“Representation is a trap,” tweeted writer and activist Suey Park last week — words of caution to the excitement expressed for Fresh Off the Boat, a new comedy in ABC’s fall 2014 lineup.
Fresh Off the Boat puts a humorous spin on Chef Eddie Huang’s Taiwanese family’s move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Fla. in the 90’s. The show stars the first Asian-American family in a network primetime sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl in 1994.
The trailer is hilarious – I laughed so hard I cried. However, Park reminded me to take a closer look at comedic television, where “representation” is often a synonym for “stereotype.”
Combined with the network’s triple threat Shonda Rhimes Thursdays, ABC’s primetime slots seem to do representation well. Fresh Off the Boat is one of three ABC comedies debuting this fall featuring families of color. Based on writer Kenya Barris’ own family experiences, Black-ish centers around an affluent Black man and his comedic attempts to keep his family connected to their Black culture while his children assimilate into the White mainstream culture around them. Cristela, based on the stand-up routines of comedian Cristela Alonzo, tells the story of a woman working and going to law school part-time while she lives with her Hispanic family.
How well do these shows tell a story we haven’t heard before? Take, for example, the fact that many members of Huang’s Taiwanese family are played by Korean actors. Or that “fresh off the boat” is derogatory slang used to poke fun at East Asian immigrants’ attempts to settle into life in the U.S.—not necessarily the best term to use when describing a family’s move across the country. Or that Anthony Anderson’s character throws his son a “bro-mitzvah,” complete with matching tracksuits and chains.
All three of these comedies’ roots are based on a real person’s experience. However, we can’t ignore that each plays on stereotype for laughs. For example, when we laugh at Jessica’s (Constance Wu) broken English on Fresh Off the Boat, we’re laughing at a throwback to a racial stereotype we’ve been taught to perceive as humorous.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t watch these shows or appreciate shows centered on families of color, which are rare on network primetime television. Nor does it mean that we should discredit the truth in each of these shows’ jokes about the issues people of color face in the U.S. today, such as Cristela’s co-worker mistaking her for a maid. The last time I checked, diversity didn’t mean “more of the same.” Television should build on the work already out there, not tell the same story over and over again.
These shows haven’t aired yet — we’ve only seen the trailers. But I see Park’s tweet as a reminder — representation is literally more than skin-deep. As we discussed last week in our “How Do We Feel About” series, it’s not enough to see a face on screen. Portrayal matters — or representation becomes a trap. This lineup shows progress, but it’s too early to call victory.