In this paper, I will analyze how two shows revolving around families of color, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, represent various social identities and how they address multiple social issues. I will also analyze how each show compares to each other when discussing these topics. Black-ish is about an African American man who tries to instill a sense of cultural identity in his upper-middle-class family who live in a predominantly white neighborhood. Fresh Off the Boat is about a lower-middle-class Taiwanese family who moves from Washington D.
C. to Orlando, Florida, and struggles to fit in while maintaining their own cultural values. Both shows demonstrate the importance of tackling and discussing issues such as race and culture that are rarely addressed in mainstream sitcoms.
For the first show, Black-ish, I will talk about how the characters are portrayed, if the show challenges or reinforces stereotypes, and if there are any intersectional feminist representations.The main character of Black-ish, Andre “Dre” Johnson Sr, is a Black, heterosexual, man.
He is perceived as being self-centered and having a high opinion of himself. He was born into a low-income family and was the first to go to college. His success makes him believe that he is an inspiration to lower-class Blacks with lesser paying jobs. Dre’s main goal in the pilot is to remind his privileged family about their Blackness instead of assimilating into white culture. Dre’s wife, Rainbow, is a biracial, heterosexual, female doctor. She is portrayed as the voice of reason in the family compared to Dre, who is seen as an agitator.
Rainbow’s biracial heritage is referenced often in the episode by Dre as a source of inferiority. Although Rainbow refers to herself as Black instead of biracial, Dre thinks he is better than her and that her “white side” is partly why their kids are so disassociated from Black culture. Dre’s father, a Black, heterosexual, man, likes Rainbow but also points out her “whiteness” as a shortcoming. Earl “Pops” Johnson is portrayed as a grumpy man who has rare moments of compassion for his son but loves his grandchildren.
Although Pops hopes Dre raises his kids better than he raised Dre, he is shown to disapprove of the way Dre raises them because they know nothing about the hardships Blacks have faced. Dre and Rainbow’s children are Zoey, Andre Jr., Jack, and Diane. Zoey, the eldest, is a biracial, heterosexual female. She has little screen time in the pilot and is depicted as a stereotypical teenage girl who is obsessed with her phone. Andre Jr. is a biracial, heterosexual male and is the focus of the pilot. Jr. is depicted as a nerdy teenage boy who assimilates white culture in an attempt to fit in at his predominantly white school. He wants to play field hockey (which Dre thinks is a “girl’s” sport) and lets his friend give him a ‘white’ nickname. At the end of the episode, Jr. tells Dre that he is not “turning white” but is just trying to figure out who he is. The youngest children, Jack (male) and Diane (female), are biracial heterosexual twins. They are perceived as innocent and childish as well as having no distinguishing personalities between each other. It is assumed that Diane is somewhat smarter than Jack. This is seen when she becomes exasperated when Jack admits that he didn’t know Barack Obama was the first biracial president.
Supporting characters in the show include Josh, Dre’s white, heterosexual, male coworker. Josh is perceived as being ignorant of Black struggles but appropriates Black slang to relate to Dre, which just makes him annoyed and uncomfortable. This a form of unintentional racism, which is when the perpetrator will adapt racist behaviors without meaning to, but almost always ends up offending the person they are talking to. Dre’s boss, Mr. Stevens, is a white, heterosexual male and has similar attitudes towards Dre and Blacks in general. While Josh’s racism is unintentional, Stevens’ racism is internalized. He is not openly racist, but his unconscious acceptance of the dominant white, heterosexual, male narrative is shown through his views of racial stereotypes and biases put upon Blacks and other people of color.I think Black-ish both challenges and reinforces stereotypes of Blacks and Black culture. Although Dre believes his children aren’t Black enough, he is trying to reinforce stereotypes of Black culture onto them instead of having them be themselves.
