nickle for my thoughts

“Fresh Off the Boat” and the dangers of perpetuating anti-blackness

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Note: SPOILERS COMING. Also,  I refer to the actual Eddie Huang as “Real Eddie” to differentiate him from the young Eddie Huang played in the ABC show by the remarkable Hudson Yang.

Let me preface this reflection with the fact that I am extremely appreciative and grateful for the long-overdue airing of a show like Fresh Off the Boat. Seeing an Asian American family on TV for the first time in my 21 years of life is cathartic, surreal, and validating in so many ways. In particular, ostensibly throwaway details like the patterned bowls (Ep. 1-2), Jessica Huang hand-peeling an apple (Ep. 2), attempts to impress mom with getting the “better” bargain (Ep. 4), hilariously accurate family drama and need to “one-up” one another (Ep. 4), rice sacks as pillows (Ep. 4), and subtitled Mandarin shock me in how gratifying I find it to see such details portrayed on television. All of the actors are fantastic, especially the main family members — Constance Wu, Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler, Randall Park, and last but not least, Hudson Yang.

However, I want to reflect on the show’s handling thus far (as in, up until Episode 4) of hip hop, blackness, and black culture.

Ep. 3 aired tonight and I found it problematic that it arguably does not correct for its (misguided) linking of misogyny with hip hop. To give a basic summary, when Eddie finds out the white kids have the coolest new shoes, Jordan’s, and he can’t get them, he wants to nab a hot white curvy woman to show his peers he deserves respect. He comes up with this plan after listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a hip hop group, and fantasizes himself into a rap video with lots of booty-shaking women of color. In the fantasy, he squirts Capri Sun onto the white trophy wife, who appears in his fantasy, equally hyper-sexualized.

Jeff Yang, Hudson Yang’s father, mentions that Hudson had trouble with this episode — and it’s clear to see why. He’s put in an awkward and disturbing position of having to objectify women overtly as an 11 year old. Jeff says that the episode “corrects” an 11-year old’s misconceptions about women, but I’m not so convinced that’s true. The entrance of Nicole (the daughter of Honey and what looks to be Eddie’s new crush) at the very end of the episode is still hypersexualized (though she does enter as a total badass and I’m looking forward to seeing the plotline that develops between her and Eddie during the rest of the season).

Aside from this entrance of Eddie’s first true infatuation, Eddie’s parents do regard his shenanigans as foolish. But they brush it off as trivial and typical rather than give him the appropriate, figurative “smack in the head” wake-up call.

Emery, Eddie’s adorable younger brother, “corrects” Eddie by pointing out to Eddie that love is different than lust. Presumably, his remarkable success with girls is a matter of innocent, childlike love. But this “correction” is played off in the show as a comical “teaching moment” from an unexpected source, rather than a legitimate critique of Eddie’s objectification of women. Emery’s “correction” of Eddie is anticlimactic, in passing, and played off as a joke.

Curiously, Emery is with two girls at one time for the first time in the series in Ep. 3 – and they are both girls of color. In Ep. 1 he has many “girlfriends,” but they are white and they are shown one at a time. And when Emery introduces Eddie to his girlfriends in Ep. 3 (who are of color) the girls’ only lines are, [paraphrased] “At first we thought this would be a problem, but we’re actually OK with it.” So women/girls of color booty-shake in rap videos and are contentedly in polyamorous relations, but are not the subjects of desire, or subjects remotely explored meaningfully at all. What is the meaning of such a limited portrayal of women/girls of color in FOTB so far?

Arguably the only strikingly real and jarring pushback against Eddie’s (and by implication the rest of the young males in the show) objectification of women and perception that women can be used as status symbols (in the episode a ‘hot’ white woman is essentially equated to a new pair of Jordan’s) is the line where Honey righteously laments about being treated by everyone like a “homewrecking stripper.” The moment is strikingly real in a comedy and refreshing — if only the episode had honed in on that more.

While it is endearing that Honey ultimately offers to help Eddie show his classmates he can get a girl, the notion that a (hot) woman is a status symbol is never questioned in the episode. It is taken as a given and arguably never corrected for — the “sensual hug” does earn Eddie the fleeting respect he craves from his peers.

Then again, one can’t blame Eddie (or any of the other males in the show) for being attracted to and objectifying curvy white women — America’s white-washed, heteropatriarchal media idealizes that body type. Yet, ironically, most of the women in his “rap music video fantasy” are women of color. Speaking of which, that little fantasy sequence is a whole ‘nother story.

Real Eddie critiqued this already, but why is listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard the source of Eddie’s decision to objectify a white woman, rather than the plethora of white-washed, misogynistic, heteropatriachal media idealizing white female curvaceous bodies that we are all inundated with? It is specifically after he listens to ODB that he comes up with the idea that nabbing a hot woman will get him respect.

Huang especially took issue with the second episode in the series…Though test audiences found the scene to be innocuously funny, Huang considered the thrust of the episode outright offensive. In his estimation, it denigrates hip-hop culture by portraying it as a vector for adopting sexist attitudes — a perversion of what, for him, had been a vital emotional outlet. His analysis is credible but, as the writers and producers told him, way too abstruse for anyone in the audience to think about,” Wesley Yang writes in his New York Times profile of Real Eddie and the show.

