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From blackface to 'filthy Armenians': A commentary on Hollywood’s ‘casual’ racism

January 27, 2019

Analyses

By Lilly Torosyan

510 views

From blackface to 'filthy Armenians': A commentary on Hollywood’s ‘casual’ racism

From blackface to “Cowboys vs. Indians,” Hollywood has had a long and troubled history with the way it portrays certain groups of people. As one of the “newer” immigrant groups to the United States, the Armenian community is one of the punchlines du jour in the American entertainment industry. After many decades, it is high time that we collectively demand fairer, more accurate representation on our screens, both big and small.

‘What if he’s a serial rapist… or Armenian?’ 

One night, my mom and I were binging the second season of the harrowing “Handmaid’s Tale.” After the nail-biting finale, we decided to digest our heavy emotions with a lighter show. Searching online for the best-rated Hulu series, we settled on a comedy called “Casual.” Opening with a wacky, tacky funeral of a not-so-missed relative, it didn’t take long to realize that the title was misleading.

"The comment was so quiet, subtle, and random. Could we both have misheard?" (Poster: Hulu)

Barely five minutes into this “casual” show, a peripheral character—what could only be described as a cliche airhead of a blonde secretary—warns her boss, one of the main characters, as she heads out to meet her online dating match: “You’re going on a blind date without researching the guy? What if he’s awful, like a serial killer?” She then leans in and whispers, “...or Armenian?!” Mom and I looked at each other, bewildered. “Or Arr-mean-ee-in…” The comment was so quiet, subtle, and random. Could we both have misheard?

We rewound and, sure enough, it was not a figment of our imagination. With no context to this “joke,” the ensuing conversation just ignored the quip—as though it never happened. Mom didn’t think much of it, and fell asleep during episode two, while I was researching the show on my phone, not paying attention to the scenes of dating fiascos—sans Armenians and serial rapists—unfurling on the screen. 

I googled “Casual Hulu show Armenian” and came across just one review under the show’s IMDB page that echoed my thoughts. The rest of the episode failed to address this line—or even mention Armenians at all. After a few minutes, I turned off the TV and called it a night, but was too incensed to sleep it off. It was as though I had finally awakened from a long slumber to realize the cheap hand that we’ve been dealt as a community.

 

Hollywood’s rap sheet of ‘casual’ racism 

“Casual” anti-Armenian quips are not new in Hollywood or the entertainment industry at large. Equal parts pundit and showman, Glenn Beck, once went on a tirade about how frivolous he thought the Armenian community’s efforts were to get Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide; fast forward a few years, the same man aired a special about the importance of recognizing said genocide—while, in his signature fashion, shedding a few crocodile tears.

Of course, there have also been positive (or, at least, neutral) portrayals of Armenians in American productions, such as in the film, “Sideways,” and shows like “30 Rock” and “The Big Bang Theory.” The 2015 big-budget film, “The Promise,” supposedly played a role in Beck’s 180-degree turn on the issue of the genocide. Yet, overwhelmingly, depictions of our community remain negative. Here are just a few examples of problematic Armenian references in American films and TV shows:

  • In the 1975 comedy, “Love and Death,” Woody Allen states, "He was so depressed, he tried to commit suicide by inhaling next to an Armenian."

  • Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the 2005 sports comedy film, “Bad News Bears,” proclaims that Armenians and Aztecs are the “same shit, they both built pyramids.”

  • In 2015, the show "Ray Donovan" featured an episode with characters that depicted the Armenian mob of Los Angeles. While many Armenians found this depiction of our people appropriate, the “Armenian pop star” (who was portrayed by a non-Armenian, no less) was so caricature and almost laughably cringeworthy.

  • And perhaps the most scathing one of all, considering our community’s deep battles with mental illness—most of it exacerbated by the various unaddressed traumas of the Armenian Genocide—is a scene in the 2010 Brad Pitt-produced film, “Kick-Ass,” where someone jumps off of a building and lands on the roof of a taxi, to which the lead actor states, “That’s not me, by the way; just some Armenian guy with a history of mental health problems.”

If you never noticed these microaggressions before now, you’re in large company. All of these “casual” quips—and many others like it—have gone unchallenged for decades. That is, until two years ago, when late-night comedian host, Trevor Noah, made a cheap joke about “filthy Armenians.” It was a quick remark—so subtle, like the “serial rapists” comment—that it seemed like it should have gone over most people’s heads.