Some moments that reinforce Black stereotypes is when the family eats fried chicken at dinner, which is one of the most common Black stereotypes. The stereotype of Black people loving grape soda is shown many times with one specific incident that involves Junior’s white friend looking through the Johnson’s fridge expecting to find one. Another stereotype is that all Blacks play sports, particularly basketball and football. Dre reinforces this stereotype on Jr. when he says he should be playing basketball instead of field hockey, which he thinks is a sport for white women. The product placements of Reebok, Nike, and other brands of sportswear also reinforce this stereotype. Dre also reinforces the stereotype that Black people are immature and childish by getting angry and upset when he doesn’t get his way. There are few moments in the show that actually challenge stereotypes. Dre and Rainbow both went to college, have successful jobs, and have a loving, normal family. This challenges the stereotype that most Black people are poor, uneducated, and come from broken families. For example, Dre imagines a tour bus in front of his house with his family being referred to as “The Mythical and Majestic Black Family” because they are the only Black family in a wealthy, white neighborhood. This shows that Black people can be just as successful as whites when given the opportunity.
The overt message of Black-ish is that it is important to maintain your cultural identity. The covert message of the show is that it is important to “get your foot in the door” in your profession to climb ranks and succeed where others like you could not. Another one is that you should always put your family’s well being first. Rainbow is the only feminist representation in the show, and she represents both liberal and Black feminism. She mentions that she is the first female doctor at her medical practice, and she hopes to inspire other young women. She does not mention that she is also the first Black female doctor, which is important considering Blacks have to work twice as hard to get further in their career. Audre Lorde, feminist author of “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, mentions that “in a patriarchal power system where white skin privilege is a major prop, the entrapments used to neutralize Black women and white women are not the same” (856).I don’t think the show represents intersectional feminism, but I do think Rainbow makes an effort to represent this. Along with admitting it is difficult being the first female doctor at her practice, she also wishes to instill the importance of Black culture within her children.
I think that Black-ish should make a greater effort to represent intersectional feminism in the show by having more female characters of different races and with different experiences. Ava Vidal, feminist writer of “‘Intersectional Feminism.’ What the hell is it? (And why you should care)”, makes an important statement that “until the mainstream feminist movement starts listening to the various groups of women within it, then it will continue to stagnate and not be able to move forward”.The main character of Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang, is a Taiwanese-American, heterosexual male. He is portrayed as a young boy who is the black sheep of his family and who wants to return to his home in Washington D.C. Eddie is also seen throughout the episode appropriating Black (particularly hip-hop and rap) culture, which his parents find concerning. Eddie’s mom, Jessica, is a Taiwanese, heterosexual female. She is portrayed as a housewife and a cultural traditionalist who wants her family to be less American and more Asian. Jessica is also depicted as stern and thrifty. Louis Huang is a Taiwanese, heterosexual male. He is depicted as optimistic but with a childlike exuberance. Louis is the opposite of his wife Jessica because he loves everything about America and wants to experience the American Dream. He is also a supportive family-man who wants his family to have a fruitful life where they can have more financial liberties than they were able to in D.C. Jessica and Louis’s other two sons, Emery and Evan, are both Taiwanese-American, heterosexual males.
Emery, the middle child, is depicted as an optimistic boy who easily adapts to and makes the best of any situation. He is innocent and is also eager to please Eddie. This is shown when he agrees with Eddie that people in Orlando are terrible after having a bad first day at school. However, Emery has already made many friends meaning that he has not faced any problems regarding his culture or race that Eddie has. Evan, the youngest child, has little screen time in the pilot but is portrayed as an innocent child who is fascinated by life and the people in Orlando. The children’s grandmother has even less screen time and is only shown to speak Mandarin Chinese instead of English like the rest of the family. Deidre, a white, heterosexual female, lives in the same neighborhood as the Huang’s. She is portrayed as a stereotypical gossip girl who is always surrounded by a group of her white friends. Deidre is also shown to possess traits of unintentional racism which she shows when she meets Jessica in a friendly manner but is surprised that she doesn’t have an exotic Asian name. Walter, a Black, heterosexual male, is a kid that goes to Eddie’s school that faces the similar problem of not fitting because of his race. Although Eddie was hoping to befriend him, Walter wants nothing to do with Eddie and mocks him when the white kids make fun of him. Walter is also depicted as antagonistic towards Eddie because he no longer wants to be the person of color all the white kids pick on.I think Fresh Off the Boat mostly reinforces stereotypes of Asians.
