Good Shots: Discussing Warrior Grannies, Blood Bags, and Furious Feminism in “Mad Max”

This post contains spoilers.

George Miller’s latest chrome-shiny installment of the Mad Max franchise packs a lot of excitement into a movie whose plot is basically just…they drive down a road. They drive back. Somehow, though, this bare-bones plot sequence had me gripping the armrests and gasping in my seat. Below, three Acro Collective movie buffs sit down to discuss their favorite brands of huffable chrome paint, Furiosa’s makeup routine, and what kind of snacks Nux brought along on his first war ride.

Just kidding.


E: Did you guys have high expectations going in to see this movie? I feel like it’s been kind of polarizing, but I don’t know enough about the older Mad Max movies to compare.

B: I did, mostly because of the hype surrounding the film both with its critical acclaim and its overtly feminist notions, which were drawing a lot of attention. I generally have little to no interest in seeing action flicks (the action paradigm bores me), and had admittedly never heard of the Mad Max franchise, but was curious after reading some reviews sans spoilers and hearing people talk about it.

A: While I was excited about hype that I’d seen on Tumblr and various articles making fun of MRAs, I didn’t have very high expectations. I had already been burned by one action movie this month, which shall remain nameless, and I was still pretty wary. However, I figured anything that caused that much talk would probably be worth seeing, but not really having much else to do played a large part in going to see it.  All that aside, I really enjoyed it!

E: What were your guys’ favorite parts? I’m still a little hype from seeing it — I went in with REALLY low expectations, think-piece praise aside.

B: I really liked when the clan, which is a matriarchal society just as badass as Furiosa and her gang, was introduced. I appreciated the elderly women being portrayed as powerful and capable. With ageism being just as bad of a problem as sexism in the film industry, especially for women, it was refreshing and perhaps surprising to see this. Also, Furiosa’s cry to the earth was predictable (and even cheesy) to me, but I really commiserated with her there. Like damnit, really?!

A: I think at that point I was ready to scream with Furiosa too. The Vuvalini (an amazing name if you ask me) were definitely my favourite part. By the time we meet them we’re already pretty far in and have witnessed the capabilities of not only Furiosa but also the wives. Then we get even more awesome women?!? (Yes!) I really loved the kind of generational familial structure they represent post-apocalypse. This is something that we don’t get at the Citadel where Immortan Joe is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning and ending of familial hierarchy. The war boys are an unclaimed mass and his heir, Rictus is (often literally) just an echo of Joe.

The older actresses also brought out one of my other favorite things about the movie which was its aesthetic, especially with regards to texture. As viewers, we are prompted to look, see, and survey not only the landscape but also the pure spectacle of the war party. (I think I could stare at the spikey cars and built-up war tanks forever.) For me, the Vuvalini were especially beautiful because set against the always already deteriorating War Boy, their wrinkles were a beautiful and hard-won testament to their bad-assery.

Photo from thepandorasociety.com
The Vuvalini with The Dag | Photo from thepandorasociety.com

E: Yes! But really the whole world of the movie was pretty captivating and well-built for me. I feel like they were able to pack in a lot of detail without a lot of exposition (although Max’s hallucinations felt like a bit of overkill…) — from the strong religious/cultish overtones of Joe’s Citadel to the impact of the short declarations throughout the movie: “Our children will not be warlords”… “Who killed the world?” etc. This movie clearly blends feminist critique and ecocritique together under the umbrella of patriarchal exploitation, which I was not expecting going in. Another thing it does well is to show how everyone, men included, suffers under a rigid system of exploitation. Like I think we feel for Nux just as much as for some of the brides.

Did anyone else feel like Tom Hardy’s character, Max, took on a traditional sort of…hot-female sidekick role in this movie? Lol. So many close-up shots of his face!

Pretty, gritty Tom Hardy | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter
Pretty, gritty Tom Hardy | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

And of course, not a lot of dialogue…

B: Yeah, I take it all back, actually… the aesthetics, from the vehicles to the makeup and costuming to the entire universe they created, were actually my favorite part. I even somehow liked the unsettling motif of running fluids – the water being poured out of the Citadel, the women being milked, blood supplying, running gasoline, tears. It was very visceral for me. In addition to the ecocritique, I can see a nod to the hazards of commercial farming, especially with the milking of the women and the breeders, but that could just be my reading.

I totally think Max was akin to a traditionally hot female sidekick character. Funny that you say that! I was cracking up when you were like, “I don’t think he got that. He doesn’t seem smart enough,” when Furiosa explains the rig’s starting kill-switch sequence (while we were watching the movie). He’s eye candy, but more importantly, I think he represents solidarity… an ally for feminists and women in general. He’s a physically strong male who does not in any way subjugate the female-driven dynamic; he enforces it and works alongside the women (almost bowing down to Furiosa… an “aww” moment for me was when he finally revealed his name to her and WILLINGLY supplied his blood to her) to collectively reach their end goal. And when Furiosa and the women are lifted up to power in the end, he steps aside.