An example of a positive (or, at least, neutral) portrayal of Armenians in American productions can be seen in the 2004 film “Sideways.An example of a positive (or, at least, neutral) portrayal of Armenians in American productions can be seen in the 2004 film “Sideways." This scene, which depicts a traditional Armenian wedding ceremony, was shot at the Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Montebello, Calif. (Screengrab: "Sideways")


The Armenian-American response, though, was near-Armageddon, with social media blasts on the comedian and his network and threats to boycott his show. The Armenian Bar Association even released a statement, demanding a retraction and an apology. Our community was coming out of hibernation, but the proverbial pitchforks seemed a bit extreme, as though we were unleashing decades of frustration unto just one comedian’s misfire. Much worse has been said by many and gone unpunished. So, while the target may have been misplaced, our outrage was—and is—well-warranted.

In nearly all of these instances, Armenians are an afterthought—we’re hardly ever in the picture, let alone, given a scene. Are we so scary (or smelly) that we don’t merit at least one fleshed-out character on screen?

 

Changing the narrative 

Through perhaps sheer coincidence, today is National Holocaust Remembrance Day. While reflecting on the millions of innocent souls who lost their lives to ignorance and fear, it is difficult to stomach that both the writer and director of this episode of “Casual” are Jewish. Armenians are worse than serial rapists. How anyone—let alone the descendants of Holocaust survivors—could think that this was acceptable—let alone, funny—motivates us to fight harder for fairer representation in the entertainment industry. While the Velvet Revolution and showcases of Armenian art and culture around the globe captured front-page headlines in 2018, this task is equally deserving of discussion and support.

At h-pem, we leverage the power of art to engage young Armenian Americans with our culture, to feel pride at wearing our hye-identity as ambassadors in a sea of otar-ness (“foreignness”). When popular artists, films, shows, and podcasts denigrate and mock our culture, people, and identity, they attack the very values that we stand for, and “jokes” like these add unnecessary hurdles to our goal. In fact, it is precisely these comments that pave the way for egregious horrors down the road, like genocide.

If you think I am overreacting to a mere tasteless, but harmless joke, please keep in mind that the Armenian Genocide did not start with death marches. The Young Turks’ campaign to “liquidate” native Armenians from our ancestral lands began with taunts like “dirty gavurs” (“infidels”). A physical genocide begins with a psychological and verbal reprogramming of language to alienate certain groups of people. “They are not one of us.” 

Language has always played a powerful role in inciting bigotry and stirring up hatred and fear. Replace “Armenian” with a more visible minority, like “Jewish” or “black” or “Italian” and picture the (rightful) outrage that would have ensued. This show would have been off the air quicker than the “Roseanne” reboot. Asian Americans and Native Americans have complained of similar frustrations against their communities. As the “minorities amongst minorities,” we have to dispel these toxic word choices before they become something more than just “casual” one-liners.

 

Racism is never ‘casual’ 

“Casual” was supposed to be the antithesis of the emotionally-taxing show we watched previously, but I couldn’t help but see the similarities that this run-of-the-mill millennial comedy shared with a dystopian drama. In the “Handmaid’s Tale,” a totalitarian regime usurps power through a coup, displacing the United States and creating a society in which women are essentially properties of the state, deprived of all dignity and free will. 

As a people who have survived a genocide, we know what it is like to be betrayed by our government and to lose our human rights. And, as the descendants of these survivors, we take offense to the ways in which we are defined on screen—ways that, for example, portray us as unhygienic, deranged rapists. Simply put, racism is never “casual.”

Though often touted as the world’s most effective “soft power” tool, Hollywood perhaps earns too much credit for simply wielding the tides of public sentiment and established values of the time. In the early 20th century, Armenian Americans fought tooth and nail for acceptance as a viable minority group, overcoming racist policies that sought to exclude them from society at large. The films and shows listed in this article are inevitable products of the historically negative perceptions of Armenians in American society. 

The unfortunate reality is that while we have moved on, the entertainment industry continues to lag behind with these outdated tropes. Slowly, but surely, we reject these toxic, antiquated stereotypes to demand more truthful and respectful representation—one “joke” at a time.

To the writers, producers, and directors of “Casual,” I urge you to reflect on your approach to “comedy” by taking a note from the hit show, “30 Rock”:

Liz Lemon: We've come a long way from that apartment we shared in Little Armenia.
Jenna Maroney: Oh, it was so weird there! Do you remember that neighborhood festival where they killed a goat in the street?
Lemon: Yes! But we did have really good luck that year.
Maroney: Yeah.

 

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