Perhaps Real Eddie’s analysis is “way too abstruse for anyone in the audience,” but it is in this naive belief in the dumbness of middle America (and Asian America, too) where the dangers of such casual portrayals of black culture and hip hop lie.

As Real Eddie mentioned, hip hop is not seen in the series so far as a genuine outlet for Eddie’s social alienation, but rather a source for wayward advice on seeking respect through treating women like status and sex symbols.

Hip-hop had been the emblem of Huang’s alienation from his own household and the violence he encountered at school,” Yang writes. “It provided a language through which to reject the role of the eager assimilator that his own culture seemed to urge onto him. It was, as Huang described it in his book, a means of survival — not some glib, touristic fascination, or even a way of being cool. Huang identified with the black kids at school because they, too, were enduring beatings in their households in a way that white kids weren’t.”

There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and fetishization, and genuine identification with a specific culture. It’s clear that Real Eddie’s affinity for hip hop falls under the latter category, particularly from his memoir and interviews.

But the average (and intended) viewer is not going to have diligently read Real Eddie’s memoir or his amazing interviews. Their only exposure to the real Eddie or Asian America is the show. And unlike Real Eddie, the ABC show does not differentiate between appropriation and appreciation. What’s the danger of this? 

This.

White actor/model Colton Haynes has dressed in brown and blackface for Halloween for multiple years in a row. This is exactly what might happen if Eddie’s affinity for hip hop and black culture in the show is not explored properly; it’ll just provide fodder for those who appropriate black culture without advocating against oppression of the very folks they fetishize, rather than showing the ways in which hip hop provided Real Eddie, and many other Asian Americans, with an outlet for his anger and social alienation — and thus reveals a critique of the ways in which dominant white culture marginalizes minorities. And I’m not just talking about white people, but also Asian Americans, who have benefited and remained complicit in anti-black racism for decades.

Real Eddie’s identification with hip hop seems, from his memoir, many interviews, blog posts, and his Vulture piece, to stem from a deep and complex place of social alienation, cultural displacement, and traumatic childhood experience at home. Yet the show explores none of these deeply in relation to hip hop. Eddie’s social ostracization and his affinity for hip hop are treated pretty much independently in the show, rather than as intricately linked. The lack of fully explored black characters in the show (though Walter apparently appears in the series for six more episodes) only contributes to this dehumanizing portrayal of blackness.

Yes, Fresh Off the Boat should not be burdened with representing a whole population of 18 million incredibly diverse, varied and richly nuanced individuals, who are starved for full-fledged visual representation and remain relatively invisible in popular culture. Yes, FOTB is a different animal than Real Eddie’s memoir. It is an adaptation for the TV screen, a different medium, targeted at a different, wider (arguably) audience. But that does not excuse the show, especially as the only show with an Asian American leading family on network TV, from contributing to anti-blackness and the appropriation of blackness.

I sincerely hope the show meaningfully engages Eddie’s relationship with black individuals, black culture, and hip hop. Thus far, it has not done so. From lines like, “If we get separated, go to a white family and I know you will be safe there (Ep. 1),” to the odd O.J. Simpson subplot of Ep. 3 in which Asian grandmas “comically” confuse the black tow truck driver for OJ Simpson, to the attribution of misogyny to hip hop in Ep. 3, the show seems to paint blackness as merely a prop for comedy, shenanigans, misogyny and general rowdiness.

Interestingly and admirably, the show does point out the irony in general society’s simultaneous exploitation of black culture as social capital and marginalization of actual black people (the Jordan’s are cool and the white kids say Walter, in being black, has “built-in Jordan’s” – a hilarious and on-point comment; in Ep. 1, it is Eddie’s wearing of a Biggie shirt that allows him to sit at the cool, white table, yet the actual black kid sits alone). Walter comments on why this is “ridiculous,” which is completely accurate.

However, the show does not explore Eddie’s affinity for shirts with rappers on them, use of African American Vernacular English, and love for hip hop beyond basic fetishization of black culture. “Grown-up” Eddie says hip hop was the anthem of an outsider in his voiceover narration — but this comment is brief and microscopic compared with the overwhelming visual appropriative use of blackness as the butt of jokes or source of social capital in the series so far.

One might argue that one TV show is not obligated to stand on high moral ground on issues of misogyny or anti-blackness. I agree that FOTB should not be burdened by the weight of “authenticity” or misrepresenting Asian Americans as we are so diverse that there is no one show or family that can universalize the experience of every Asian American. Constance Wu is right in saying that the specificity in storytelling will lend the show its credibility and inherent authenticity.

However, like Real Eddie, I believe that the show does have an obligation to avoid contributing to anti-blackness. The visibility of Asian Americans in mainstream media should not come at the expense of portrayals of other people of color, particularly in light of the fact that the show clearly aims to combat forms of racism.

As a show that many Asian Americans are watching and identifying with, as a cultural medium with a far wider reach than Real Eddie’s fantastic memoir, the propagation of anti-blackness and dehumanization of blackness (thus far in the series) treads dangerous territory of condoning, perpetuating, being complicit in, and confirming the validity of anti-black attitudes within the Asian American community, already a tenuous issue.

I have hope that the show can explore more meaningfully Eddie’s emotionally genuine connection to hip-hop, portray black characters in all their humanity alongside Asian American characters as well, and stop using blackness as the butt of jokes. In the meantime I’ll stay tuned.

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