A: I agree, Max definitely is riding shotgun on this one. And his position as atypical protagonist permeates everything he does and every position in which he is placed. Here, I’m thinking about his position as a figurehead mounted on the prow of Nux’s car. Which I found really telling given all of the Norse mythology (the War Boys are vikings with cars instead of boats)  floating around. While Max is the eponymous character and we see him first as narrator, he’s an unnamed body (blood bag) for an incredibly long time. He fights with Furiosa as a partner and their chemistry is that of comrades (even though she’s a much better warrior). Like Belinda said, the solidarity, especially in those scenes, was super refreshing.

E: As a blood bag, he’s placed in line with the escaping brides too — as a body who is first and foremost a physical resource.

Directors love putting Tom Hardy in a mask... | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter
Directors love putting Tom Hardy in a mask… | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

 

B: That, again, speaks to how that particular patriarchal system is oppressive to both men and women of all ages, looking at the War Boys and someone like Max.

A: Max is possibly the most vulnerable in these situations, because while he fights and survives, he is a universal donor and potential blood bag to any and everyone.

Which seems an interesting way of configuring your “hero” especially if there’s another version of the story in which the because we’ve seen the fierceness of Furiosa and the wives (Toast, Splendid, Capable, The Dag, and Cheedo) we could easily imagine them overtaking him? He just feels more vulnerable to me because of his “blood status.”

B: He is surprisingly strong for having so much blood drained out of him, though. I think the oppressed are similarly vulnerable, just in different ways. It’s with the fluids again — some like Max are sought after for their blood, some for their milk, some for their fertility/child-bearing. That all seems horribly abusive to me. (I keep feeling like this has a pro-vegan message, but that could just be me.)

E: [Aside: Tom Hardy’s character is just like his character in Lawless…lol. Has most of his blood drained out, still able to walk and fight and stuff. A+]

B: I read an article that claims that Mad Mex isn’t feminist or even good for that matter. One of the reasons stated is the use of the beautiful “Maxim Hotlist” models as breeders. I initially thought the women seemed almost too perfect as well — but then I realized they were purposely selected for their beauty by Immortan Joe, and beautiful women can be marginalized (especially in the sex trade industry) and conversely powerful. How did you two feel about the use of those actresses?

A: There is that for all intents and purposes “wet t-shirt” scene” but its purpose felt more about exposition than exhibition. We need to see Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and her huge baby bump so that we can know what has happened to these women and why Furiosa is helping them escape. Her body a symbol of the broken system and instantaneous backstory insert.

E: It’s so funny that the article you linked would claim Mad Max is “overdone.” It is the B-movie to end all B-movies, lol. Its mode of existence is hamminess.

B: LOL, in some ways, that’s kinda true. But it doesn’t make it bad. B-movies rock.

E: And yeah, I have a problem with constructing beauty and feminism as mutually exclusive. There’s nothing that says we audiences can’t enjoy a good model-like lineup in a movie that’s excessive in almost every other way.

B: You’re so right. If the universe was entirely realistic and mirrored society to a fault, then the women would seem out of place. But c’mon. It’s B-movie status and, in that universe, those women are hardly the most overdone aspect.

A: I think it would have been different if they were just “The Wives” but they have names and distinct personalities. We even know their names before Max’s.

Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter
Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

 

E: There is the fact too that the two most obviously/conventionally attractive women get killed in the most gruesome ways… Rosie Huntington Whiteley’s character dies early on, as does Megan Gale’s character, The Valkyrie. It’s hard to argue that RHW was there just for her beauty, too, because her final scene was so gruesome and we didn’t see her face then — just the reactions of those around her. She’s literally treated like a piece of meat on the cutting block, which is the extreme logical end of beauty in the world of the movie. With that kind of ending, it’s hard to see beauty as a particularly desirable trait by the movie’s standards.

B: Ooof, yeah, so brutal. I had to avert my eyes. Beauty and feminism shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, like you said, E. I appreciated that the women do not subscribe to more traditionally masculine forms of strength and power; they instead maintain their femininity. Furiosa kind of reminded me of a grittier Khaleesi from Game of Thrones. She’s just and a liberator, and isn’t afraid to show emotion, but ruthless to those who threaten the safety of the women she is trying to protect.

E: In any case, I feel like there are holes in the logic that argues that beautiful models preclude this film from being “truly feminist,” especially because the movie is pretty brutal and un-naive about the endings available to women so prized for their beauty in the movie’s world. We, as audience members, can appreciate their beauty extra-diegetically, but I think in the world of the film I’d rather not look like RWH…

I’m thinking too about the scene in which RWH puts her beautiful pregnant body as a shield between Joe’s gun and Furiosa driving the truck…

That scene points to some kind of understanding of beauty as not merely ornamental but like… a bargaining chip? Something of value in the economy of the movie? It’s a scene where a woman uses her beauty not in the “traditional” way of attracting, but as a way of strengthening and protecting another woman.

