I've always been a fan of MTV America's Best Dance Crew (ABDC). My roots as a dancer begin with hip hop and breakdancing, I have constantly tried to learn to incorporate new dance styles, and I’m a big fan of how Asian American crews and crews with Asian Americans are represented extremely well on the show: Kaba Modern, Jabbawockeez, Supercr3w, Soreal Cru, Quest Crew. So you can understand how refreshing it is to find a TV show that young Asian Americans can finally identify with and support on prime-time cable.
ABDC has shown that Dancing = cool, sexy, hot. Asian Americans can be good at dancing. By transitive property, Asian Americans = cool, sexy, hot.
Hooray. But not quite anymore.
Lately I've been having many problems with their 3rd and 4th episodes of Season 4. If I could sum up some phrases to associate with those episodes, it would be: Racially insensitive, Uninformed, Uneducated, Disrespectful, Ignorant, Offensive.
Before beginning, I should first introduce myself as a filmmaker who has been familiar with people working in MTV for over 5 years, was once a production assistant to a reputable VMA-winning MTV music video director, and appeared a regular biweekly panelist on mtvU’s prime-time show “The Freshmen” for 4 years, so I know how much MTV cares about being racially sensitive. In fact, I am extremely familiar with quick and easy steps MTV has taken with shows like ABDC to be more respectful to people of color. MTV usually does do its research and it does often ask its own staff members of different ethnicities for advice and consultation. But this time, they screwed up. And our responsibility as the largest and oldest Asian American collegiate organization in the country compels us to call them out on it.
I should begin with the 3rd episode where they incorporated a "martial arts" challenge which every crew had to emulate a martial arts style into their dance routines. Yes, they cued in those overdone gong noises and your usual silly dancer going “hi-YAHH!” on camera. However, they tried to balance those elements out with the presence of Quest Crew’s Steve Terada as their “martial arts” adviser. Is everything now supposed to be peachy? Again, not quite. I’ll have to agree with Shane in that episode; the crews did nothing to emulate or even respect the martial arts. Instead they just made it look silly by doing crappy karate chop moves they didn’t bother spending more than 5 minutes to learn. I can only imagine how disappointed Steve was in the crews (I hope he was paid well for his cameo services) when watching the episode. But I don’t feel too bad since it was clearly established how all the crews were terrible at incorporating their martial arts styles. And their insensitivity that week was superficial enough that I can't do too much but roll my eyes in the same way all the crews probably did when they heard about the challenge in the first place.
However, the week after MTV decided to take it one step too far with their "Bollywood" episode where they thumbed their noses at an entire 2,000 year history of cultural dance. Expect the “cool” used of “exotic” themed fonts like Papyrus, or images of Taj Mahal scattered on the stage (because after all, India consists of ONLY the Taj Mahal, right?), but unlike the martial arts episode, we get something blatantly more disrespectful.
First of all, Bollywood is a film industry, not a style of dance that acts as an umbrella over other dance styles like Bhangra or Kathak. (This is why South Asian American dance competitions are particular in calling it “Hindi Film” instead of Bollywood). But now millions of Americans are sadly going to think everyone who is involved in any kind of South Asian dance are dancing to Bollywood. MTV could have found this out if they only could have done 5 minutes more of research. Or even asked their coworkers of South Asian descent for some guidance. Last time I checked MTV has a pretty diverse workforce?
Secondly, not only did some dancers mock the names of the dances by deliberately going “Bhara-whaaa?!” “Garbahhh?!!” with over-exaggerated stupefied confusion but Lil’ Mama as one of the JUDGES, went ahead to outrightly mispronounce the 2,000 year old dance style. Of course, everyone would respond by laughing at such a "silly name." Oh Lil’ Mama, of course you couldn’t bother to spend 2 more minutes learning a 4 syllable word.
While we’re speaking of the judges, who gave them the RIGHT to comment on whether they successfully incorporated a South Asian cultural dance style into their routines? I will bet you my spleen that neither Shane, Lil’ Mama, nor JC Chasez have ever bothered to understand the difference between Bharatanatyam and Bhangra...and yet they comment on them as if they know everything there is about South Asian cultural dance. Were they present at any of the rehearsals? Our current ECAASU National President, Tiffany Su from Yale, says it best:
I am completely confused by the judges' inability to articulate their critique of the dance styles; their commentary reflects the perpetual ignorance of others' cultural and musical upbringing seen throughout our society. What usually gives judges the privilege and merit to comment on a group's performance is usually some level of expertise in the dance form, but in this case, I don't believe any of the three judges on the show have such expertise.
- Tiffany Su, ECAASU National Chair
The next gripe I have were the costumes the crews, We Are Heroes and AfroBoriké, chose. Trying to capitalize on what they think is “sexy” South Asian wear, it ended up being another example of America’s odd (creepy) fascination and fetishization with "exotic" Asian cultures. I think we’ve seen enough of this already done over and over in crappy movies but to witness it on a show like ABDC, it’s a slap in the face.
But the last straw was when they had the crew, We Are Heroes, dance Giddha to "Arab Money." This I find extremely problematic since it perpetuates the highly offensive stereotype that all brown people are Arabs. I don’t think I could have put it better than my fellow ECAASU Board of Director, Anjlee Joshi from Rutgers, when she writes:
Its a shame that MTV was ignorant and disrespectful enough to use Arab Money as on of the songs for the challenge. Not only is that song NOT part of the Bollywood genre, but it is also blatantly offensive to any individual who believes in the Muslim faith. While many individuals do not realize this, Indian Muslims or even Muslims and Arabs in other countries love and follow Bollywood the same way Indians do. Thus, to use a song that is offensive to the Muslim community because of its misusage of a prayer from the Qu'ran is disappointing, offensive, and just downright ignorant.
- Anjlee Joshi, ECAASU Board of Directors
I don't know if it's just me because I'm surprised I haven't heard any complaints about it yet, but this is truly some kind of systemic ignorance and blatant racial insensitivity that is taking place. It’s even sadder to see none of Asian American groups out there taking action because drivel like this ends up becoming perpetuated into false stereotypes: Remember back in the time of 9/11 where a turban-wearing Sikh man was shot and killed because the cold-blooded murderer thought he was “one of the Arab terrorists?” The murder itself is heinous enough. The nature of such a violent hate crime against a person of color is heinous enough. But almost just as unsettling is how that murderer mistakenly thought South Asian Sikh and the Middle East were the same thing.
This exemplifies the kind of American ignorance that is similarly displayed when MTV presents “Arab Money” as a “classic Bollywood song” in its Bollywood episode. What we have is cultural ignorance without a care in the world. And such blatant cultural ignorance often engenders awful and even deadly consequences for those who internalize and believe in it.
Face it, MTV could have done its research better.
MTV, I'm trying to like you. So far you’ve given us Better Luck Tomorrow, Quest Crew, Jabbawockeez, Suchin Pak, and even my own stint on doing a show on mtvU. You’ve had a commendable effort with MTV Chi, MTV K, and MTV Desi, and even had a keynote spot at ECAASU 2007. In fact, I even appreciate your efforts in bringing a variety of dance styles to ABDC. But if I learned anything as an Asian American, it’s not WHAT you do, but HOW you do it. And this is HOW you did it: Uninformed, Uneducated, Disrespectful, Ignorant, Offensive.
How the hell did you screw this one up? For a TV network that prizes itself on cultural awareness and sensitivity, shame on you MTV.
- Calvin, ECAASU Board of Directors.
The full episode in question can be viewed here: