Monday, January 4, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'Fresh Off the Boat's Louis Huang Likes Himself

How good is Fresh Off the Boat, you guys? For a sitcom with only twenty-three episodes under its belt, it feels more solid now than a lot of much buzzier shows were well into their third seasons. I'm just saying, this is a show that knows what the hell it's doing. 

We've talked before about how amazing Jessica Huang is as a character and as a new idea of what a female character can be. She's abrupt, abrasive, brash, confident, and doesn't give two craps if anyone likes it or not. In a lot of ways she's exactly the female character we've all needed for a while - a wife and mother who loves her job and refuses to apologize for any of it. But in all the talk about Jessica (and there is a lot of talk about her), it seems like we've let Louis Huang, her gentle, sensitive, people-pleaser husband fall to the wayside. And that's not cool.

So today is the day to talk about Louis Huang and the idea that being a fan of stereotypically girly things like hair care and romantic comedies and dressing up in costume is no barrier to being masculine and successful. Louis Huang, though falling into a lot of the cliches that tend to dog male Asian characters on TV, manages to rise above these cultural stereotypes through the fullness of his characterization. In other words, while Louis oftentimes feels like a by-rote description of the Asian "beta-male", he's actually a really well rounded guy and a surprisingly complex man. 

Let's start with the basics. If you're not watching Fresh Off the Boat you should probably get on that, but here's the deal. The show follows the Huang family as they move from Washington DC down to Florida in 1995. Or roughly 1995. I think it might be 1996 now. Anyway, the family moves from a tight-knit Chinese community to the wasteland of white suburbia all so that Louis (played by Randall Park) can open his own steakhouse.

The show nominally follows the antics of Louis and Jessica's (Constance Wu) oldest son Eddie (Hudson Yang). The show is roughly biographical and based on Eddie Huang's memoir, so it makes sense that they focus on him. Still, the real draw is the parents. Louis and Jessica are both first-generation Taiwanese immigrants, and their daily negotiations with the white culture around them lead to most of the comedy on the show. What's interesting, though, is that their approaches differ a lot.

I mean, Jessica has the more expected approach, of viewing all Western things with suspicion and mild contempt. She refuses to believe that motivational speakers and teamwork seminars are worthwhile, that sleepovers are okay, or that termites actually even exist. Louis, on the other hand, doesn't really embrace white culture, but he does appreciate it. He doesn't really get it, but he enjoys it.

It would be easy for the show to peg Louis in as the bumbling father figure, a man so intent on pursuing his dream that he doesn't realize he's not very good at it, but thankfully these tropes are avoided. 

Louis might not be the next restaurant mogul, but he's a good businessman. By the middle of season two, Cattleman's Ranch (his steakhouse), is semi-successful. It has a steady stream of customers and is officially making money. So by these standards he's already well ahead of the usual hapless sitcom husband folderol. 

It gets better when we realize that instead of having an antagonistic relationship with his wife based on them somehow "one-upping" each other with the kids or constantly arguing over whose parenting skills are better, Louis thinks of his wife as his partner. They're together in this. They don't argue in front of the kids, they save it for later and in public they always present a united front. While there is a little bit that's unhealthy in just how much Jessica and Louis feel like it's them against the world, you have to say that it really works for their marriage. They're a team and you get the feeling that they genuinely enjoy each other a lot.

Still, there are a lot of ways that Louis is also the cliche of the "soft" Asian man. For starters, he's a lot more emotionally sensitive than his wife. While her favorite stories are Stephen King novels and her hobby is watching Dateline, he likes John Hughes movies and The A-Team. In fact, an entire episode revolves around how Louis has been dreaming about high school dances ever since he watched Pretty In Pink while working at a factory in New Jersey. He never got to have one in Taiwan, so he's committed to making sure that Eddie gets the best dance experience possible.

