“Fresh Off the Boat” Balances Stereotype and Authenticity in a Very Gay Episode

Last night was the first time a TV show with a principal Asian cast took on gay issues. That may not sound like a lot, but stop and digest that. There have only ever been two shows about Asian-American families, ever, on TV. Until last night, they have never directly addressed gay people or gay issues.

FOTB cast

It has been over 20 years since Margaret Cho came into our homes via prime time cable on All American Girl, the short-lived series about a Korean-American family in San Francisco, loosely based on Cho’s stand-up comedy. Though the show was based on the life of Cho, many young queer Asian girls’ queer root, queer topics were never directly addressed. All-American Girl was on the air in 1994. Fresh Off the Boat, which first aired in February 4th of this year, is set in the same era, in 1995.

When there are only two shows with a principal Asian cast over two decades, it’s hard not to compare them to each other. Both have that made-for-mainstream-America feel. Both are based on the life story of an Asian-American personality. (Fresh Off the Boat is based on the memoir of Taiwanese-Chinese-American chef, restaurateur, and former lawyer, Eddie Huang.) Both riff off of Asian-American culture and on the theme of “difference” or “outsiderness” that feels both relatable to anyone from a cross-cultural background and a little bit uncomfortably stereotypical.

Huang, himself, was openly critical of the show’s producers and writers, feeling it was too “white-washed” and watered down for palatability. However, in the end, it hit him how important this was, this moment of representation. As Huang said, “Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero.”

So with all this in mind, we headed into “Blind Spot,” the much-anticipated “gay episode.” Fresh Off the Boat‘s creator is out television writer and producer, Nahnatchka Khan (most recently known for Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23), and another out writer, David Smithyman, wrote the episode.

Nahnatchka Khan, possibly the most adorable funny person powerhouse ever.

Nahnatchka Khan, possibly the most adorable funny person powerhouse ever.

We had high hopes that having two queer people in the writing room would bring some authenticity to the gay character we were about to be introduced to. Here’s what we came away with:

KaeLyn, Contributing Editor

I was about the age of the main protagonist of Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie, in 1995. I was 12. I remember watching All American Girl with my family, every week, for the one season it aired. It was before DVR, so we would gather in front of the TV together: my white parents, my Korean sister, and me. It was the only time I ever saw Asian people on TV in an affirming way, not as a racist caricature or a hokey sidebar stereotype or a sexual temptation or in a war movie where we were the bad guys. Non-Asian people still tell me I look like Margaret Cho and I’m mostly OK with that because she meant a lot to me, as a queer bisexual fat woman and as a little Korean girl who craved connection to her own identity. Ironically, Cho later talked about that show as one of the worst moments of her career, with producers who asked her to be “more Chinese” and put her on a weight loss regimen that nearly killed her.

In 2015, I was hoping the world would be slightly better and that we could have a show about an Asian-American family that was rooted in more than just tired jokes about Tiger Balm and tiger moms. To a large degree, Fresh Off the Boat is a show based on stereotypes about Chinese people. It is also uniquely about the experience of being Taiwanese-Chinese-American, with an emphasis on American. Because America is a melting pot or whatever, but for people with a multi-cultural or cross-cultural background, it often feels more like a game of tug-and-war between the dominant culture and the heritage written in your skin and in your family. What Fresh Off the Boat does right is that it skewers everyone and, more importantly, it flips the script on white people.

I was bracing myself for “Blind Spot” because of a scene four episodes earlier in “Fajita Man,” where Jessica (Constance Wu) refuses to acknowledge a gay male couple who is exasperatingly trying to make clear to her their relationship. She never gets it right and I read this as a conservative take on Chinese culture. She is never openly cruel to them, but the “don’t ask don’t tell” microaggression that is common in many Asian cultures is played up — or so I thought.

It turns out that Jessica literally has no gaydar. She has no sixth sense. She can’t see gay people (“Wait, what was gay about Philadelphia?”). Including her college ex-boyfriend, Oscar Chow (Rex Lee). When Oscar comes to visit, Jessica can’t understand why her husband, Louis (Randall Park), isn’t more jealous of her spending time with Oscar. However, Louis has a blind spot, too. He can’t tell when people are flirting with him. Oscar not only dated Jessica as his beard, Oscar thought he and Louis were dating in college. Louis had no idea (“Well, that explains all the couples Halloween costumes.”).

Gay male characters in Asian film are often flamboyant, campy, and over-the-top. Oscar is no exception. Jessica finally sees the light when Oscar comes out wearing her “very swish” pink kimono and no pants, with a gold “gaysian” necklace peeking out.

