A few months ago, I wrote a piece praising the runaway ABC hit Fresh Off The Boat for its refreshingly nuanced, relatable and colorful portrayal of Asian Americans on network television. As an Asian Pacific American (APA)-identified woman, I have a personal investment in seeing the show succeed. I do not, however, have a reason to silence my criticism of the show or the man who inspired it—Eddie Huang—when flagrant misogyny peppered with anti-Blackness becomes Huang’s way to assert his masculinity.
Huang—the restaurateur and ascending cultural fixture whose origin story the show is loosely based off of—was recently interviewed on Real Time With Bill Maher and said, “I feel like Asian men have been emasculated so much in America that we’re basically treated like Black women.” What followed was a flurry of tweets from Black Girl Dangerous blogger Mia McKenzie and other feminist writers who rightfully called upon Huang to unpack what he meant by his words. A defensive-turned-downright condescending Huang eventually dismissed McKenzie’s criticism by tweeting, “are we dating cause you wildin. lol”
It’s unfortunate and more than a little disheartening to see the inspiration for a show that means so much to the APA community continue to brand himself as an unapologetically misogynistic, black-culture appropriator jockeying for cultural cachet by throwing women of color under the bus. Even if I’m privy to the fact that Huang doesn’t watch the show or have any creative control over it now, he is the reason the show exists and so the man and the myth are linked. Unfortunately, that link is casting an ugly shade of misogynoir over Fresh Off The Boat.
Huang’s frustration over being racially emasculated is legitimate and speaks to centuries-old stereotypes and practices used to dehumanize and degrade Asian men and, conversely, bolster white masculinity. But his approach to grappling with this flawed (and internalized) representation is wrong, and we can bear witness to that notion taking on a life of its own on the show.
I bit my tongue when I watched episode three, “The Shunning,” of Fresh Off The Boat, in which the young fictionalized Eddie Huang conjures up a dream sequence in which scantily-clad women fawn over his 12-year-old self, fanning the prepubescent flames of his wildest imagination. I bit my tongue and I bit it hard because in some ways I thought, at least this is an Asian American kid being allowed the chance to display his “masculinity,” in a culture so fixated on the emasculation of my brothers and APA men. I tried, despite a growing sense of shame in my gut, to divorce my feminist mind from my “race” mind.
Too often individuals who come from multiple oppressed communities are forced to play musical chairs with their marginalization. What comes first? What do I wait to be angry about? Why do I have to wait?
I have a big problem with waiting for content to more accurately—and more responsibly—represent what I see around me. I have a big problem with Eddie Huang’s blatant misogynistic language being fashioned as a way to “reclaim Asian American masculinity” if it means sacrificing women’s rights and viewing their bodies as collateral damage in the perennial “race war.” But what I have the biggest problem with is my own compulsory reaction to let my feminist thinking take a backseat to my anti-racist thinking out of fear of tearing down a brother. As a blogger for Reappropriate.com wrote, “we are often asked to mute our feminism and decenter ourselves in the name of blind racial solidarity,” and this has to stop. We cannot stop sounding off so long as we cannot stop embodying multiple different identities—queer, Asian American, female, what have you.
This dignity race to the top that APA individuals know all too well doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Asian American men can reclaim and rewrite masculinity without putting down women—particularly black women who, as McKenzie tweeted, already “fight every day to be seen even as human beings.”
I am thankful that Fresh Off The Boat has been renewed for a second season, but too often feeling thankful leads to self-silencing, and I—and fellow members of the APA community—cannot allow our internalization of being the “invisible minority” prevent us from publicly calling each other out and engaging in a productive dialogue about these issues.
I stand by what I said when I first saw myself in Fresh Off The Boat, and I don’t want to stop seeing myself on screen. But I do want to see better, less misogynistic, and more honest and dignified portrayals too. That’s a minority worth modeling ourselves after.