A: Yeah, that’s almost a weaponized beautiful body. A literal shield.

B: It’s a weaponized female body at its most explicitly female, with the pregnancy.

E: The female body reduced to its most biologically “female” moments? Like breastfeeding and giving birth.

A: But these are the places the world building breaks for me. The bodily functions almost have to become allegorical because, while the moments like the milking build atmosphere, I kept wondering how much milk they were producing and why?

B: I think for food, perhaps? Because there wasn’t enough water? For crops or anything else. Could be why they ate bugs and lizards.

A: I guess. It just seems that these are points where bodies as they operate now (where mothers have healthy babies, create milk for those babies milk, or we have voluntary blood donors), and as they are being exploited to operate in the movie (Joe’s inability to produce healthy heirs, breastfeeding for who knows what reason, and a collection of captive blood-bags), actually can’t work well after the apocalypse?

E: Yeah, I’m not sure why the milk. But in any case, those are images that will stick with me for a long time, regardless of how well they mesh with the logic of the world.

B: Yeah, I can see it being allegorical. Because Joe is hoarding the water, so the resources technically exist somewhat (unbeknownst to everyone else), but most others in the society are nonetheless exploited and have no access to the water (aka wealth, maybe?).

Immortan Joe and his
Immortan Joe and his “family” | Photo @MadMaxMovieUK/Twitter

A: I really think that the film could be in quiet moments asking us to consider the way bodies operate or will be able to operate once the world effectively ends. It seems like certain types of production that seem valuable (breast milk) might not be anymore. Just like the way Joe wants to build his empire through traditional childbirth but can’t.

B: What do you mean by the way bodies operate?

A: For me I wonder why the numerous War Boys,who are functional despite their half-life status, as considered less desirable human “products” in this fairly established post-apocalyptic world that renders what viewers might consider “able” bodies “dis-abled”. I guess I just wonder how much the film wants to question this paradigm of ability. It seems especially interesting to think about, when we consider the way that Furioso can kick ass with or without her prosthetic.

B: Ohhhh, that’s a good point about her prosthetic. Really fast diversion: there’s a theory that Furiosa was taken to be a breeder but her mother protected her by severing her arm so she wouldn’t be *perfect* and wouldn’t be a good fit in that role; that is why she has the prosthetic arm. But Joe still cared for her and took her in and she is treated better than the other workers, i.e. she looks cleaner and healthier than the others.

A: That’s really interesting to think about Belinda, especially when we think about the interchange with Furiosa and Splendid (RWH) after she get’s shot or “damaged.” Also, we might think about how bodies operate in a post anthropocentric space? I think that those questions are definitely lingering in the background.

E: I think that’s definitely something the film is asking us to think about — especially because Joe’s War Boys are being born with only a half-life. Everything in Joe’s empire is designed to be in short supply, and therefore more controllable… he and his fellow exploiters use fairly short-sighted modes of production that spoil things long-term, like the Green Place (hence the line “Who killed the world?”) while unnaturally extending bodily production that is meant to be more short-term, like the breast milk.

Production is also a question because it simultaneously moves the movie forward (need for gasoline), yet it’s not really clear how the economy of the world really works — like what do the poor people at the base of the cliff do for a living? Who produces anything — even the vehicles that drive the plot?

Most of the humans in this movie are dependent (or forced to be dependent) on machinery in a very visual, literal way… or treated as machinery themselves… it’s definitely bringing up questions of the posthuman but not in a sexy, sleek cyborg fashion.

B: Yes, treated as machines. That’s a great point, and ties in with Furiosa’s prosthetic arm. But it’s a juxtaposition because she becomes more empowered in being able to drive the rigs and do work that the men in that society would do with her physical beauty being “endangered” (and her thus not being a breeder). The pregnant woman becomes a literal piece of meat that is butchered and portrayed as commodity.

E: I guess that’s where it meshes with ecocriticism, because these dependent humans are grotesque — like the People Eater, or Joe.

A:  And I think that question of production cycles back to the Vuvalini. They are farmers or producers with seeds, but they must sharpshoot because their environment is destroyed.

B: Yeah they are forced to integrate machinery into what is inherently natural and earthly in order to survive.

E: In a way I’m glad that Furiosa’s mission didn’t succeed. I feel like if she were to actually return to the Green Place, some feminist utopia, it would feel very… escapist.

A: You mean you didn’t want them to live with the crow people?

E: 

B: LOL. Yeah, the idea of a feminist utopia would undermine the eventual integration of these women back into society. There is no real utopia. There should just be something close to egalitarianism.

E: But really, it’s interesting to me that this “feminist” movie (or… no scare quotes, lol) doesn’t say the answer is to escape somewhere, even in fantasy, or to totally smash everything and rebuild from scratch.

E: The movie further undercuts the idea of escapist utopia with the failure of Nux’s “Valhalla” dreams, right?