Throughout the episode, most of the main characters are shown to do this, with the exception of Eddie and Louis. Jessica, although trying to maintain Taiwanese culture in her family, reinforces the most stereotypes in the show. Jessica’s overall emotional depiction is stern, which is one of the most common stereotypes of Asians. Jessica is also seen as overbearing when it comes to her children’s education and well being. This is a reference to the “tiger parenting” stereotype that Asian parents (mothers in particular) force their children to strive for the best. The compliant temperament stereotype of Asians is also demonstrated when Jessica pretends to be friends with the white housewives in the neighborhood in an attempt to fit in even though she doesn’t like them. Jessica’s overall depiction in the pilot can easily be described by Stuart Hall’s description of the “native” in his article, “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media”. Hall’s positive depiction of the native “is portrayed in a certain primitive nobility and simple dignity. The bad side is portrayed in terms of cheating and cunning” which is seen through Jessica’s frugality (107).
Louis challenges some of these stereotypes by wishing to provide for his family in a better environment instead of being complacent with their life in D.C. However, he also exhibits the weak Asian man stereotype after he rubs his arm gingerly after being patted on the shoulder by a woman. Eddie is the only character that appears to challenge the most stereotypes. Instead of being depicted as an obedient, quiet child like his younger brothers, Eddie is not afraid to express himself and say what’s on his mind. He wants respect, friendship, and to be treated like an equal among the white kids at his school. However, Eddie’s worst trait is his appropriation of Black, hip-hop, and rap culture. Although Eddie believes this makes him stand out from his family, in reality, it is degrading to Black culture, some of whom, like myself, don’t identify with these aspects of Blackness at all. In the article, “What We Can All Learn From Nicki Minaj Schooling Miley Cyrus on Tone Policing”, Maisha Johnson talks about the difference between appreciation and appropriation of Black culture. Eddie “doesn’t actually engage with the culture or realize there’s more to it than the stereotypes enacted through cultural appropriation”. Overall, Fresh Off the Boat struggles when it comes to challenging stereotypes.
Grace Wang, author of “A Shot at Half-Exposure: Asian Americans in Reality TV Shows” states that model minority myths and stereotypes “help perpetuate the racial and cultural difference of Asian Americans by depicting members of this group . . . as embodying ‘Asian’ rather than ‘American’ cultural values” (537). This only contributes to Asians and Asian-Americans feeling like foreigners no matter what they do.The overt message of Fresh Off the Boat is don’t be afraid to be different and that you don’t have to pretend to be someone else to belong. The covert message of the show is that family comes first. There are no feminist representations or a portrayal of intersectional feminism in the show.
Fresh Off the Boat not only reinforces stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans but the stereotypes and supposed gender roles of women as well. Jessica is the only female main character in the pilot while the other women in the show are all supporting characters or extras. Jessica and the other women in the Orlando neighborhood are depicted as housewives that are either taking care of their children or spending their free time gossiping and rollerskating. They are completely fine with letting their husbands provide for them. Even though the show takes place in the mid 90’s, many women during this time period have joined the workforce and the feminist movement has already been well established. I believe this flaw in the show needs to be fixed in order for women of all backgrounds, lifestyles, and orientations to be represented respectively in the media.Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat have many similarities, good and bad. The main discussion in each show is about race and how it affects a person’s life as well as how they may be treated by others because of it. Dre and Jessica are similar in how they both want to instill their cultural roots into their families.
When it comes to challenging racial stereotypes, I think Black-ish is more successful at accomplishing this than Fresh Off the Boat. Black-ish, although it reinforces some, challenges many stereotypes of Blacks and Black culture while Fresh Off the Boat reinforces most stereotypes of Asians and Asian culture. In the case of feminist representations and intersectional feminism, both shows struggle. However, Black-ish at least makes an attempt at developing a feminist character through Rainbow. Fresh Off the Boat makes no attempt at introducing a feminist character or even a female character that could be considered a positive role model to young female viewers. Solely based off of the pilots, it is clear that both shows struggle to create intersectional feminist representations and being able to fully get past their own set of stereotypes. Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat were created to add more diversity to the predominantly white casted shows on TV.
Both shows deal with relevant issues that people of color face while providing family dynamics that audiences can relate to. They both have interesting characters that try to challenge stereotypes that have been put upon them and their race as a whole. However, they also struggle to move past stereotypes and gender roles of the master narrative. Overall, I think that Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat are engaging shows that discuss topics that are relevant today but they both need to get past the limitations that society has placed on them and be able to create more relatable and progressive representations in the future.