Oscar is stereotypical, but he’s also a damn proud Gaysian man. He isn’t hiding from who he is. It is later made clear that he is out to his parents. He is not riddled with shame. He is not the butt of the joke. Also, Oscar has heart. In a touching scene with Louis, Oscar explains that even though Louis is straight, just thinking that they were dating helped him come to terms with his sexuality and that he hopes he’ll someday have the life and family that Louis and Jessica do. Louis pats his arm sincerely and says, “He’s out there and I’m jealous of all the delicious French pastries that guy has in his future.” This, y’all, is something I’ve never seen in a narrative about a gay Asian person.

While there have only been two TV shows about Asian families, there are many, many queer films featuring Asian directors, actors, and stories. In every one I can think of, the central conflict has been the queer Asian person coming out to their family, or being disowned or chastised by their family, or living with the shame and isolation of being queer. Never once was “Blind Spot” a coming out story. Never once was anyone made to feel ashamed. There was no extra-special moment where everyone kumbaya’d about Gay Uncle Oscar. It was just accepted that some people are gay and lesbian and not one person had a problem with it.

Yes, there were loads of stereotypes about both Asian and gay and lesbian people. There is a fairly funny scene in the Denim Turtle (someone please steal that name for a real lesbian bar), a lesbian dive bar that Jessica likes to go to because everyone is so nice to her. (“People have been buying me drinks all day. The women here are so sweet!”) The working-class, plaid-clad, butch patrons are walking lesbian stereotypes, but in a way that feels authentic as well as campy. Much like Fresh Off the Boat, there is a knowingness about the writing, that the jokes are based on stereotypes, but they are simultaneously winking at the audience, flipping the script on typical representation of gay and lesbian characters.

I’m going to keep watching, not only because the show creator is family, but because this family feels rooted in something authentic. I’m happy to think there are 12 year old kids watching this show right now, who are seeing themselves on TV for the first time, and who just got the message in “Blind Spot” that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being who you are. In the final scene of the episode, Oscar gives the Huang family a preview of his audition for Aladdin on Ice (the reason for his trip). “That’s my ex-boyfriend,” says Jessica. “Mine, too,” Louis replies. As little Eddie would say, “Drop the mic.”

Robin, Contributing Editor

Well dang! I was nervous going into this episode, and it ended up being super sweet! Sweeping gay stereotypes embodied by Oscar Chow aside, the jokes were mostly at the expense of Jessica’s and Louis’s titular blind spots, and their blind spots were built on characterizations that had already been established. In an earlier episode, Jessica kept referring to a gay couple as best friends (like KaeLyn, I first read that as a conservative willfulness, and I’m glad it was lampshaded later), and Louis’s misreading of people’s intentions has been used a few times for comedic and more serious effects. It was also nice to see Oscar accepted so casually without any shame or exotification, especially in a show about an Asian family. Given that my personal experiences regarding gayness with my family are either shaming, only indirectly addressed, or full of exotified intrigue, I’m so so so happy that Fresh Off the Boat not only avoided that, but also treated Oscar as more than just a bunch of punchlines. I can’t immediately think of an instance on television where a straight man handles another man’s attraction to him so empathetically and openly — and on a show set in the 90s!

And the lesbian bar! The Denim Turtle was some deep Lesbian Dive Bar realness. I could have done without every major lesbian stereotype crammed into that one scene, but I also thought it was genuinely funny and true to life. Everyone in that bar looks like someone I’d see at my neighborhood gay bar, and the lighting, the set, and the vibe all felt spot-on. The scene itself was only a small part of the whole episode, but I thought it was well-done, and fit in with the overall arc of the episode. I laughed a LOT, and it didn’t make me feel weird or mean-spirited afterwards.

Whenever I tell people that I watch Fresh Off the Boat, I’m usually asked, is it any good? I always say yes, because I do think it’s good, but I follow that up with, “it’s a great classic sitcom.” It’s an important thing for me to emphasize. While the show is revolutionary in terms of representation, it’s also a good ol’ American sitcom, which goes a long way toward normalizing, y’know, good ol’ Asian-American families. I also like to remind myself that it’s not enough to be satisfied with being represented in one show, in one genre, that isn’t horrifically offensive.

