A Tired Old Joke

 New Girl cece and mom

The following is cross-posted from RELephantUA, the class blog for the REL Captsone Seminar. Be sure to check their blog for more great posts studying religion in culture.

By Liz Long

In TV, the same jokes have a habit of popping up over and over again in different shows. Someone falls in love with their work partner. Someone has two dates to the same event. Everyone’s family is dysfunctional. They’re tiring, boring plots that we’ve seen several times before on several different shows.

New Girl recently employed what I find to be the most frustrating and un-funny recurring joke: white guy picks up the wrong non-white woman.

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Nick picks up the wrong South Asian woman on Fox’s New Girl.

In the season 5 premiere, Nick is tasked with picking up Cece’s mom from the airport. But-shocker!-he picks up the wrong person. Fans of the show will recall that this should not be the first time Nick has met Cece’s mom-ostensibly, he met her at Cece’s wedding in season 2. Despite this, and despite the fact that Cece’s mom speaks perfect English (and the woman he picks up doesn’t speak English at all), Nick manages to basically kidnap another South Asian woman and take her to Cece’s engagement party.

As I’ve said before, this is hardly the first time this joke has been employed. The other scene that sticks out most to me is from Arrested Development, when Michael thinks he’s giving Lupe (also a woman he’s met several times before) a ride to work, but actually picks up a different Latina woman.

Arrested Development Liz Blog Post

Michael picks up a woman who is not actually his mother’s housekeeper on Arrested Development.

Why do we see this joke over and over again? And why are the men in these shows able to completely ignore the fact that the woman in their car is terrified of them?

Racial minorities are frequently made the butt of jokes on television. This joke is yet another example of it. The minority character’s pain is translated into a joke, rather than taken seriously (much like we see in reality!).

New Girl seems to have somewhat of an issue with its portrayal of immigrants. Tran, Nick’s silent, old, Southeast Asian friend, is a perfect example of Jane Iwamura’s “Oriental Monk” trope (a topic which I have blogged about in the past). This is somewhat surprising, given the show’s complex and well-rounded portrayals of several other minority characters (particularly Winston and Coach, two black men, and Cece, an Indian woman). These characters, however, are natural-born citizens. Often, the show uses humor to address the stereotypes assigned to these characters. For instance, in season 2, Winston reminds Schmidt that he is black, regardless of whether or not he fits into stereotypes about black men. Given the show’s history with characters of color, it is possible that this joke is intended as social commentary on the idea that all South Asian/Latino/insert-minority-group-here people look the same. However, in the context of the episode and the show as a whole, it doesn’t appear that this is so. In previous episodes, social commentary was clearly made. By the end of the episode, the joke is flipped back onto the non-minority character. In a sense, it is the non-minority character’s insensitive actions which become the joke, rather than the minority character. In this instance, the joke reversal doesn’t really happen. Nick realizes that he’s picked up the wrong woman, but that’s about all that happens. We never see an apology from Nick to this woman.

To me, this joke represents a trend seen too often in reality. We as Americans fail to listen to minority voices. We don’t even ask for their names. We laugh at our mistakes, but don’t do anything to correct them. But as long as jokes like these remain pervasive in the media, the problem won’t go away. Our treatment of minorities will continue to just be a funny joke.