his family and friends. Moe, the bartender is an ass, but it bothers him, and he, too, can show kindness to others. Mind, the show isn’t preachy about any of it, and everybody reverts back to stereotypes because, hey, it’s funny. We, the audience, laugh at them, but we also like them, somehow, because we see some of ourselves in them. We can learn from that, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.