The Rise of Progressive Asian Television in North America

It is hardly news when I tell you that North American comedy television has a history of frequently favouring the depiction of white characters, marginalising those of other races in the process (of course, this trend is not only limited to television). However, as we are fortunate enough to live in this golden age of television, there has been a recent rise in the depiction of Asian characters in comedy, exemplified by shows Fresh Off the Boat, and the recently released Toronto-based comedy, Kim’s Convenience.

These shows are noteworthy not just for their primarily Asian-American/Canadian casts, but also for the way in which they handle the subject of stereotypes. It would at first seem that stereotypes are at the root of the problem with the depiction of Asian characters, but for these shows, stereotypes seem to be part of the solution.

First, take the character of Han Lee in the hit US show 2 Broke Girls. Not only is his character minimized to the background, there only to be abused for the sake of comedy by the two white…I mean broke girls, but he is granted no context beyond the fact that he is Asian, speaking and acting in a way that an offensive Asian stereotype would suggest.

Then, there is Fresh off the Boat. Here, stereotypes are used as a source of comedy, whilst maintaining tastefulness and relatability by granting context to these very stereotypes. For example, Eddie’s parents love pinching pennies, apparently an Asian stereotype. However, this becomes a profound trait when we see how both parents also do this to provide a good life for their family, which stems back to the value their culture places upon the family unit.

In a similar fashion, Kim’s Convenience embraces Asian stereotypes right from its pilot episode, though on a subtextual level it also deals with issues of sexuality, noting that to judge a person by their sexual orientation is as arbitrary as judging them by their race. Instead, one should learn more about the traditions of other cultures, just as Kim does with a crossdresser. In this interesting scene, Kim pleads ignorance and tries to understand the practice from the crossdresser’s perspective, instead of remaining ignorant and forming opinions of his own (which in itself can breed stereotypes).

These television shows use stereotypes to their advantage, doing what past shows have done before with casts of other races, but applying them to the Asian people in a discerning and meaningful manner. It is great to see such diversity gaining moment in North American television, with other shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None tackling similar issues within the industry more head-on.  It is a welcome development in the television medium, and one I hope to see more of in the future.

Image courtesy of Jaqueline on Morguefile

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