For this week's episode, I sat down with my Code Switch teammate Gene Demby to dig into one of our favorite topics: rep sweats. It's the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.
When it comes to strong feelings and anxieties about representation on TV — especially when it comes to Asian-Americans — Jeff Yang has plenty of experience. He's a cultural critic who regularly contributes to CNN, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Quartz and, occasionally, Code Switch.
In 1994, Jeff was a TV critic for Village Voice. His editor told him to review the new ABC sitcom All-American Girl, starring the comedian Margaret Cho, who played a Korean-American teenage girl constantly butting heads with her immigrant family.
Jeff hesitated. All-American Girl was the first network sitcom featuring an Asian-American family ever, and a lot was riding on it. Jeff knew how hard it was for shows starring black and brown actors — let alone an Asian-American actress — to get made at all.
Then as now, the landscape of network TV shows featuring families of color was constantly changing and receding. Latino and black family sitcoms, like Viva Valdez or the short-lived That's My Mama, cropped up in spurts, then went away. And any impact they had in broadening diversity on TV was incremental at best, and stereotypical at worst.
Jeff knew all this, and he didn't want to hurt the show. To make matters worse, he knew Margaret Cho personally. But Jeff's editor presented him with a tough question: Are you more concerned with doing your job as a TV critic, or remaining loyal to your community?
Jeff sat down with me to talk about what happened next, and also the fact that his own son, Hudson Yang, now stars in Fresh Off The Boat, the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years since the cancellation of — you guessed it — All-American Girl. Knowing what he knows now, would Jeff have done anything differently two decades ago?
I also talked with Hudson about his role on Fresh, and he and Jeff walked me through how they fit into the tiny, ever-changing landscape of Asian-Americans on TV.
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