Why the Libra Turned Off “Portlandia”

If it wasn’t okay for Mickey Rooney to portray a Japanese stereotype in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, why is it okay for Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen to do so in a “Harajuku Girls” skit for “Portlandia”?

The skit, featured below, involves two supposedly Japanese tourists, in Harajuku regalia, wreaking hyper-manic (read: girlish) havoc in a coffee shop.

Not only is this skit rather dull, it’s truly disturbing, especially coming from a show that pokes fun at leftists who can’t recognize their own silliness and hypocrisy. Also, for what it’s worth, the Japanese tourist stereotype is just plain boring. If I have to see another white person imitate a Japanese tourist wielding a camera, I won’t forget to mention the time we put Japanese Americans in internment camps. Where are the cameras for that?

Now. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Dear Libra, since when do you take the time to critique all the racism and other -isms in television? This is Famous For Bad Reasons, not Bitch Magazine.”

This, however, is important to me. As a huge Sleater-Kinney fan, I’m feeling shocked and disappointed that Carrie Brownstein would take part in something so boring and downright racist. If they’d just hired Japanese girls to portray the stereotypes, I could maybe get behind another boring jab at satire. However, both Brownstein and Armisen decorated themselves to mimic Japanese girls. It wasn’t self-reflexive enough or transparent enough to indicate to the viewers that yes, they were mimicking white Americans mimicking a Japanese sub-culture.

If you’re going to be an asshole, be transparent about it. Not everything is excused or made socially progressive by simply labeling it “satire.”

–The Libra

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22 Responses to Why the Libra Turned Off “Portlandia”

  1. Some Guy says:

    Sorry, I thought it was funny. *Shrug*

  2. Madeline says:

    Came across this when I was trying to find out if I was the only one that found this totally racist. I agree with you!

  3. lord vegan says:

    SOLID!! i just now saw that episode and needed to find a critique on it and landed on your page. i truly appreciate the critique on that crap!!

  4. Pingback: Most Hilarious Hate Comment |

  5. Gee says:

    How is this racist? They were just acting how harajuku girls Act.
    Why would they hire Japanese girls to do this skit when they do every skit themselves? Why do Japanese girls have to be played by Japanese girls?

  6. Silvana says:

    I thought it was hysterically funny actually as did my Japanese friend who felt they were super accurate in their portrayal. I hope you don’t take everything in life so seriously! These kinds of Harajuku girls exist and the humor here is irreverent and very clever so I don’t know why you are so upset. I understand when humor is offensive and stupid and relies on shock tactics but this piece has a ton of nuance and spunk and is far from “dull” as you would put it. Perhaps you should redefine what dull means and you may find it’s closer to home than you think!

    • I want to clarify– I know all about Harajuku girls and culture. What I think is problematic is two white people putting on make-up to emulate Harajuku girls. This is a phenomenon called “yellow face” which is as problematic as “black face.” Just because something seems accurate doesn’t mean it’s okay– why didn’t they just hire Japanese girls to emulate the Harajuku?

      By the way, I say this as someone who’s a huge fan of Carrie Brownstein. I’m allowed to critique people I like, and I’m allowed to get annoyed by the concept of yellow face. And I DO think it’s dull. Making fun of Japanese tourists, whether it’s Harajuku or anything else, is an old joke, and it’s boring.

      –The Libra

  7. A Pacific Northwesterner says:

    Wow, thanks so much for posting on this. I watched the Portlandia series for the first time tonight on Netflix, and enjoyed the creative humor, but my jaw just dropped at that skit. I’ve lost a good deal of respect for the creators of the show, and wondered at the silence about the Harajuku portrayal in any of the reviews I’d read. This led me to your site, and the link you provided on the history of yellowface in US entertainment. Thanks again- your resistance is paying off!

    • Thanks for this comment! I’m glad to see that my persistence on this issue has paid off. It’s totally okay for people to defend the show, but I don’t see why people are so upset that such a critique would be brought up when we have a history, as Americans, of getting in trouble for this sort of thing.

      –The Libra

  8. Darren says:

    Hi there, I appreciate your thoughts and had mixed feelings about the skit. Armisen is of Japanese descent (his grandmother is Japanese)– how do you think this affects his approach and/or affects our interpretation? Would it be different if he was 3/4 Japanese?

    • Interesting. The fact of the matter, though, is that both actors donned dark make-up to take on the role. If a biracial caucasian/African-American person were to wear blackface in a similar context that embraced a stereotype attributed to a race, then how would that be different?