A: Which is why Max’s lines about about “hope” and trying to scrape together some “redemption” (a regurgitation of Furiosa’s earlier comments) seems like such a perfect answer.

B: Like, women’s crisis centers and refuges are important (in our real-life societies), but the key is to always reintegrate them back into society so they can thrive… in reality. And not in some falsely secure, sequestered environment.

E: I think this movie would have been much easier to dismiss if it had gone the escapist route, too. Because where do you go from there, having watched them go to the Green Place? You come back to our world and that line of logic just closes itself off from real life.

B: There’s a need to work toward redemption for everyone and not just the women.

E: Yes.

B: With Furiosa at the helm, she can perhaps fix both the men and women who suffer under the oppressive regime, not just the few women she had with her.

A: Definitely.

B: Hence redemption?

E: Yeah, maybe. Or at least a chance. I guess we won’t ever know.

A: We won’t know, but she seems to have a good shot. Those War Boys were certainly willing.

B: SEQUEL.

Advertisement

Fresh Off the Boat Roundtable: Eps. 11 and 12

Today in our Fresh Off the Boat roundtable, we discuss episodes 11 and 12. “Very Superstitious” (11) deals with Jessica’s superstitions as she continues her real estate career, and the way Louis and Eddie tell white lies that build up to a visit from Child Services. In “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon,” (12) Louis steps up to coach Eddie’s basketball team and Jessica volunteers to direct the school play. Both parents balance their expectations of teamwork and work ethic with their childhood experiences (or lack thereof) with fun.

 

K: So episode 11, “Very Superstitious,” revolves around Jessica’s superstitions—especially involving the number 4. More broadly, though, it arguably explores the importance of superstition within Asian and Asian-American culture as well. What did you guys think of this representation of superstition, which is sometimes seen as exaggerated, even farcical? Do you think the show’s depiction of superstition comes off as orientalist in some ways, by “othering” the superstitiousness within this Asian-American family?

E: I think this episode highlighted one of the tensions I sense underlying the show’s writing in general: the enjoyment of Asian American audiences when they recognize specifically “Asian” things from their childhoods being represented on TV, versus the danger that representing these things will be exoticizing from a white audience’s point of view. A lot of Asian American audience members have taken to twitter and other platforms saying, “It’s so cool to see X or Y on TV, my childhood was definitely like that” regarding specific Asian things—like the Chinese Learning Center from an earlier episode, for example. But while that was a very real thing for lots of young Chinese-American kids, it also perpetuates the stereotype of Asian-American kids being the studious model minority. So it seems like a difficult balance between the two: pleasing the Asian American audience with what seems familiar, while trying to avoid exoticizing it for a white audience.

But with regard to this particular episode, I feel like there was a slight difference between Jessica’s superstition and, say, Grandma’s—because Jessica was already presented as someone who loves Stephen King, that makes her superstition less of an “all Asians, old traditions” thing in my eyes, and more of an individual quirk. That’s maybe only visible to people watching closely, who have these Asian American tropes in mind, though. I feel like if you approach this episode thinking that Asian-Americans are superstitious already, it’d be easy to read the episode as confirming that…whereas it might actually do some work against that, but in a very subtle way.

B: I agree that the danger of presenting these familiarities is exoticization from non-Asian cultures to an extent. The Huang family’s borderline irrational superstition in this episode, from Jessica to Louis (“Give me my jade!”) to the grandma lighting incense on the toilet, is a bit extreme and could be perceived as “othering” of this Asian-American family. Not to play devil’s advocate, but I know the writers are also attempting to make the show universal as best as they can. So overall, it’s about a family struggling to assimilate and fit in—that’s an experience everyone’s had in some way or another. This episode builds off of the characterization we’ve already seen with Jessica in past episodes—her love/fear of Stephen King and the nightly news, for example. So that is presented as more of an individual quirk, like you said Esther, versus the grandma’s very traditional form of superstitious practices. But I think there’s a part where they bring in white/American superstitions as well—when they’re at Cattleman’s Ranch, with tossing salt over one’s shoulder or something equivalent—that shows that these superstitions are not unique to just Asian culture.

K: There’s definitely a double valence to this whole plot. I liked that the way they ended it, with the grandmother’s knowledge of rituals helping save the rest of the family from their apparent bad luck, which shows that the Huangs’ superstition is not entirely silly or unfounded. And as you pointed out, B, the bit with Nancy and the others in the restaurant also signified that superstition is not exclusive to Asian-American culture. What I didn’t like, however, was Louis telling Eddie that it was okay to lie “for the greater good”—i.e. to keep Jessica’s fears about bad luck infiltrating the household at bay. Obviously this was meant to be a humbling lesson for Louis in the end, but at the same time…the way this whole subplot played out just felt really odd to me.

