The new movie Licorice Pizza has garnered backlash in the weeks following its release due to a recurring joke that many viewers are calling racist. The film, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, involves multiple scenes in which a white restaurant owner, played by John Michael Higgins, speaks to his Japanese wives with a fake Asian accent.

“There’s an incredibly racist, seemingly pointless (other than a cheap laugh, which it got at the screening I was at) scene that mocks Asian accents,” wrote Karen Maine, a director and screenwriter, on Twitter.

The film has generally garnered positive feedback, and even its detractors often admit that the film is otherwise enjoyable. However, those who criticize it for its apparent anti-Asian racism believe that this issue is too damaging to overlook.

“It’s irresponsible to use racism against Asians as a running gag,” said sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen. “What it does is normalize this violence, this casual anti-Asian racism.”

Anderson defended his choice to include these jokes in the film, which takes place in 1973. He argued that the jokes was an accurate depiction of people’s behavior, stating, “I think it would be a mistake to tell a period film through the eyes of 2021. … You have to be honest to that time. Not that it wouldn’t happen right now, by the way.”

While Anderson defends his inclusion of these jokes as honest, others believe that it perpetuates racist ideas.

Yuen added that jokes made at the expense of Asian accents encourage racism. “This kind of representation gives permission for others to behave this way towards Asians,” she said, “and it rehashes this trope of Asians as the perpetual foreigner.”

An August study of Asian-American representation in the film found that there is a disproportionately high number of jokes made at the expense of Asian and Pacific Islander characters. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and Gold House analyzed the top 10 grossing films annually between 2010 and 2019. Its study determined that, while less than one-quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander roles were themselves comedic, audiences were asked to laugh at almost half of them.

Yuen made an important distinction about the tone of such jokes, saying that the consequences of a racist character’s behavior can influence the message that an audience takes away from the scene.

“If there are no consequences, scenes like this can almost glorify this behavior,” Yuen cautioned. “You’re not laughing at [Higgins’ character] because he’s making fun of someone else; you’re either laughing with him at the expense of Asians, or you’re going to be upset as a viewer.”

Licorice Pizza has been released during a time when anti-Asian hate crimes have seen a dramatic spike. According to FBI data released last month, anti-Asian hate crimes rose more than 73% in 2020, which is disproportionately high in contrast to the 13% rise in hate crimes overall.

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