In a lot of shows this storyline would be about how sad and desperate the father is to live through his son. We would be totally on Eddie's side when he bucks against his father's interference. But that's not what happens here. What happens in this episode - which features Louis agreeing to chaperone the fall dance and getting way over-invested - is a good example of how all the storylines like this are saved from sitcom hell. Namely, instead of focusing on how obsessed Louis is with school dances, the show pulls back and asks us why Louis is obsessed with school dances. And in so doing, it gives us a very touching look at the immigrant experience. 

Louis had to grow up fast. By the time he was the age for a school dance, he was already working and getting ready to immigrate to a foreign country. He never had an adolescence like the kind in John Hughes movies, and it becomes clear that, to him, this is the goal. This is why he came to America: so that his kids could go to school dances and play stupid games and have a childhood.

That's what is so good about this show and about Louis Huang as a character. Instead of spending all our time looking at the surface, the show takes the opportunity to dig deep and examine just why our characters are feeling and acting the way they do. Louis really enjoys white culture, but he's very picky about what he appreciates. He's just as quick as Jessica to call out something he thinks is weird or wrong. And while he certainly does like to take care with his appearance (to the point of buying a salon-quality hair-dryer), the show doesn't make fun of him for that. 

There are no jokes about how Jessica wears the pants and Louis is or should feel emasculated. They don't work that way as a couple. Yes, Jessica is more up-front and tough, but Louis is the one with the big dreams and plans. They work together because they both provide something the other doesn't have. And, even better, they still have things in common. Jessica never looks down on Louis for being who he is, nor does she ever ask him to apologize for it. Louis, for his part, never does come across as ashamed of the ways that he doesn't fit in with stereotypical white masculinity. He's good. He's comfortable with himself and he likes who he is.

That's incredibly valuable, okay? By showing that Louis can still be a reliable husband and father and business-owner while still sometimes being silly and over-emotional, the show starts to decouple these ideas from each other. The idea that in order to succeed in business you have to be a macho jerk. The idea that you can't be a good father and also be good in business. The idea that a good husband is always trying to be dominant over his wife. None of that is true, and by giving us a really complex and well drawn character like Louis Huang, we're able to see what a load of crap those beliefs really are.

Not to say, of course, that Louis doesn't completely fall on his face every once in a while. He does. In "Huangsgiving", most notably, Louis manages to single-handedly ruin their Thanksgiving dinner by getting drunk with his brother-in-law the night before. None of the preparations are done and ready, despite Louis having promised his wife to get everything started. What's interesting here, though, isn't that Louis screwed up - he's a sitcom dad and screwing up Thanksgiving is like a sitcom dad bingo square - it's that we're actually surprised he did.

Louis is normally so reliable and competent that it's a bit of a shock when he goes off the deep end and wakes up in his own driveway with a half-eaten burrito. The joke isn't that Louis inevitably screwed everything up, it's that the stress has made Louis kind of go insane, turning a normally very reliable man into a mess.

In most of the show, though, Louis a very consistent and good husband and father. He loves his work, but he doesn't seem to be at all distant from his children. He spends a lot of time knowing what they're doing and what they like. He seems to genuinely enjoy them and the weird crap they get up to. Similarly, he doesn't make jokes about how hot his wife is or how he's the real breadwinner and she should cater to him more. Instead, he interacts with her like they're friends. What a radical concept!

I guess what I'm getting at is this: I like Louis Huang, plain and simple. I think he's a well-written idea of what it means to be a man in this day and age. Or twenty years ago, if you want to get all technical. Louis is goofy and a dreamer and kind of really vain, but none of that makes him not a real man or any crap like that. He's a good man. He loves his wife and treats her with respect, sets a good example for his sons, and sometimes likes to dress up like Mr. T. It's all good. The point is that Louis doesn't need to fit into some cookie-cutter idea of what makes a man in order to feel good about himself. He's happy with who he is, and that gives us the license to be happy with him too.

I think the world would be a much more pleasant place with more Louis Huangs in it. Just saying.


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