Here's what Ashton Kutcher really did wrong in that "brownface" Popchips ad
Because some people seem so traumatized by race-centered controversies, let me explain what Ashton Kutcher really did wrong.
For those who need the backstory, Kutcher stars in a commercial for the Popchips snack food which is formatted like an ad for a dating website in which Kutcher plays lots of different character types: a Karl Lagerfeld-style fashionista, a British, dreadlock-wearing bohemian and a trucker cap wearing good old boy.
But one of the parts, an east Indian, Bollywood producer, has sparked a controversy and allegations of racism.
That's because Kutcher does little beyond facing the camera, talking in an accent which vaguely resembles an east Indian's patios. critics say the message is simple: Indians are funny because their accents are funny and they dress like extras from a Bollywood movie.
Part of this controversy is the result of our stilted conversations about race, where the word racism is slapped on any issue of prejudice even remotely controversial. In truth, calling Kutcher's portrayal racist is probably a bit much; its much more an awkward, unthinking insult rather than deliberate anti-South Asian sentiment.
The problem, I think, is that Kutcher and his pals at Popchips saw his Bollywood producer portrayal as equal to all the other roles in the commercial, ignoring the resonance of a white man donning "brownface" makeup to play a person of color. Because of a long history of demeaning stereotypes attached to such actions, one thing remains important:
If you're going to go there, it has to be for a good reason.
In other words, if Kutcher had made the character funny in ways which had nothing to do with his culture or accent, people would have seen a funny character instead of a walking stereotype. The other characters Kutcher played in the ad were stereotypes too, but they didn't also reflect decades of racial and ethnic prejudices used to marginalize people both on and off the screen.
It's the lesson I learned from talking to now-deceased TV writer David Mills, who wrote for ABC's NYPD Blue and HBO's The Corner, The Wire and Treme. Some characters in these shows might echo serious prejudices of black and brown people -- which meant you had to have a powerfully creative reason for deploying them which nullified the stereotyping.
In other words, The Sopranos is a powerful story about a family couched in stereotypical Italian mobster characters. But the so-called reality show Jersey Shore is just an excuse to make money off Italian-American stereotypes about low intelligence, hedonism and physical aggression.
Popchips seems to have pulled the ads and apologized, because the last thing it wants is to make its product the center of a controversial discussion about portrayals of race on television.
But I hope we find a way to have the conversation anyway. Because I think Kutcher's biggest mistake was in not asking a simple question:
Why is this character considered funny?
And if it's funny only because it turns on a stereotype, it's got to change.