ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat debuted last night, and much has been made of its being the first Asian-American network sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl flopped in 1994. This adaptation of bombastic, Taiwanese-Chinese-American chef Eddie Huang’s memoir seems to largely avoid the pitfalls of racial stereotyping in favor of genuinely funny cultural contrasts and observations.
“The Asian component of this was never intended to be the butt of the joke. We just wanted to make these characters strong and funny in and of themselves. The fact that they happened to be Asian influences things, because that’s where they’re coming from and that’s their perspective, but it’s not the joke, you know? I feel like we’ve seen the Asian community being the butt of the joke, the nerdy friend at work or whatever. It was important to tell real stories featuring these real characters who are also funny, but not for the reasons that you have seen before.”
As with Don’t Trust the B, Khan has put a strong, edgy woman front and center in the show: Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), mom of Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his two siblings, who’s struggling with being uprooted from her familiar Chinese community in Washington, D.C. (“We had such pleasant talks,” she recalls fondly, as a flashback shows a shrieking near-brawl during a card game).
So obviously the Tiger Mom comparisons will be there, and part of Jessica’s character is definitely that. When Eddie comes home from school with all A’s, she marches him to the principal’s office, furious that his classes are too easy. But the show makes sure she’s more than a caricature, showcasing, for example, her love of Stephen King novels (“An accident, Dolores, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend,” she’s seen creepily mouthing along with a movie playing in a video store).
She’s also perplexed by the gaggle of women who appear on rollerblades to welcome her to the neighborhood – by their obsession with Melrose Place (it’s about a bunch of prostitutes who are mad at each other, she concludes, not entirely inaccurately) and NASCAR and being mean to the woman next door, the one person who appreciates Jessica’s Chinese cooking. She’s also baffled by the size and sterility of American supermarkets: “What is this store so excited about?” she wonders as they stand in front of a gigantic neon sign with several exclamation points.
The more potentially problematic portrayal of women is in the fantasies of 11-year-old Eddie. The show’s set in 1995, and he’s obsessed with gangsta rap – a flag-waver for misogyny if ever there was one.
So when Eddie envisions himself in a video, he’s naturally surrounded by scantily clad hotties bumping and grinding. He decides what will make everything right is having a fly girl on his arm, so he makes a play for the young wife next door – by asking her if she wants to dance, and then throwing fake dollar bills in her face. Understandably, she’s annoyed – and humiliated.
Of course, young Eddie is an adaptation of real-life Eddie, who says things in his memoir like “Whether it’s food or women, the ones on front street are supermodels. Big hair, big tits, big trouble, but the one you come home to is probably something like cavatelli and red sauce. She’s not screaming for attention because she knows she’s good enough even if your dumb ass hasn’t figured it out yet.” So yeah, I don’t see him as a bastion of progressive thinking on the subject of women, but I wonder, especially given Khan’s leadership, whether his TV avatar will learn that the way rap stars treat women doesn’t translate into getting actual women to like you. His two affable, polite younger brothers are both shown hitting it off with neighborhood girls, much to his frustration.
We know there’s not a ton of love lost between Khan and Huang. In a recent New York magazine story, he chronicled his anger at seeing his life story homogenized into something that would be palatable to American sitcom viewers. He went after Khan specifically: “The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?”
Interesting and unique as it is to see this fiery a critique from a writer whose work is being turned into a major TV show, I think the differences between Huang and Khan will probably work to the advantage of the portrayal of women on the show. And Huang even concludes, ultimately, that the show does work, even if it’s not an entirely accurate adaptation of his story: “It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word ‘chink,’ yet it works because it’s the safest bet the studio could have made. The feeling of being different is universal because difference makes us universally human in our individual relationships with society. We’re all fucking weirdos.”
Three episodes in, that statement seems to include women – which should be a no-brainer in 2015, but still isn’t.