January 13’s episode of popular CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother met a huge backlash from its viewers who challenged its racist portrayal of Asian culture. Viewers were quick to voice their disgust via Twitter, using #HowIMetYourRacism to express their outrage.
The episode, “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmara” , plays out Marshall’s (Jason Segal) journey through Shanghai and Cleveland learning the Kung Fu “Slap of a Million Exploding Suns”. He uses the story to intimidate Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), following the show’s long-running joke of “slap-bet” wagers. The three kung fu masters he learns from are played by the other main, and obviously Caucasian actors in the show Cobie Smulders, Alyson Hannigan and Josh Radnor. The three are dressed in stereotypical “Asian” costumes, including kimonos, a Fu Manchu mustache in one case, and are filmed eating noodles. They bounce back and forth between personas, acting both in the reserved and disciplined Asian stereotype in contrast to their casual jokes and conversation style that the actors normally use in the show. Josh Radnor’s Kung Fu character, The Calligrapher, for example, changes his posture and persona instantly from a strict, respected master to ask if Marshall knows anyone who’s single, making the costume and culture into a joke.
Some main critiques of the episode were the fact that the Asian characters themselves seemed to be jokes, rather than real people; the costumes being designed for the humour of white viewers. The fact that Asian characters were played by white actors was also criticized and tied to historical entertainment industries unwillingness to hire actors of colour. Responders considered the episode an instance of yellowface.
The creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, apologized through a series of tweets on January 15:
“With Monday’s episode, we set out to make a silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved. But along the way we offended people. We’re deeply sorry, and we’re grateful to everyone who spoke up to make us aware of it. We try to make a show that’s universal, that anyone can watch and enjoy. We fell short of that this week, and feel terrible about it. To everyone we offended, I hope we can regain your friendship, and end this series on a note of goodwill. Thanks. @CarterBays @HimymCraig.”
The show does have a history of “unabashedly immature” humour, poking fun at Canadian stereotypes in a similar way in several past seasons. It is currently on its final season, wrapping up for good on March 31st after 9 popular seasons.