Gremlins—released 35 years ago this summer—is about a cute, furry Christmas present that spawns a horde of ugly monsters. The horror comedy, directed by Joe Dante, may appear to be just an offbeat family film. But closely watching the little reptilian monsters wreak havoc on the picture-postcard town of Kingston Falls—and its overwhelmingly white population—reveals that the movie is also, arguably, about racism and fears of takeover by racial “others.”
For example: thanks to a character’s monologue in the 2014 film Dear White People, most people now know that Gremlins can be viewed as actually being about suburban white fear of black culture.1 An attempt to describe the antics of the monsters who overrun the town reads like a litany of negative stereotypes about African Americans. The gremlins devour fried chicken, are loud and unruly in public, threaten the safety of white women, and (in a nod to specifically 1980s stereotypes) use a “ghetto blaster” boom box and breakdance.
Yet, before they morph into grotesque black caricatures, the gremlins are Asian, or, to be more precise, Asian American. The first gremlin—a model “other” that inadvertently spawns its monstrous, wicked peers—is a small, furry creature (a member of a mythical species initially called, in the film, mogwai, but later uniformly labeled “gremlins”) that was procured in a stereotypical Chinatown shop. Given to a young man named Billy Peltzer as a Christmas present by Billy’s father, Rand, this model gremlin does not object to being given a more “American” name. In fact, when Billy asks Rand if the creature has a name, Rand responds: “Mogwai. I don’t know. Some Chinese word. I just call him Gizmo. He seems to like it.”
Gizmo embodies a number of characteristics that echo supposedly positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as the model minority. Gizmo is cute, well-behaved, plays the piano (in the form of a Casio keyboard), and strives to assimilate to the cultural norms of small-town white America (starting, of course, with his name).2 At the same time, he is a pet that comes with three strict rules: don’t expose him to bright light; don’t get him wet; and don’t ever feed him after midnight. Once these rules are broken, Gizmo generates (against his will) the wicked gremlins: a horde of others that will now terrorize the town that welcomed their model peer. Gizmo’s appealing Asian American cuteness is fraught with danger.
The film is hardly subtle about its ambivalence. Billy’s neighbor Murray Futterman voices this unease with Asian goods when he laments owning a Japanese television (“Goddamn foreign TV. I told ya we should’ve got a Zenith”). Thereafter, Gizmo’s offspring turn the technology of domestic and civic life in the town—Billy’s alarm clock, traffic lights, the Peltzers’ turntable, the TV sets in a Montgomery Ward store, Futterman’s TV antennae—into their means of mischief and terror. Ultimately, the film’s gremlins prove Futterman to be right in his technology-focused xenophobia (“Gremlins,” he says. “You got to watch out for them foreigners, because they plant gremlins in their machinery”). But these gremlins are even more dangerous than the “gremlins that brought down our planes in the big one … World War II.”
What would it mean to think about Gremlins as a film that has much to say about popular conceptions of Asian Americans—a film whose monsters reveal white America’s ambivalence about Asian Americans as the supposedly model minority?
Gremlins and the history of how Asian Americans became the model minority are stories about liberal ideas of how to integrate strange, exotic “others” into American life. During the period spanning World War II and the Cold War, Asian Americans were transformed—in the rhetoric of the government, other powers that be, and some Asian Americans themselves—from a so-called “Yellow Peril” (that should be barred from legal immigration to and naturalization in the United States) to something else: the good, model minority. Asian Americans were recast into what historian Ellen D. Wu calls “assimilating Others”: “persons acknowledged as capable of acting like white Americans while remaining racially distinct from them.”3 The idea of Asian Americans as the model minority positively conflates the domestic and the foreign: they are like us but definitely not us.
This change in how Asian Americans were perceived fulfilled specific political objectives. From the 1940s through the 1950s, the United States worked to change how the country itself was perceived on the global stage. Specifically, the United States wanted to ensure that the rest of the world knew that the nation not only stood for freedom and democracy, but also for its aspirations to achieve equality for people of all racial backgrounds. US battles against fascism and then communism meant that, like Jim Crow, Asian exclusion was no longer tenable. American global ambitions were furthered by the tying of this new national identity to the fortunes of Asian Americans—the minority that “thrived” in this newly rebranded nation, the minority on whom other minorities were told to model their behavior.
This concept—Asian Americans as the model minority—has remained a fixture of the nation’s racial landscape: ever present and yet continually evolving to address an array of new imperatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.4 During the 1980s, for example, social commentators praised Asian Americans as embodying the promise of capitalist democracy and technologically skilled immigrants.
Yet, in that same era, many also came to see Asian Americans as too successful: the minority poised to infiltrate, if not supplant, the ranks of the nation’s elite by gaining overrepresentation at top universities. Mixed feelings about Asian Americans coincided with unease about the rise of Asian countries (particularly Japan) as technological and economic superpowers. (Remember the neighbor Futterman’s concerns about “foreigners” who sneak “gremlins,” i.e, imaginary creatures who cause mechanical failures, into their products, which are purchased by American consumers.)
Film and media during the 1980s attempted to contain these anxieties about a hostile Asian technological takeover by relegating Asians and Asian Americans to a specific kind of model stereotype: youthful book-smart curiosities. Most famously, Time magazine devoted its August 31, 1987, cover story to “Those Asian American Whiz Kids.”
