Fresh Off the Boat has become a pioneer sitcom for Asian America and mainstream America at large. In my own opinion, the show does a good job of handling racial humor and humor in general and does so appropriately and lightheartedly. However, a production issue of the show lies in producer and narrator Eddie Huang’s unwillingness to embrace the show’s direction. Huang has voiced his discontent with how the writing of the show has veered away from his original memoir, the work that inspired the show in the first place. Huang picks out many inaccuracies he finds in the show that does not reflect his own personal life (such as his family never watched NASCAR). Above all, however, Huang is the angriest about how the show refuses to include his personal history of domestic violence and abuse into the primetime sitcom. He argues that it is a huge part of his identity and those of many other Asian Americans and implies that the show would not be authentic to true Asian America without its inclusion. By doing so, Huang is damaging Asian American visibility, undermining Asian American representation, as well as hurting the Asian American and mainstream political economy.
Huang’s memoir details how his parents would continuously beat him and his brothers as well as mentally abuse him and cruelly call him names such as “rice bucket,” “fat ass,” and a “waste of space”. After his siblings showed up to school with scratches, police and child services was called on his family and Huang and his brothers grew up having to lie to social services. The state tried to take him and his siblings away from their parents. He explains that a reason why hip-hop was such a huge influence in his life growing up was as a means to escape from being a victim of domestic violence.
While Huang’s story and tumultuous childhood are incredibly tragic, I completely disagree with his philosophy regarding the show. Huang pressured the producers since the beginning to stay true to his memoir and include the domestic abuse storyline into the sitcom. When they refused and took the show in a different direction, Huang publicly slammed the show and announced that he could no longer stand by the show because it “got so far from the truth that I don’t recognize my own life.”
Episode 11 of Fresh Off the Boat smartly addresses the delicate subject while maintaining classic humor strategies such as the use of misunderstanding and in my opinion, that is the correct way to execute a primetime comedy on a major network.
The subject of domestic violence is a very serious issue and should not be addressed on such a comedic and primetime platform that also happens to be the first form of mainstream television representation of Asian Americans in two decades. Huang insists that the show “stay authentic” but by asserting so, Huang is undermining Asian American individuality. Domestic violence does not need to reflect mainstream Asian American families. And in no way should the topic be pushed onto a comedic portrayal of Asian America. In a way, Fresh Off the Boat carries the burden of creating Asian American visibility not just for within the Asian American community but also for a mainstream audience to understand and connect to Asian American culture. By introducing domestic abuse, not only does it paint an inaccurate picture of Asian American families, it also portrays Asians in a negative light and allows people to get the wrong ideas.
The political economy of the show depends on identifying not only with Asian America but also with mainstream America, the primetime audience. The messages that the show currently takes on are all themes that anybody can feel connected too and laugh to. And that’s what makes the show successful. This show is a big deal because it breaks barriers and creates precedence with a lot of pressure to get it right. And it should focus on its audience and keeping its viewers and making money as a result of that core audience base because that’s what keeps the representation alive. If viewers don’t connect with the show, or disagree with it and stop watching, the show fails and gets cancelled, which just sends a message that Asian Americans are not ready and will never be ready to deserve the spotlight.
Eddie Huang is naïve to think that including such a serious and personal subject on a show that’s supposed to be one of the few Asian American primetime representations will benefit it in any way, especially a family sitcom and comedy. Regardless of how much Huang argues that this is his own personal story and that Asian Americans are more diverse than just him, he is naïve to think that the repercussions of him getting what he wants would involve just him and not Asian America at large. Huang argues that his story “makes it more real and not artificial” and that the show turned his life “into a cornstarch sitcom.” But his reality is not the reality of what Fresh Off the Boat should be about.
In no way do I mean to belittle Eddie Huang’s experience. His story is one of thousands of other children’s horrific ordeals all across the country and it needs to be addressed and talked about. He should have his story represented accurately, just not on primetime television. Primetime audiences do not particularly want to see domestic violence in a sitcom and they shouldn’t have to.