All-American Girl at 20: The Evolution of Asian Americans on TV




THE PILOT of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl opens on the Kim family — five members spanning three generations, dressed too nicely for a family meal — waiting for their sixth, Margaret, to join them at the dinner table. They’re not eating, ostensibly, because of “tradition,” which as any old-school Korean can readily tell you, is already incorrect, because your cue to eat is when the eldest member begins. Anyway, Margaret finally arrives, yakking away on a brick-sized portable phone wearing an acid-washed denim jean jacket over a short dress, totally oblivious. Her face drops into a cartoon-sized “O” when she realizes her family has been waiting for her this entire time. She hangs up the phone and her mom Katherine (Jodi Long) immediately picks a fight with her, digging into her clothes, then her boyfriend at the time, Kyle.

“Why is he wrong for me?” Margaret demands in an aggressively drawling valley-girl tone. “And I hope you’ve got something better than, ‘He’s not Korean.’”

“I do,” says her mom in her accented one. “He’s American.” The laugh track plays.

Margaret retorts, “Well, I’ve got news for you mom, I’m American.”

That’s how it went on network television’s first Asian-American family sitcom: Margaret, the American, would run into the wall that was her mother, the Old Country. She was our sassy guide into this exotic world, the all-American girl we could hang with, who found the invocations of duty and honor and birthing male sons as dusty and suffocating as we did. Margaret wanted juicy American freedom, the kind of female bildungsroman that took place in nights out at the local club The Skank, a career in the music industry, and cute white boys with torn jeans and bad jobs. The central conflict of All-American Girl played out along this artificial wall that insulated her family from the rest of American society as an immaculately preserved corner of Asia.

I say Asia, rather than South Korea, because Margaret and her family were Korean in name — and occasionally mangled Korean — only. Network logic meant that the only way the Kims could be legible to a white audience was to make them generically Asian, as opposed to specifically Korean. Television’s first Asian-American family became a ready canvas for all kinds of gibberish Orientalism: Grandma Kim’s (Amy Hill) pet cricket, the family’s favorite restaurant, the “Happy Lucky Golden Dragon,” and lines like “May you have the joy that comes from serving your husband” and “[We are] bound together by the vine of community” in the dialogue. Watching the show 20 years later, you can’t help but hear the echoes of a gong shuddering in the background.

There were setups that hinted at real possibility, at acknowledging the fact that everyone else in the family dealt with particularly American experiences — as when their dad Benny (Clyde Kusatsu) struggled with the family business, a bookstore, or when Grandma Kim stapled herself to the chair to flip between Oprah and her Korean soaps. But the show misunderstood the ways in which the immigrant experience — refashioning ingredients in the kitchen, tangling with bureaucracy, requiring your child as interpreters — is also an inherently American one.

Identification for the viewer — Asian-American or not — would be a challenge, because the characters of All-American Girl lacked interiority, but many Asian Americans were especially galled by the assumption that they should identify with the Kims simply because they were Asian. LA Weekly critic John H. Lee took umbrage at the “butchered Korean language and pseudotraditions,” and newly minted TV critic at The Village Voice Jeff Yang wrote that the show was “awful” and “larded with stereotypes and dusty gags from Full House’s cutting room floor.” The creator and executive producer, Gary Jacobs, whose career high would be Empty Nest, dismissed such criticism from the Asian-American community as “political correctness.”

All-American Girl publicized itself as based on Margaret Cho’s stand-up comedy, but that was mostly just a gloss. Cho was the youngest representative of a wave of female comediennes turned network stars in that era, including Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres, and Roseanne Barr. But unlike that trio, she was the only woman of color, and the only one who had no creative control. She didn’t write, produce, or direct any of the episodes, and the network infrastructure was built against her: None of the show’s 11 writers were Korean-American (two were Chinese-American), nor were any of the directors or producers. But Cho became the fall girl, the one who would be punished if and when the show failed.

As the figurehead, Cho was caught somewhere between wanting to represent her community while also wanting to please the network. She felt the heavy symbolism the show carried, that its success as the first Asian-American family sitcom could change perceptions around whether an Asian actor could be bankable. During her comedy tour, “I’m the One that I Want” a few years later, she remembered calling her mom on Mother’s Day to tell her that ABC had picked up the show: “She didn’t want me to be a standup comedian because she experienced so much racism and hatred coming to America in the ’60s that she just could not believe that this country would accept her child,” she said. “So the fact that I can be successful means to her on a very fundamental level that America somehow works and that things are getting better in her lifetime.”

It was this belief in America that was the most American thing about her. It drove her to do what the network wanted, one of which was to lose weight. They pointed at her “problem” areas and said that her face filmed too wide for the camera. (She has later noted that she thinks this was simply because they didn’t know how to shoot Asian faces.) So she exercised like mad, took fen-phen, and lost 30 pounds within two weeks, which promptly forced her into renal failure. In a recent interview she remembered, “I can’t disappoint a huge population of people because I am too fat.”

