“I love Asian fusion!”
When Joaquin Pheonix’s character Theodore shouts these words to his date, played by Olivia Wilde, in the critically acclaimed 2015 film Her, they are not meant to be particularly illuminating in any way. Rather, the words are meant to be trivial chatter that Theodore shares with his date as a part of the dating game; he will ultimately betray his fear of commitment to her later that night, and Olivia Wilde’s character leaves him, never appearing again after her ten minute cameo. But whatever Spike Jonze meant when he wrote and directed this line actually doesn’t matter, because beneath those four words lies an entire continent. To understand those four words is to understand the way that science fiction films construct new fantasies of race, colonialism, and specifically, Orientalism. There have been essays and articles written on Orientalism in Blade Runner, but here, I would like to extend and compare Blade Runner to Her. The key is again those four words. I know it may seem reductionist at best and delusional at worst, but to begin my case, I’d like to point out the following:
Those four words are the first and only time that race is acknowledged, directly or indirectly, in either film.
I can easily imagine the intuitive response to what I’ve raised as a problem: “it’s science fiction!” However, that’s part of the point. The science fiction of white writers (the writers and directors of Her and Blade Runner are of course, all white) naturally write into fantasies of futures where race is simply irrelevant. Of course, this is not to say that writers of color do not indulge in this fantasy. It is at this point, simply a trope of all science fiction to throw race to the wayside; for instance, Independence Day is more or less a film about everybody forgetting about all the shit in the past and singing kumbayah to kill the aliens. Nonetheless, there are notable problems with the fantasy of white sci-fi writers in removing race from the equation.
- It’s Still There
Science fiction can ultimately never escape from our conceptions of hegemony and difference, even when it claims to do otherwise. Both the writers and the audience write and watch from assumptions and archetypes of our immediate reality. Her and Blade Runner are both set in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Both films make an effort to portray diverse crowds. The focus of the camera in both films, though, never changes, remaining on our white protagonist, and his white friends. However, this is ultimately not nearly as important as the cityscapes that the Los Angeles of Her and Blade Runner ultimately resemble: Tokyo and Shanghai. Blade Runner is released in 1982, during the height of the Japanese economy, which had undergone decades of inredible growth. During this time period, Japan represented a challenge to American dominance of global markets. Tokyo became a symbol of the tech boom that drove Japan’s economy to soaring heights, and the city was a physical representation of it.
If the Tokyo cityscape represented the hope and optimism of Japan, then the cityscape of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles turns that on its head and transforms it into a dystopic vision of urban degradation within which our white hero Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, can insert order by removing the blurry line of the other, or in this case, replicants. Blade Runner then, is a story about enforcing hegemony when it has been blurred. The source material for Blade Runner, the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick, sets the story in a desolate, empty landscape. David Peoples and Hampton Fancher instead place the story in a setting that is simultaneously exotic and familiar by transplanting the Western vision of Tokyo as the technological, electronic metropolis, into the heart of the American metropolis: Los Angeles.
Consequently, Asian people become exoticized accessories to the story. The first Asian person we see in Blade Runner is an Asian woman in “geisha” makeup on a billboard. She, like the rest of the “Orient” is there for consumption in the playground of white heroes like Deckard. This is what Theodore means when he says “Asian fusion”. “Asian fusion” is not simply a cuisine, but rather the world within which both Theodore and Deckard operate both within and against. Race is not removed from science fiction, as George Lucas might have you believe, but rather is simply used as the backdrop for the story.
- Blade Runner and Vincent Chin
Blade Runner then, is a vision rooted in the politics of fear. Deckard is a representation of the existential fears of white Americans, although this is certianly not obvious. However at its core, Blade Runner is a story about uncertainty. The existence of replicants constitutes an existential threat to humans, because suddenly, nobody can really know whether or not they are replicants themselves. Instead of speaking about racial purity, it is rather about human purity, which, when compromised, creates hatred between those who believe themselves to be human and replicant. Deckard is driven by that hatred, and acts violently against replicants for no particular reason at all given in the film (ignoring the persuasive argument that he is himself a replicant). The logical conclusion then, is that he acts to restore order.
Five days before Blade Runner’s release, Vincent Chin was brutally beaten by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who believed him to be Japanese. He died three days later in a Detroit hospital. It is of course absurd to say that Blade Runner caused Chin’s death. Nonetheless, it is significant that the Blade Runner emerged at the same time as Chin’s death, because both were ultimately driven by a fear of Japan. Detroit auto workers like Ebens were threatened by the Japanese auto industry and the possibility of losing their jobs as the Detroit economy began to tank. Like Deckard, the other (Japan or the replicants) threatened Ebens’s understanding of himself. Also like Deckard, Ebens turned to violent expressions of hate against the threat. He was the blade runner, and Vincent Chin was the blade.
