Ashton to Ashes
THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES
by James Killough
It hasn’t been a good year or so for my ideal younger man, Ashton Kutcher. This breaks my heart because I do wish him all the best, in a concerned, fatherly way. First came his split with Demi, then his stint on Two and a Half Men, a show he is being credited with killing, although I see that more as a kindly act of euthanasia; I agree with Charlie Sheen: TAAHM kinda sucks. Now he has managed to outrage some members of the Indian community by appearing in “brown face” in an ad for PopChips, and he has been roasted alive on Twitter, a social media platform he in no small part helped to build.
This poses something of a conundrum for performers in general and the people who create material for them: at what point does satire become offensive and racist? Are actors, comedians specifically, only allowed to appear as their race or, in the case of repeat-offender Sacha Baron Cohen, as something other than their real sexuality?
I lay before you the PopChips ad of contention so that we can dissect this together:
For those who haven’t been following every word of this verbose blog since the beginning, I began my strange, zigzaging career in Bollywood. My Hindi isn’t as fluent as I would like, but my accent is decent and my understanding of the culture deep enough for me to have hosted the first televised Miss India Pageant in 1993. My sister married an Indian, so part of my family is biracial, although looking at my nieces you wouldn’t think so because my brother-in-law’s genes have thoroughly nuked the Caucasian, and he is by comparison a pale Kashmiri from the very north of the subcontinent.
As a collector of accents from all over the world, I do pretty good impersonations of several regional Indian English types: the Hobson-Jobson bazaar-wallah with his own particular Hindish mashup of grammar, which is the more widely recognized variety, the one Kutcher erroneously spoofs; the upper-class entitled booming drone of the Doon School graduate (that’s the Eton of India, formerly known as the Princes School); my camp secret favorite, the lackadasical Parsi housewife, which I perfected when I lived with a boyfriend from Mumbai, and which I only trot out with Indian Gheys after about five drinks.
I am generally forgiven my mockeries because most people in my circle know of my history with India, because I have made enough of an effort to learn the language that I can speckle my English with appropriate Hindi, and because frankly I don’t give a shit what people think, which is obvious from the moment I launch into an impersonation.
Another reason I feel thus empowered to nearly offend my Indian listeners is that during the early years of my stint on the subcontinent there were times when I would look in the mirror and be genuinely surprised that I was a white man. Sure, the drugs I was consuming had a lot to do with this delusion, but it was also due to the fact I had no contact with other angrez like me for months on end. It got to the point that when my mother came to visit me in Mumbai, the first night we were together over dinner she said, “Would you stop doing that swaying thing with your head? You’re making me seasick.”
I don’t find the PopChips ad offensive, just silly. What would have made the spoof funnier to me (and probably Indians in general) is if Kutcher had played it closer to real type, which is the fourth variety of accent I imitate. Most Bollywood producers I’ve ever met or worked with are grandiose macho douchebags. If I had directed that spot, Kutcher would have mimicked me doing my impersonation of the swaggering, full-of-himself Punjabi filmmaker, who speaks like his mouth is full of marbles and thinks he’s God’s gift to women.
I dove into the brouhaha over the ad in the comments section of YouTube and The Daily Beast with gusto. I am fairly confident that this whole thing is oversensitivity on the part of some Indians—I think most would agree with me that it’s plain silly. If we are to look at it from a stereotyping point of view, there was an even more egregious problem: Kutcher’s portrayal of Darl is a spoof of gayer-than-gay fashion kingpin, my imaginary best friend, Karl Lagerfeld.
In mock outrage, I asked, “What about Kutcher appearing in white face making fun of Karl Lagerfeld? Isn’t this a clear case of homophobia?”
