‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Boss on Fighting Gender Norms in Inspiring Season Finale

Nahnatchka Khan discussed how dressing for the school dance became a chance to take a stand against conformity.
Hudson Yang and Luna Blaise, "Fresh Off the Boat"

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the “Fresh off the Boat” Season 4 finale, “King in the North.”]

While “Fresh Off the Boat” has been exploring how Nicole (Luna Blaise) is navigating what it means to be a gay individual this season, much of it has been focused first on coming out and then approaching the girl she’s been crushing on. On Tuesday’s season finale though, the high school student is forced to question where she draws the line when it comes to homophobic discrimination and her own self-expression.

Nicole, Eddie (Hudson Yang), and their close group of friends decide to attend the school dance as a group, since they’re all currently single. In order to express their solidarity, they decide to wear matching outfits: the orange and powder blue tuxes from “Dumb & Dumber.”

Series creator Nahnatchka Khan spoke to IndieWire about what inspired the episode and the school dance group outfits. “We’ve established on the show that Eddie and Nicole share a love for the comedy of Jim Carrey,” said Khan. “They were certainly not alone in the mid-to-late ‘90s. So when you get in these kids’ heads and ask yourself, ‘What would they think is cool to wear to the school dance?’ you’re only about five to 10 seconds away from landing on the tuxes from ‘Dumb and Dumber.’

“Incidentally, the cafeteria scene in which Eddie and his friends pitch ideas of what to wear is kind of like what a writers’ room is like: a free exchange of ideas; people trying to make each other laugh; food everywhere…”

Unfortunately, someone catches wind of their plan, and before the event, a dress code is issued that stipulates that girls must wear dresses or skirts, while boys must wear jackets and ties. While this leaves the boys in the group clear to wear the tuxes as planned, Nicole and Alison (Isabella Alexander) are faced with toeing the line (which Alison does easily) or challenging it. After all, Nicole has worn dresses and skirts before, so she’s not against those garments, but the dress code is an edict about gender conformity and, in the bigger picture, conforming to heteronormative roles.

“We didn’t necessarily set out to write a gender conformity story for Nicole so much as we wanted to end the year by giving a little more shape to her season-long journey of self-definition,” said Khan. “She had already tackled the undoubtedly scarier and more personal challenge of coming out to her family and friends — a significant and empowering moment. So, on some level, I’m sure Nicole rightly felt she had cleared the highest hurdle by facing and conquering her self-doubt.

“But then the PTA issues a dress code effectively to push her into ‘gender norm’ clothing for the school dance, and now she faces a new and decidedly unfair dilemma: ‘Do I really have to fight this, too?’” she continued. “It’s sort of an awakening for Nicole that, unfortunately, there are people in the wider world that will actively seek to discriminate against her because of who she is.”

Nicole almost skips the dance until Eddie comes by bearing a tux for her and wearing a skirt with his jacket. As a minority himself, he identifies with her marginalized status, and shows her how to resist.

Hudson Yang, "Fresh Off the Boat"

“Nicole certainly goes through a lot in this episode, but in many ways it’s an Eddie story too,” said Khan. “He began the season on the outs with his friends and had to work to win them back. Then he serves as an important sounding board for Nicole when she comes out to him in the Saturn (her car and safe space). Later, he helps Nicole ‘make a move’ on the girl she likes in the coffee shop, so he’s as invested as he can be in what Nicole is going through on a personal level.

“When he shows up at her door wearing a skirt, now he’s pushing her to stand up for who she is. He’s answering what she was asking before: ‘Do I really have to fight this?’ To Eddie, the answer is simple: Of course. We’ve seen Eddie fight direct and indirect racial discrimination before but what he does in this episode is realize that injustice can take on a lot of different forms. And he decides he’s going to expand the struggle. Universalize it. He’s not discriminating against discrimination. It’s as if the years of being treated as the ‘other’ have hardened him for battle and are now weirdly paying dividends. Who better to coach Nicole up on owning your identity than the kid who was called an Asian slur on his first day of school?”

Behind the scenes, the cast was completely on board with the episode’s messaging, as seen in Yang’s tweet.They also seemed receptive to wearing the garish tuxes. “Those scenes were the last we shot of the episode and season, so everyone was pretty hyped up with the type of giddy excitement you have on the last day of school,” said Khan. “To their credit, the actors were ready and had a good grasp on their performances despite the ridiculous wardrobe. Also by now, they’re no strangers to confusing, period-specific costume. They just kind of shrug and go with it.”

The off-camera solidarity had its limits though. Despite Eddie claiming that he shaved his legs to wear the pleated skirt, Yang did not.

“No, he didn’t and we didn’t ask him to,” said Khan. “As ‘method’ as Hudson usually likes to be, we felt like he could pull off the authenticity of that joke without going ‘real dolphin’ on his legs.”

"Fresh Off the Boat"

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