The anti-Japanese fervor of the late 70’s and 80’s was immense, driven primarily by the strength of the Japanese automobile industry in comparison to the failing American industry. Helen Zia, one of the leading journalist and activists of the American Citizens for Justice, a citizens group that lobbied for justice in the Vincent Chin case, pointed out the climate of the country when she said,
“The Japanese auto imports were everything the gas-guzzlers were not— cheap to buy, cheap to run, well made and dependable. They were easy to hate. Anything Japanese, or presumed to be Japanese, became a potential target. Japanese cars were easy pickings. Local unions sponsored sledge-hammer events giving frustrated workers a chance to smash Japanese cars for a dollar a swing. Japanese cars were vandalized and their owners were shot at on the freeways. On TV, radio, and the local street corner, anti-Japanese slurs were commonplace. Politicians and public figures made irresponsible and unambiguous racial barbs aimed at Japanese people. Lee Iacocca, chairman of the failing Chrysler Corporation and onetime presidential candidate, jokingly suggested dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, while U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan pointed his fury at “those little yellow men.” Bumper stickers threatened “Honda, Toyota— Pearl Harbor.” It felt dangerous to have an Asian face. Asian American employees of auto companies were warned not to go onto the factory floor because angry workers might hurt them if they were thought to be Japanese. Even in distant California, Robert Handa, a third-generation Japanese American television reporter, was threatened by an autoworker who pulled a knife and yelled, “I don’t like Jap food . . . only like American food” (Zia 37).
In this environment then, it was only a matter of time before violence against Asian machines turned into violence against Asian people themselves. Blade Runner and its source material were not made to incite hordes of angry whites to attack Asians. However, they were made in the wake of a national sentiment about “Orientals”, and we inevitably find those sentiments echoed indirectly in Deckard’s anger towards replicants.
- The Assumption of Whiteness in Her
If Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is a vision of relentless fear, then Her’s Los Angeles is a vision of relentless optimism. Technology is ultimately not the threat to Theodore and humanity’s existence, at least not in the same way as it is in Blade Runner. Rather, technology transforms Los Angeles into a space that is visually the opposite of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. The Los Angeles of Her is very much one projected from the current look of technology: clean screens, LED billboards, smart phones, minimal interfaces. Everything that surrounds Theodore’s life is clean and beautiful, from his office, to his home, to the city he walks in. The city again resembles a cleaner Shanghai or Tokyo of the near future. If that is the case, then…
Where are the Asians?
Spike Jonze relegates people of color in general to the scenery. Every prominent character is white. The only person of color with a significant speaking part is the girlfriend of Theodore’s white friend, and her only real dialogue involves being on the receiving end of some vaguely fetishizing comments about her feet. She is the “Asian fusion” to this story, that makes it passable to audiences that might otherwise be alarmed by the fact that there are no characters of color, at all. The film opens with a couple throwaway lines from a black co-worker, as though Jonze and the casting director said “Alright, we got that out of the way.” Most prominently, it is completely natural when Samantha picks the whitest possible surrogate body for herself that Theodore can sex up. As an audience, we are supposed to hear Samantha’s voice and assume a white body. So what exactly is the problem here, apart from the obvious lack of visibility for people of color in the incredibly diverse city of Los Angeles?
Her ultimately suffers from much of the same problems as Blade Runner, despite the two polar opposites in their visual inspiration (fear vs hope). That problem is again, “Asian fusion”. Whereas Blade Runner utilized the Orientalist cyberscape of Tokyo to create a backdrop of dystopia and disfunction, Her uses the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai (where much of the film is shot) to create a fantastical, post-racial playground for its white cast. Theodore’s love for “Asian fusion” allows him to indulge in all the aesthetic and culinary delights of the Orientalist cityscape, but when it comes to interacting with the other, it stops at his computer girlfriend (white), Samantha. In many ways, the criticism of his ex-wife (white) when she says “You just can’t handle the emotions of a real human” aptly describe the fantasies of white people in sci-fi. Instead of having to process how a complex and deeply engrained history of racism and race might play out in the future, which would make for an incredibly compelling story, we constantly receive stories where race simply ceases to matter in the near future. Yet, if race truly stopped mattering in the futures of Her and Blade Runner, the casting directors would not have gone out of their way to hire all white talent. Not only is their post-racial vision flawed, but they fail to even act consistently to it.
- So What?
There is something more insidious in white sci-fi’s assumptions of a post-racial future. Never mind that they actually just shove race into the background by implanting it into the cityscape. Never mind that sci-fi never assumes a post-gender future (see: rape scene in Blade Runner). The real harm comes in white sci-fi’s promise of the fruits of inaction. Implicit in the beauty of Her, is a promise that science-fiction, and the post-racial world, is very much reality. “This is not far off” is the message of Her. We can take all the best things from Asia, without ever having to deal with real Asian people. Ironically, by crafting a post-racial future, Her and Blade Runner both engage in this new Orientalism. In reality, race will never cease to matter, simply because we cannot undo the fact of its history. We can work towards stripping the power and pain from it, but its legacy is something that will not work itself out anytime in the near future, because after all, we are humans: imperfect and irrational. Perhaps if we were all like Samantha, we could find the algorithm to remove race, but to embrace our humanity is to embrace all the failings of it, and racism is no exception.
Wu, Jean Yu-wen Shen, and Chen, Thomas C., eds. Asian American Studies Now : A Critical Reader. Piscataway, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 25 March 2016.
Copyright © 2010. Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.