B: Going back to what we were discussing before (not related to just this episode but the show in general): it’s a delicate balance to present content that’s identifiable among the Asian-American community but to not consequently perpetuate certain stereotypes. But I think Eddie being the central character – even if he’s far from the real-life Eddie Huang – alleviates some of that model minority weight. Eddie is pretty much the opposite of a model minority (although his two brothers aren’t). I guess his parents constantly disapproving and pointing this out perpetuates that Tiger parents stereotype on their part, but I do think Eddie’s voice mitigates that somewhat.

Now to Louis: I still think the writers are not completely sure of how to deal with his characterization. While he usually redeems himself from his faux pas, he again negatively influences Eddie and writes off Jessica’s fears. Are the creators playing up the somewhat incompetent archetypal sitcom dad with Louis?

E: Yeah, I see that sitcom stereotype hovering in the background: the incompetent, less attractive dad and the hot hawkish mom. But I also never really know what to say about Louis’ storylines/character because I feel like it’s so clunky, and when he makes these missteps (like telling Eddie it’s ok to lie), the show never really addresses it fully—or the fallout is something that Eddie deals with, not Louis.

B: At least Louis offered up an apology this time, and admitted that superstition is real if you believe in it, aligning with Jessica. That’s a step further than how he’s dealt with past incompetencies.

Though what resulted from the web of lies led to something pretty serious: Child Protective Services paying a visit. This could have invoked something in the real-life Eddie Huang, who was abused as a child by his father. Eddie sent out a series of tweets denouncing the show, stating that it has strayed so far from his life that he doesn’t recognize it anymore. Eddie’s gone back and forth on this, on one hand saying that the show is a positive thing for Asian-American representation, but also claiming that it bastardizes his memoir.

Could ABC have done more with this show (preserving more of the memoir’s authenticity and not making light of serious issues like child protective services) while keeping it palatable for network TV/a wide audience?

K: That’s a good point, B. I’d forgotten about the child abuse storyline in the memoir that was left out of the show. In light of that fact, I feel like maybe the inclusion of the Child Protection Services agent was a really oblique, sitcom-friendly way for them to reference the child abuse? I don’t know how much they can include about that part of the real Eddie’s childhood beyond that, because while it may be bastardizing his memoir, the show is obviously catering to a general audience that probably isn’t ready to confront that kind of storyline in the context of a sitcom.

B: Within the scope of a sitcom, I agree it’s challenging to feature grittier issues like child abuse. There are other parts of his memoir that can translate, though, that the show doesn’t yet capitalize on. For instance, the real-life Eddie’s made it a point to address how hip-hop was a form of catharsis for him, amid many of the struggles he encountered growing up. FOTB still fails to add that kind of complexity to the hip-hop narrative, and Eddie has yet to have a meaningful bond with a black character (any development with Walter kind of petered off). So maybe that’s something to look forward to in future episodes/if the show gets renewed.
K: Now let’s move on to episode 12, “Dribbling Tiger, Bounce Pass Dragon.” I liked this episode a lot better than episode 11, if only because it confronted myths about Asianness in a much cheekier way. The most distinct example of this would be the Mystic Tiger League that Louis was a part of, and Eddie’s fantasies about Taiwanese-style basketball. As the title indicates, this refers to popular Chinese wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I also interpreted it as an allusion to Shaolin Soccer (2001), another popular Chinese movie that had martial arts as a central trope. While Louis connects the basketball team (sans Dmitri) with “the band of misfits”—one of whom is a girl—in The Mighty Ducks, this group dynamic also describes the soccer team in Shaolin Soccer. And I think the reference is made more overt with Eddie’s fantasy about the wire-fu style basketball that his father must have played in Taiwan. Of course, the Shaolin Soccer reference could be seen as an anachronistic imposition, given that the show is set in the 90s, but regardless, I thought that attributing orientalist imaginings of the mystic, eastern, Taiwanese-style sports culture to Eddie’s point of view [since he is a second-generation Asian-American, after all] was a very clever move on the show’s part.

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

B: Yeah, K, that’s an incredible reading. I do like the way the creators confront these myths about Asians head-on, especially when a lot of that is propagated by the media. Louis kind of dispels that with his actual coaching versus Eddie’s fantasy sequences. I love how you saw the tie-in with “Shaolin Soccer.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it’s such a fantastic film.

Also in this episode: Jessica rewrites the nonsensical play Emery and Evan are in, titling it “Acting: A Cautionary Tale.” She thinks being in the play is pointless and asks her sons if they really think anyone is going to put two Chinese boys on TV. “Maybe if there’s a nerdy friend or a Chinatown.” This is pretty accurate commentary on the state of Asian representation in the media. However, it’s juxtapositioned in that it’s presented on a show about Asians with two Chinese boys, and this episode pays homage to “All-American Girl,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Shaolin Soccer.” Was this the writers’ tongue-in-cheek way of commenting on how this situation is beginning to improve?

