I watched FOTB faithfully for the first season. While I personally didn’t relate to many aspects of the show, I was very happy that any show that portrayed an Asian-American family existed at all. I hoped my views would count on ABC’s website to show networks that people wanted to watch shows featuring Asian people. Sure, they drew on some stereotypes about Asians–tiger mom, restaurant owners, accented English.
And cheap. So, so cheap.
I chose to overlook the show’s use of these race-based tropes in that first season. Like as the creators of the show repeatedly emphasized in interviews, it was acceptable for the actors to use a fake accent or otherwise be portrayed using certain stereotypes because they weren’t making fun of them for having those features. So it was totally okay for a Korean-American actor who normally speaks accentless English to fake a generically Asian accent (while he slips out of it half of the time). Yes, no problems! I still side-eyed that because it would have been perfectly fine to portray the parents without accents–it’s not inconceivable they might have learned very good English in Taiwan, or lost their accents in America as plenty of people do.
But then they did cross the line and made an Asian stereotype the butt of the joke of an entire episode, in the first Season 2 episode, “Family Business Trip”. It’s about a business trip/vacation the family takes together. The running joke of the episode is that the mom, Jessica, is cheap. Super super cheap. She take absurd measures and goes crazy the entirety of the episode trying to maximize what they can get out of a hotel stay, while trying to cut down on the hotel bill by refusing to pay various standard charges like tax. As Jessica’s actions grew more and more extreme, it became downright offensive and I had to stop watching.
The problem with FOTB is that it’s essentially a whitewashed version of an Asian family. A version that white people can be comfortable laughing at. The creators and writers of the show have taken pains to assure white people it’s okay to laugh, because their intent is not to make fun of these Asians–we’re not laughing AT them, but ABOUT them (?).
But in the end my discomfort comes from my fear. I’m afraid that white people WILL make fun of the accents. I’m afraid white people DO think we are all like that, and the show just reinforces their stereotypes. Comedy is not made for nuance. The creators of the show may not intend for the Huangs’ accents or stereotypically Asian behavior to be the butt of the joke, but that’s not under their control. People will pick what they laugh at. It’s kind of like how Chappelle stopped making his show in large part because of how white people picked up and ran with the jokes on his show in a direction that he never, ever intended (I can’t imagine what people did with the Ni**er Family sketch). He discussed in an interview how he realized this when a white crew member laughed at the wrong part of a race joke they were filming:
Success, however, by creating a bigger and different audience than they ever expected, left them unable to control what people were laughing at. This is what he meant when Time interviewed him in Africa and he kept on repeating, “I’ve got to check my intentions.“ The example he brought up often after quitting came when shooting a sketch in which, in an attempt to skewer racism, Chappelle was performing in blackface. Chappelle says a white crew member laughed at the “wrong” part of the joke. As he explained on Oprah, it was the fundamental difference between an audience laughing with him and an audience laughing at him. This is a big difference for a comedian who famously will laugh at his own jokes.
There’s probably at least one white person who probably heard Jessica’s accented tiger mom act and laughed AT her. White people probably took away from that season two episode that wow, Asians will go to crazy lengths to save money, because they are so damn cheap! Ugh, those immigrants.
For a while I assumed that most if not all of the writers must have been white. I looked it up and there are a few Asians. I tried to think about how this show still ended up the way it has. One theory I came up with was, most of the writers, to get far enough in their comedy careers to get this writing gig, they had to advance and be considered funny as defined by mainstream comedy, which is white male comedy–not known for their racial sensitivity. They likely developed a good deal of their creative notions while being surrounded by mostly young white guys. This isn’t their fault, but it’s pretty much inevitable that such a circumstance did influence their comedy–maybe they even made fun of Asians themselves, like how Margaret Cho is famous for her bit making fun of her mom’s accent.
I also presume that most of the writers grew up in the US, so probably lack a really good understanding of the people they are writing about. For example, I was confused by Jessica’s accent because her way of speaking would be quite unusual for a Taiwanese woman–Taiwanese people are known for having a very soft, mellow way of speaking, while Jessica’s accent (and spoken Mandarin) is a much louder, assertive version:
In comparison, look at how different the below girls are, and who does Jessica sound more like? (It’s really funny and you should watch anyway)
Obviously not all Taiwanese women are the same, but my point is that the show seems to draw into the loud Asian woman stereotype to poke fun at Jessica, whether the writers intend it or not, and quite possibly without an understanding of what actual Taiwanese people are like.
I guess what it really comes down to is, especially in light of what Chapelle experienced, that your intentions don’t matter. People are going to read into what you create however they like, based on their already-formed perspective about the people you’re portraying. The writers might then conclude that, oh well, nothing you can do, racists will be racists so just do whatever we want with the race things. But I think that’s a lazy view, and using the Huangs’ stereotypically Asian features for humor is lazy, and in a way makes it a minstrel show.
It’s possible to create a show about Asian people or other POC and be funny without using stereotypes. I truly believe it. And I think the show still has the chance to do it. Maybe I was too harsh and even should give it another shot. But I’m still afraid of how this might be the way that a number of people will learn about Asians, and that’s what they will think of us. I don’t want people to see me and have the first thing they think be loud, cheap tiger mom. There’s enough in this world saying that I’m one-sided like that already.