Huang tweeted, “I don't think it is helping us to perpetuate an artificial representation of Asian American lives and we should address it” and said he doesn’t watch the show. When I look at the commentary on social media, I see a lot of people complaining that Huang’s ego is out of control, that he’s missing the point, that he should support the sitcom for the greater good since that last major network sitcom to star an Asian American family was 20 years ago, and that he’s overstating the importance of a simple comedy sitcom.
My view? I respect Huang’s fearlessness (sure, you could argue it borders on political suicide sometimes or perhaps doesn’t make business sense, but I don’t think you can make a case that he’s not brazenly outspoken and I like that). I respect Huang’s willingness to rock the boat - no pun intended – and his refusal to bow down quietly and suck dust under a bed somewhere…with a big wad of cash in his pocket, to be sure. Whether or not you agree or disagree with his views about the show is, well, whatever…it’s more about whether you like the fact he so loudly makes his views known.
So, let’s take a hypothetical. Say, I wrote a blog about walking in the park and someone offered to pay me money to create a story out of it and I took the money and saw the story and it started with, “So this gook walks in the park…” and turned out to be a story I really didn’t like – would I take the money and stay silent? Give back the money and try to reverse the agreement? Keep the money and lambast the story? I choose #3! Now, that’s not to say I think the Fresh Off the Boat is any of the negative things Huang has described it as or that I think ABC doesn’t deserve a big gold star for putting out a show starring an Asian American family.
I personally have no opinion about the show one way or the other because I’ve never watched it so I have no way to judge it. I haven’t watched it not because of any political or nefarious reasons but because I just don’t watch comedy sitcoms much. Call it a great irony: I love being IN comedy sitcoms but I prefer to WATCH hour long dramas. The only two comedy shows I watch right now are Archer and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight – not really the typical network half hour comedy. So, I have nothing to say about Fresh Off The Boat other than that I think there should be a whole lot more Asian American representation on network TV and so, to the extent networks increase that representation, that’s generally a good thing. What I do have something to say about is Huang’s speaking out and making his views known – however unpopular they may be. Why not? Why would anyone want to silence him? Ok, there are a few reasons. People say Huang should be quiet and not the rock the boat because he could single handedly destroy the networks’ interest in airing shows starring Asian Americans and thereby set us (us being Asian Americans) back.
To that, I have two basic responses: (1) If what Huang says is accurate, won’t it also set us back in a myriad of ways if we silently allow national media to perpetuate negative racial stereotypes of Asian Americans to a mass audience? (2) Let’s face it, Asian Americans are already set back…way, way, WAY back. According to the last SAG-AFTRA Magazine report, Asian American representation on network television for 2014-2015 declined 2-3% (the only racial group listed to decline and even in the face of an increasing overall presence in the United States population).
I produce a (much, much smaller scale) television series that the NYC municipal network, after three successful seasons, told me they wouldn’t renew unless I changed the name to define the show as “Asian” because there were so many Asian people in it. Let me note here that it’s a contemporary American show geared towards total market audiences that we just make sure are diversely cast. We refused to re-name and re-brand the show in the manner requested because why would we force the show into a niche when it’s a f-ing AMERICAN show? It’s not about Asia. It is, often, about Asian AMERICANS and I didn’t, and still don’t, see why we should be forced to racially categorize and segregate entertainment that stars Asian Americans when white Americans aren’t ever asked to do that. I was shocked that the show was being treated differently and that the municipal network wouldn’t market it as, simply, an “American” show. I got some of the same comments Huang got when my co-producers and I refused to capitulate about well, why not just suck it up and get the airtime under a new “Asian” category name? But, I’m straying from the point. We have problems, people. We had problems before Huang and Fresh Off the Boat and maybe, just maybe, opening up a real and genuine dialogue about our representation in media will actually be helpful.
At the end of the day, whatever you want to say about Huang’s views, you’ve got to admit he’s not afraid to speak up. My view? Huang is a loud, proud American and he owns that. Huang is also a loud, proud Asian American and he owns that, too. And now that I’m all riled up about this whole thing, maybe I’ll check out the show!
Legal disclaimer: the views herein expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Film Lab.