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

E: I appreciated how tongue-in-cheek the references of this episode were, especially because Shaolin Soccer itself (and Crouching Tiger, to some extent), also function as meta-commentaries on their respective genres. In a similar way, Fresh off the Boat itself is an intervention in the genre of the sitcom. But I agree, Belinda, I think FotB has failed to address a lot of the issues open to them in their complexity (the role of hip hop in minority cultures of many kinds, as you mentioned, is one example), and I’m starting to turn away from our earlier excuses that this is ok because it’s an ABC show. Sure, the sitcom format is limiting, but I think it’s more open as a vehicle of critique than a lot of commentators have brought up.

My hope is that by bringing up this lineage of other Asian faces in media (especially All-American Girl), the show is preparing for a more complex next season–one in which it can move beyond the issue of just “representation” (ie. mere presence) and delve more deeply into specific issues of the Asian American community and identity.

But I’m also afraid referencing All-American Girl is a nod to the fact that Fresh Off the Boat might be similarly short-lived. So Jessica’s ironic commentary about Asian actors not making it can be read as a joke (since they’re obviously on TV), but it’s a joke that might still be too real, you know?

Basically, the show might nod to improvement in the representation of Asian Americans in mass media, but I think it’s also very wary of it. It seems to be doing well, but as we pointed out when the show began, it might get crushed under the weight of being basically the only representation of Asian American families on TV.

K: I agree that the show really dropped the ball when it comes to certain issues that it could have addressed more substantially, but didn’t. That being said, I’m glad both of you brought up All-American Girl, because the dramatic irony of that particular scene (“See? There are Asians on TV!”) highlighted for me the burden that the show faces because it’s the only one of its kind (that is, a contemporary show about an Asian-American family). Before the show premiered, Wall Street Journal writer Jeff Yang wrote a really moving piece about his complex relationship to both All-American Girl and Fresh off the Boat, since as a TV critic he contributed to the cancellation of the former, and as Hudson Yang’s father and as an Asian-American journalist, he is very much invested in the success of the latter. The fact that it took so long for an Asian-American family to return to TV really showcases how much scrutiny FOTB faces by virtue of its singularity, but I think that also highlights how we can’t hold the show as solely accountable for its representations of, well, anything — though that’s not to say it shouldn’t be immune to criticism, either. So I agree with you, E, that the joke of “There ARE Asians on TV” might hit very close to home for the cast and crew. Especially since the ratings have been dropping steadily since the pilot, and we still don’t know if it’s gonna be renewed next season.

 

The timing of this episode’s airing also coincided with me watching Margaret Cho’s concert film, I’m the One that I Want, for my feminist theory class. Cho talked extensively about the failure of the show in I’m the One—how her face and body were deemed inappropriate for American TV, how she was pressured into losing 30 pounds in a very short period of time, how an “Asian consultant” was hired for her, how eventually all the Asians other than her and one other actress were fired. Her descriptions of how much the show/her protagonist within it was sanitized for an American audience, and how much her body was policed during the show’s production, were particularly resonant with Eddie Huang’s criticisms of FOTB. But I think both versions of the “sanitized” Asian-American family speak to how much work is still to be done before Asian-Americans on TV can be represented adequately without much concession to a general, perhaps oblivious, American audience.

 

B: I’m sure many critics and viewers identify with Jeff Yang’s assessment of the two shows, even though they didn’t contribute to All-American Girl’s cancellation or have special interest in FOTB. From what I understand, All-American Girl wasn’t very well-received when it premiered, especially among the Korean-American community (which should’ve been its target audience) because Margaret Cho’s voice was so suppressed. I talked to Diane Mizota, an Asian-American actress, who actually interned on the show at the time. She said the writer’s room was really homogenous, with its makeup of mostly white men, and a “Korean correspondent,” who would come in every now and then and basically say, “Yeah, you bring fruit to someone’s house when you visit.” FOB’s showrunner is a POC and wanted to avoid that this time around, so the show is better staffed and inherently more likely to thrive that way. And another difference is that now, people welcome and champion diversity.

E: At least, I hope that people welcome and champion diversity. Though I also think that with the perceived success of minorities in media and other areas, there will be a stronger backlash against their/our presence, as you pointed out in your earlier piece, B.

B: True. I guess we’ll have to see how the show’s ending pans out, too. FOTB—while scrutinized because of its singularity (even with our roundtable analyses)—also receives so much support from the Asian-American community; we may not think the show is perfect, but we are tuning in and tweeting about it and sharing it on social media regardless, and I think that’s important.

The Fresh Off the Boat season finale airs Tuesday night. Will you be watching? What are your thoughts on the show so far?

Fresh Off the Boat: 7 and 8!

This week on Fresh off the Boat: the team discusses masculinity, competition, and all the feels.

This week we’re looking at Fresh Off the Boat episodes 7 and 8. A quick recap: In episode 7, Louis proudly shows off his new Cattleman’s Ranch billboard, only to get involved in a vandalism showdown with the owner of the huge franchise chain Golden Saddle. We later learn that Louis stole the manual from Golden Saddle to start Cattleman’s. Meanwhile, Eddie struggles to get Nicole to notice him. In episode 8, the show introduces us to Phillip, another Asian-American boy at Eddie’s school. The episode explores the school’s attempts to force them together as ‘best friends,’ competition between the two boys, and the idea of being a “good Chinese boy.”

