Asian Americans in Media (Fresh off the Boat thoughts)

I waited until after I saw the pilot and a few episodes to write this, because I wanted to give FOB a fair shake before giving my thoughts.  It was a good thing I had because this entry may have been a lot different otherwise.

Asian Americans are sorely underrepresented in American media.  Any Asian in entertainment can tell you the countless offenses that Hollywood has bestowed on Asians, from whitewashing stories with Asian characters (21, The Last Airbender, Dragonball), to having a single white hero triumph over a sea of Asian characters (The Last Samurai [how the hell is Tom Cruise the only guy standing after that battle], Wolverine), to having an actual Asian hero in a story inspired by Romeo and Juliet not kiss the female lead (Romeo Must Die).  Hollywood does not like Asian people, because Asian people to them do not represent sales.

Part of that is because of a lack of Asian Americans in entertainment to begin with.  While there are talented Asian directors, actors, musicians, etc. the fact remains that being artists as Asian Americans is a foreign concept, the vast majority of us are groomed to be, stereotypically, a doctor/lawyer/some other decently financially stable variant.  So you have a small percentage of Asians, who are a small percentage of the population, trying to be entertainers with many of them trailblazers finding their way in the business.  Then there's the whole chicken and the egg question, are Asians not marketable enough because they aren't on shows, or are they not on shows because they're not marketable enough.  And finally, it's the simple fact that the people in power in Hollywood are older, white men who inevitably shape content and media to fit their world views and biases, whether subconsciously or consciously.  One only needs to look at the demographics of Oscar voters to see that this is true.

So when I heard that "Fresh off the Boat" was being made into a sitcom last year, I was pretty excited.  As an actor, your first thought is, "jobs".  It's been 20 years since "All American Girl" was cancelled, and this was going to be the first show since then to have an Asian American cast.  But when I ordered the book on Amazon and read a few chapters, I began to wonder how it would take shape as a sitcom.  The book had a very raw and honest tone with stories that I would imagine would play on HBO rather than ABC.  While I'm not on board with everything Eddie Huang believes about race and identity, I also wasn't happy with the idea that his voice would be lost in its transmorgification into a sitcom.

How America sees azns.

How America sees azns.

Because Asians are few and far in between on screen, every appearance by an Asian in mainstream media is scrutinized by the Asian community to the highest degree.  For every Bruce Lee and Jeremy Lin, there's a Long Duk Dong or a William Hung that makes us into silly caricatures.  Asians that make it probably face an added burden of trying to "do their race proud".  And after "All American Girl" was received so poorly, everyone had the same thing on their minds, if FOB doesn't do well, we might as well resign to waiting another 20 years before we get another chance to prove ourselves.

I wanted FOB to be awesome, to be our "Cosby Show": the hit show of the 80s that opened the floodgates for "Family Matters", "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "Everybody Hates Chris".  So when I saw the pilot to FOB, my hopes were crushed.  I understood what Eddie Huang meant in his piece when he says that the network turned his life into a "cornstarch sitcom".  The show felt forced and disingenuous.

The biggest problem with the pilot is that it seems like the show doesn't know what it wants to be.  The family just seems like cookie cutter versions of sitcom characters who happen to be Asian, and the jokes heavily relied on the "white people make life miserable for minorities" trope that gets old fast (and I'm assuming faster for white viewers).  Some of the jokes fell flat (the 40 year old friend joke was just so much try too hard, especially after it kept getting repeated 100 times), and I was pretty sure that the show's longevity was in danger.

Fortunately, the show improves vastly in the following episodes.  It starts to focus on their struggles as ordinary people and their relationship as a family, rather than their struggles as Asian Americans.  And frankly, this is the way to go, seeing as it worked for Cliff Huxtable.  The Cosby Show and other black comedies after it touch upon race, but their main storylines are about the characters themselves, making them infinitely more relatable, even if you aren't black, the same way we relate to American media shows even though we're not white.  The more FOB taps into this universal experience of just being a person, the more it will be relatable to its non-Asian audience, and the more that audience will turn around and say, "Hey, these Asian Americans are pretty cool.  Let's have some more stories of those kinds of people."

That's not to say the show doesn't still have its faults, nor am I saying that it IS the next Cosby Show.  The show is still clunky as the writers haven't found their stride quite yet as to where it wants to go.  Part of this is due to the fact that ultimately, the writers have to divorce themselves from the source material (the part of Eddie's life on which the show is based takes up one chapter in the actual book) and find their own voice.  I don't envy their position, trying to simultaneously "get the story right", make it entertaining, AND appease the source material creator, who doesn't always give them his vote of confidence.

And I don't think that its wrong as an Asian to point out that it has faults.  All I've been reading from Asians who are in entertainment regarding the show has been glowing praise.  I've read stuff like "I was laughing the entire time." Part of me thinks that people want it to succeed so badly that saying anything negative could ruin its chances, because honestly, it ain't THAT good, guys.  We can't be so afraid of scrutiny that we don't seek to improve our craft when there are deficiencies, and then get upset when America doesn't accept Asians in media using the "just because we're Asian" crutch.

But I think that I (as well as Eddie, it seems) have come to terms with the fact that the show doesn't have to be 100% accurate or perfect to create change.  And because its on a big network, the soapbox we're on is that much bigger to be able to say to middle America, "At the core, we're just like you, human, people that want to gain acceptance and love and want to fit in."  And the strategy seems to have worked, FOB has already had high ratings and good reviews, looking likely that it will be renewed for a second season.  And because of the media's copycat tendencies for the latest trends, this can only be good news for Asian Americans who work in entertainment and want our voices to be heard.

I think Eddie Huang says it best when he talked about the premiere: “This got us on-base, but somebody in this crowd gotta bring us home.”  Our biggest work as Asian Americans in media may well start with FOB, but it doesn't end there.  There's a lot more progress to be made.

I'll continue to watch the show, because I support and have a vested interest in having more Asian Americans on screen.  I won't pretend like I'll enjoy every single minute of it, but I will admit that what we're watching is the start of something groundbreaking.  And if you want to see more Asian American stories represented on screen, you should check it out too.