“Asian-ness” in Media

When Fresh Off the Boat was first announced last year, I was ecstatic for its release. However, when I was speaking about it among other people, some people’s reactions were extremely negative. “Isn’t FoB an offensive term?” I was asked by one of my friends. Apparently, she was offended that I had used the term FoB in front of her and that it was racist towards my culture. Fresh off the Boat has caused a giant stir in the Asian American community, some for it, some against it. However, I believe that there are certain aspects that we should consider when thinking about Asians in Media and how Fresh off the Boat combats these issue. Because overall, there has not been enough public awareness over Asians in media.

The video above is a talk that Natalie Tran (a.k.a. CommunityChannel) posted a week ago on Asians in Media. The first point she makes is how TV shows and films use Asian-ness as comedy relief. The issues in using “Asian-ness” as a source of comedy is that it causes typecasting and generalizations. When used repeatedly, it makes a statement saying that this is how the public should view Asians (in other words, our problems are all related to being Asian and that they’re funny). Now our question is, does FoB make fun of Asian-ness?

Before FoB aired, ABC thought it was smart to release this graphic as promotion:

This image obviously caused a big issue among the public (because it was clearly implying that people who wear these hats are immigrants and not American). Even Eddie Huang was outraged by this. However, the show itself does not make fun of the Asian-ness of the Huang family. Instead, it satirizes Eddie’s family. For example, when he explains how his mother was saving money on air conditioning so the family stays in the freezer section of the grocery store. The narration never mentions that these abnormal moments are “typical of Asians” or emphasizes on “Asian-ness.”

The times the show brings up “Asian-ness” is whenever the school does something racist. For example, punishing Eddie for fighting the Black kid or pairing Eddie and Phillip Goldstein together and starting a Pacific Rim club. Those are examples of “Asian-ness” but is pointed out to be extremely racist and not okay.

Another point Nat makes is the importance of audience reaction to Asians in media. For Asians watching Fresh Off the Boat, their experiences may not match Eddie’s story. In fact, I’m considered Chinese-American and I only relate to Eddie on a small level. As for Non-Asian audiences, they may view FoB as the representation of all Asian American families. Both expectations are equally unreasonable and defeat the purpose of what FoB has worked for. Everybody has their own story; expecting screen writers to find a way to match all of those stories would be impossible. Instead, we should be praising the fact that there’s a decent TV series staring an all Asian American cast.

The reason why an Asian American cast is so important is also mentioned by Nat. Usually when Asian Americans are cast, they are given side roles. However, to add insult to injury, their origin stories usually consist of working at a Chinese take-out restaurant and have a thick Asian accent (such as Dong from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Fresh Off the Boat does not make the Asian Americans side characters. They are the main characters and the actors are great at their roles. The idea that an Asian can’t be on the spot light for too long is an idea that baffles me. And when they are by themselves, they’re extremely stereotypical and unrealistic.
Fresh Off the Boat is the first TV series to have an all Asian-American cast since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl. It’s showing that Asians can be main characters and are worth more than comedic relief and “why are you here?” roles. Instead of using Asians as a way to fill the racial quota, this show is also letting Asian Americans see that there is someone they can watch on TV who isn’t just the yellow power ranger, Jackie Chan, or Harold and Kumar. And hopefully when Asian girls are thinking about which celebrity would play them, they can add Constance Wu to the list.

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