VOX: “For years, TV has treated immigrants as punchlines. These shows are fighting back.”

by Joseph McKeown


The American television and film industry has an unfortunate long history of stereotypical and offensive portrayals of immigrants. These include Apu, the Indian convenience store clerk voiced by Greek-American Hank Azaria in The Simpsons, Ashton Kutcher’s absurdly racist portrayal in brown face of an Indian man looking for love in a pop chips commercial, Andy Kaufman’s generically-foreign character Latka on Taxi, and Wilmer Valderrama’s “lisping, perpetually horny immigrant whose origins were painted with such broad strokes that his very name was a play on an acronym for ‘Foreign Exchange Student.’”

Vox writer Caroline Framke, herself the daughter of an Iranian immigrant, looks at three current shows—CW’s Jane the Virgin, Netflix’s Master of None, and ABC’s Fresh Off the Boatthat refuse to play to these stereotypes and instead offer “empathetic, heartfelt, and genuinely funny portrayals of immigrants that make the clichés feel both outdated and unnecessary.”

Master of None

Aziz Ansari and fellow show creator Alan Yang have done an excellent job at portraying the experiences of minorities (Asian-Americans, in particular) trying to work in the film and television industry (more on that from Ansari in this excellent New York Times piece), but the show also details the widely varying experiences between first- and second-generation immigrants.

The second episode ("Parents") examines the childhood experiences of Dev’s father Ramesh (played charmingly by Ansari’s real father, Shoukath Ansari) in India and the racism and isolation he later experienced in the US. This episode also features Dev's friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) and his father, Peter (Clem Cheung), and a flashback to his own childhood in Taiwan, his immigration to the US, the racism that he also experienced (seriously, enough with the racism, America), and the experience of watching his son assimilate. As Framke writes, this episode “goes on to feature some truly lovely, funny moments, particularly between Dev and Brian's parents as they bond over their immigration experiences. And after learning more about their parents' pasts, Dev and Brian are impressed by their sacrifices but still can't quite understand them.”

Jane the Virgin

This show, which both celebrates and pokes fun at telenovelas, is especially focused on the differing "immigrant" experiences through three generations. The titular character, Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), gets pregnant after being accidentally artificially inseminated, but notwithstanding that far-fetched premise, the show has a lot to say regarding the multigenerational Villanueva family. There’s Jane, who the show creator, Jennie Snyder Urman, describes as “a very American girl,” her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who bridges the gap between her very American daughter and her own mother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), who is an undocumented immigrant.

The show’s second season focuses on Alba and her quest for a Green Card as well as the difficult decisions and hardships she's faced as an undocumented immigrant. This issue is especially poignant since cast member Diane Guerrero, who plays Jane's childhood friend Lina, watched her parents get deported when she was fourteen years old. "It's just an incredibly gut-wrenching story, which she told me early on when we first cast her," Urman said in Vox. "It's such an emotional, scary position to be in. We didn't want to just take that and make it something soapy and campy."

Fresh off the Boat

While this sitcom faced some controversy early on when Eddie Huang, a chef who wrote the memoir upon which the show is based, didn’t like the family-friendly direction it was going, the show nevertheless takes a complex look at how Louis and Jessica Huang, first-generation immigrants from Taiwan, raise their three sons in Orlando, and, to be perfectly honest, deal with all the crazy and (at times) racist white people.

While Louis enthusiastically embraces American culture and owns a steakhouse called Cattleman's Ranch, Jessica struggles with belonging and watching her children assimilate to the American lifestyle and culture. The stories range from the oldest trying to fit in at school (he wants to eat lunchables) and having to deal with racist classmates to how the Huangs' Chinese traditions clash with the American ones.

While these shows are just a start, as Framke says, they “illustrate that immigrants are more than their accents, their different lunches, or their traditions you might not understand. They're just people — and their struggles, mishaps, truths, and triumphs are exactly the kinds of stories television should be salivating to tell.”