Are Audiences Smart Enough to Handle Ambiguity?

Critics of Licorice Pizza think the film could normalize anti-Asian mockery.

A scene from the film "Licorice Pizza."
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

About the author: Randy Boyagoda is an English professor at the University of Toronto. His latest novel is Dante’s Indiana.

About 25 centuries ago, in The Republic, Plato banished poets and playwrights from his ideal city, claiming that their work “is likely to distort the thought of anyone who hears it.” Plato worried that after witnessing the extremities of human behavior represented by storytellers, we might imitate that behavior in real life, resulting in disorder, division, violence, and chaos. He was skeptical of our capacity to distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined, and likewise of our capacity to draw positive and productive insights for life and action from what we watch. So too are contemporary culture warriors, who are convinced, and keen to convince others, that when, for instance, something racist is depicted in a film and not clearly condemned, the film has incorrigible, racist effects—and deserves condemnation. But unlike Plato and the hashtag brigades, I’m willing to gamble that audiences will get it right, and that something good can come from them struggling to do so.

What’s led me to Plato is the controversy surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a loose and shaggy tale set in early 1970s California. Critics have praised the easy, electric charisma between the leads: aged-out child actor Gary (played by Cooper Hoffman) and 20-something glowering beauty Alana (played by Alana Haim). They have also admired the loving evocation of a distant-feeling time and place marked by innocent and intense experiences, and by growing up itself—sort of. At the same time, some viewers have reacted negatively to the movie’s instances of coarsely accented Asian English, leading critics on social media and at least one Asian American cultural organization to argue that audiences and prize juries should boycott it. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) announced that to shower Licorice Pizza “with nominations and awards would normalize more egregious mocking of Asians in this country.”

In interviews, Anderson has said that he included these scenes for historical verisimilitude; beyond that rationale, I think they offer comedy that variously flatters, entertains, and unsettles. These are interpretive possibilities—all of them now reduced to whether the scenes were meant to be racist, could be taken as racist, or could lead to racism. Licorice Pizza has been caught up in the familiar art-versus-justice culture wars, pitting a self-assured creator’s artistic freedoms against activists and advocacy groups made zealous by their puritanical convictions. The debate about this movie isn’t just about this movie; it’s a stand-in for innumerable such discussions playing out in publishing, theater, and every other creative venue in which artists depict people not exactly like themselves with any kind of ambiguity.

But I don’t think the relevant material in Licorice Pizza justifies the outrage and concern. Immediately before Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) speaks offensively to his wife, Mioko (Yumi Mizui), about the marketing plans for their new restaurant that Gary and his mother have put together, the camera focuses on Mioko in close-up. Listening to imbecilic American clichés about Japanese women (mysterious beauty, legendary hospitality, small feet, etc.), Mioko’s face is composed, if stony. She’s clearly not impressed by what she’s hearing. In turn, Jerry talks down to her, at length, in an absurdly stupid effort at phonetic translation, which occasions a stern response from her. The offended Japanese woman is the magnetic center of gravity. The offending white American man is peripheral and unappealing. Later, the scene repeats with a partial difference: Jerry has a new wife, also Japanese, also the more serious member of the couple, and he speaks to her in the same idiotic way.

Within the larger context of the movie, these scenes suggest that the teenage Gary needs to grow up. He’s an irrepressible hustler and showman keen above all to impress and win over Alana. Here, he’s a witness to Jerry’s racism who doesn’t seem to see anything wrong; he smirks while Jerry babbles. Meanwhile, as an audience, we get to laugh at Jerry over his ignorant and offensive assumptions, and we get to feel assured and valorized that we are so much more enlightened than he is, decades later. The opposite, anxious reading seems, by comparison, dubious. Who could possibly sit through these scenes and want to be like Jerry, or feel like Jerry has legitimated misogynistic Japanglish?