Fresh Off the Boat also has the burden of balancing between trope, stereotype, and reality, which it does well for the most part, but which I find myself scrutinizing a lot when I watch it (because when I’m starved for self-representation, it’s hard not to want what little representation there is to be done “well,” and “right,” and “completely in line with my own experience” even if that’s contradictory and narcissistic and probably won’t make for good TV). For example, I was scared that Jessica would turn out to be just a Tiger Mom caricature. Thankfully, she’s shown a lot of nuance, and Constance Wu is a treasure, but Jessica still fills the Strong, Bad-Cop Matriarch trope that appears in a lot of sitcoms (and often turns shrew-ish in later seasons), while Louis usually gets to be the laid-back Fun Dad. But this is a real thing! As much as it makes me cringe sometimes, it feels true to Jessica and viscerally, it feels true to my own mother, who herself half-fits the stereotype of the “Shanghai woman” — strong-willed, holds people to high expectations, determined head of the household. I cringe the way Eddie cringes, in empathy, but I also wish it weren’t the only example of an Asian mom that we get to see on TV. Sitcoms about white families can sometimes get away with shrill, overbearing mother figures, because there are so many kinds of white mothers in so many shows, but use the trope in an Asian family, the only Asian family on network TV, and you’re in danger of reinforcing a toxic stereotype for those who don’t know better. This is more of a criticism of the state of network television than it is of Fresh Off the Boat itself; I no longer have that fear for Jessica. With the exception of the poorly-used grandmother, I think the show is pretty self-aware of its positioning and tries to use its exaggerated style to bring more to its characters than cleverly delivered stereotypes. So far, it’s done pretty well by me, and I hope I get to see more of it and other Asian-American-centered shows soon.

Watch Fresh Off the Boat now on Amazon Instant Video.

KaeLyn is a 35-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, over-caffeinating herself, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, eating carbs, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 209 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. 1) I love Fresh Off the Boat. My Viet/white person and I watch it obsessively every week. Jessica Huang is one of the best female characters on television right now. I love her so much.
    2) Does anyone remember when Rex Lee (who plays Oscar) played a flamboyantly gay fashion reporter who was actually a straight suburban soccer dad? No? Anyone?
    3) This coverage was stellar.

  2. I love this show. As a non-Asian married to an Asian woman I enjoy watching my wife snort laughing saying stuff like “oh that’s so my mom/aunt/sister” about stuff Jessica does and such.
    But I agree that the grandmother could be used better.

    • Yeah, the grandmother is just there in the corner…being an old Chinese lady. There was that one scene in Fajita Man where she helped Louis be a better father. I would like more of that. I want her to be more than a stereotypical old lady there for comic relief.

  3. Fresh off the Boat is my favorite show at the moment. It’s not one of those shows that’s okay but I watch because I love the message. It’s genuinely funny.
    I love how Eddie relates to rap and hip hop, because they too are outsiders.
    While it is close to stereotypes, I agree that the writers are “winking” at the audience. Things aren’t perfect, sure, but it’s a lot better than others have done.

    • The only times I have been really uncomfortable is when the racist jokes about black people are made by the Wong’s. The cultural appropriation stuff with Eddie is kind of endearing and true to the experience of lots of “outsiders” who found solace in music that gave us permission to be different and to rage against systematic oppression. It makes sense to me and it seems like Eddie really connects with rap. Whether he should be doing a “pimp walk” is another story, but also…he’s 12. I get uncomfortable when Jessica makes a “crips” joke and in the one scene when she leads them all in a “mommy pimp walk.” I felt weird about it. But so much of the show is about this “melting pot America” and the absurdity of that notion. It kind of works?

  4. I really really really liked reading how you both felt about the show and this episode! I marathoned the first five or so episodes yesterday and watched last night’s episode and definitely plan to keep watching.

  5. I love this article so much! All I’ve wanted since FOTB first aired is some queer feminist validation on my feelings about this show. This episode made me laugh a lot. And Robin’s point about this being a classic American sitcom — *yes.*

  6. I’ve been watching Fresh Off the Boat weekly after marathoning the first few episodes. I don’t watch *anything* weekly, so this show is obviously worth it.

    Also, side note – this is the first time that I’ve watched a show with an openly gay character with my mom and not felt like I needed to leave the room because of her (silent) super uncomfortable, negative reaction. Progress is slow y’all, but it’s a thing.

  7. I love this piece, this show and that gaysian necklace. I adore this show because I came of age in the 90’s (I’m about 3 years older than Eddie) and there are so many nuances in this show; about being a kid of color in a predominantly white community, the socialization of hip-hop music and culture at that time and how it was for many of us, something that needed to be explained- even if one or both of your parents were Black, and the experience of being an *other.* I also see so many similarities between Black and Asian culture on this show and Idk if all of it it is intentional, but they’re drawing a lot of cross-cultural lines and I love it.

    Also, in the paragraph above Robin’s part, it says, “In the final scene of the episode, Oscar gives the Wong family a preview of his audition for Aladdin on Ice.” It should say “Huang.”

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