Are Sitcoms About Ethnic Families Helping Us?

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Before ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was set to premiere on ABC, Eddie Huang, the writer of the book the show is based on, was already making his opinion known. In an article he wrote for Vulture, Huang said “I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life…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?”

And when ABC launched its three new all-ethnic all-”really real” sitcoms Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and Cristela, I was asking the same question. Who are these shows for?

It’s pretty obvious that the recent wave of social justice fever, which has gripped Twitter in its jaundiced fist, has sent companies scrambling to paint themselves as egalitarian, liberal, and open-minded. Five years ago the same companies were making bank off the Green Movement (remember that show ‘Running Wilde’?). The new war cry for greater representation of minority groups is an easy demand to fill and it promises to pan out in ratings and profit. All of us know that if you give brown people some more brown people on television they’ll tune in by the millions. I mean, I still hold on to my holy Disney trinity of Jasmine, Esmerelda, and Pocahontas. We’re desperate for representation, even if it’s totally problematic.

In the first trailer for Fresh Off the Boat there was an excellent preview of a later scene in which Huang’s Taiwanese mother is confronted by an aggressive sample hander-outer at the grocery store. At first Huang’s mother waves the sales clerk away but after the clerk says ‘It’s free!’, Mrs. Huang reaches down and picks up the entire bowl of tortilla chips, puts it in her shopping basket, and dismisses the clerk. On the surface this looked like the perfect representation of ethnic mothers — no-nonsense, ever practical, and embarrassingly cheap. But part of me, even when I watched it for the fifth time, was cringing. Mrs. Huang wasn’t exactly like my own Asian mother — she was like a true story rolled in a stereotype and sprinkled with a ‘hey let’s laugh at brown people’ mentality. Part of me laughed because it was enough like the women in my family for me to relate, but it was a nervous sort of laugh.

When Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish finally hit television, they became part of the weekly rota of shows in our house. We tuned in every week to watch the two families do the usual sitcommy things, keeping an ear out for mentions of Chinese culture or PoC issues. Sometimes when they happened they were perfect and we all got to enjoy seeing our experiences retold for our own entertainment. But mostly they came in the form of cheap jokes that reminded us of our low rung on society’s ladder like when Eddie’s dad says he needs a white host for his steakhouse restaurant to make other white people feel more at ease. And sometimes all of the ‘white people be crazy jokes’ felt like the white writers were just patting themselves on the back for being edgy. This writing wasn’t meant for us.

Black-ish also has the same sort of model — a non-white family deals weekly with being non-white in a mostly white place. And like Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish feels diluted. Every episode focuses on one aspect of the Black American experience — from the nods that Black men give each other to the dozens to being ‘100.’ This show acts like a cross-section of race relations. It’s almost academic how much it compartmentalizes daily Black experiences, as though each episode is a fast-track module on daily microagressions so white people can understand the racialized experience.

The fundamental problem with these shows about non-white families is that they’re written with white people in mind. Because these shows feature mostly non-white casts, white viewers can congratulate themselves on reaching out a hand to minorities and seeing that we are ‘just like them.’ It’s all about humanizing us and watering down ethnic experiences so white people can feel comfortable. And this is what scares me the most — do white people really not see us as capable of full experiences or of being similar to them? Does it need to be forced to the extent that they actively rewrite someone’s story, like ABC did with Huang’s book, just so white people feel safe? Are we that alien to them?

Huang speaks to this in the same above article — he says that in some ways this show was a bridge to real experiences and that seeing Asians on TV is the first step towards telling the actual story. But it always feels like two steps forward eight steps back with this thinking. There were Asians on TV in the 90s and All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho, was very much the 1994 version of Fresh Off the Boat. But it’s 20 years later and we’re still here having the same conversation — are white people ready for people of color? Maybe it’s one thing to vote in a Black president and another to curl up with a TV dinner and a foreign-looking family. Maybe for all the modern racial sensitivity of our current age, white people still are skittish as hell. I don’t know. But I do know these shows aren’t enough and we’ve taken enough first steps. These shows featuring people of color aren’t helping us, they’re reducing us so we’re bite-size and palatable. We need our stories to be told as they are, not how white people want them to be.

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