All-American Girl (AAG) was a television show in 1994 that documented the life of Margaret Kim, a rebellious teenager living with her traditional Korean family; in parallel, Fresh Off the Boat (FOTB) aired in 2015 to replay Eddie Huang’s memoirs on screen. Both shows are unique in that they feature predominantly Asian American casts, and this advancement in Asian American visibility is a milestone because television is an important aspect of popular culture. Television has the opportunity to reflect on history, the present, and any advancement in between. However, though AAG and FOTB tell very different stories, both show how little has progressed since 1994 in terms of Asian American advocacy. Television shows must tell an entertaining story of which all Americans, including Asian Americans, can reflect on, and by showing multiple conflicts with hegemonic American-ness, FOTB succeeds more than AAG though it is still not completely successful.
A political economy methodological concern arises with AAG and FOTB because both are set in the 90’s. Evidence of the 90’s is seen in AAG by the fashion, which includes the poofy hair, old-fashioned bookstores, and inordinate amounts of leather and glitter. Because this time setting is the same time when AAG aired, the time does not affect the series as it displays a typical Asian American life. Contrastingly, evidence for FOTB is with famous figures like O.J. Simpson and Shaquille O’Neal, the golden age of hip hop, and token foods like Lunchables. Because FOTB airs two decades after this time setting, producers must choose what is important from the 90’s and how it affects the story being told. The audience must be careful when viewing such reconstruction because the original story may have been morphed. In fact, the real Eddie Huang tweeted, “I had to say something because I stood by the pilot. After that it got so far from the truth that I don’t recognize my own life.” This is an example of how FOTB and television content is affected by the economy.
Despite such a time setting disclaimer, FOTB captures more Asian American discourses than AAG due to the differences with the location settings. AAG primarily takes place in the Kim household of San Francisco, and many stories reflect internal and intergenerational conflicts. For example, Margaret struggled with her identity when trying to date Raymond, a traditional Korean boy; she also attempted to please her very traditional mother while wanting to be herself, which includes wearing short leather dresses and loosely keeping to American manners rather than Korean ones. While these conflicts may be true, they display a very limited perspective of an Asian American life. Perhaps this was affected by the location. San Francisco was affected by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, resulting in many people being angry towards the Korean community. Maybe producers wanted to avoid this controversial topic to preserve the series’ possible success so they used minimal interactions within the city and outside of the Kim household. Very unlikely and hard to believe but maybe there were no other conflicts from such isolation.
FOTB takes place all over Orlando, including the Huang household, school, Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse, and the general neighborhood. Already, this demonstrates more Asian American interactions, and with more interactions, there are more opportunities for conflicts with hegemonic American-ness. For example, the Huang household and school settings together show Eddie’s struggle with the model minority myth. He is a straight-A student but he does not fit the nerdy image; he only buttons the top of his shirt and he does not study 24/7, as shown by him running away from homeschool Chinese Learning Center (CLC) and wishing to play basketball. This is in comparison to his brothers who excel beyond belief—what five-year-old builds a homemade liquid chromatographer that separates the 23 flavors of Dr Pepper…insane! Cattleman’s Ranch shows Louis’s desire of the American dream, but hard work is not always enough to overcome discrimination. It was not successful until he hired Mitchell, a clumsy but white male, to be the host of his restaurant. Lastly, Jessica displays the tiger mom discourse when making her kids do CLC after achieving straight A’s, the dragon lady by trying make Louis jealous when Oscar comes to town, and the forever foreigner when rollerblading or socializing with the other neighborhood moms. With all these different discourses, hopefully every Asian American will find some sense of identity and agency in FOTB while having television entertainment.
Identifying the differences in the settings is incredibly interesting and important because it brings back Eddie Huang’s concern. Television is a cultural form where content is shaped by political economy, and the final series must be aesthetic and bring pleasure. Even though domestic violence and suicide are real topics that affected Eddie’s life, they are not attractive ones that sell a television show. If included, FOTB would tell less entertaining stories then make the audience uncomfortable. The real Eddie Huang left the show because other producers were hiding the unglamorous and uncomedic parts of his life: “It’s really weird when dominant culture comes to tell you what to be mad about. Don’t tell me what needs to be offensive to me.” Eddie wants to keep his memoir untouched as a grassroots creation but other producers want FOTB to please high culture. What else could television shows be hiding? While FOTB is an advancement over AAG in demonstrating more conflicts within the Asian American life, it was done in an artistic and humorous way. Anything that threatens the economic or pleasurable aspects of the show is hidden, making FOTB another television show that unsuccessfully documents the wide dynamics of Asian American lives.
- All-American Girl. Created by Margaret Cho. ABC. 1994. Television.
- Fresh Off the Boat. Created by Nahnatchka Khan. Producer Eddie Huang. ABC. 2015. Television.
- Lee, Robert G. Orientals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. Print.