Esther: Episodes 7 and 8 had pretty different focuses and covered a lot of ground in terms of topics. Shall we start with episode 7 (“Showdown at the Golden Saddle”)? What did you guys think of the way this episode wove in two different pop-culture genres: the western and the gangster film? Was the episode satisfying in addressing the hypermasculinity of these two genres, translated into the sitcom lives of our characters?

Belinda: While those two genres are certainly hypermasculine, I didn’t quite see that aspect playing out in episode 7. Louis’ takeaway from his love of gangster films is that one needs to provide for his family at any cost, something in line with Asian-American (and other) immigrant values to a certain extent. What he ends up doing with the copyright infringement isn’t necessarily conventionally “masculine” (running away and essentially “stealing” an idea), but also isn’t illegal—it is actually not a bad entrepreneurial decision in the end, as Jessica points out. Jessica has such a strong voice and is so supportive of Louis that she softens his role as the patriarchal head. His need to provide for his family is undoubtedly masculine, but it’s not hypermasculine, akin to what we see in gangster movies.

Karen: First of all, full disclosure: I didn’t like episode 7 very much. I understand what they were trying to do, and it was interesting that they incorporated these classic film genres, but the episode as a whole wasn’t very funny (and that doesn’t even get into the weirdness of the b-plot, which we can talk about later). Anyway, I think Louis’ “competition” with the Golden Saddle can certainly be seen as a competition in hypermasculinity—especially because so far in the show, Louis has been all about what’s good for the business and by extension for his family financially (since he’s the de facto patriarchal head of the Huangs). I’m not so sure about the gangster film genre, but I agree with you, B, that it was nicely translated into an analogue for the (Asian-American) immigrant experience. Also a random, superficial aside: Jessica looks great with her curly hair and yellow dress!

E: Money and business have always been the ways in which Louis’ masculinity have been expressed, to me—especially since the whole show started with Louis moving the family away to avoid being under his brother-in-law’s thumb. I like that the show has attempted to subvert the narrative of the masculine patriarch with Jessica’s strong voice and character. Though I agree, K, this episode came across as pretty muddled and ultimately not that interesting to me. I did relate to Eddie’s bus struggle though, haha.

B: He wasn’t actively trying to compete with Golden Saddle, though. He ripped off of their idea and just hoped to succeed, and ended up almost surpassing them. I guess that competition comes into play with the whole billboard fiasco. The image of Louis getting squirted with the udders was pretty emasculating and disturbing, now that I think about it. Jessica’s right there with him, always on par and as a support system, so yeah that does subvert that patriarchal narrative.

E: Even though he wasn’t trying to compete directly, I think the show paints Louis as invested in a kind of traditional ‘American’ masculinity. Thus he opens the quintessential American ‘manly’ enterprise—a steakhouse. But I wonder if the show has been trying to break down this investment—like with the Wyatt storyline? Where the perfect masculine figure, who is also great at business, somehow disturbs and dissatisfies Louis.

K: Right. But then again, the Wyatt thing can also be seen as a kind of competition for hyper-masculinity. Louis can be seen as dissatisfied because he isn’t as perfectly macho as Wyatt. Speaking of masculinity…Eddie’s whole courting of Nicole in episode 7, if we can call it that, made me really uncomfortable. The show has already established Eddie’s interest in her, but in previous episodes she’d flippantly ignored or rejected him, which undercuts his weird/uncomfortable advances. But in this episode Nicole is starting to be nicer to him, which makes it seem like the way Eddie has been trying to woo somehow okay? I don’t know, it was a forgettable b-plot altogether, but it just felt odd to me because Eddie never gets called out for his casually sexist behavior (even in the context of him being a kid and not knowing better).

B: I hope the show doesn’t take it in that direction; the idea of Eddie and Nicole dating is extremely uncomfortable for me. The age gap, in itself, seems inappropriate, in addition to Eddie’s misogynistic advances and behavior. I think they’ve just reached this point of understanding… Nicole is friendlier with Eddie on the bus, but I don’t know, and hope it’s not indicative of a budding relationship.

fotb7_1
Jessica, Eddie, and Nicole | Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

K: Yeah, that’s true, they can just leave it like that and not develop it, which is what I hope the show will do.

E: I’m hoping she develops into that ‘90s trope of the cool older sister/friend who acts as a guide to life rather than a straightforward romantic interest.

K: That would be cool too!

B: Agreed…and she’d be a female character Eddie’s age. There really aren’t any of them in this show. It would do the show a favor to have her as his friend rather than love interest.

K: Also true.

E: Shall we move on to discussing episode 8? I thought this episode was much more productive and interesting than “Showdown at the Golden Saddle.”

