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Why Do Sitcoms Keeping It Real Offend You?

Why Do Sitcoms Keeping It Real Offend You?

The
other night, at a bar I was far too tired to be at, I was talking to a writer
friend (of a friend) about the ever-talked about problem of diversity in
Hollywood. You see, bar conversations in Hollywood can easily go from talk of
the hottest guy in the vicinity to talk of the way Hollywood is failing — at
least in my experience — and that is exactly what happened this evening. He –a
straight white man, mind you — was very passionate about how
Hollywood, television, specifically, needed to correct itself with regards to
diversity hiring, or the lack thereof. The passion with which he spoke
captivated me, especially as he spoke of things that would sound tired coming
from my mouth, words that you would expect from a black, female pop culture
writer living in Hollywood. I was really on board with him, to the point where
it didn’t matter that I was exhausted and just wanted to go home.

Then
he brought up “Black-ish.” Actually, he didn’t just bring up
“Black-ish” — he called it out for being “offensive.” At first, I
thought I misheard him — we were outside, and it was loud — but that was not the
case. “Offensive” was in fact the word he used, even though it sounds preposterous to hear
any family sitcom on ABC be called “offensive,” even the popular, but often
criticized, “Modern Family.” His argument was that the series only reinforced
stereotypes about blacks, and he felt that, to a lesser extent, “Fresh Off
The Boat” had the same attitude with regards to Asian-Americans. But “Black-ish”
was the show that really drew his ire. As he spoke of the stereotypes the show
had supposedly perpetrated, my pretty much silent agreement with all of his
points turned into questions. How could he see nothing but stereotypes in a
show that I had on more than one occasion called the most honest representation
of growing up in a black and mixed race (my two younger siblings are both
biracial) family I’d seen on television. I’d even called it the best black
family sitcom since “The Bernie Mac Show” when it first premiered, a
statement I still stand by.

Once
I became the one speaking with the passion in the conversation, he was
quickly,but also more quietly, willing to concede his point and admit that he
would reconsider his stance on the show(s) and give it all another go. But
honestly, if he didn’t get it before, the chances of him getting it in another
go would probably be too much of a stretch.

Earlier
that same night, I had been to a rock concert and played a little game I had
been playing at every concert I’d been to since I was 17 years old: Spot The
Other Black Girl. It’s a game that hasn’t been exclusive to concerts, but when
you’re huddled amongst a sea of strangers, the least strange face is always the
most comforting. And I had managed to find her before the musical festivities
began. We locked eyes, and we gave each other the nod. Some of you may remember
the nod from “Black-ish” season one, episode three, “The Nod,” or
just from life as an African-American. We saw each other after the concert,
outside the venue, and that’s when she, this complete stranger hugged me and
said “we found each other.”

In
her piece “‘Fresh Off The Boat’ Made Me Realize My
Parents Aren’t Crazy,” Clarissa Wei wrote about how just watching “Fresh Off The Boat” made her
realize how much alike her Chinese-Immigrant family was to other Asian-American
families. According to one of her friends, “Watching a show depict [an] Asian
family is like an out of body experience.” “Fresh Off The Boat” showrunner
Nahnatchka Khan (“Don’t Trust The B—– In Apartment 23”) is first generation
American, born of Iranian parents, and has spoken about how the bridging of the generations is
what drew her to the project in the first place, something she could identify
with without also being a Chinese-American. Eddie Huang, whose memoir is the
basis for “Fresh Off The Boat,” has gone on the record many times about his serious problems
with the series’ depiction of his life, but that is also more of an issue of
artistic expression versus historical accuracy — historical accuracy which
would make the show impossible to air on ABC, mind you) — in this situation.

With
all the talk of relatability in both these series, it’s no surprise that the
two characters that segue into what supposedly makes these shows offensive are
actually the show’s greatest strength. That would be the series’ respective
matriarchs — Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Jessica Huang (Constance
Wu).  Biracial Rainbow is the character
who most exemplifies “Black-ish”‘s question of just what it means to even be
black (or black-ish), and Jessica is the quintessential “tiger mom.” Growing up
as the oldest child in a family helmed by a Nigerian immigrant mother, watching
both “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off The Boat” in the same
television season (often back-to-back in my viewing experience) made for two of
the most relatable sitcom-watching experiences — almost reaching deja vu
levels — in recent memory for me.

They’re
two strong female characters, the kind you don’t usually hear being called “strong female characters” simply because they’re physically strong. While
Africa and Asia are two very different worlds, watching Jessica Huang on a
weekly basis, I would think far too often that someone finally wrote a
television show about my own mother. When Eddie complained about having to eat
Chinese food instead of Lunchables like every other kid in the pilot of “Fresh
Off The Boat,” that was me with my Nigerian food as a child. And surprisingly,
seeing Rainbow, the matriarch of a black family, actually made me think of my
two younger siblings, both biracial and having even more questions about what
it means to be black, in addition to the standard “not being black enough” that
already came from being raised by an immigrant mother who stressed education
and hard work above all else.

So
it wasn’t just a nod making its way into my life again that made me fight for
these sitcoms, it was the idea that shared experiences from a group of minorities
being depicted weekly on a major network could simply be written off as a
stereotype. The question then became: is the offensive part not the fact that
there is diverse casting but instead the fact the diverse casting is not
necessarily synonymous with colorblind casting? “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off The
Boat” don’t just have casts of color — their stories are both identifiably about
the experiences of people of color. And cries of stereotyping, especially from
outsiders who have never been “diverse,” ignore how stereotypes or cliches can
often be born from the truth, and how they’re only bad when used in a malicious
or ignorant manner.

In “Black-ish,” the Johnsons are an upper middle class black family with a father
who started from the bottom and a mother whose sense of identity as a black
woman is often called into question because she is also a white woman. “Fresh
Off The Boat” is literally about as Asian-American family that’s hoping to live
the American dream. Those aren’t foreign concepts at all. They epitomize the
so-called American dream. So why are the aspects
that make the characters and their experiences diverse (outside of just the
characters’ skin color) and just plain different the ones that are called “offensive”?

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