Yet I allow Kutcher and PopChips to get away with it, just as I allowed Cohen to get away with Brüno, as did all my gay friends. We shrugged and left the requisite protesting on our behalf to our moral arbiters, GLAAD, a.k.a. The Swish Inquisition. Brüno wasn’t as funny as Borat, who continues to plague the entire nation of Kazakhstan, much less Ali G., Cohen’s spoof of a suburban, middle-class non-Jewish rapper who is himself doing an outrageous impersonation of a Jamaican. Of course, with The Dictator coming out, Cohen is now being taken to task by the Middle-Eastern community; judging by the trailer, the film’s biggest crime again seems to be that it’s not particularly funny, just more ho-hum Hollywood studio pabulum.
I have been oddly proud of how the US has treated Indians by and large, as opposed to what they have suffered in the UK, but the histories between nations is very different. Indians are probably the one immigrant group coming into this country that has been accorded an unusual amount of respect—as opposed to Latinos, the Irish and Italians—characters like Raju on The Simpsons notwithstanding. This is largely because they have come in as either small-business owners, with their love of franchises like 7-Eleven and Holiday Inns, or as extremely accomplished physicians, financiers and academics. There is also another subtler but more revealing fact that says a lot about the American attitude: until the 70s, South Asians as a group were counted in the Census as being white.
Gay stereotypes are more complex. From an entertainment standpoint, we are pretty much relegated to comedic roles, whether it’s on network sitcoms like Will & Grace with the flamboyant buffoon Jack, or more weighty shows like HBO’s Sex and the City. In terms of feature films, Gheys in dramas are almost nonexistent; with the exception of Maurice, which was a British film, Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Beginners and J. Edgar, in general we are portrayed in mainstream films as funny, snarky sidekicks.
As gay director Joel Schumacher once told Max Mutchnik before he taped the pilot of Will & Grace, “Whatever you do, don’t make it too butt-fucky. Don’t let anyone in the audience think about butt fucking and you’ll be fine.”
Indeed, audiences are most comfortable seeing us as objects of ridicule, but to a large extent we do that to ourselves, in spite of the fact we are one of the few minorities who are at risk for our lives because of who we are. We are in a peculiar place because we span all races and creeds, yet we remain the most outsider in almost all cultures. Global society’s view of us is an oppression so pernicious that it is only in recent years that I myself have come to understand the full scope of it, despite having given it an intense amount of thought my entire adult life.
Gheys are the first to spoof themselves, of course. We have so many sub-groups and types that even my most gay-friendly friends need constant help navigating the twisty, hilly terrain of Homolandia. We are the first to laugh at gay parodies, provided they are well done, the first to dress up in drag or bizarre leather costumes and gleefully parade around for all to watch and chuckle. So where do we draw the line as to what is offensive and what isn’t?
It is hard never to take offense or give it. We habitually run afoul of someone’s feelings in this very blog. But by and large, here at PFC we pick on the strong, on public figures who have done something we perceive as wrong, on customs like institutionalized prejudice or beliefs that we believe are egregious.
Given the impossibility of pleasing everyone without being mute, my general rule even in interpersonal interactions is that offense should not be taken unless offense is intended. I don’t believe that Kutcher and the people at PopChips intended to offend Indians, although offense might be inferred because he says at the end, “Your waiting room is like a freak show.” Still, in my opinion, it’s a stretch to take exception to any of it.
An actor, especially a comedian, should be allowed to perform as many characters as his range will allow, no matter the race or sexual persuasion. We do not get upset when American actress Meryl Streep portrays a British prime minister with stereotypically odd teeth. Rather, we give her an Oscar.
The litmus test should be an extension of my dictum that no offense should be taken if none is intended. If no harm comes to the group being satirized, be it directly or indirectly, then it’s okay and falls well within the purview of freedom of speech. If you don’t like it, tune it out. To that end, I doubt there will be any Indian bashing as a result of the Kutcher ad, no 7-Elevans burned, no doctors beaten to death in alleyways.
At the end of the day, PopChips certainly got a lot of crunch for their dollar with a mediocre campaign, thanks entirely to the hypersensitivity of a relatively coddled minority that pushed it viral.
But ain’t that always the irony?