Welcome to the second installment of our Fresh Off the Boat roundtable! While we’re still enjoying and relating to the show a whole lot, this week we’d like to more closely examine the somewhat troubling gender and racial dynamics in these two episodes.
Esther: So I thought we could start off by talking about gender in these episodes. What did you guys think about the storyline centered on Eddie, and his struggle to use a desirable woman to gain entry into the cool-kid circle? Is it more or less problematic because he’s a kid? On the one hand, Honey offers us a little bit of pushback when she points out that everyone sees her as just some “homewrecking stripper,” but I also felt like the episode pretty much left it at that. It didn’t feel like we were really meant to see Eddie’s treatment of her as problematic in any way. What do you guys think?
Karen: It was definitely problematic for me. I think Eddie’s whole hip-hop music video fantasy (putting aside his parents’ funny intrusion) trivializes hip-hop in a way that aligned with some prevailing racist stereotypes about music. And in terms of the gender dimensions — maybe some of the ickiness of Eddie wanting a hot girl as a prop is alleviated by his age, but the show also doesn’t really show that it’s sexist to do that by, for example, having one of Eddie’s parents call him out on it afterwards. Nicole, the stepdaughter, doesn’t get much screen time, but I’m not sure how we are to take her calling Honey a “slut” at the end of episode three. That being said, I appreciated the development of friendship between Jessica and Honey, which led to the funniest line in either episode, in my opinion: “This is not a duet!”
Belinda: I remember thinking, “Whoa, this is NOT going in a good direction” when Eddie first had his music video-esque fantasy involving Honey, and I agree that it trivializes hip-hop and is problematic in that sense. However, the show doesn’t take it too far, thanks to the intrusion. In that scene, Eddie’s mom interrupts the fantasy and all of the girls are then eating Cattleman’s Ranch, so the humor shifts to his parents. Eddie grabbing Honey’s butt, though, really accentuated her being used as a prop; but she slaps his hand away, so she isn’t entirely demeaned. I agree that Eddie should’ve been reprimanded for that… Maybe getting shot with the lawn dart somehow *was* his punishment? I think her character shines through as more than a “homewrecking slut” because of the friendship aspect and the Stephen King bits. But overall, a lot could have been done differently in regards to her treatment in that episode. And haha, “this is NOT a duet” was hilarious.
E: Yeah, I wasn’t sure what to do with the fact that Eddie’s misogyny was rooted in hip-hop, or took expression in it. I found it really uncomfortable, for example, when he sat down and was throwing the Cattleman’s Ranch coupons on Honey like he was showering a stripper with money. I mean, yeah the lawn dart was punishment — but not explicitly for his sexist treatment of Honey, right? It all felt aligned with the show’s use of girls (so far) as status symbols — like the main way that we, as viewers, are supposed to know that Emery has *assimilated* well are his girlfriends, all of whom are just shown really briefly.
K: That’s a good point about Emery. I’m interested in what they do with Nicole’s character later on, though: whether she’ll be just a love interest or more than that.
B: Yeah, you’re right about Emery, especially since he had two girlfriends at once in this episode, haha. Women seem to be used as props to demonstrate assimilation; I can’t think of another female character besides Jessica and the grandmother (and she’s mainly used for comic relief) that is a standalone character thus far. Maybe Nicole will become that character. I also did think it was weird that she called Honey a slut, further demeaning her. I wonder if their relationship dynamic will be played out further.
K: On the flip side in regards to gender dynamics, that scene right before the karaoke performance when Jessica sees Honey eating her stinky tofu was great — very emotionally resonant. I think Jessica’s whole struggle with fitting in to the neighborhood makes it more evident that she’s an individual rather than a type, i.e. the Asian-American mother. There’s this wonderful interview (link: http://time.com/3696111/fresh-off-the-boat-constance-wu/ ) with Constance Wu in Time where she addresses that topic (among a myriad other things about the show!) really well.
E: AH, I love that interview. Constance was so spot-on when she talks about “anglo-heteronormativity,” haha.
B: It seems like the show is trying to parody the whole concept of misogyny rooted in hip-hop. Eddie showering Honey with the Cattleman’s Ranch coupons albeit disturbing in many ways, is also a little goofy and over-the-top. So I think those exaggerated depictions — while they seem problematic — are ways to satirize some aspects of how people perceive hip-hop culture. But the show could’ve been more transparent in what it was doing if that was the case. Like, Eddie should’ve been openly reprimanded by his mom or something, like we were saying. A part of me does think the lawn dart hitting him *is* punishment, although not explicitly stated. And yeah, that scene with the stinky tofu… All the feels! I agree; she isn’t just the one dimensional “Tiger Mom” who stays at home and disciplines her kids.
K: Let’s talk more about the representations of black characters and black culture. I’m glad that they showed Walter (seemingly, the only black kid at Eddie’s school) again, and subtly aligned him with Eddie in terms of social status by having the white kids point out that neither of them owns a pair of Jordans. That being said, I wish that he’s more than just a marginal character who’s so far only defined by quippy one-liners.
B: There was also a black girl — she was one of Emery’s “girlfriends” in the inflatable pool.
K: Oops, my bad! The only recurring black character then (so far)?