The show failed because it had no sense of Margaret Cho, or maybe, because she had no sense of it. Years later she still self-flagellates. “I really relied too much on the network writers there, the whole existing structure,” Cho says in the DVD commentary of the show. “What I really learned from doing television is that you can’t rely on those people because they’re only as good as your idea, and I didn’t have an idea.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. From her standup material you knew Margaret Cho as the potty-mouthed broad with an almost too-shrill voice. Her mom was in charge of the gay lit section of the bookstore and one day found herself getting into reading Assmaster. She skewered Asian stereotypes by pushing them out further, to demonstrate how ludicrous they were. Watch this bit where she talks about how the only Asian role model she had to look up to was Hello Kitty, a “pussy with a bow on it.” She was smarter than any box the producers wanted to put her in, but that’s precisely what they tried to do. They wanted to grab on to the hot new thing, the twentysomething Korean-American comic who had just killed it in Montreal, and turn her into their Hello Kitty: a pussy with a bow on it.

Cho could still unleash in her standup. In a set she did for an HBO comedy special that aired the summer before the premiere of All-American Girl, you get a glimmer of what could have been. She had tussled with the network executives about what to name the show. Originally she wanted it to be called, The Margaret Cho Show, because, she said, “I am such a fucking egomaniac.” Instead, they threw out suggestions like, “East Meets West” and “Wok on the Wild Side. W-O-K.” She had a tantrum and told them, “‘Fuck you. We’re gonna call it ‘Chinkies!’ I mean, it’s ‘Gook’s Place’ or we’re not doing it!” Imagine if she had gotten her way from the beginning.

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All-American Girl wasn’t a very good show, but it still did something no television show has done before or since: create an Asian-American world. In the past decade especially, the number of employed Asian actors has steadily ticked upward with each ensemble show, usually in the realm of the fantastical: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, The Walking Dead, but the paradigm is mostly race-neutral when it comes to Asian-American casting. (As a related side note: it’s easier, I suspect, to have Asian faces in a world that doesn’t resemble our own reality.)

Granted, blatantly offensive casting still happens: 2 Broke Girls’s Han Lee act as the simpering Asian clown and Brenda Song’s fetishization in Dads are perfect examples of just how entrenched these stereotypes are. However, in its effort to avoid offending, the liberal sensibility has swung in the other direction and mostly sidestepped talking about race (the same fortunately cannot be said for the new fall crop of black and Latino shows, including black-ish, Cristela, and Jane the Virgin.) As of late, race is incidental for most of the high-profile Asian-American TV roles: Steve Yeun on The Walking Dead, Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation, Lucy Liu on Elementary, Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, and even John Cho’s “revolutionary” role as the romantic lead as Henry Higgs on Selfie, which lasted all of six episodes before getting canned.

“To not even talk about [race] is a really new and, I think, mature way to look at it,” John Cho said about his role. When Asianness has been an impediment to success, it’s understandably refreshing to be cast without regards to race. Steve Haruch at NPR’s Code Switch wrote, “Henry is a brilliant marketer, who happens to be Korean-American. Eliza is a social media addict who happens to be white. This is how it should be.”

Other Asian-American actors have said similar things: Hettienne Park, who played Beverly Katz on Hannibal, wrote that her casting was an example of “open-minded, non-racist, pro-feminine” decision-making. While roasting James Franco, Aziz Ansari took a jab at the other comics for relying on stereotypical jokes: “Those stereotypes are so outdated. My God, there’s more Indian dudes doing sitcoms than there are running 7-11s. We are straight up snatching roles from white actors. My last three roles were Randy, Chet, and Tom.” That they snagged their roles even though they could have been played by “anybody” implies that their talent succeeded over their race.

The epitome of this sensibility is the only other network show fronted by an Asian-American woman: Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project. However unlike All-American Girl, not only does Kaling star in the show, but she also writes, directs, and produces. The world of The Mindy Project is in some ways a realization of the aspirational fantasies of All-American Girl: It’s as if that girl finally graduated from college and started a new life — one free from the constraints of family and tradition. She’s wealthy, successful, and bitingly shallow; she spends too much money on emojis, and directs the bulk of her life — and thus, the narrative arc of the show — toward meeting The One, a.k.a. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina).

Kaling isn’t interested in what being Indian American or female means as a group, which has translated into employing an entirely white, predominantly male cast. (Please: Xosha Roquemore’s casting as Tamra in Season 2 is the height of tokenism.) Dr. Mindy Lahiri’s female friendships have consistently fizzled throughout the show (she had a blonde best friend, Gwen, played by Anna Camp, who was booted after the first season), and it’s why we’ve seen more plotlines devoted to Danny Castellano’s family than we have of hers (his overbearing mother, his gay brother, his deadbeat dad, his half-sister). We have no sense of Mindy Lahiri’s relationship to her Indian-American heritage, in part because we never see her interacting with anyone who isn’t white.

