With sites like Netflix and HBOGo giving us series such as “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” and “Orange is the New Black,” the modern citizen has no choice but to stay in on a Friday night (or Sunday for all you GOTers) and binge watch TV with all of their “friends.” What we don’t realize is that whatever show we have chosen to tickle our fancy also subconsciously tickles our perspective and understanding of certain social groups and races. It can happen either with the presence of a race and how their character is portrayed (personality, occupation, social status in the show), or the complete absence of a race.
This coming fall, there are five new shows greenlighted with Asian-American leads–a phenomenon that hasn’t occurred for 20 years. So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Bringing Asian-Americans to the foreground could incite appreciation for the fastest growing race or ethnic group in America (as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau). Or, depending on how they’re portrayed, could further unfavorable stereotypes that have littered our society.
Twenty years ago in 1994, the show “All-American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho, aired on ABC. It presented America with a Korean-American family, but was unfortunately cancelled after one year. However, this may not have been such a bad thing; TV stations had swung and missed with this promising inclusion of Asian-Americans into our media consciousness by portraying this family as even more exotic and foreign–and the butt of every joke. Moreover, the show blurred lines between different Asian American identities and offered a haphazard portrayal of Korean American families.
NPR reported the five greenlighted shows for fall, all of which have Asian-American leads, bringing TV stations up to bat once more. In “Selfie,” produced by ABC, John Cho (Harold & Kumar, anyone?) plays a marketing specialist for a social media star. CBS will air three detective shows with Asian-American leads, one of which stars Maggie Q (Nikita). One show in particular that has made waves in the TV grapevine is ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat,” a series based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir in which he notes his life as being the child of Taiwanese parents growing up in the U.S. during the ‘90s.
Racial stereotypes in popular, widespread shows–such as Koothrapali in “The Big Bang Theory,” Mike Chang in “Glee,” or Gloria in “Modern Family”–have gotten laughs for embodying their stereotypes fully. This is a risky move, as it may further perpetuate stereotypes. However, there is some underlying agency wherein the characters, by laughing at themselves, are effectively circumventing the one-way point-and-laugh race jokes. However, embodying stereotypes on the whole, although it may generate laughs, should not be the only way to normalize racial diversity on TV.
Hopefully, this will not be the case for this fall. It seems each new show has something to do with detectives and crime, adding some Asian faces into the mix will help to bring variety into the white-male detective duo dynamic–without having to spell out that a character is Asian. John Cho’s role in “Selfie” could easily be played by an actor of any other race; like CBS’s new detective shows, this show is encouragingly placing Asian-Americans in interchangeable roles, habituating viewers to see Asian-Americans as another type of American, and not just Asian.
Huang’s “Fresh off the Boat” comes at a different angle but will still do great things for Asian-American presence in TV. By titling the show “Fresh off the Boat,” the producers engage in a sort of cultural subversion that uses a derogatory phrase as a sign of braggadocio. Moreover, the experiences on the show are unique to Huang and his Taiwanese-American family, and it doesn’t try to blanket Asian-Americans. The title and the outrageous characters are an attempt to depict how Asian-Americans are exactly that: American, but also with their own stories. Jeff Yang from the Wall Street Journal told NPR that the show is an “embrace of a refusal to just thoroughly assimilate.”
The light at the end of the media’s Asian-American false representation tunnel should not just extend to Asian-Americans. Principal Figgins from “Glee”; every greasy-haired, scar-faced Latino in “CSI: Miami”; and the complete absence of any African-Americans in “Friends” pay just a small tribute to the heinous representation (or lack thereof) of races on U.S. TV networks. The progress for Asian-Americans is promising this fall, but it shouldn’t stop there. Things are looking up for the representation for Asian-Americans in mainstream TV–let’s just hope it’s a home run this time.