Fresh Off the Boat’s Battle with Stereotypes and Sitcoms
By: Ruthie LaMay
Back in early 2015, ABC released its new family sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, which was inspired by the memoir with the same name written by Eddie Huang. The first season of the show focused on Eddie, the eldest of three boys, and his struggle to integrate into his new school as well as the daily struggles of the rest of the family. Throughout the series, issues of loss of identity are touched upon and illustrated through the family’s dynamics; mother, Jessica (Constance Wu), a tiger-mom who is deeply connected to her Taiwanese heritage, father, Louis (Randall Park), a foolish and soft-hearted man chasing his American dream, and son, Eddie (Hudson Yang), who is just trying to make it through school.
Upon its release, Fresh Off the Boat received a lot of criticism on issues like the racist nature of the title and its reliance on stereotypes, such as the parent’s accents and Jessica’s tiger-mom tendencies. Surprisingly, the most outspoken critic of the show is Eddie Huang himself, who claims that ABC was telling a:
“universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan…”
and has cut ties with the show after his involvement in season one. He has most explicitly denounced ABC’s resistance to include the issues of domestic violence in the Asian-American household that were an important point in his memoir. This, among other issues viewers and critics have found with the show, has led to a general distrust of the show for inaccurately depicting, or ignoring altogether, the real struggles of Asian-American families.
However, Fresh Off the Boat is one of the only sitcoms starring an Asian-American family, the only other being All American Girl in 1994. The lack of representation of Asian-Americans in the media has been a long-standing issue stemming from issues with Asian-Americans before and during World War II, where they were viewed as an alien “other” up until the mid-1950’s where there seemed to be a shift in sentiment. This shift coincides with the very beginnings of Hollywood, where it was unlikely for an actual Asian-American to get cast when the draw of big-name white actors drew a bigger crowd. Because of this, depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans in the media have a long-running history of being over-exaggerated caricatures that were often the butt of a joke. The media’s representation of Asian-Americans has been generally unchanged, however, recently there has been a wave of representation across all media.
As the show just finished airing its fifth season, the influence it has had on the industry is undeniable. It has brought to the surface issues that non-Asian-American viewers would never know otherwise. The relationship between mother and son is fully fleshed out and the stereotypes present are not there to be fodder for a joke, but rather to fully capture the nuances of their family dynamic. Fresh Off the Boat is also not afraid to tackle issues of the family trying to assimilate into their new white-dominated neighborhood through comedy about the ignorance of their community, rather than the family itself, and also to add quick stings of the reality that Asian-Americans face in day-to-day life.
The inherent problems of sitcoms as a genre are also often brushed over in the critical discussion around the show. Many of the show’s limitations are due to historic genre conventions of the network sitcom. As an ABC sitcom, more heavy-hitting issues might not make the network’s target family demographics. The show is also limited to a 22-minute timespan, preventing it from lingering too long on any one topic. This time constraint is a factor when writers are thinking of what the plot of an episode can be, and what issues can feasibly be introduced and solved in a 22-minute episode, but it does allow for a clearer picture of a character as a whole. The sitcom is rooted in humor, so the viewers see the characters at their best and at their worst throughout the show, painting a more complete version of a human being.
The Sitcom as the Medium
The sitcom is one of the oldest and most recognizable television genres to date. The sitcom revolves around a fixed set of characters and their problems from episode to episode. Originally intended for radio format, the sitcom was quickly adapted for television, with the very first sitcoms starting to air in the mid-1940’s and quickly gaining popularity in the years to come. The genre is also one of the farthest reaching platforms for humor, since any family with a television could watch a sitcom. It’s is also one of the most formulaic genres of television; most of the sitcoms that are produced follow similar premises, whether it’s about a group of friends, nuclear family, or office. The formula of the sitcom is especially relevant to why Fresh Off the Boat is produced in the way that it is. Scholar Ronald Berman notes that a successful sitcom must have: characters that represent or are relatable to the audience, dramatized every day events and conditions, and suggest an attitude towards life and towards ourselves.
According to Berman, the success of a sitcom hinges on its ability to relate to the audience through both its characters and its conflicts. Fresh Off the Boat is a difficult sitcom to sell since the market for sitcoms starring Asian-American families seemed relatively small when referring back to the very first, All American Girl, which only ran for one season. So, in creating the television version of the Huang family, it was important to keep them relatable in a way that was marketable, while still remaining close to Eddie Huang’s real family. For example, including issues of domestic violence in the television family would not have fit well in trying to create characters that were relatable to the assumed audience of a sitcom.
This leads into the second aim of the sitcom, which is to dramatize events in order to drive the plot of an episode which then leads the audience to feel a certain way about the situation and the characters. Fresh Off the Boat has used this dramatization to deal with quicker, sharper issues that their characters face individually.
One of the most poignant moments comes from the pilot: Young Eddie struts into the cafeteria, thrilled to finally fit in with the kids at lunch with his new Lunchables. As he goes to heat up his lunch, he is shoved out of the way by Walter, the only black student and other minority at the school besides Eddie. Instead of bonding with Eddie over their love of hip-hop, Walter sees Eddie as his chance to redirect the negative attention away from him. “Get used to it. You’re the one at the bottom now. It’s my turn, chink.” The chatter in the cafeteria halts and the camera is shaky as it focuses on the young faces of every child in the room as they look on in horror. The viewer is swept up in the uncomfortable silence as flashes of hurt and anger pass over Eddie’s face as he tries to process the emotions of hearing someone call him that slur for the first time.
