As kids, my brother and I used to love The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, which ran from the late 50s to the early 70s. The cartoon featured Boris & Natasha, a.k.a., Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, as in “bad enough” and “femme fatale.” The former was a pun on the name of a Russian Tsar, the latter, a descendant of Count Dracula. Very subtle!
This stuff was all hilarious to us as kids, although we are 1/4 Russian. My father’s father had emigrated here as a small boy, making my father the first generation of our family born in America.
This all seemed fine until the Cold War heated up, as it were, under Reagan in the 80s. Suddenly, my name, Sahno, became an object of peer interrogation.
“Sahno, what kind of name is that? Spanish? Japanese?”
“It’s Russian. My father’s father came here from the U.S.S.R. when he was five.”
“Ah, so you’re a Russky, huh?”
“Uh, not really. I’m a quarter Irish, a quarter French, a quarter Russian, and a quarter Swedish.”
And so on, and so on. Yes, I had to declare that I rooted for Rocky Balboa, and against the evil Russian fighter Drago, in the fictional Cold War movie Rocky IV.
How It Worked With Asian Countries Then
While that might be seen as casual xenophobia, and not actual racism, it was still pretty miserable. All-white classmates wondering whether you have spies in your family sounds ridiculous, but there you are. This was, after all, before the internet.
Casual racism toward Asian people of all kinds was so rampant here in the states back then, white people thought nothing of it. The most famous instance in the acting world was that of Pat Morita, a Japanese actor who was cast as South Korean in M*A*S*H, and the voice of the emperor of China in Mulan. Apparently, if you needed an Asian person, Pat was your guy. Can’t blame him for taking the work.
Jack Soo, of Barney Miller fame, had it even worse. Born an American to Japanese parents, he changed his name from Goro Suzuki in order to get a part on Broadway—under the condition that he change his name to “something Chinese.” Though sometimes cast as Japanese in film, he was also alternately cast as Vietnamese. Again, the Hollywood attitude of “any Asian will do” seemed to prevail, though Soo famously spoke out about ethnic portrayals demeaning to those of Asian descent.
I don’t claim to have any expertise beyond being married to an Asian woman, so don’t take my word for this. But I’d wager that, current cultural sensitivities aside, we still have quite a ways to go.
The staying power of relatively insensitive material can be remarkable, especially when it’s set to music. I still remember the infamous “Frito Bandito” song from TV commercials, and just the other day, the theme song from Hong Kong Phooey popped into my head for no particular reason. I looked it up, surprised by how much I remembered without being prompted.
For those who aren’t aware, Hong Kong Phooey was a goofy cartoon like Bullwinkle & Rocky, but started a few years later. I watched the opening theme on YouTube and recalled, rather shamefacedly, how we all thought the stereotypes were just funny, not harmful. Listening to studio audiences laugh at every one of Pat Morita’s lines on Happy Days is a little painful, too. God bless him, he had a wonderful sense of humor about it.
I bring all this up today in the context of Ukraine and Russia, and my own experience with fellow Americans mimicking Russian accents. Somehow it’s still considered okay, if there’s a cultural “bad guy” running amok.
Make fun of Saddam Hussein’s accent in 2003? Fine. Make fun of some random Indian guy’s accent in 2004? No good. Imitate a Mexican guy in 2021? Instant cancellation. Make fun of a Russian accent in 2022? Totally cool.
Maybe all the woke-ness going around can have a positive effect, or maybe the anarchic parodists will win out. But I think we should pick one or the other: either every group is a potential target for ridicule, or none are. I’m fine with either one, but it really should go one way or the other…shouldn’t it?