By Mark Lee
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
By now, it has become fairly common knowledge that a class action lawsuit has been filed against Miley Cyrus for the picture of her and her friends that appeared on the TMZ celebrity Web site.
The picture involved shows Cyrus pulling the corners of her eyes in a slant-eyed, mocking imitation of Asian features. There is one Asian individual in the forefront of the picture who is not participating but rather appears to be employed as some kind of prop for Cyrus and her friends.
A perusal of various Web sites and blogs shows that the predictable backlash responses fall into the typical categories: (1) Asians have no right to complain because it’s not a big deal; (2) lawyers are just being greedy; (3) Cyrus is a “victim.”
The purpose of this article is to examine the other side of the backlash from the legal and social context.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the argument that Cyrus was acting as a business entity and committed an act of discrimination. The lawsuit refers to the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by business establishments.
The complaint, signed by attorney Henry Lee, lists a series of factors to support the argument that Cyrus is not “just a
kid” being silly. Rather, she has become a celebrity through a series of calculated marketing efforts. Those efforts have included numerous public appearances, Internet sites, production of dolls and other merchandise, and various other activities intended and designed to create repetitive and widespread publicity for Cyrus.
The complaint argues that Cyrus’ image is in fact a commercial enterprise that is a business establishment within the meaning of the California law. As a business establishment, Cyrus could not legally engage in racially discriminatory activity.
According to the complaint, because of her experience with the media, Cyrus either knew or should have known that the photograph would be displayed by the media, including on the celebrity Web site TMZ.
The lawsuit seeks approximately $4 billion, based on the sum of $4,000 multiplied by an estimated population of one million Asian Pacific Islanders living in the state of California.
From a social perspective, the question is, Why would Cyrus have thought that she could get away with this? Using the “just a kid” and “she didn’t know any better” argument is nonsensical. Cyrus probably would not even have considered engaging in comparable conduct with regard to African Americans.
For example, having her and her friends put on blackface and pose for a camera would have been out of the question. Other celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell and Sarah Silverman have engaged in similar racist acts with regard to Asians. The answer to the question probably has something to with the assumption that Asians will not retaliate or fight back against discrimination. As such, Asians are therefore perceived as convenient scapegoats.
This case also occurs in the context of Asians being underrepresented in the world of Hollywood. Celebrity culture and the media, to a large extent, have replaced the role of religion in both reflecting and promoting our society’s values. It is ironic that in spite of California’s diverse society, Hollywood and its celebrities continue to promote ignorance and discrimination.
At present, there is a motion hearing requested by the defense attorneys for the month of April asking that the Court rule the case as invalid. There is no question that this is a challenging lawsuit. Part of the role of lawyers in society is to bring about social change and be an advocate for the oppressed. In this case, the lawyer bringing the suit has shown courage and innovative legal reasoning by applying civil rights laws to a racist act by a celebrity.
As our society progresses into the 21st century, we continue to encounter acts of ignorance and racism. Regardless of the result, this lawsuit sends a message that such acts will not be simply ignored or tolerated. (end)
Mark Lee is an attorney in Seattle.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.