“Fresh Off the Boat” II: Whose Boat is it Anyway?

I wanted to continue where I left off talking about ‘Fresh Off The Boat’. In my last post, I talked about the incredible feeling I got seeing at least parts of myself recognized and represented on screen, and how that feeling is something that I wish was brought to the fore more in conversations about diversity and representation in popular culture. And then I thought that that feeling is most impactful for the group that is seeing itself represented, and that group is rarely the ones who are actually able to make decisions about the product in question. And thinking that then got me reflecting on how the perceived function of something like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ varies depending on who the target audience is supposed to be. Specifically, is this a show for the Asian American community to see itself, or is a show for White America to see Asian Americans?

Even since before the show’s premiere evidence of its impact on Asian American communities has been tremendous. It’s that impact that I was trying to articulate last week: the show, for all that it is one person’s specific experience, and a watered-down one at that, has been incredibly valuable in simply being a sign of recognition and validation of Asian Americans from mainstream culture. I also think it’s encouraging how the creators of the show are attempting to engage with Asian American communities and hear their responses (despite some initial missteps, particularly the lack of inclusion of Asian American bloggers in their early publicity events), allowing the show to lay make way for more Asian American voices to be heard in a tangible way. In its function as a ‘mirror’ for the Asian American community to see itself, then, I would say that the show is doing quite well (though of course keeping in mind the vast heterogeneity within and between Asian American communities, and recognizing that the experiences presented in the show are not universal by any means).

The other side of this, however, is that the show is one of the first – and certainly one of the most high-profile – examples of an Asian American experience being presented to a general, mostly White American audience. What, then, might the show be doing in that role? I see this working in two different ways. The first is that the show is supposed to present a kind of ‘they’re just like us!’ messaging:
White people can watch and see that Asian families go through the same troubles that they do, Asian parents get into the same kinds of fights, Asian kids worry about the same kinds of things. There’s certainly a value to this, in that presenting multidimensional, complex Asian American characters works against stereotypes and caricatures that reduce a person to their race. However the presentation of this show as just another family sitcom does also pose the danger of reinforcing a colourblind, ’the only race is the human race’ rhetoric, in which cultural and racial differences are not seen as substantial shapers of experience but just a set of idiosyncratic quirks.

The other way this can go, the more challenging but I think ultimately more productive way, would be for the show to engage deeply with issues of race and the immigrant experience, and to be able to generate consciousness about how White ignorance, White prejudice and racism influence the individual experiences of this family. I say this is more challenging because this is a view that requires the White audience to see themselves not as the heroes of our story, or really not as central players in the story at all. This is an opportunity to talk about what racism directed at Asian Americans look like, and to expose at least some of the complexity around who is affected by it and complicit in it. I was initially doubtful that the show was going to be able to go in this direction: my sense was that a mainstream network was not going to be willing to be that challenging, and Eddie Huang’s own description of the production process only confirmed those fears. However, so far (I’ve watched the first 5 episodes), the show is actually doing more of the latter than I would have expected, poking fun if anything at the ignorance and insensitivity of the Huang family’s White neighbours, digging into Eddie and Louis’ need to fit in and Jessica’s determination to hold onto their culture. If it can maintain this focus throughout its run, I’m hopeful that the show can not only be a valuable point of representation for Asian Americans but also a jumping off point for further consciousness raise among non-Asian communities.

I’ll end by saying there’s a large part of me that really doesn’t care what impact the show has for White audiences. Really, the show should not have to have any kind of educational or social value for White audiences in order for it to be considered a good thing: the fact that it is providing a service to Asian American communities, many of whom are seeing their experiences and their lives put on screen for the first time, should be enough. At the same time, I think it’s important to think about the potential impact it can have on White audiences for two main reasons. The first is purely practical: the show is on broadcast television and it won’t survive unless it is able to engage and appeal to majority White audiences. The second is more aspirational: here we have one of the rare moments in which White audiences are listening to and learning about Asian American experiences. If this can be used to raise awareness, to get people learning about and talking about anti-Asian racism and marginalization of Asian-American communities, then that could be an incredibly positive thing.

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