From yellowface Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Pitch Perfect’s Kimmy Jin, Asians have consistently been otherized, denigrated, and attacked in Hollywood comedies. This trend is particularly prevalent in buddy comedies, movies primarily marketed towards white men. This clip from the buddy comedy Ted is an example of the racism displayed towards Asian characters in this genre:
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle resists white dominance in comedic cinema. Harold & Kumar is a stoner film, a variant of the buddy film centered on the consumption of marijuana. While it features the juvenile humor that defines stoner comedy, intended to appeal to audiences who are “not low,” it is uniquely subversive. At its core, Harold & Kumar is a movie about the Asian-American experience. Explicit references to Sixteen Candles, notable for its stereotypical character “Long Duk Dong,” as well as to Better Luck Tomorrow and The Joy Luck Club, indicate an awareness of Asian-American popular culture.
Harold & Kumar begins with a racial bait-and-switch, masquerading as a typical white Hollywood buddy film. Billy, a white investment banker, sits at his desk heartbroken over a break-up. His obnoxious white coworker, JD, convinces Billy to ditches his work in favor of a wild night out. Billy forces Harold, their office’s quiet, hard-working Korean-American man to do his work for him. “Those Asian guys love crunching numbers. You probably just made his weekend!” JD proclaims as the pair leave the office.
Billy and JD do not appear again until the end of the movie. In a subversion of expectations, the real stars are revealed to be Harold and his best friend Kumar, an Indian-American slacker. They embark on a journey across New Jersey, overcoming obstacles such as racist white policemen and a gang of white “extreme sport” punks. Harold & Kumar subverts comedic tropes about Asians by making the racists into the objects of humorous ridicule rather than Harold and Kumar themselves. The gang ringleader who addresses Kumar with “thank you, come again” in a stereotypical Indian accent is given the same parting message when Harold and Kumar steal his truck. Additionally, he croons in a high-pitched voice whenever something “extreme” happens, and his “Extreme Mix Volume 5” CD is found to contain embarrassingly sensitive pop music.
The casting of two Asian-American men as the lead roles in any Hollywood movie, much less in a stoner film, is radical. Harold and Kumar are multi-dimensional, sexualized characters who speak without stereotypical accents. They both conform to and challenge the myth of the model minority. Harold works as an investment banker, but hates it. Kumar has perfect MCAT scores, but intentionally sabotages his own medical school interviews because he does not want to reinforce the stereotype that Indians become doctors. They are constantly seeking sex, drugs, and parties. The other Asian-American characters in the film also subvert the roles assigned to them under white hegemony. Cindy Kim, the straight-laced, nerdy girl with an unrequited crush on Harold makes out with Harold’s friend in a hot dog restaurant. Kenneth Park, a Princeton student who introduces himself as “Kenneth Park, Class of 2004,” networks with Harold for an investment banking internship. Later, he is seen shirtless at a party, holding a bag of pot brownies.
However, not everything in Harold & Kumar is subversive. It is heteronormative, and portrays women solely as sexual objects for men to possess. Throughout the film, characters constantly accuse Harold and Kumar of being gay, and they react to this negatively. All of the female characters — Maria, Cindy, and Liane — are characterized by their relationship with men. Freakshow, Liane’s husband, “allows” Harold and Kumar to have sex with her, as if she were his property.
Most importantly, Harold & Kumar still primarily resides in, and accepts, cultural hegemony. Tarik, a black man imprisoned for being black, argues that “there’s no sense getting all riled up every time a bunch of idiots give you a hard time,” and that the best way to deal with racism is with inaction. Additionally, he is an example of the Magical Negro trope — his voice pops into Harold’s head during their final confrontation with the punk gang to provide this advice. At the climax of the film, when Harold and Kumar must hang-glide down to White Castle, Kumar suggests that their whole adventure has been a metaphor for the American Dream. In fact, the whole plot — traveling to a restaurant named White Castle to eat burgers, a quintessentially American food — is a metaphor for assimilation. After they finish eating, Harold claims that the burgers made him a “new man,” and he musters up the courage to stand up to Billy and JD. The ideology of Harold & Kumar is that attempting to assimilate into the dominant group, white American society, is better than actively fighting white hegemonic structures.
Though Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is fundamentally flawed, it is redeemed by its characters. Its depiction of Asian-Americans as dynamic protagonists represents a major step forward, and its subversive racial humor has proven to be enduringly funny.