K: YES!! I think the whole dynamic between Eddie and Phillip, and how Phillip acts as a foil to him in almost every way, was very well done without feeling too heavy-handed. The show really nicely avoided having the two Asian-American boys stick together just by virtue of their ethnicity, when it was clear they had nothing else in common. I love that despite all their teachers’ intentions of having the two of them pair up and be buddies at every turn, Eddie and Phillip were not here for that.

E: Lol the principal’s discomfort at calling Phillip in to meet Eddie was hilarious.

B: That also showed how teachers and principal were inadvertently racist, in a sense, to naturally assume that the two would get along because of their shared ethnicity.

E: Yeah, that discomfort (so ‘politically correct’) seemed to acknowledge on the administrator’s part his own awareness of how racist it was to assume that.

B: And the principal’s strange photo for his ex-wife showing “open-mindedness”… it was actually kind of the opposite of that, haha.

K: Yes, the principal character is a really great parody of PC white people in general.

E: Yeah I really liked that because it made this practice of shoving like-raced students together the butt of the joke. And I don’t know about you guys but that was an experience I personally went through at my school.

K: I didn’t have that experience because I went to a predominantly Asian-Canadian high school. And middle school. And elementary school…

E: I thought the episode did a really great job showcasing a common theme of Asian-American writing and experience—competition for achievements and managing the crushing pressure of expectations.

 

B: But Eddie doesn’t feel the need to compete. He’s really secure in who he is, which I like. He just doesn’t give a fuck, haha. But he does get annoyed with his mother for swooning over Phillip.

K: Yeah, I think that is a common experience, though—to have the expectations of your parents thrust upon you when you don’t want to engage in that with your peers. I’ve certainly had my mom told me multiple times, “why can’t you be more like [Asian-Canadian friend]?”

Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter
Photo @FreshOffABC/Twitter

B: Esther, that person was always you for me. Hahahaha.

E: Yeah the show ultimately rejects the narrative of intense competition, making Jessica less of a Tiger Mom figure. I thought the Jewishness of Phillip’s parents might be a clear nod to the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s book, where she brags about the combined might of her Asian parenting skills and her husband’s Jewish background.

K: Ohh, I haven’t read Amy Chua but that’s a really interesting connection.

 

B: Yeah it is. But what’s interesting is that Phillip is, in fact, brought up solely by Jewish parents, but is the more competitive and “model minority” one. His parents were saying that HE’s strict with THEM… like with the Shabbat practices. So it seems like Phillip was less driven by his parents to be that way, and just more inherently “perfect” by Jessica’s standards.

E: Well Jewish people were the original “model minority,” lol.

 

K: Ultimately, though, I love that Jessica stuck up for Eddie when Phillip ditched him at Les Mis. That was such a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.

 

B: Yeah, that was definitely a d’aww moment! My favorite moment between the two of them. So in the end, Jessica valued Eddie’s selflessness and was put off by Phillip’s selfishness/dishonesty. Without that crucial flaw, though, Jessica wouldn’t have aligned with Eddie. So I think that was a bit heavy-handed, that Phillip had to have a major flaw. But ultimately, it still works and is a powerful moment.

E: What I really loved about this episode’s focus was the way it deconstructed these themes of hyper-competition and achievement among Asian American kids that get thrown around mainstream media all the time.

K: Yes, exactly!

E: It was so nice to see those moments of competition dealt with “from the inside,” so to speak, on major network TV, because so often I see these tropes discussed in really casual, uninformed ways. Like, “all Asian people stick together” or “all Asian American kids are such high achievers” without anything to back that up, or any experience to discuss it in depth. And this offered some pushback against the prevalence of those surface ideas about competition in the Asian American community, without feeling totally contrived.

K: My favorite moment in this episode, though, was when Eddie and Walter FINALLY became friends. I yelped at the TV screen when that happened!

E: Yeah, that was so great. It also felt so real to me, like—that instantaneous bond that kids can feel over a shared love of something despite all of their earlier prickly interactions.

B: But it happened to be over WHITE rappers. I was stoked to see them finally bond, but thought it was a tiny bit cursory just because of their former rivalry.

E: That was an instance when Eddie’s age worked really effectively though. I think that was something that could only really happen to a child – that instantaneous effect. Can’t wait to see if and how their friendship will develop!

B: While that was a really satisfying ending, I still wish Walter could’ve gotten more screentime in this episode.

K: Yeah, B, but maybe he will have more screentime from now on?

B: Right. I hope it continues to build into a substantial friendship, and doesn’t standalone as a single shared moment. Sure, they’re kids, but some serious shit has gone down between them, like the chink comment. I mean that was misguided and probably something they picked up from adults, but still…but yeah, in the end, I can still see that bond happening over a shared interest.

E: Yeah, we’ll see where the show takes it!

Stay tuned as we follow Fresh Off the Boat’s unfolding! Have thoughts about these episodes or the show in general? Leave us a comment!

%d bloggers like this: