Warning: The following story includes a description of sexual violence.
If he talks like an incel, acts like an incel, is he an incel?
David Choe, the American graffiti artist and actor of the much-acclaimed role as cousin Isaac in the new Netflix show “Beef,” is a bit of a — in his own words — douche. He also says he’s a liar. But if it turns out that he didn’t lie in a 2014 podcast when he graphically described raping a Black woman, then he’s also something much worse.
While his comments were first reported by online magazine XOJane in 2014 and have been challenged since then, they were on the backburner until journalist Aura Bogado reminded the world about them on this month in response to a laudatory tweet from Netflix about Choe and the show.
The original video footage of his podcast has been scrubbed online, and David Choe has been accused of using his clout to get digital platforms to pull it down, citing copyright violation. He did not responded to the Star or to other media requests for comment, though he previously denied the rape actually took place.
In a video clip that Bogado uploaded to TikTok and then shared on Twitter, Choe tells co-host Asa Akira about going to a massage parlour, asking a masseuse he calls “Rose” to touch his penis, to hold it, to spit on it, and pushing the woman’s head down, forcing her to provide oral sex.
“She’s definitely not into it, but she’s not stopping it either,” he says. When his co-host Asa Akira lightly puts to him that he raped the woman, the clip arbitrarily cuts off.
The XOJane report has him denying the rape accusation on the same podcast and saying, “She said yes with her eyes.”
Could that sentence sound more chilling?
In another clip of the same conversation, Choe calls himself a “successful rapist. … The thrill of possibly going to jail, that’s what achieved the erection quest,” he says.
When he faced backlash for this episode in 2014, he dismissively said the story was fictional, that it was “art that sometimes offends people. … If I am guilty of anything, it’s bad storytelling in the style of douche.” He ended his online post with the words: “In a world full of horrible people, thank god for us.”
Three years later, Choe was commissioned by Goldman Sachs to paint a large mural in Manhattan, Vice News reported. An anti-rape protest was held there, and his mural was defaced. This time, he ponied up a more sympathetic response. He said he had struggled with an “unnatural amount” of self-hatred. He apologized and said: “I was a sick person at the height of my mental illness. … I relayed a story simply for shock value.”
There is no evidence that the rape he described took place. His creepy fetishization of the woman — itself part of a long history of racism against Black women — could well have been one sick rape fantasy.
Misogyny like that doesn’t come from a vacuum.
It may well be a byproduct of the internalized self-hatred the Korean-American Choe mentions, which could be a consequence of anti-Asian racism. This form of racism particularly emasculates East Asian men, falsely typecasting them as “effeminate.”
That deficient gaze cast by toxic masculinity has hurt East Asian communities in horrible ways. Journalist Phoenix Tso pointed out in 2014 that “every second” of Choe’s podcast is “about proving that he’s not quiet or unattractive.”
In 2014, Elliot Rodger, now considered a patron saint of incels, who was partly white and partly Asian, went on a killing spree murdering six people and injuring 14 in Santa Barbara. His supposed “manifesto” is littered with self-loathing. “Full Asian men are disgustingly ugly and white girls would never go for you,” he wrote.
It also led to the rise of what are colloquially called MRAsians — Men’s Rights Asians — or an extreme anti-feminist Asian American men’s rights subculture. Like all incels, or involuntary celibates who come from all cultures, these men blame women for their poor self-worth.
Facing racism does not absolve one of hateful rhetoric or actions but explains the context for them.
It is in fact Asian-American women in the massage business who bear the brunt of the kind of sexual violence that Choe makes light of. The Atlanta shootings of 2021 was an extreme manifestation of it, involving a man who killed eight people in three massage parlours. Six of the victims were Asian-American.
At the root of all incel ideology is the idea that women owe men sex, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre. “That women exist purely for their reproductive and sexual capabilities; that men should dominate women.”
Perhaps Choe was getting out of that incel mentality. In his 2017 mea culpa, he said he had spent the previous three years in mental health facilities “healing myself and dedicating my life to helping and healing others through love and action.”
What action was that? How did he make amends or express his remorse? The #MeToo movement took off soon after his three years of healing, giving him ample opportunity to publicly self-correct for his public transgressions. How was he accountable? Did he donate money to support victims of sexual abuse?
Choe made his first million gambling in Las Vegas. He told the New York Times he struggled with “out of control gambling,” sex addiction and rage. He was jailed once for punching a security guard at an art show. “I’m a recovering liar,” he said.
In 2005, he was invited to draw murals in Facebook’s first offices in Palo Alto in 2005. Then Facebook president Sean Parker offered him a choice of being paid thousands of dollars or stock worth the same. He chose the latter. In 2012, when Facebook when public, he cashed in $200 million U.S.Perhaps he made amends privately. Perhaps Netflix producers including Steven Yeun and Ali Wong who are both co-stars and friends had an accountability discussion with him?
We don’t know.
Both Netflix and the producers are mum. As Hannah Bae wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle review: “‘Beef’ is a series replete with Asian-American talent, on camera and off, and surely there are dozens of other suitable edgy actors who don’t think rape is an entertaining, joking matter.”
The success of Beef as a dark comedy should have been a celebratory moment for representation. It follows shows and films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Kim’s Convenience, Marvel superhero Shang-Chi and the recent Oscar sweep by Everything Everywhere All at Once that have indicated diasporic Asians were proceeding in defiance of more than a century of stereotyping.
Choe’s actions, his subsequent attempts to silence critics, and the silence of his enablers have turned a moment of much-deserved joy into horror, humiliation and hurt. That is heartbreaking.