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Why we treat Kim Jong Un like a clown instead of a brutal dictator

Randall Park in The Interview
Randall Park in The Interview
The Interview
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

One of the biggest questions facing The Interview was just how offensive its depiction of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was going to be. The hack of Sony Pictures and ensuing mania surrounding the movie had many convinced that we were going to see something super offensive, that either belittled the plight of the North Korean people or turned geopolitics into an excuse for fart jokes.

I was worried that we were going to be treated to another clownish Asian stereotype.

Hollywood has had a long track record of producing mystifyingly offensive Asian and Asian-American caricatures, enabling these stereotypes to live on and on in society. One pervasive, harmful type that Hollywood has gone to over and over is portraying Asian men as clueless clowns. And it seemed all but certain that Kim, as portrayed by Korean-American actor Randall Park, would fall into the same clownish role we've seen over and over.

Thankfully, that assumption was wrong. But there was good reason to fear it. Here's why — and how The Interview surmounted this stereotype.

The Asian goofball stereotype

Ten years ago, a tiny Berkeley student named William Hung appeared on the third season of American Idol, then the biggest show on television. His English was splintered, his accent snarled the words of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," and it didn't seem as if he fully understood why the judges were laughing at him.

Hung became a star, outshining many finalists from that year. (Just try naming one that isn't Jennifer Hudson or Fantasia Barrino.) His first of three albums sold 200,000 copies.

The only problem was that Hung was treated as a joke. People laughed at him, at his accent, and at his cluelessness. Hung himself seemed aware of the joke he was perpetuating.

"OK, so I'm not famous for the right reasons," he told Rolling Stone in 2004. "I'm infamous, a joke. It doesn't make me feel good, because I'm a genuine person, but I don't let it get to me, because I am who I am."

Hung unfortunately — and perhaps accidentally — played into a stereotype that's run rampant in American pop culture for decades: a clownish, goofy, harmless, clueless, sexless, unattractive Asian man. You can see this stereotype as far back as Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or in Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. You can even see it in the way people look at real life Asian men.

For instance, consider Korean pop star Psy. When Psy stormed into public consciousness in 2012 on the back of his hit song "Gangnam Style" and some horse-like dance moves, it was unclear if people actually understood his message of satirizing class and wealth in South Korean society or if people just liked the chubby dancing Asian man.

There are a many talented and ultra-successful K-Pop groups with great hits and massive followings. Any could have hit the American charts. Thus, it's telling that the only K-Pop act to make it in America so far has been Psy.

"Psy doesn't even have to sing in English or be understood because it's not the social critique offered by the lyrics that matters to the audience, but the marriage of the funny music video, goofy dance, and a rather catchy tune, of which two of the elements are comical and, again, non-threatening," the writer Refresh Daemon wrote on Racialicious.

You could also look at the flamboyant, savvy, and wealthy Chinese recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao, who was, not unlike Psy, in on the joke of his image.

In January of 2014, Chen stated that he wanted to buy The New York Times, then flew to the US to drum up support and attention for this massive and transparent publicity stunt. The tycoon, who has a reported net worth of around $810 million, handed out crazy business cards and took advantage of every sliver of attention the American media wanted to give him:

Yet, instead of treating this obviously ridiculous business card and Chen like the Borat-esque gag it clearly was, news outlets framed his stunt as serious and clueless.

Like any stereotype, this one marginalizes Asian men. It perpetuates the mentality that they're harmless and clueless. Granted, this stereotype pales in comparison to the same harmful, heartbreaking human toll of the perceptions projected onto black men in this country. But it comes from the same vein of ignorance and assumption.

It shapes the way people think, and paints an inaccurate picture. In Hollywood, the clown is one of the few roles readily available to Asian actors. And in Kim Jong Un's case, the stereotypes makes us see him as someone who's harmless when he's anything but.

How the media's coverage of North Korea deepens the stereotype

With Kim and American coverage of him and his country, there's been a tendency of late to seek out North Korean stories that indulge and deepen this clownish, goofy caricature.

One of the biggest stories about North Korea, and one of the biggest during Kim's tenure as Supreme Leader, was that the country had announced that its archaeologists had found a hidden "unicorn" lair in 2012. A sampling of the reports:

Unicorns' Existence Proven, Says North Korea

Unicorn lair 'discovered' in North Korea

North Korea: We found a unicorn lair

North Korea Says It's Found a 'Unicorn Lair'

The idea of mythical beasts being confirmed by scientists and historians was utterly ridiculous, but it was the perfect example of how laughable North Korean propaganda can be — as well as our tendency to pounce on it.

American media, including myself (the unicorn story was one of the most-clicked on stories I wrote at The Atlantic Wire), puts a premium on these types of ridiculous non-news stories, like magic North Korean sports drinks made from mushrooms, Kim being elected with 100 percent of the vote, or Kim feeding his uncle to 120 dogs. These stories tend to affirm the idea that everyone writing and reading them is smarter than North Korea's ridiculous propaganda machine.

We often view Kim through a lens of cultural superiority. The result of all these odd, weird, attention-grabbing stories, is an image of a silly, harmless ruler backed by an even sillier propaganda machine. And that image too often overshadows the terrifying human rights abuses that go on in his country.

The Interview is a product of this cultural consciousness. It tries hard to convince you it's satirizing the media's odd fascination with North Korea, but it doesn't seem to fully aware of the American self-importance that feeds that beast. The running gag in the movie is that North Koreans are so clueless that they don't believe Kim has an anus, a gag that's given more attention than exploring the idea that perhaps North Koreans and Kim are more than products of their propaganda, but in fact products of a century of brutal and often violent history on the Korean peninsula.

What The Interview and Randall Park did right

The Interview is not a great movie. But one of its few bright spots is that it attempts — albeit in a ham-fisted way — to not go for the cheap clownish stereotype of Kim and actually show a human being with agency. There are clownish aspects to him, like a fascination with Katy Perry, but Park's Kim is depicted as both someone who's very aware of his image and someone who's clearly a monster.

Kim's portrayal is already miles more honest than that of his father in Team America, where the central joke was Kim Jong Il's accent ("ronery"). There are even moments in The Interview when you wish the film realized how sharp it could be and leaned into the idea of a savvy, murdering despot. The film could suggest how Kim plays into these clownish stereotypes to get away with horrible things. That it doesn't is one of its greatest failings.

It says a lot about (the lack of) Asian American representation in pop culture that I'm actually hoping a movie decides to show a more fully realized version of Kim. But when it comes to seeing people who resemble something closer to how I look and act, griping at the offensiveness and lack of awareness in The Interview is part of something bigger.

And Park himself is part of an upcoming opportunity to push back against shopworn stereotypes. In February, ABC's sitcom Fresh Off the Boat — the first Asian-American family sitcom since 1994's All-American Girl — will premiere, starring Park in one of the main roles. This show might be silly, yes, but both it and The Interview represent attempts to push beyond the goofballs we've already seen and capture something closer to life.

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