After all, if race is a structure through which we relate to one another, this setup prevents us from imagining a world where whiteness doesn’t dominate the frame. Dr. Lahiri’s ethnicity is always something negative — a misperception to be corrected, something unruly to be managed. It is something that gets in the way of her personhood. Her character joked that the reason why her driver’s license lists her as blonde and blue-eyed is because she thinks it should be “aspirational.” The show takes this sensibility to heart. This is why, as heavy-handed as it may be, it’s important to point out that Dr. Lahiri has only dated white men on the show (seriously, here’s a list), because dating white and wealthy is the ultimate form of wish fulfillment.

Kaling gets cagey whenever someone points out the lack of diversity on the show. At the SXSW festival earlier this year, one audience member asked her, “Was it a conscious decision for Mindy to be the only female doctor, and the only doctor color of show?” Kaling snapped back: “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK? I have 75 percent of the lines on the show.” Kaling is someone for whom being present and doing well is enough. Her character represents a consumerist feminism that is about individual betterment rather than class struggle. The Mindy Project is an assimilationist project: Its goal is to place a woman of color in the position of a white man, of making her like him.

Undoubtedly, it’s a victory for Asian-American actors to be seen with the same versatility as any white actor — to play FBI agents and white-collar workers and rom-com leads — but it’s a limited one. The very fact that we call Mindy Kaling’s show “pioneering” or John Cho’s casting “revolutionary” is exactly because we know that their paths to success required some tricky maneuvering — and still does. Arguments in favor of characters who “just happen” to be Asian American miss a finer point that, while being Asian American should not be any character’s only virtue, it’s still a part of her identity. Taking the “Asian” out of Asian American doesn’t make its characters more American, but less so.

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My favorite moment in Asian-American television lasts about two minutes. It is the crazed, brilliant introduction of Señor Chang, played by Ken Jeong, as Greendale’s Spanish teacher on Community. “Every once in a while a student will come up to me and ask, Señor Chang, why do you teach Spanish?” he chuckles softly. “They say it just like that. Why do you teach Spanish? Why. You.” In an uninterrupted monologue, Jeong cavorts and cackles on the knife’s edge of sanity, anticipating racist questions (“Don’t tell me that I’m mysterious and inscrutable!”), spouting delusions of grandeur (“In Spanish my name is El Tigre Chino!”) and invading everyone’s personal space, as though the only reasonable response to racism is to lose your mind. It was raw, confrontational, and reminded me of Margaret Cho. It was something I could identify with.

As broad and dispersed as the category “Asian America” is, there is still something particular about the experience — a feeling of standing outside. In 1994, Cho did an interview with the editor of YOLK, an Asian-American magazine in which she said, “I really despise being looked on as a foreigner because in a lot of ways maybe I wish I was a foreigner. Then I would have a country.” She remembered how when she went to Korea, people resented her for being American, and she realized she had no home. “So that was not my country. And here, having this not be considered my country. We’re kind of like lost souls. It’s a really painful thing.”

In a better world, All-American Girl would have gotten a better shake. It wouldn’t have fetishized race, because it would have understood that race was a way that we saw one another and saw ourselves. I am not of the mind that a show need be prescriptive about race, but I find storylines that obliterate it entirely from their characters suspect. As delightful as Aziz Ansari is as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, there is a failure of the imagination when the only mention of his Indian heritage is a passing mention in the first season that he changed his name from Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani for political purposes.

The family sitcom is a ripe genre for getting into Asian America, because race and culture become unavoidable. The narrative is necessarily built around questions of cultural propagation, membership and allegiance, of who’s in and who’s out. After all, so much of what it means to be Asian American begins, and ends, with family.

Television is circling back (as Denny Duffy said, “Technology is cyclical”): ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat based off of Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same title, premieres midseason, making it a solid twenty-and-a-half years since Margaret Cho’s outing. The show centers on a Taiwanese immigrant family that moves down to Orlando, Florida to run Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse. In an ironic twist, Jeff Yang, the critic who savaged All-American Girl has big stakes in the show’s success: his son, Hudson plays the part of little Eddie.

Yang is already cheerleading the show from his column in The Wall Street Journal, “Tao Jones,” and promises that it will be “nothing you will have ever seen before on television.” Margaret Cho has thrown her support behind it too, offering Huang advice. Huang in turn has called her the “patron saint of yellow power.” In a conversation with him, Cho said, “People like you guys actually make me feel like, ‘Oh I didn’t make a mistake. That I did something good.’” It was a small, but significant step, because at least Fresh Off the Boat will not have to answer the question that so dogged All-American Girl: what does it feel like to be the first?

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E. Alex Jung writes for Vulture, and has contributed to Al-Jazeera America, Dissent, The Morning News, and other publications.


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