While Fresh Off the Boat might not dive right into issues of domestic abuse, it did, in its very first episode, find a place for a very raw moment of life for Eddie in between larger strokes of comedy. The short, slice of life nature of the sitcom combined with short glances into the struggles of Asian-Americans has been able to go against the norm of sitcoms to present an issue without truly taking a stance on it. This scene could have easily been absorbed into the overarching comedic bit which follows as the show cuts from Eddie’s expression of rage to Eddie’s parents sitting in the principal’s office or omitted altogether, but the show takes its time to linger on the uncomfortable moment.
Sitcoms and Stereotypes
As I mentioned before, the sitcom is one of the oldest television genres and because of this long-standing place in the United States’ history, the sitcom is also rooted in problematic uses of stereotypes. Going back to sitcoms like Amos n’ Andy, critics of the show have cited using black stereotypes in order to pacify white fears of “black achievement”. Even in modern sitcoms like The Simpsons, stereotypes are heavily used for comedic purposes across all characters. Asian-American stereotypes often utilize heavy accents or huge cultural differences, which, despite the historic presence of Asians in America, perpetuates the idea that Asian-Americans do not belong in their own country.
Fresh Off the Boat was heavily criticized for its use of stereotypes, with the large majority of the issues being taken with Eddie’s mother, Jessica’s, tiger-mom qualities. The term “tiger mother” grew in popularity with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother written by Amy Chua and is used to refer to an overly strict, usually Chinese or East Asian, mother. This stereotype is commonly used in media from feature films like The Joy Luck Club to modern children’s sitcoms like Bunk’d. In every incarnation, the tiger mother is greatly feared by her children, sometimes even hated, for making them study for long hours everyday or do extracurricular activities they dislike.
In one review of Fresh Off the Boat, David Yi calls Jessica “insufferable” as a tiger mom. Despite Jessica’s seemingly stereotypical behavior, Jessica’s character is not defined by her tiger mom tendencies and a joke is never made at her expense. This, as the actress who portrays her, Constance Wu, says, is a main priority of the writing staff. Continuing from the pilot episode referenced before, Jessica and Louis end up in the principal’s office after Eddie got in a fight with Walter. They sit across from the principal uncomfortably as he lists off the events of Eddie and Walter’s altercation. Jessica’s expression quickly changes as she expresses her disappointment in the school for not doing anything to defend her son. She and Louis argue with the dumbfounded principal asking why Walter and his parents were not called to the meeting and threaten to sue the school if they try to suspend Eddie. As the Huangs leave the school Jessica says to her son, “I will never be mad at you for standing up for yourself.”
Although Jessica does tend to behave like a tiger-mom in some moments of the show, the main message of those actions is the strength and confidence in herself and her children. Later in the episode, she and Louis express their desire for more for their family. This is a theme that is at the core for many mothers, and some of them express it in tiger-mom like ways.
The show’s sitcom format makes it easy to see all facets of Jessica’s character and the viewer never sees her as a cold-hearted tiger-mom, but rather captures her own struggles and how that affects her relationships with her sons. Sometimes appearing disapproving, she acts as a different kind of sitcom mother; one who is absolutely devoted to getting the best for her family, but does not always hit the mark.
Another issue critics have had with the show is its use of accents for Louis and Jessica. In the same David Yi review, he describes Louis’ accent, “like he’s talking with a marble forever lodged in his mouth”. However, the use of the accent is, similarly to Jessica’s tiger-mom behavior, never used as a joke. Shilpa Davé commends the show in its variety of accents, which is more inclusive of all the variations Asian-Americans can have; their grandmother speaking only Mandarin, Louis and Jessica speaking in regional accents, and the kids speaking non-accented English. This use of accents is unproblematic since Louis and Jessica do not speak in broken English: they just happen to have accents, as many immigrants do. Constance Wu also has defended the use of accents in Fresh Off the Boat, arguing that trying to erase Eddie’s parent’s accents would be worse than taking the criticism for taking a risk to include them in the first place.
An example of problematic accents is Ms. Swan from Fox’s MADtv who spoke in broken English and was played by a white actor. This broken English was the entire joke and stereotypes like these no doubt lead to many Americans being shocked with how good an Asian-American person’s English is, even if that is the only language they have ever known.
Fresh Off the Boat is undoubtedly revolutionary in respect to it being the first Asian-American-centric sitcom in 20 years. Not without its flaws, the sitcom is taking short strides in the right direction and if the trend continues, there will be a place across all forms of media for Asian-American voices to be heard. And Eddie Huang, despite being an outspoken critic of the show, has admitted that, although he does not watch the show, he is still proud of the work it is doing to be a gateway into the Asian-American world. With the Asian population in the United States growing faster than any other group, it is time the media began to reflect that.
However, there are glaring limitations that the sitcom presents. Many of the critics of Fresh Off the Boat focus on issues that come with the genre of the sitcom. Sitcoms do have to be comedic and do rely on stereotypes so they can avoid alienating the audience. Because of this, the social critiques that sitcoms can make are very limited, especially on a major network like ABC. Fresh Off the Boat is progressive and revolutionary in the ways that it deals with Asian-American struggles, but there are many issues that still need to be talked about.
In the future, it is important for Asian-American stories to be brought to different genres like dramas and films so they can deal with the more gritty issues sitcoms can’t touch. With the success of pieces starring Asian-Americans like Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians, there is proof that there is an audience for other media focused on Asian-American protagonists and stories.