I didn’t get a flu shot this year for the first time in my life. (Really taking adulthood by storm, evidently.) So, of course, this was the first year ever I caught the flu. Over the course of a week spent in bed, I finished binge-watching the entirety of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s hallmark fantasy political/sexual drama.
I now bring up “Thrones” in every conversation I can. I read episode recaps and dive dangerously deep into online fan theories. I’m obsessed, obsessed with a show that is notorious for its wishy-washy treatment of women. Laden in turn with complex and powerful female characters and laughably gratuitous female nudity, “Thrones” isn’t winning feminist awards anytime soon. I still love it, but like many things in this world, I feel obligated to continuously address its latent sexism.
At the end of my week of influenza, my friends and I went to see “Sisters,” Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s newest film about adult sisters returning home for one last rager in their parents’ house. I felt a similar discomfort to when I watched “Thrones,” but for a different reason. The film is resolutely feminist, passing the Bechdel test with aplomb and inserting sly jokes about male privilege. But it also features a plot line about a Korean character who fits just about every Asian stereotype there is. Hae-Won (Greta Lee, “St. Vincent”) and her friends work at a nail salon. She is casually promiscuous, a plaything for white men and she speaks heavily accented English, a fact from which an extended joke is drawn. It was one of the most demeaning portrayals of East Asian women I’d seen in a long time. Just as I was constantly making both excuses for and criticisms of “Thrones,” I felt I needed to do the same for “Sisters,” a movie starring two feminists and written by one. A work can’t be feminist if it creates isolating and tokenizing images of people of color — by definition, that’s just not what feminism is.
Take another Fey creation: the Netflix comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The show, which was released to universal acclaim last March, follows Kimmy (Ellie Kemper, “The Office”), a survivor of abuse and terror, as she moves to New York and starts a new life. Kimmy is a uniquely feminist character: naïve but buoyant, hard-working and honest. And despite the laugh-out-loud humor of the show, Fey does not represent Kimmy’s situation lightly, earnestly expressing her PTSD and struggles acclimating to society.
But there is a catch. In the sixth episode, we are introduced to Dong (Ki Hong Lee, “The Maze Runner”), a Vietnamese delivery boy who is ultimately Kimmy’s love interest. While an intensely lovable character, Dong is painted with many of the same limiting stereotypes as Hae-Won; for me, it’s the one sour note of the series.
“Tina!” I groaned to myself. The woman who wrote honestly and poignantly about her youthful insecurities in her memoir “Bossypants,” the woman who gave us Liz Lemon, who said in “30 Rock” that being a woman is the worst “because of society!” It hurt me to see a woman who I consider a personal and professional icon missing the mark by so much.
These representations harken back to first- and second-wave feminism, when the voices of women of color were ignored or even squashed in favor of the white constituency’s goals. That shit shouldn’t cut it anymore. All too often modern feminists are forgetting that feminism as a system is inclusionary. Amy Schumer did it in her stand up with callous jokes about Latinos. While she has since apologized, her original biases speak to a greater issue — feminism is not feminism when it continuously limits divergent identities and experiences. And frankly, works of art that ignore inclusivity just aren’t as good.
I don’t follow sports; recently I was looking through my old Facebook statuses, and one from the 10th grade proudly attested that I was boycotting the Super Bowl. So while I can’t tell you which teams are playing in the Super Bowl this year, I can tell you that Coldplay is performing the halftime show, featuring the Queen herself, Beyoncé. Last week, the two released the video for their recent collaboration, “Hymn for the Weekend.”
The song fucking rocks, groovy yet soaring in all the right places. On the other hand, the video, which features Chris Martin and Yoncé donning traditional Hindi garb and dancing in front of groups of Indian children celebrating Holi, the Hindu festival of color, is a travesty and a misstep. It’s cultural appropriation in the most basic of terms, simplifying complex cultures and people into pretty background props, expressing abject poverty with no context or recourse. It’s bad. And it comes from Beyoncé, a publicly proud feminist who has spoken out about recognizing women of color in the feminist community.
How does this still happen? How can women who speak with such depth and resonance about navigating a patriarchal world be so tone-deaf about other cultures? Their feminism, and their art, is so much better without these stereotypes and appropriations. I want these women I love to be better, because with every limiting comment or joke, they not only hurt the community they are addressing — they hurt feminism as a whole. Feminism loses credibility in the minds of those prone to knocking it down and weakening the system by isolating female voices that should be included. I won’t stop loving Tina and Amy and Bey, but criticizing their feminism is another step to making feminism better. Just like “Game of Thrones” would be so much better with a few less naked women and a few more naked men.