Last week, Snapchat lost face.
The company, whose messaging app is hugely popular among young smartphone users, introduced a face-warping filter that transformed users into slant-eyed, buck-toothed, East Asian caricatures. The feature was meant to be “playful,” not offensive, the company said, in a statement. But after vocal protests by Asian-Americans and others on social media, the filter, having been up for only one day, was swiftly disabled.
Snapchat claimed the lens was intended as an homage to anime. But to true anime fans, that explanation rung hollow. Anime characters traditionally have round, oversized eyes like those of the early Disney cartoons that inspired them. The Snapchat caricatures did not.
A previous Snapchat “homage” to Bob Marley was criticized as digital blackface. How odd that the company would move on to “yellowface”, in effect making the same mistake twice.
Racial caricature is a visual stereotype, an exaggeration often invoked in the service of satire. Aristotle noted that comedy “is an imitation of inferior things and people.” Ethnic Halloween costumes and American Indian mascots like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo distort iconic physical features or other visual markers of difference for comic effect.
Snapchat’s lens was, no doubt, a visual joke made at the expense of Asian-Americans. A specific type of humor, its pleasure lies in producing feelings of dominance or superiority. As Freud notes in “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious,” enjoyment is derived from “making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic.”
As psychologists have documented, repeated exposure to racial stereotypes also impacts the mental health of people of color.
Snapchat took quick action. But that does not explain its faux pas. Multiple media outlets pointed to the tech industry’s lack of diversity, suggesting that if people of color were better represented, there would be greater awareness of offensive imagery.
This is a fair assumption. But greater representation is only part of the fix.
We need to get to the heart of why caricatures and stereotypes keep coming up. Before young children understand the racial-ethnic categories invoked by adults, they are most likely to classify people first by racial features, second by gender and third by clothing.
Differences seen on the body are thus “psychologically privileged” as a means of sorting people. But how do we come to affix positive or negative associations to those classifications? Simply, we are more likely to invoke group categories when individual behaviors converge with existing social biases.
In this moment of highly publicized racial violence and talk of building a wall, a Snapchat protest may seem trivial. But it’s not. Racial caricatures share the same root as racial profiling. They both reduce individuals to types that serve as sources of pleasure or fear.
As a culture, we can and are evolving. Can Snapchat users recall Chinese Cherry or Injun Orange drink mixes? The Frito Bandito? They are relics of the past. In this new digital age of bodily flexibility and playful self-imagining, let’s keep them there.
Leslie Bow is a professor of English and Asian-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.