What the Web is Saying About SNL's Chinese 'Peasant Laborers'

Last weekend's episode of Saturday Night Live featured a skit (embedded above) that used the ongoing criticism of the treatment of workers at Foxconn, a Chinese supplier that manufactures Apple products, to mock the "first-world problems" nature of the recent complaints about the iPhone 5.

In the skit, a panel of tech experts with petty iPhone gripes (portrayed by Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson) are confronted by three Chinese "peasant laborers" (Fred Armisen, Nasim Pedrad and Cecily Strong) wearing white Foxconn-esque uniforms who goad the geeks using stereotypical "Asian" accents. (On Apple's much-maligned Maps app: "You want Starbuck, it take you to Dunkin Donut — that must be so hard for you.")

The point of the sketch was clearly to poke fun at tech nerd culture rather than accurately portray the plight of Chinese factory workers, but the over-the-top racial and socioeconomic stereotypes have come in for criticism. Megan Garber at The Atlantic refers to the actors' terrible accents as "intensely cringe-inducing," and takes issue with their use of an erhu as a "sad Chinese violin from New York subway" to shame the critics. China Labor Watch spokesperson Kevin Slaten noted in The Washington Post that the descriptions of factory conditions are exaggerated for comic effect, stating that "workers don't sleep 100 to a room," "don't have to 'wait in line 21 days' for baby formula," and "aren't going to store their severed hands in bags until they can get the money together for surgery." Asia Society Arthur Ross Fellow Ouyang Bin pointed out that the phone errors discussed, such as Maps and bugs, had nothing to do with Foxconn but were instead "made by Apple's designers and programmers."

While no one really expects SNL parodies to be heavy on accuracy, another issue for critics is the use of workers' mistreatment for a joke meant only to poke light fun at the attitudes of the privileged. Blogger Matt Buchanan states that the skit "might as well have a giant '#firstworldproblems' hashtag ticker running across the bottom," referring to the ubiquitous self-deprecating joke that has been called "condescending" by writer Teju Cole for its assumption that people in the "third world" are not as "fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure" as those more privileged.  According to Buchanan, the portrayal of the factory workers "makes Foxconn factory workers simply factory workers, not complete human beings." Along these lines, China Labor Watch founder Li Qiang noted that in reality, many workers in China are "eager" to buy their own iPhone, sometimes saving up for months.

However, the dark irony of the skit has received positive comments as well. Li refers to it as "a work of art." The writers did script in names for the Chinese characters rather than give a generic group introduction, and the statement about the "Chinese violin" from the "New York subway" shows an attempt to mock Americans' ignorance of the larger world. In addition, the critics note that the basic irony of the skit does work in producing, as Garber puts it, an "uncomfortable collision of two groups — producers, consumers — whose interaction is normally mediated only by an iPhone's silent screen." Buchanan notes that the storyline is interesting because it makes the workers "the ones with the power" because "they're the ones doing all the mocking."

Tell us what you think. Was the portrayal of the Chinese factory workers in "Tech Talk" acceptable satire — or just a big #fail?

About the Author

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Liz Flora is a contributor to Asia Blog. She has a master's degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.