Friday, March 27, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Jessica Huang (Fresh Off the Boat)

[This post originally appeared on Bitch Flicks as part of their theme week on Asian Womanhood in Pop Culture.]

Guys. Guys. Guys. I don't want to jump the gun here, since the show has only been on now for a month and a half, but Jessica Huang might just be my new favorite female character. Why? Because she is hilarious, brilliant, incredibly sarcastic, and because she refuses to let anyone get away with anything. Basically, because I see myself in her and I love it. What can I say? I'm naturally egotistical.

For those of you who haven't been keeping up with it, Fresh Off the Boat is a new sitcom based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's childhood. It starts when his parents, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) move their family of three boys and a mother-in-law from the tight-knit Taiwanese immigrant community of Washington DC to Orlando, Florida. 

Louis has purchased a steakhouse and wants the family to pursue the American dream. Eddie (Hudson Yang) is miserable that he's being sent to suburbia. And Jessica is mostly pissed that the humidity is going to wreck her hair. Also that she's leaving all her friends and family behind for an uncertain future.

Still, she supports her husband and she believes in his dream. In fact, Jessica can be very accurately described as the world's most supportive spouse, even if to our eyes she frequently doesn't seem it. She's harsh and critical and nit-picks and nags with no remorse, but she does all of that because she genuinely cares that Louis gets to see his dream fulfilled. She loves her husband and she loves her kids, and she's willing to do a heck of a lot to help them achieve their full potential. Whether they like it or not.

And while the story mainly follows Eddie's frustrations with middle school and his attempts to be cool in all-white suburban Florida, Jessica's role is much more than just as a foil to her son and husband. She's a full character in her own right, and her storylines have as much weight, if not more, than the other characters on the show.

When the season begins, Jessica is isolated and miserable, stuck at home all day while her husband goes to work and her kids go to school. So she reads Stephen King novels (even though they give her nightmares) and watches the news (even though it makes her paranoid) and tries to make friends with the neighborhood moms. Which is hard, because she hates them.

Eventually she does make a friend and her life gets a little less lonely, but there's still something missing. While Jessica tries to sublimate her frustrations and boredom with concentrating on helping her sons with their school work (and creating an entire extra-curricular tutoring program from scratch) and helping her husband at the restaurant (whether he likes it or not), she still finds herself un-fulfilled and bored.

I love that this is a plotline. Jessica's internal malaise at having been pulled from the life and job she knew isn't laughed off or glossed over. It's a real problem that the show addresses. In Washington DC, Jessica managed her brother-in-law's furniture store. In Florida, she doesn't do anything, and she hates it. She loves and supports her husband, but she isn't happy.

And this is huge, actually. Because this is where we see that Jessica's character on the show really does transcend stereotypes: both the stereotype of the Asian-American woman on television and that of the sitcom mom. She has her own crap going on, and the story validates that. Jessica is bored and frustrated. Is that her fault? No, the show tells us, it's a problem that has to be fixed. And it is.

Eventually Jessica finds that her critical nature and skill at strong-arming people into a bargain works perfectly in real estate and goes on to pursue becoming a realtor. It's not a huge point in the show, but it is one that is showcased and presented as important. It's important because Jessica isn't just there to make Louis and Eddie look good, she's her own person and she has her own story. The narrative supports that, and so too do Louis and Eddie. They're happy for her, and they should be.

It's funny to say, but I think the Huangs might be one of the most functional sitcom families in a long while. They're up there with the Belchers. Because while Jessica might not really understand Louis' love for the American dream, and while she frequently wants to strangle Eddie or her other two sons, she doesn't. She supports them and loves them and sometimes tough loves them. They stick together and they work. As a family, they work.

What makes Jessica Huang a legendary character, though, and one of my personal favorites, is how all of this is worked in with her identity as a Taiwanese immigrant coping with the stresses of American society and culture. It would be very easy for the story to descend into cheap stereotypes with her. So easy. 

Like I said before, she could be idealized into a sweet, soft-spoken "Asian flower" racial stereotype, or she could be cast as the "tiger mom", a mother so obsessed with her children's success that she destroys their lives, or she could be a "dragon lady", a woman whose seductive powers are legendary but who has no real agency in her own life. Granted, this is a sitcom, so she probably wasn't going to be that last one. But still.

Or she could have fallen into the trap of just being yet another sitcom mother. She could be defined by her relationships on the show, confined to the house and portrayed as someone with no further ambitions or inner life. Since the narrative is told from Eddie's point of view, and people generally view their parents with a solipsistic lens until well into adulthood, it would make sense for the story to sort of gloss over Jessica as a person, and leave her as "just a mom."

But this show doesn't do that. This show makes Jessica an active agent in her own life, fully cognizant of who she is and what she's doing, flawed and also incredibly, fearfully competent, and generally badass. And the show is a lot better for it.

The key is context. I mean, while, yes, she does sometimes veer towards "tiger mom" territory, it's always incredibly clear that Jessica is hard on her kids because she knows that they have barriers to their success that the other kids don't. Jessica is written to be fully aware of the impact that being non-white will have on her children, and she strives to offset that. And while she is supportive of Louis pursuit of the American dream, she is also critical of "America" in general. She sees little to value in white culture and is openly against some aspects. 

As she says in the first episode when her youngest son, Evan, discovers he is lactose intolerant, "His body is rejecting white culture. Which makes me kind of proud."

She's a complex figure in Eddie's life. On the one hand, he really admires his mother. He respects how driven she is and how she refuses to take anyone's crap. You can tell he has learned a lot about being tough and strong from her. But, on the other hand, she clearly drives him nuts. She gets fierce and overprotective beyond the point of it being helpful, like when she assaults him with a stuffed animal to demonstrate why he shouldn't date rape. It's a great message, but the delivery is flawed. And that makes her a much more interesting character.

Credit here has to be given to all the people involved in the development process of the character Jessica Huang: from Eddie Huang and his real life mother to Nahnatchka Khan (who also produced Don't Trust the B* in Apartment 23) to Constance Wu. All of these people and the many others who influenced her portrayal deserve a lot of thanks for their thoughtful intentionality in making Jessica Huang as grounded and real as she is.

Because that's the thing, the real reason I love her so much. Jessica Huang is a real person. And not just in that she's based on an actual human being. I mean that she has flaws and makes mistakes and overreacts and underreacts and sometimes she's a bitch and sometimes she cries and sometimes she's the best mother in the world. She's a person, not just a cartoon.

I could go on here about how vital and wonderful this is when you consider the deeply sad state of women of color, particularly Asian women, on television, but I think I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. Fresh Off the Boat is only the second mainstream sitcom in America to feature an Asian family. The first was Margaret Cho's All-American Girl, and that show tried to strip as much Asian-ness from its characters as humanly possible. 

Jessica Huang, though not the main character of the show, is undoubtedly its central figure and breakout star. And she is a fully fleshed out, complex, and fascinating character. Jessica's existence doesn't negate the fact that Asian women are chronically underrepresented on television, but she certainly is a step in the right direction.

I long to be this confident.


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