Donald Glover's Asian women fetish isn't just disturbing, it could have dangerous implications

One particular scene in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" continues a pattern apparent in the actor's Childish Gambino songs

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published February 11, 2024 10:45AM (EST)

Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (David Lee/Prime Video)
Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (David Lee/Prime Video)

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is an untraditional marriage of convenience story — one that's wrapped in spy missions, snarky humor and a lot of death. But ultimately, it's still a love story.

The tumulous relationship between operatives John (Donald Glover) and Jane (Maya Erskine) is the glue that binds "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" together. In the eight-episode Prime Video series, a nameless agency matches two directionless spies to create a married assassin team that are sent on missions. In this version of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," neither Glover and Erksine pretend to emulate Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's iconic portrayals of Jane and John Smith in the original 2005 film. Instead, in Francesca Sloane and Glover's spy thriller, the two leads are people of color — one a dark-skinned Black man and the other a half-Japanese woman – creating a different dynamic.

Glover himself has been long criticized for his fetishization of Asian women.

From the outset, the show doesn't appear to focus on the characters' race unless it's a throwaway joke as Jane and John are getting to know each other as partners in life and partners in their work. However, that takes a turn in a scene where the couple is on a mission and John infiltrates a predominately Black space. Here he adopts a a crass "locker room" type of discussion with the other Black men about their preferences for Asian and Latina women. Immediately, the tone of the show shifts, and the audience is back into the real-world politics of dating.

Glover himself has been long criticized for his fetishization of Asian women which tends to make repeated appearances in his music as Childish Gambino and now his television work. This over-sexualization of Asian women is incredibly harmful to how people interact, perceive and date them, ultimately perpetuating dangerous narratives of Asian women.

During the show's sixth episode titled "Couples Therapy (Naked & Afraid)," John and Jane are at a standstill in their now romantic and enmeshed work life. Jane brings up to their couples therapist (Sarah Paulson), that she has had an issue with the way John spoke about Jane to the group of men that they were assigned to kill. "He was being racist. You were saying racist things about me," she said.

In said conversation, a group of Black men sit around a table smoking weed, drinking and seemingly playing poker. Of course, John is there to complete the mission to assassinate them, but he revels in a space where there is no need for code-switching. However, this conversation veers into uncomfortable territory as Jane is listening in nearby.

As the men are bantering, one of John's marks says, "I love Latina women but I don't love their families. I mean they just too involved." They notice John's wedding ring and ask him if he's married. "She a Latina?" 

"Asian, actually," he replies. Then they all coo like excited babies. "I went East," John ickily jokes.

"You went East? East of the border!" They all laugh. Another says, "You a lucky man, 'cause I love me some Asians. They low-key conservative. They know their role."

John corrects them, saying that Jane isn't submissive but jokes that she "could be low-key Korean." They all laugh in unison like evil hyenas. 

Back in their therapy session, John corrects himself and says he knows she isn't half-Korean dismissing her opinion that his comments were racist or misogynistic. The therapist tells him that this may be a way of bonding within that Black male circle but "bonding over racism within that community at your wife's expense is hardly the way to go about that."

After he's corrected, John argues that their issues as a couple are not about racism and sexism — it's Jane's fault because she kills the men he was chummily bonding with on the mission.

What's fascinating about the scene is that it serves as a vehicle for Glover to finally address the criticism he has faced over his fetish for years . . . but the writing fails to be either funny or smart. Ultimately, it's just a sad attempt to pull a fast one over his audience and his critics, with Asian women as the punchline again. It doesn't help that this scene was written specifically for Erskine, who is half-Japanese, after she was cast as Jane after Phoebe Waller-Bridge's vacated the role.

But John's deflection is pretty similar to Glover's own sentiments when he's confronted with his questionable lyrics that put a spotlight on his attitude toward Asian women. In one of his songs "Kids (Keep Up)," he addressed the fetish allegations and raps, "Finding you is like finding Asians I hate/They say I got a fetish, nah, I’m skipping all of it."

It's not the first time a soft boy has hidden his misogyny in his art or his persona and gotten away with it.

When asked about his fascination with Asian women, the rapper said in an interview, "It's not really a fascination. People think I have a fetish. I don't know; maybe I do." He continued that Asian women are easier to date than Black or white women because they're not as controversial, and their parents’ only requirement is that the guy is “successful.” Again, even if he means no harm by the comments, it is enforcing long-held and dangerous beliefs and stereotypes that Asian women are objects to be desired with no say in who desires them because they are submissive. 

That isn't the only instance that Glover has rapped about Asian women, in his song "Freaks and Geeks" he raps, "Love is a trip, but f**king is a sport. Are there Asian girls here? Minority report." In "You See Me," in his opening verse, he raps, "I'm on my ballin' each and every day/Asian girls everywhere, UCLA." And another song “Backpackers," Glover sees Asian women as a prize: “I got a girl on my arm dude, show respect/Something crazy, an Asian, Virginia Tech.” Lastly in "Bonfire" he boasts about stealing an Asian man's girl, “This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef.”

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The critically acclaimed actor and five-time Grammy winner's music speaks for itself. A rapper would not be name-dropping a group of women like that if he weren't openly fetishizing them. Despite the blatant fetishization in his music and in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," a figure as successful as Glover, whose new show has an all-female writers' room, and is co-created by a woman —is almost immune to this type of criticism as he can also claim to be marginalized. He is one of the very few multi-skilled leading Black men in the industry who socially and politically leans left. However, it's not the first time a soft boy has hidden his misogyny in his art or his persona and gotten away with it. Figures like rapper Drake and comedian Jonah Hill come to mind.

But more importantly, this criticism isn't just bound to how Glover views Asian women — it is based on how the world perceives them too. How one fetishizes people can turn into something as ugly as crimes committed against them, specifically marginalized women like Asian women. In the last few years, there has been an uptick in violence against Asian women. A large majority of hate crimes recorded by Stop AAPI hate targeted Asian women. And three years ago, in Atlanta, six women of Asian descent were killed in a spa because a white man had a “sexual addiction” and had to eliminate his "temptation," The New York Times reported.

While Glover is not responsible for these brutal acts of violence against Asian women, he has created a space where through his art he can indulge in a dangerous, stereotypical fantasy that he has of real-life, living and breathing Asian women. And the more normalized his views are through media like "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" even if it is supposedly delivered through ironic jokes — it can be reflected brutally in our lives without us even understanding the larger implications or consequences for Asian women.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Asian Women Commentary Dating Donald Glover Fetish Maya Erskine Misogyny Mr. & Mrs. Smith Race Tv