ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: Race and Reality: The ‘Balloon Boy,’ Jon & Kate

On Wednesday last week, a six-year-old hapa boy captured the attention of the world when it was reported that he was trapped in a homemade helium balloon floating 15,000 feet in the air. Falcon Heene, dubbed “the balloon boy,” replaced President Obama’s New Orleans town hall meeting as the day’s big story on cable news. He was later discovered safe in his home and the entire incident is now believed to be a hoax. Heene’s family, who, it turns out, have been on reality TV before, are now at the center of a media circus, with major news networks such as CNN interviewing anyone and everyone for clues as to whether the whole thing was a big publicity stunt.

As a hapa tabloid phenomenon, however, Heene has something in common with Jon Gosselin of the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8” — the media has discussed them both from every angle imaginable, except from a racial angle.

After scouring YouTube, most of the coverage I found of Gosselin involves some completely inconclusive footage of him doing something inane, or footage of some random person making a claim against him, followed by two or more people debating whether he is a terrible person. Each side basically believes the inane action or claim from a random person to “obviously” say something conclusive about his moral character.

“Balloon Boy” coverage is somewhat similar, although Heene’s father is largely the object of debate.

My position on both cases is basically “who gives a s—?” But if really pressed for an answer, I’d say that, for the Heene incident, the father almost certainly appears to be demented to some degree and maybe his behavior warrants some investigation by child welfare. But if he pulled an Orson Welles by exploiting what I’ll generously call a vulnerability in cable news media, I’d have to say I sort of admire him for it. It’s not as much his fault, (there are also going to be attention-starved wackos,) as it is the news networks’ for having that “vulnerability” in the first place.

As for Gosselin, I’d have to say that whether his allegedly bad behavior (basically, it appears he’s living out the college partying experience he missed out earlier in life: drinking, running around with young women) makes him a bad person or not, it certainly has raised his, and the show’s, profile. The media frenzy leading up to the “divorce episode” made it the highest rated of any yet, so it’s definitely been in the interest of the show’s producers to have him behave that way. Furthermore, it appears he’s opted out of the show and taken legal action to keep his kids off reality TV, which wins him points in my book, regardless of his motivation.

As for race not being discussed, I think that’s mostly for the better. In the balloon boy story, race is not relevant in any way I can see. For “Jon & Kate,” I think that whether or not fetishization of their children is going on is a legitimate issue. It’s worth thinking about whether or not a widespread notion that Asian children are cute has made a show that features eight of them very popular (and the one Asian grown-up on the show somewhat unpopular). Hyphen reported that Gosselin’s wife Kate said in an interview that she wanted to have daughters who looked like “little China dolls,” so that raises the issue of whether or not she is objectifying her own children.

Both stories though, have been discussed more heavily in the API media and blogosphere in terms of race.

If you search for “balloon boy Japanese” or “balloon boy asian” you mostly get Asian American bloggers noting that Heene is hapa, but not commenting further. Many APIs, and people who expressed a general interest in Japan, wrote that the story was of greater interest to them because of the mother and children’s ethnicity. Some wondered how the event was received in Japan, as his mother is a Japanese national — it does seem to have gotten some coverage over there and the incident’s only foreign language Wikipedia pages are Japanese and Czech (and both are pretty short).

On his excellent nikkeiview.com blog, Gil Asakawa makes a good point about how, with so few Asian Americans in the spotlight, we have a tendency to notice APIs on TV and sometimes wonder how their behavior will reflect on us. There is an unfair (but not necessarily inevitable) fact of life that minorities of any kind, be they Asian Americans, black Americans, or “Dungeons & Dragons” fans are perceived as representatives of their given group and many feel obligated to act as such.

Asakawa wrote that he, and others he knew, worries about how Gosselin and Heene reflect on the rest of us.

Hyphen, Racialicious and others have discussed the legitimate issue of fetishization in “Jon & Kate.”

All of this is great, but what’s less great is some of the attitudes toward hapas I’ve seen from within the community.

When you google “balloon boy asian,” one of the first sites that comes up is a Yelp posting titled “Asian women with White men = Balloon boy,” in which someone who identifies themselves as a South Asian man, says that one of the causes of the incident is the boy’s parents’ interracial relationship.

Asakawa, who is usually right on the mark, made a call on his blog to kick Gosselin out of the Asian race.

“Exorcise him as an Asian American,” he wrote. “That way, he can do whatever he wants with his damned life, and I won’t have to feel any connection with him.”

He also says a hapa friend of his feels the same way.

Personally, I’d like to strongly, but respectfully, disagree with both of them. Mixed-race people have long been treated as if their membership in any race is conditional. The idea that Gosselin could be kicked out of his race for not embracing it (though there is no indication he avoids it either) or for generally displaying bad character is a dangerous one.

There could be a more legitimate case for, say, Michelle Malkin, a “pure” Asian. One could argue that by supporting the Japanese American incarceration in this day and age, she has actively worked against the interests of “her race.” And on that grounds, you could make a case to “kick her out” of our race.

But race and ethnicity is not a clubhouse, they are an immutable part of a person’s identity. I think calling for Malkin’s expulsion from the race would be indefensibly violent and unfair, no matter what I think of her and her politics.

As a hapa myself, I certainly don’t like the idea that my whiteness could be revoked for speaking out against white privilege in the media and elsewhere, or that my Asianness could be taken away for criticizing the Asian Excellence Awards. While there are still innumerable problems with the mainstream media’s portrayal of APIs and hapas, in the cases mentioned above, they don’t seem to think the behavior of either the Heene family or Gosselin reflects on us. Maybe we shouldn’t either.

Editor’s Note: Ben Hamamoto would like to add, “Between the time the story was written and its publication, the media has picked up on Falcon Heene’s mother’s ethnicity and appear to be trying to link it to her blind devotion to her abusive husband. I will write further commentary for next week’s Nichi Bei Weekly.”

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He currently edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine.

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