That said, even the accusation that this could be the case can exert pressure on filmmakers. The American film industry is already anxious about representational politics and not about to ignore nonwhite perspectives. Other moviemakers, watching what’s happening to Anderson’s latest, could quietly trim or starch their storytelling sails accordingly, particularly following criticisms of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights over a lack of darker-skinned Afro-Latino actors in major roles, and of Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee as a hothouse fusspot who gets beaten up by a shrugging white stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Miranda has apologized and Tarantino’s been coy; Anderson’s retroactive justifications are less convincing than the sense, from the film itself, that he trusted his audience to know the proportionate significance of these brief scenes relative to the rest of the movie; to know the difference between racism and the representation of racism; and to parse different representations of racism itself. Such variation absolutely exists, well beyond the debate over Licorice Pizza. Clearly unacceptable, in retrospect, is the juvenile joke of a character in John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles: Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), a moronic, English-mangling Asian exchange student who is treated like an exotic pest by the white characters. Likewise, the “me so horny” exchange between the “Da Nang Hooker” character (Papillon Soo Soo) and Private Joker (Matthew Modine) in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket legitimated racist attitudes and stereotypes under the cover of humor. The exchange was later sampled in hit songs by 2 Live Crew (“Me So Horny”) and Sir Mix-A-Lot (“Baby Got Back”), to even worse effect.

I don’t think many people would mimic Long Duk Dong or sing these songs with as much ease or self-confidence as they would have even five years ago. This is a good thing. But I also wager that many of these same people would still laugh at them—and this is not necessarily bad. The moral judgment here depends on why they laugh: Reactions to representations of racism can be as varied as the representations themselves. If they’re motivated by racist animus against Asian people, that’s reprehensible. If they’re expressing nostalgia for the period of their life when they first saw Sixteen Candles or heard those songs, that strikes me as more benign. Laughter might (and should) also come from a place of discomfort. It may have as its source feelings of deep and challenging recognition, of something both profoundly wrong (morally) and profoundly right (an accurate representation of life as it’s lived) about a situation.

During Licorice Pizza, I was laughing at Jerry Frick, not Mioko, and I did so with other members of the audience, though definitely not with all of the other members of the audience. That was unsettling. Why weren’t others laughing? What did they think about those of us who were? Was I wrong to laugh? After all, I had no way of explaining why I was laughing. For a moment, I almost wished the scenes didn’t exist at all, or had played out in ways that offered absolutely clear evidence of who deserved sympathy and who deserved condemnation. That way, I could feel assured that everyone was experiencing the same thing, that there was no interpretative space between us, no gap between our own imaginative lives and the rest of our lives regarding something as fraught as the question of racism. But if all of that had been the case in this one respect, it no doubt would have influenced other elements of the storytelling, and Licorice Pizza would have been a weaker movie. I think I would have been made a weaker viewer too, less prepared to deal with ambiguity or to create it, for that matter.

I had mocking South Asian–accented English used on me while growing up in white, small-town Canada. Such experiences owed in no small part to my being the only brown kid in groups that reliably had a shared familiarity with Ben Kingsley’s title turn in Gandhi and Fisher Stevens’s Ben Jabituya, from Short Circuit. The challenge I faced, again and again, was whether to get upset and thus, to my mind, prove that I was a fragile loser. Often, I chose to out-mock the mockers—with even more ridiculous singsong South Asian accents, or with thick, dumb white-guy voices, until they stopped, frequently in awkward silence or uneasy laughter. Such experiences made me feel a distinct kind of creative power to draw on and push back on the world and the people around me that were pushing on me. All of that was formative to my becoming the writer I am.

I use accented English while reading aloud from my novels, many of which are satirical and feature both thick, dumb white guys and melodramatically musical South Asians, among others. I have done so to uncomfortable, uncertain, and limited laughter in public settings (and also, at times, to hearty laughter, usually from nonwhite readers). As a storyteller, this is exactly what I want to provide and provoke: I seek differential responses from audiences so that they are entertained and challenged by what they are experiencing from me and my work, and within themselves, and from one another. Not for me is Henry Fielding’s model of prefacing each chapter of his massive 18th-century novels with winking, directive guides to ensure readers know how to take the bawdy bits that follow. Instead, I trust my audiences, but not entirely. Also, they shouldn’t trust me entirely, either, or the people around them for that matter.

With apologies to Plato and the good folks over at MANAA, I want Licorice Pizza playing everywhere, exactly as it is, to limited laughter and viral outrage and critical disagreement. The tension and grit between storytellers and their audiences, and inside and among the members of audiences, are what we should seek from page and stage and screen: We want thinking and imagining lives that are active rather than passive, evolving rather than static. A flourishing shared cultural life is one in which the stories we are told, and the stories we tell about ourselves, are free-ranging and risky, not locked down and safe.