In “The Internship” we follow Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as they set off to the Silicon Valley to actualize their middle-aged, middle-class dreams—this time, of acquiring gainful employment. Owen and Vince are recently laid-off wristwatch salesman struggling to find a new job. Vince signs the two of them up for a summer internship program at Google, where they find themselves in heated competition with their noticeably younger peers for a full-time job offer. The interns are split up into five-man teams—each team is given a series of Google-related challenges, and the best-performing group is the one that gets the full-time offer. The premise is, of course, that although Owen and Vince are essentially tech-illiterate, they have the heart and soul that their millennial co-stars just seem to lack. As you might surmise, the plot is nothing special. However, the roles written for the young Asian American actors and actresses in this film continue to perpetuate tired, racist stereotypes, and further normalize the denigration of those with yellow and brown skin. And that, unfortunately, makes this much worse than just another bad movie.
A Quick Review
So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Asian American issues as they pertain to media representation, let me give you a quick run-down. When you watch Hollywood movies with Asian characters, you can generally expect to see either one of two things. Asian male characters are too often desexualized and emasculated, while Asian female characters are hypersexualized as willing sex objects.
Asian men are portrayed as nerdy, unconfident, unattractive, sexless, and cowardly. Their sexuality is often seen as unwelcome, and at the extreme, creepy.
Asian women face an equal and opposite misrepresentation. They are generally portrayed as lustful for and sexually submissive to white men.
These patterns of racist, sexist, and dehumanizing portrayals of Asians point to a deeper problem:
Deep down, a lot of folks in the West see Asians as less than human.
I know, that hurt to read, didn’t it? Yeah, it hurt to write, too. But after years and years of watching Hollywood movies, television shows, it’s the only conclusion that I can really come to. Why else are we subjected to the same demeaning roles in these stories over, and over? Whether objects of ridicule or objects of fetishism, why are we always these objects? Why are we so often treated as living, breathing stage props? Why, when white characters enjoy the freedom to live and love in three dimensions, must we stay trapped in Flatland? I can only conclude that we must not be human to these people, these producers and writers and directors. We must not be real…
I’m sorry, I’ve gone a bit off track here. I should really let “The Internship” do the talking for me.
The Ballad of Yo Yo Santos
This article is going to focus mainly on the treatment of this guy right here. Meet Yo Yo Santos. Yo Yo is the embodiment of nearly every Asian American male stereotype there is out there. He is a high-strung, anxious, weak, sexless, self-hating tech whiz with absolutely no fashion sense. He is the film’s main punching bag, if you will, the butt of nearly every poorly written joke throughout the movie, an object worthy of pity, and little more. We meet him briefly as Owen and Vince walk through the crowd on the first day of Noogler (New Googler) Orientation, and catch a bit of his phone conversation with his mother.
“Mom, how can I work harder than my hardest—that’s physically impossible. Yes… I love you… mom?”
Unfortunately, his mother has already hung up on him, because, well, of course Asian families don’t care about “white people things” like love. Asian Americans care only about career, and success. Love? Affection? Goodness… Asian parents don’t give any of that. They give scoldings, and beatings. When Yo Yo introduces himself to the rest of his internship team, Vince Vaughn raises his hand to give him a high-five, and immediately, Yo Yo flinches away, in pain.
Vince: Yo, hey easy bud, I come in peace.
Owen: Yo Yo, did you get beat up a lot in school?
Yo Yo: I was homeschooled by my mom…
Vince: Did you get beat up a lot in home school?
Yo Yo: Discipline is a very important part of growth… But my mother was actually a very nurturing person. For example she provided me selflessly with the milk of her bosom until I was seven years old.
Vince: So… it’s like… uh… you’re tying your shoes… climbing the trees, uh… blowing up fireworks, and you’re… right on mom’s… you got mouth on mom’s…
Yo Yo: (nods) Breastfeeding leads to a higher IQ.
I think you’re starting to get the picture. Yo Yo has clearly been written out to have a twisted, vaguely perverted relationship with his mother. And of course, this is all justified by the single-minded Asian pursuit of “growth” and “higher IQ.” We will see throughout the movie that nearly every line Yo Yo says includes a reference to his overbearing Asian mother.
Soon afterwards, in the same scene, we have a young Indian American intern, Neha Patel, introduce herself to the team. While the interns are less than pleased with Owen and Vince’s presence, she seems to have no problems. Smiling widely, looking directly at our two protagonists….
“I for one, am very happy to have two… strapping… mature gentlemen on the team.”
She then introduces herself.
Neha: I’m Neha Patel, and oh, my God, you guys would make the best Luke and Han.
Vince: Excuse me?
Neha: Oh, Star Wars cosplay.
Neha: Costume play! You know, where people dress up as their favorite anime or movie character? I’d be slave girl Leia. Yeah, metal bikini top… metal G-string panty… high-heel leather boots… Of course, I’m chained at the neck. Not too constricted, but just enough to make things interesting…
Vince: The neck constriction’s interesting?
Neha: Yeah, a few of us get together and… whatever happens, happens.
Neha sure seems dead-set on getting Owen and Vince’s attention, doesn’t she? Now… remember what I said about Asian female roles being hypersexualized? That, uh… ringing a bell?
Later, we have the team working together to find a bug in some code. Yo Yo gets anxious.
Yo Yo: It’s not good enough, get it together Yo Yo! (Yo Yo begins to claw at his face, pulling out his eyebrow hair.)
Neha: (disgusted) What the fuck was that?!
Yo Yo: It’s punishing myself for my inferior performance.
Stuart (The “normal” white intern): Well that’s great. We’ve got crazy over here, and crazy-horny over there.
Thanks, Stu. Doing the heavy lifting for us. So the Asian American man on the team is “crazy,” and the Asian American woman, “crazy horny.” I think this scene speaks for itself.
We see Yo Yo continually yank out the hair from his right eyebrow throughout the movie, as he begins to do in this scene. He is such an anxious insecure mess, that by the end of the movie he literally has no right eyebrow. Owen Wilson tries to cheer him up, by drawing in a new eyebrow with a Sharpie.
But you get the point. This guy Yo Yo is such a punching bag, it hurts. I mean, not an ounce of self-esteem or self-respect to be found here. And I’m not saying every other character in this romp through Silicon Valley is the alpha male or alpha female of the century here, but in comparison? In comparison to not-an-iota-of-dignity-having Yo Yo Santos here? Yes, yes they are. When you really look at the humiliation that these screenwriters put Yo Yo through over the course of this movie, the “white nerds” look like Greek demigods who’ve descended from Mount Olympus in chariots made of polished alabaster. It sucks to be Yo Yo, in a very deep way, in a way that it doesn’t suck to be anybody else.
About halfway through the movie, we get Owen giving a motivational speech to the team of interns during a Quidditch match:
Owen: Haven’t any of you ever been called a maniac? Maybe because you were a little bit different—
Yo Yo: My mom calls me a maniac every night when I tell her I love her…
Owen: Of course she does Yo Yo! You are a little bit. In a good way.
(Yo Yo nods enthusiastically, like the nice Hollywood lapdog he was written out to be)
I mean, at this point, Yo Yo is so gratuitously self-deprecating that he doesn’t even make sense.
And if all that wasn’t enough, everything comes full circle in this next scene. You see, Owen and Vince decide that the whole team needs to just relax and have some fun. They go out to a strip club. Familiar stereotypes fuel the sexual dynamics here.
Almost as soon as they walk in, an Asian stripper walks up to the group. Stuart, the cool, disaffected white intern, stares down at his phone. This unnamed Asian stripper, in order to get Stuart’s attention, grabs this guy’s hand, and starts sucking on his fingers. She just up and puts this guy’s hand in her mouth, and starts sucking away, then and there.
Asian woman acting as a submissive hypersexual object? Check. Asian woman vying aggressively for white male attention? Check. By sucking some white guy’s hand? Check.
Now, when you see an Asian woman in a sexual scene with anyone else, isn’t it almost always with a white guy? Hollywood likes to emphasize that Asian women are not merely sexually submissive, but sexually submissive towards white men in particular. What is the harm in this? Well, in constantly bombarding media-obsessed Americans over a lifetime with this specific on-screen pairing, in this particular manner, it not only encourages Asian women to view white men as superior to nonwhite, it also normalizes a relationship with a skewed power dynamic that consistently favors the white male in the relationship. In other words, Hollywood is encouraging people to be racist and sexist.
But let’s not forget about our old friend Yo Yo. After initially refusing to take shots on account of his mother’s disapproval, our young Asian brother finally gives in, and decides to let loose. Which seems to mean getting a lap dance. But of course, you have to remember that Yo Yo must be humiliated in every scene he appears in, so…
That would be Yo Yo using the bathroom’s hand dryer to air-dry his pants. Unfortunately, Yo Yo has jizzed himself during his first lapdance. No matter, as he goes back for another lapdance…
Oh, looks like we’re back in the bathroom again. Yo Yo apparently has jizzed his pants again. Owen reassures him. “It’s all good… might want to double up on the underwear next time!”
And, for good measure, here’s Yo Yo back in the bathroom yet again, drying off his pants, which he has jizzed in three times now. Yo Yo, being the ever-sexually-inadequate Asian man, just cannot for the life of him not jizz himself while getting a lap dance. And at this point, I think the screenwriters have hit on just about every single Asian male stereotype there is. Yo Yo as walking, breathing caricature is finally complete. And to be honest, I’m impressed that the screenwriters waited this late in Act 2 to explicitly make a joke about Yo Yo’s sexual inadequacy.
Soon after jizzing himself thrice, Yo Yo finds himself in a massive bar fight. Unfortunately, the poor kid gets punched in the face, to which he exclaims, “My mother hits harder than you!”
What a cringe fest this movie is. Just cringe, after cringe, after cringe. And I could keep on trying to point out every little racist detail, every nuance, but by now you should get it. But I’ll include one more scene here, as I do think it’s important. At the end of the movie, we find our jolly Noogler crew saying their goodbyes to each other. Suddenly though, Yo Yo’s mythical Tiger Mom appears, to drag him into the car. We get this exchange, spoken in the most stereotypical broken English:
Tiger Mom: Yo-Yo! Come. Now.
Yo Yo: Mom, I need a minute.
Tiger Mom: Yo-Yo, I not go. We need to…
Yo Yo: Mom. I’m saying good-bye to my friends. I’m taking a minute. Okay?
And finally, Yo Yo’s moment of backbone arrives, literally in the closing scenes of the movie. Yo Yo’s friends are shocked, Yo Yo’s mother is shocked, and everyone is amazed at the character development the screenwriters put into this complex Asian man. Yo Yo, seemingly aware of this new change in himself, turns to his intern friends.
“Hey guys, I just grew a pair of balls. Did you see them?!”
It’s time we stop letting these portrayals of Asian men and women slide. Let me note that “The Internship” was only put out two years ago, in 2013. Both Google and Stanford had their names attached to the film, allowing the producers to shoot on their respective campuses. Why either of these “elite” institutions would be okay with signing off on such a racist, sexist, subpar production is beyond me.
I think of all the Asian American engineers and coders in Silicon Valley, at Stanford, at Google. I think of all the hard work that we put into this country—the blood, the sweat, the tears. And this is what they see us as. Yo Yo Santos, the man without a pair of balls.
If you are white, you are free to be whoever you want to be. This is Hollywood’s subtle message. There are so many different roles out there for you. Whether you dream of becoming a garbage man or President of the United States, nothing is impossible. But only if you’re white. Because if your skin is any shade darker than white, well, there are only so many parts out there. Only so many roles. And so, for yellow and brown boys and girls, the sky is smaller. The stars, fewer. And, you know, that makes me really sad.