In films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985), Asian and Asian American youth appear as whiz kids who use their technological skills to work with white people. With character names like Data and Short Round (both played by Vietnamese American actor Jonathan Ke Quan), both films solidified the image of Asian American youth as cute, small, tech-savvy, and helpful. Set in the 1930s, Temple of Doom also expresses nostalgia for an era it imagines as helmed by the heroic white masculinity of Harrison Ford’s academic adventurer—a heroism made possible by the capable assistance, driving skills, and comic relief of Ford’s Asian sidekick.5
Gizmo, whose name is, of course, synonymous with “gadget,” similarly reflects this ideal of the model minority as grateful sidekick. Over the course of Gremlins, Gizmo demonstrates his desire and propensity to assimilate culturally. He entertains the Peltzer family with his “traditional” mogwai singing and, of course, remains happy to receive a “Western” name (which, like that of Data and Short Round, is actually a proper noun for a technological object rather than a name for a “real” person).
In addition to learning to play the keyboard, Gizmo comes to enjoy watching classic 1950s Hollywood films, like Clark Gable’s To Please a Lady (1950), and impresses members of the Kingston Falls sheriff’s office by dancing and waving an American flag for them (“Patriotic little fellow, ain’t he? Waving a flag and everything,” Sheriff Frank Kelly notes). When the monstrous horde of gremlins attacks Kingston Falls, Gizmo remains steadfastly loyal to the Peltzers and humanity. Gizmo assists Billy in his efforts to save the day. Unlike the other foreign creatures attacking the town, Gizmo remains a faithful, clever member of the community.
“Gremlins” and the history of how Asian Americans became the model minority are stories about liberal ideas of how to integrate strange, exotic “others” into American life.
Despite the seemingly innocuous conceit of the film, Gremlins—by representing the model minority member, Gizmo, as not human—reveals how the model-minority stereotype is powered by a dehumanizing logic. Gizmo is not just a sidekick—as his equivalent is in Temple of Doom—but also something like a toy, as well as a domesticated pet, that Billy carries around in a backpack. The nonhuman form that the mogwai take in Gremlins also exaggerates the cuteness embodied by Asian and Asian American whiz kids in the media and film of the 1980s. The mogwai are small, furry, wide-eyed, and infantile. Billy’s initial guess about the contents of the wrapped present (“It’s a puppy, isn’t it?”) even spells out the mogwai’s likeness to one of the quintessential examples of nonhuman cuteness.
However, Gremlins reverses the typical implications of the combination of cuteness, technology, and Asian-ness as seen in 1980s films. In Temple of Doom, Short Round capably drives a car early in the movie; near the end, he drives a mine cart so that Indiana Jones can save the girl, the children, and the day. Here, Asian cuteness helps the white hero escape from danger. In Gremlins, cuteness puts white people in danger, an idea suggested by the sequencing of words in the movie poster’s tagline: “Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous.” The single mogwai from Chinatown (who prompted Billy to exclaim “Aw, isn’t it cute?” on first glance) reproduces and then over-reproduces. The end result? A horde of gremlins that evokes Yellow Peril invasion imagery, which rendered Asians as swarms of animals.
Sianne Ngai has described cuteness as an aesthetic of uncanny reversal: the person who believes they have power over the diminutive, cute object becomes overpowered by that object (usually in the form of the person cooing or oohing and aahing and otherwise sounding infantile and, well, cute).6 Gremlins goes beyond reversal: it tells viewers that Asian cuteness is itself a threat to white America.
Gizmo ultimately saves the day in a totally cute way. Taking inspiration from Clark Gable’s To Please a Lady race-driving character, Gizmo races to the rescue through the aisles of Montgomery Ward in a pink toy Barbie car. The evil gremlin leader, Stripe, has jumped into a fountain in order to spawn; thanks to the car, Gizmo arrives just in the nick of time to open a skylight and kill Stripe by exposing him to bright sunlight.
Gizmo the model minority saves Kingston Falls from his wicked gremlin offspring. But when Mr. Wing, the Chinatown shopkeeper, hears news of the rampage, he shows up at the Peltzers’ home and takes Gizmo back to Chinatown. Even model minorities, Gremlins concludes, pose too much of a danger to “everyday” America.
Dear White People takes only half seriously the treatise of its character Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) on Gremlins as a racial allegory. The 2014 film puts forward a persuasive reading of race in Gremlins while at the same time finding humor in the tendency to read silly pop culture for its serious (and under-seen) implications.
But looking back at Gremlins—and viewing it as a film about white fear and fascination with Asian Americans—I cannot help but think that we should take seriously what the film reveals. White liberal ideas that equate integration and inclusion with people of color being cute, exotic pets and sidekicks are the real absurdity and scourge.
- Dear White People’s reading of Gremlins is a reference to Patricia Turner’s Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (Anchor, 1994). Turner is frequently cited in accounts of the latter film’s racism. ↩
- A few other viewers have noted the Asian origins of the gremlins, as well as Gizmo’s figuration as a model minority. See, for example, Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Temple University Press, 1993), p. 60, and Alex Sayf Cummings, “Gizmo: The Model Minority,” Tropics of Meta, December 20, 2011. ↩
- Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 4. ↩
- Ibid., p. 242. ↩
- The Short Round character in Temple of Doom is doubly nostalgic. His namesake is the Korean orphan character from Samuel Fuller’s 1951 war film The Steel Helmet. ↩
- Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005). ↩