      Finding out Armisen is part-Japanese doesn’t change my opinion; he just further mystifies me as to why he’d do that. But thanks for bringing that up.

      I wish they’d just filmed real Harajuku girls wandering around Portland. That’d have made the point better without getting into this really sketchy territory.

      –The Libra

  9. Privileged Person says:

    Thank you so much for this critique. I was wondering why it felt so wrong when I saw that sketch. It was hard for me to articulate why I found it racist, but this helps.

    The Harajuku sketch was pretty much a blatant display of “liberal racism” — something that is undoubtedly rampant in Portland…as in, it’s okay to be racist because it’s “meant to be funny,” “don’t worry, I’m liberal bahaha” and “I have a Japanese (or insert any other non-White/European race here) friend and he/she thinks it’s hilarious so it must mean all Japanese people think it’s hilarious”.

    The “Dream of the 90s” skit contained actors who were 99% White or appeared White. Cameos and extras who appear throughout the episodes are 100% white as far as I can remember. Soo….a bunch of White people who wear thick-rim glasses, have a ton of tattoos, wear ironic/vintage clothing and claim to be ethical, sustainable locavores are “weird” and “unique”? ZzzzzZZZzzzzz. Give me a break. Yet another show that satirizes/celebrates White people and their privileged ability to appropriate cultures/traditions/lifestyles while still remaining accepted as individuals.

  10. Sojourn says:

    On an interesting tangent City of Portland has become increasingly more white, pushing minorities to the suburbs. http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2011/04/in_portlands_heart_diversity_dwindles.html

  11. DAVID SCHULDER says:

    Hello Libra – I appreciate your critique, but…
    I, too, wondered if this was “wrong”, i.e. “racist” or, at least
    “sort of racist”. In the end, I think not. First, the show overall
    happens to be the smartest, funniest thing on TV or the internet
    today. That’s saying a lot, actually. The main point, I think: it is
    gently satirizing Harajuku girls and culture. Gently. NOT “mocking”, “degrading”,
    or belittling. At all. I know almost nothing
    about Harajuku girls other than what I may have seen on a Gwen Stefani
    video. But I’m sure, they are, in the main, cute and silly young girls as far as
    they the whole Harajuku thing goes (and, of course,
    with complex, inner lives). Is this not so? Thus, Carrie and Fred playing them…
    How can this be wrong?
    If a Japanese actor were to portray a Western / American “slacker”, “punk rocker”
    “emo kid”, and wore some clothing and/or facial paint to make that portrayal, would that
    necessarily be racist? No. As far as “yellow face”, sorry, not seeing it. (I’m sure there
    are historical precedents which are racist, though.)
    They are not, like Mickey Rooney, portraying “normal” “regular” Japanese
    people, and making them buffoons – they are portraying silly, wonderful, wacky
    school age girls who in real life wear outrageous costumes and probably do behave
    in wacky, wonderful ways (again, I don’t actually know any Harajuku girls).
    The problem, for me: “Racist” and “Racism” – these are real words with real meanings.
    Gentle satire, even of, yes, (gasp) stereotypes does NOT equal racism. I appreciate
    very much that you’ve initiated this discussion, but in the end, no, Carrie and Fred and
    this particular skit are not racist. Finally, yes, there are comics and comedy which, by virtue
    of overall brilliance and skill, which deserve latitude, even in racially, cultural sensitive matters.

  12. D. says:

    Got halfway through the episode and couldn’t finish it. Have they ever responded to any of this?

  13. Drew says:

    So I’m a latecomer to the series. I just saw this episode and had to find out if other people saw the same thing that I saw. Thanks so much for this post, and I entirely agree. Americans (especially those of us on the left) are so often very sensitive about racial caricatures when it comes to African-Americans, Latino/as, etc., that it’s shocking when they entirely miss it when it comes to Asia. In the university (I’m a postdoc), you so often hear and see stereotypes – especially directed at Japan, for some reason.

    Why specifically this new wave of anti-Japanese stereotypes? I think Japan has, for American liberals, lost a sense of Orientalist exoticism, but retain old stereotypes about Asian weirdness, misogyny, or tyranny. For people who don’t care to learn about Asia, it’s a quick reference point for “weirdness” because we think that we already “know it” in a way we don’t feel about China or Korea (or Cambodia, for that matter). We’re not interested – Japanophilia is for acne-studded kids, sex perverts, or the 1980s. It’s not trendy enough. Instead, we’re into Korean barbeque, Cambodian holidays (now that Thailand is SO over-touristed), etc… And in doing so, we reduce Japan to a ‘style’ or a trend and deny the humanity of the Japanese.

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