Problem #6: The Subplot Relies on Stereotyping as a Crutch
There is one last reason why the Mike Yanagita subplot failed to register with people, and what it is might surprise you.
Again, like I said before, I’m going to post a rant about Fargo soon, and one of the things that I will complain about is how the movie relies on one-dimensional cartoon stereotypes to make the characters and the story work. The problem with this tactic in terms of storytelling is that besides being offensive, not everyone is a narrow-minded bigot who stereotypes people. So, if you use stereotyping as a crutch, some people are not going to understand where you’re coming from in the least when it’s in service of a plot point.
In the case of the Mike Yanagita subplot, so much of it relies on three specific stereotypes–the fact that Marge is a Lena stereotype, the fact that she is pregnant and the fact that Mike is Asian.
On the first point, I complained about why this is such a turnoff in Fargo (1996) is Overrated. Sorry. So much of the humor is about pandering to the audience’s smug sense of superiority about what Midwestern rubes must be like, particularly the ones that are based on Ole and Lena. If you didn’t see Marge as a “Lena,” then you saw her as an otherwise intelligent investigator who wouldn’t have been surprised by Mike’s lying. But if you bought into this stereotype of her being a Lena, then you thought she was indeed super naive in her trust of Mike to the point of being childlike.
On the second point, I have actually seen people argue that it was obvious that Marge’s pregnancy was why she didn’t see through Mike. As someone put it, “Normally, Marge would’ve caught onto him, but she was pregnant and everything, and pregnancy made her especially trusting towards people.”
Fair enough. However, the problem with this argument is that it completely contradicts her personality in the rest of the movie. Again, let me reiterate the great lengths that the movie went through to establish Marge’s personality before we’re introduced to Mike Yanagita. She immediately figured out what had happened at the crime scene in less than a few minutes, right down to the fact that there were two murderers. She instantly realized what “DLR” from the license plates meant. She cut through Shep Proudfoot’s bullshit like a knife through butter when he insisted that he had no idea who had called him at 3AM.
We are to believe that this woman was oh, so naive and trustful of people that she instantly believed Jerry and Mike? Because she was pregnant? Okay, fine. But then why didn’t being pregnant get in the way of immediately seeing through Shep Proudfoot? This makes no sense.
The point is that people’s insistence on defending the Mike Yanagita subplot based on the idea that Marge was pregnant–while conveniently overlooking how smart she was in everything she said and did up to that point–shows how much pregnancy stereotyping was relied on as a crutch. This, in turn, explains why so many people didn’t get its function as the turning point in which Marge suddenly has her epiphany about Jerry. If you believed the stereotype that pregnant women are all soft and gushy inside, you got the plot point. If you saw Marge as the crack detective and highly observant person that she was set up to be from the beginning of the film, you saw her pregnancy as merely incidental to the story and didn’t understand what the point of her meeting with Mike Yanagita was.
Now onto Mike Yanagita. In reading reviews at the IMDB, a consistent complaint I came across was, “What a racist character.” In my opinion, it’s not so much that the character is racist, but that the movie resorted to cheapest, corniest and laziest form of stereotyping to pull off this twist that he was a con artist. The stereotype is that Asians are such model minorities that they would never, ever lie, especially the Japanese, who, even back in the 1990s when Fargo was made, were considered the ultimate model minority.
If you never believed in that stereotype, then you–like I did–saw Yanagita exactly as he was portrayed and written in the film: a socially awkward, nerdy character who was thrown into the movie as a bit of comic relief. However, if you believe in the model minority stereotype, you dismissed all of those very obvious character quirks as inconsequential and took it for granted that he must have been sincere because, after all, someone of Japanese background would never lie. This, in turn, enabled you to identify with Marge when she shows this look of shock after learning that Mike had lied to her.
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