The problem of representation
By Tia Lewis
A few weeks after Fresh off the Boat’s February premiere, amid endless praise on Tumblr and a slew of B+ ratings from the formal review circuit, I asked my Chinese mother what she thought of the show.
She paused. “I don’t know… It’s okay.”
Disappointed by her brevity, I pried for more of an answer. “What about the mom character? I heard she was really funny.”
At that, her doubt faded quickly. “Nah, I don’t like her—she’s too stereotypical.”
Her critique of Constance Wu’s character (Jessica Huang)surprised me. After watching Tumblr praise the representation and humor of the new ABC comedy without a stitch of critique (although with the one-sided social justice community on Tumblr, it’s hardly a surprise when it’s unreliable), I hadn’t expected my culturally passive mom to have such a staunch opinion on something focused so heavily on Asian-American culture.
If anything, her critique made me even more curious about the show. Who had I been hearing all of the praise from? White “social justice warriors” who loved the sound of their own righteousness more than the actual issues? Or an Asian community so desperately hoping for any form of representation that they’d take anything that didn’t slander them? The Internet had set my expectations for the show unbelievably high, and my mom had just dashed them all in one sweep.
When I watched the show for myself, I finally got some clarity.
Fresh Off the Boat is far from perfect in more ways than one. When it comes to American television, any shred of Asian representation is astounding and progressive, but that doesn’t mean the show is actually all that praiseworthy in its content. It didn’t take me long to realize where my mom’s ambivalence came from: Fresh Off the Boat is not really aimed toward the first generation Chinese immigrant, like my mother—it’s for their American-born kids.
Based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir also called Fresh Off the Boat, the series strives to represent one of the most underrepresented communities on TV—the Asian-American family. Coming from the point of view of Eddie, who is only 11 years old on the show, it offers a look at how a Taiwanese kid of that age, born in the U.S., may see his parents and siblings. In that way, the exaggeration of a crazy mom who hits teenagers with her car and is unsatisfied with her sons getting straight A’s is not all that unbelievable. It’s from a little kid’s memory—it’s supposed to be exaggerated and silly from time to time. While my own mother may frown at how her television counterpart is portrayed, I see a lot of Jessica Huang in how she behaved toward me when I was a child.
That said, I think the fault in Fresh Off the Boat lies in a different kind of misrepresentation. Where my mom saw Jessica Huang as too extreme, I don’t see her as quite “extreme” enough. To put it simply: This Asian family is way too white. If a real Asian-American family were represented on television, white audiences would probably drop dead with shock.
To any child with truly Asian immigrant parents, especially Chinese or Taiwanese, it is clear that the Huang family is unusually Westernized in their behavior. The dad is as soft and gentle as a typical white dad, emotionally open and intimate with his kids in a way that makes it seem impossible that he could have been born anywhere but the United States. Plus, the parents don’t speak Mandarin to each other or to their kids, which is by far the most unrealistic thing about the entire show. I don’t know any child of immigrants who does not have heated phone conversations with their parents in their family’s native tongue.
However, most interesting, to me at least, is the fact that the Huang children (Eddie especially) are filled with an unreasonable amount of daring. They have the nerve to speak out against their parents in a defiant tone and not expect a hard smack on the head or a ten minute lecture screamed in Chinese. The whole idea of “respect your elders (or fear their wrath)” seems entirely removed from the show, even though I think it’s one of the biggest parts of Asian family culture.
On the YouTube channel “Off the Great Wall,” personalities Dan and Michael discussed the scene where the Huang parents defended their son at the principal’s office. Off the bat, Michael declared it unrealistic: “Like in a typical Asian family, you’d get the snot beat out of you if you get in trouble at school. It doesn’t matter [why] you did what you did… No! None of that matters, you go home, you get the snot beat out of you.”
Even the real Eddie Huang himself expressed frustration over this element of Asian-American family life being left out of the show’s narrative. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he said, “As a kid, when you are beat at home, it affects you, and that is a really big part of my experience… It’s not about throwing parents in jail and legislating, it’s about understanding the relationship between parent and child in the 21st century. This is a big idea, and I feel like if we are going to talk about Asian families, it’s something we should discuss and think about how we can address.”
It is understandable, of course, that Disney-owned ABC must bend toward a more innocent and squeaky clean image, but it’s a shame that a show meant to focus on a Taiwanese-American family must forgo a notable chunk of the culture it’s meant to be representing in order to not scare white audiences. In this way, by excluding the “less-desirable” aspects of Asian family life, Fresh Off the Boat is almost bleaching clean what could have become the start of a very real discussion. The whole point of representation is for kids to be able to look up at the screen and see themselves—not a whitewashed version of what their lives and issues are really like.
Of course, including this kind of clearcut discussion of family politics could easily lead Fresh Off the Boat into several tedious directions. If it isn’t done right, the show could come off as supporting corporal punishment (and the slippery slope toward child abuse), which I’m sure ABC does not want to do. Or it could end up pushing an equally harmful stereotype of Asian parents as cruel and abusive. While an episode arc on corporal punishment could be an incredibly progressive, huge step forward for the Asian viewer who sees the habitually raised hand at home, it does push the boundaries of what I think television is currently ready to do. Still, by completely avoiding the controversial, Fresh Off the Boat comes off as flattened, and only representational on the most basic level.
Nevertheless, this “basic level” is still undeniably a step up. The last time an Asian-American household was the main focus of a network series was 20 years ago with All-American Girl featuring Margaret Cho. Asians are classically erased from most forms of media, almost never appearing as main characters in shows, films, or theatre unless they are there only to put their Asian-ness on display. That’s why Selfie was such a huge deal before it was canceled—Asian actor John Cho got the lead in a show that had nothing to do with him being Asian. He was just another lead male, no different from a white man in the same role. Now, in the age of tackling race issues and cultural differences upfront with shows like Black-ish, an Asian family storyline was exactly what was needed for American media to check off that last box of minority representation. It’s hardly a strong step, but it’s still one in the right direction.
Fresh Off the Boat is not a bad comedy—it gets laughs here and there and tries to represent Asian Americans truthfully without being offensive. It is too careful in that regard, to the point of paling out what could be the most distinctive and interesting parts of the show, but its noble effort to merely exist offers promise that more Asian protagonists may get their heyday on TV and in film. And it is a heyday that Asian actors have been missing out on for far too long. The truth of Fresh Off the Boat is that it is not dangerously stereotypical, but it is not poignant or culturally aware either. It falls short of controversy and falls short of making a good point, and it settles right into the area where Asian audiences will praise it because even airing it is such a huge step. It’s sad to admit it, but at this point, we’ll take anything.