B: Walter is definitely the token black kid, though. At least that’s how they’re playing him off.
E: I agree that it was kind of nice seeing the show align Walter and Eddie in terms of class, but it was kind of disturbing to me how little screen time he got. In that scene, remember, Walter was there just to make a quippy exit, and the white character was the one who spoke for him! That’s marginalization being played out not just within the world of the show, but also within the writing of the script. I mean, for the only real interaction with Walter to be a white kid saying, “He’s black so it’s like he’s got built-in Jordans” is really pretty messed up. Walter was so perceptive about race and power dynamics last episode, even though he got very little screen time, that I really wanted to see and, more importantly, hear more from him.
B: Are black culture and hip-hop culture synonymous, though? It actually would’ve been cool if Walter and Eddie aligned not just based on social status, like with the Jordans, but because of their love of hip-hop. But I think the show was going against the predictable stereotyping of Walter as the black kid that loves hip-hop.
E: Not always, but in the show (and for Eddie), they seem to be. I’m saying, hip-hop culture’s major (background) presence on the show is the show’s main opportunity to discuss black culture. That’s the outlet for discussion that the show is setting up.
B: Agreed, it seems like a missed opportunity, because Walter purposely was like, “Nah, man, I’m not going to befriend you just because you like Biggie.”
K: I think both of you make very good points. It was smart of the show to set Walter up as someone who doesn’t bond with Eddie just because the latter loves hip-hop, but like you said, Esther, we’ve seen so little of him so far that it’s hard to identify his place in the show as anything other than comedic relief. I would even have liked it better if they had explored the antagonism between Walter and Eddie from the pilot more in this week’s episodes. Maybe it’s something they’ll return to later but so far I’m not too optimistic about the show’s take on black culture…
E: Yeah, I agree. I think for now, in our tracking of the show’s themes, black culture has remained unexplored. I am going to remain optimistic solely because I find the rest of the show still so smart and relatable, haha.
K: That’s totally fair. And I do too! I think this is the kind of sitcom that gets funnier the more you think about it.
B: I think we all agree that Walter should be explored more. Hopefully FOTB will also introduce more black characters, so he doesn’t carry all of the weight of representation.
E: As always, I thought Constance Wu was the standout of these last two episodes.
K: Agreed! Her comedic timing remains impeccable. Not to mention she’s a great singer, too.
B: I love that she carries the show. “Tatas and miatas” was, like, the best one-liner.
E: “I didn’t know Asians liked karaoke…” was one of my favorite lines, haha. I mean, the white ladies crew is often over-the-top, but there are sometimes moments that get right to the heart of the absurdity in such a real way.
K: Haha, that and “she’s cutting the cake into equal pieces because of communism.” That’s one of the best things about this show — that it’s not afraid to make fun of white perceptions of Asian-Americans.
E: Agreed. Like, when the loudest-one-is-their-leader was like, “I know that because I watched a documentary about China in college”? That was so real, haha. I could immediately picture that line coming out of the mouths of people I know.
B: That and their reluctance to even try the stinky tofu — such a white suburban thing. People in L.A., for example, are all about that exotic food.
K: Oh my goodness, yes. Jessica’s reaction was priceless, too. I also found the fourth episode really enjoyable in its exploration of larger family dynamics. Those success perms were SPOT ON.
E: Hahaha, YES. Oh, can we talk about the OJ trial for a second? I thought that was really kind of emblematic of the way the show was treating black people — as markers of culture, happening in the background, with very little real interaction or full understanding. Maybe that is a little harsh, but I just feel like there’s a real disconnect between Eddie’s love of black hip-hop and his total failure to talk to real black people in a meaningful way, and the show kind of skirts around that. I just want to love this show without reservations and this element of it is holding me back.
K: I hadn’t thought of that, but now that you mention it… that sounds like a persuasive reading. I enjoyed the grandmothers bonding over their conspiracy theories, and this probably reflects the cultural zeitgeist of the mid-90s, but but it is definitely telling that the black character with the second most screen time so far is, well, OJ Simpson.
B: Haha, “the juice is loose.” The more we talk about it, the more I am feeling that disconnect — to the point where it’s, like, really? How could the writers not be aware of this? They must just be skirting around it, and that’s an issue.
E: Well, I guess we’ll see how the show addresses this moving forward. I’m glad to see that it’s doing pretty well ratings-wise in its second week!
K: Yes, and I’m so happy that Constance is getting the attention and praise she so deserves.
B: It’s great to see a breakout Asian actress be so well-received!
E: By the way, did you see that Ken Jeong’s pilot got picked up too? It’s looking up for APIA TV.
K: I did!! So exciting!
B: Whaaaa? Get it, Dr. Jeong.
Fresh Off the Boat will be airing on a one-episode-per-week basis starting next week. Stay tuned for our discussion of episodes 5 & 6 on Acro Collective (www.acrocollective.net), where it will be part of a weekly/biweekly roundtable series. Stay fresh.
Meet the panel!
Belinda Cai is the owner of this blog. She’s a journalism graduate student who’s really good at stress eating.
Esther Yu is a graduate student in English literature, studying Asian American writing and pop culture.
Karen Huang is an English graduate student by day, and a shameless fangirl by night. She sometimes has existential crises over delivery food.