Recently, I came across a photo of the all-female cast of “Ocean’s Eight” (see below). I recognized a few faces in the front, but as I looked towards the back, I could not distinguish which actors were present. When I researched who is starring in the movie, I was delighted to see an an unfamiliar Asian American woman cast as one of the leading roles among A-list celebrities such as Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Rihanna.
Naturally, I Googled to see who she was. Awkwafina, née Nora Lum, was born and raised in New York City to a first-generation Chinese American father and a South Korean immigrant mother. She started her career as a rapper at age 17 while attending LaGuardia High School and her talents ran the gamut of being a rapper, actor, and writer. The link I clicked on that fully caught my attention was a music video for a song called “Green Tea” by Awkwafina featuring Margaret Cho. This catchy, raunchy, and satirical song reclaims the objectification and oppression towards Asian/American women by wittily recognizing the daily ramifications of racism witnessed by this marginalized group.
The music video starts off with Cho donning a traditional Korean dress, hanbok (한복), while faking a heavy accent saying,
With every pussy / A pair of shoes will go to a child in need
This line mocks TOMS Shoes’ motto of, “With every pair of shoes you purchase, TOMS will give a new pair of shoes to a child in need.” It crosses the bounds of intersectionality by intertwining being an Asian/American woman in a society where white privilege is still omnipresent. While I am not trying to vilify the humanitarian efforts of a company that brings positive change to people in need, “Green Tea” sheds light on how in certain persepctives, TOMS represents the “white savior complex”. The double entendre of this line includes this element of white privilege while also allowing Cho to rebel against the expectations of what a woman should be allowed to talk about. The use of the word “pussy” by a woman has always been considered more taboo than a man speaking about his penis. This is a way to defy stereotypes of what a woman, let alone an Asian woman, should be allowed to say.
The song continues on with Awkwafina saying,
Flip a stereotype / How an Asian bitch got concubines?
Concubines were traditionally kept by wealthy men in various Asian countries and Awkwafina decides to “flip” the stereotype by saying that an “Asian bitch” is now the one who “got concubines.” It can also be implied that not only is the Asian woman in power of this situation, but a she also has female concubines. This, along with other quotes in this song (“…got a concave ass / Still the hoes line up…”) and in other songs by Awkwafina (“Yo my vag make ya girl panties creme” from “My Vag”), support that she is a member of the LGBTQ community. Considering this, she consistently places herself in positions of power and flips stereotypes throughout the rest of the lyrics, empowering these marginalized groups.
When moving onto the chorus, Awkwafina and Cho sing,
Yellow bitches in the driver’s seat (x3) / Bitch drive that Corolla right into the streets
The fact that the “yellow bitches” are now in control by being in the driver’s seat shows that they are in positions of power while also negating the stereotype that women and Asians are bad drivers. By incorporating the Corolla, a popular Toyota car, and later mentioning Mazdas and Hyundais, Awkwafina works towards showcasing Asian car companies that excel in the US. This also shows how Asian/Americans can find success in the US in the face of racism and oppression.
Later in the chorus, the two women list descriptions about their “pussies” that includes,
We got that […] Long Duk Dong pussy.
This refers to the character of Long Duk Dong from the movie Sixteen Candles and stands as a reflection of the problematic depictions of Asian/Americans in the media. Long Duk Dong’s thick accent coupled with his social and sexual ineptitude contribute to the negative portrayal of Asians, and Asian men in particular, in Hollywood.
This idea of Asians needing accents and particular tropes in order to “make it” in the industry is also emphasized by the end of the song. Cho uses the same fake, heavy accent from the beginning while Awkwafina asks, “Why the accent? […] I think the accent is unnecessary.” Cho continues to use it while saying, “Press 1 for pickup. Press 2 for delivery,” to act like an Asian restaurant owner, which is a common role that Asian/Americans continue to have in Hollywood. Even the use of the costumes throughout the music video point out the stereotypical outfits that Asian Americans need to wear in order to be represented in the industry: traditional Asian garb, school girl uniforms, and horror movie costumes (i.e. the girl from The Ring). Awkwafina wants to call attention to examples from the past where Asians are portrayed in this offensive light in order to make sure progress can be made.
By entering into a rap scene where Asian American women are few and far between, Awkwafina is broadening the spectrum of what Asian/American women are capable of. By explicitly pointing out multiple issues in our society regarding treatment of Asian/Americans, women, and the LGBTQ community, while also empowering those marginalized groups, she and Cho are able to reclaim the objectifications of these communities. Hopefully “Ocean’s Eight” can continue to propel her in this trajectory to ensure that stereotypes continue to get flipped.