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"beef" , david choe, and the asian men we all know
unpacking the controversy of casting a self-admitted rapist
It’s no secret that—like most of the Asian diaspora—I love Beef. The sensational Netflix and A24 limited series starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong feels like the creator, Lee Sung Jin, reached deep in the Asian SoCal culture with a mirror. Reflection upon reflection, it was cathartic to just have a piece of media that just gets it. Prior to the resurfaced news that David Choe, the graffiti artist who plays Isaac Cho on the show, was a self-admitted rapist, I had been drafting an essay about Beef.
It was going to counter all the “I’m so glad they made an Asian film not about race!” statements with well, actually, Beef is about race. It is very much a show about race. It’s just not a show about racial identity in proximity with whiteness, which is why I think it is so refreshing. But in light of the Choe controversy, I’m putting that on the backburner.
In 2014, Choe had a podcast with Asa Akira about the time he sexually assaulted a masseuse. He forced the woman, who he named “Rose”, into giving him oral sex against her will. He later on revealed that Rose had been Black and joked about the entire counter with three men.
(It would be journalistically irresponsible of me not to say that Choe has since then addressed the incident, saying that it wasn’t real and it was just “bad storytelling.” But what’s even more irresponsible is being a pervert and boasting about it in the first place, loser.)
There is something very jarring and yet unstartling about Choe and the place he—and men like him—hold in the collective. The magic of Beef is how it captures all the nuances of varying Asian subcultures under the microscope, even down to the way Paul appropriates AAVE and how, yes, you will be judged for marrying a Japanese person. Isaac, Choe’s character, is no exception to this.
The brutally violent, crass, and entitled cousin of Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) is in many ways not just an outlier for the very rampant misogyny in the Asian community, but the embodiment of it. Despite what Simu Liu wants you to believe, Asian men are not all “uwu boba tea.” In the motherland and—here, in America—Asian men exist at the intersection of old school patriarchy and institutional oppression by whiteness.
Yes, Asian men are prosecuted to harsh extents by white supremacy (particularly working class Asian men), but it is the Asian women around them who suffer for it. When men like Isaac Cho are rendered powerless—in his case, by being incarcerated—they reclaim their power through gendered violence.
We see this again and again in real life cases of domestic, sexual, and intimate partner violence: most Asian women experience them at the hands of someone they know.
It’s not unique to the Asian community for an abuser to be protected, but it is a matter of fact we can overlook no longer. Men who hurt women, like Isaac, like Choe, are untouchable because there is a tiered group of people (from extended family members, co-workers, pastors, etc) who will rally and cover for them. It’s an unspoken rule in most ethnic enclaves in the States: you do not go against your own. Knowing this, under the framework of how institutionalized racism works in America, it is impossible for any victim to get justice even without being branded a traitor to their own kind.
Inside Hollywood, this mentality becomes even more insidious.
The last year has been good for Asian Americans in entertainment. Between Everything Everywhere All At Once and upcoming titles like Joyride, many (including myself) are seeing a change in the tide. Not only are Asians getting more representation on screen, we’re also getting more producing power as well. It’s been so painfully long to get recognition—and tangible power behind the scenes—that there’s a real sense of, okay, we’re all in this together now, a win for me is a win for you.
I’ve never loved that rhetoric for organizing (largely because it hinges on hyper-individualism as a means for liberation, which, no), but I especially hate it in this context. When you’re part of a collective that is rightfully overdue for its time in the sun, it means you’re also willing to overlook the bad.
The bad in this case being David Choe’s self-admitted offenses.
I’ll say it: when you have a piece of media as superior and great (as in potentially one of the greatest scripted series in television great) like Beef, you don’t want to jinx it. Repercussions for marginalized communities have far more weight than they do for white people. When a white person—literally name any white person—gets ousted for predatory behavior, they either give a half-assed notes app or they become a far-right pundit. Either way, they still get the same opportunities and paychecks as before (Joanne and Warner Brothers, I’m talking about you).
When a person of color does the same thing, or even less, everyone even tangientallly like them gets punished for it. Through this lens, I understand this reluctance to turn against one of your own, but I also cannot justify it or excuse it when it means that people will still suffer for it.
I don’t know any of the individuals involved with Beef, so I can’t speak to the nature of their relationship with Cheo. Based on statements to the media, creator Lee Sung Jin personally reached out to Wong and Yeun to get Choe’s involvement in the media. The invitation was extended first, which is why it is so hard to swallow Choe’s role when it feels so deliberately irresponsible and cruel.
Art mirrors real life. This has always been the case with Beef. But the production’s willingness to overlook and ignore Choe’s abuses to protect a hierarchy is as real and messy as the story the show is trying to tell. Worse, even. It’s ugly. It’s a disservice and betrayal to the audience, the community, and the very thesis of Beef which is that generational curses can and should be broken.
But with this, with Choe, and Netflix and Lee’s silence, it’s clear that it’s just a continuation of the same old system that hurts all of us.
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