On television, immigrants have played chaotic second fiddles to baffled white Americans for decades.
It doesn't matter that the United States was built on the backs of immigrants; historically, the immigrant characters we've seen onscreen have rarely been anything more than one-note clichés.
Apu, an Indian convenience store clerk voiced by Hank Azaria, has been amusing the residents of The Simpsons' Springfield for 30 years and counting with his foreign accent and traditions. From 1998 through 2006, Wilmer Valderrama appeared on That '70s Show as "Fez," a 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." And if you try to tally up all of television's confused Hispanic housekeepers, you might lose weeks of your life.
Perhaps most famous and/or notorious — depending on whom you ask — is Latka, the amorphously foreign Taxi character who came out of a bit Andy Kaufman simply called "Foreign Man":
Meanwhile, newer versions of the same old immigrant stereotypes abound, in The Big Bang Theory's Raj; 2 Broke Girls' fumbling Korean diner owner Han and macho line cook Oleg; and Modern Family's Colombian bombshell Gloria, who's gained some depth as Modern Family has aged but whose defining characteristics have always been "sexy" and "loud."
Still: Something has shifted in the past television season or so. And even if that shift is incremental against the ever-swelling slate of television shows (there are just so many!), some shows are actively fighting back against the stereotypes by featuring well-developed immigrant characters who feel like fully formed human beings instead of heavily accented punchlines.
The CW's Jane the Virgin, Netflix's Master of None, and ABC's Fresh Off the Boat all offer empathetic, heartfelt, and genuinely funny portrayals of immigrants that make the clichés feel both outdated and unnecessary. And when you look at these shows versus others, the major difference is crystal clear: None of them treat the immigrant experience as an aside, an anomaly, or a joke. Here are three ways they succeed where so many others have failed.
1) They portray different immigrant experiences through different generations
Not every immigrant experience is created equal, and there may be no better way to convey that than through the complex, disparate relationships within multigenerational families.
Jane the Virgin is about ... well, a lot of things. The most prominent thread in season one was that the titular character, Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), got pregnant after being accidentally artificially inseminated. But the show is so much more than its silly logline; indeed, it hinges on the fiercely devoted, multigenerational Villanueva family.
The relationships between Jane, her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and her grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) are at the core of the series, enduring through every giddy triumph and crushing heartbreak. And in its second season, Jane has devoted more of its story to Alba, focusing on her experience as an undocumented immigrant.
The eldest Villanueva has been living in fear for decades, too scared to go through the formal process of getting a green card, lest she get deported. "Chapter Twenty-Five" began to fill in the blanks of the character's history by flashing back to Alba's past, when she and her husband faced the overwhelming prospect of starting a family and a new life in a completely foreign country. It was a significant moment, as Jane had never provided viewers with a firsthand glimpse at Alba's youth, despite flashing back to either Jane or Xiomara's past at the beginning of every episode since the pilot.
Jennie Snyder Urman, the creator of Jane the Virgin, recently told me that Alba's background and green card application will be major focal points of season two, in large part thanks to the birth of Jane's baby, the beginning of the fourth Villanueva generation. "Once Mateo came, we wanted to give [Alba] the courage, the ability to change for the next generation," Urman said. "She wants to do something different. She doesn’t want to have that fear living in the center of the family anymore."
Meanwhile, Urman describes Jane as "a very American girl. Her favorite food is grilled cheese. And that’s specific, because she was born here, and she was raised in America." Jane's comfort with growing up in Miami contrasts sharply with Alba's constant fear over her undocumented status. Jane and Xiomara are aware of Alba's struggles, even as they can't relate.
A week after Jane's "Chapter Twenty-Five" aired, Master of None premiered on Netflix. It wasn't long before the show blew me away with its portrayal of what it means to come to the United States as an immigrant, start a new life from scratch, and watch the next generation assimilate with more ease.
The comedy from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang goes from good to great five minutes into its second episode. "Parents" opens with Dev (Ansari) trying to end a visit with his father so he can go see a movie. As Ramesh (Shoukath Ansari, Aziz's real father) blinks at his son, the episode's perspective shifts away from Dev's impatience and flashes back to Ramesh's childhood in India.
The flashback expands to cover other bits and pieces of Ramesh's life, including his decision to leave India for the United States, the racism that greeted him once he arrived, and the trials and joys of watching his child grow up in a completely different place and manner than he did.
Then, as if to prove that Ramesh's flashback isn't a fluke, the episode cuts to Dev's friend Brian (Kelvin Yu), who's also trying to disentangle himself from his father's company. As Peter (Clem Cheung) blinks at his son, the episode flashes back to his childhood in Taiwan, then expands to cover his immigration to the States, the racism that greeted him once he arrived, and the trials and joys of watching his child grow up in a completely different place and manner than he ever did.
Both Ramesh and Peter's flashbacks contain their fair share of heartbreak and searing indictments of American racism. But "Parents" 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. This divide is complicated, confusing, and even somewhat alienating for first-generation immigrants and second-generation children alike.
I was floored when I watched "Chapter Twenty-Five" and "Parents, not just because they were so thoughtfully done but because it was genuinely thrilling to see two different TV series so incisively capture the disparity between my experience and my mother's. My mother came to the United States for college, and then the Iranian Revolution kept her here for decades; she no longer recognizes the country she left, but she doesn't feel at home here, either.
As for me, I grew up in suburban New Jersey, saved up for Hot Topic sales, and killed several Tamagotchis. I never saw anything on TV or in movies that reflected how removed my experience was from my mother's — nor anything that cared to. It's a situation that so many American-born children of immigrant parents find themselves in, yet it has so rarely been depicted onscreen that any true effort to do so is likely to be met with surprise. As Yu recently told Vulture in happy disbelief, "It's a weird bizarre world we're living in where that story's up onscreen. My brother and I, we are almost speechless. ... We don't quite know what to say to each other about it."
On Master of None, this thoughtful examination of what it's like to be part of a multigenerational immigrant family is merely the subject a moving one-off chapter, but it's the driving force of Jane the Virgin, where Jane's family is the show's moral compass and loyal heart.
The latter is also true on family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, which hangs its entire premise on how Louis and Jessica Huang, first-generation immigrants from Taiwan, adjust and raise their three sons in Orlando. Louis wholeheartedly embraces American culture and owns a steakhouse called Cattleman's Ranch. Jessica sometimes struggles to feel at home, but slowly carves out a place for herself and begins making waves in the Floridian real estate market even as she clings to Taiwanese traditions and culture with a fierce grip. Both parents are perplexed by how much their surly preteen son Eddie (Hudson Yang) loves American rap. Within this framework, Fresh Off the Boat can explore many facets of the immigrant experience, in stories that range from Eddie trying to fit in at school to how the Huangs' Chinese traditions clash with the American ones that surround them.
All three series use the generational divides between family members to explore culturally specific issues, the confusion of trying to integrate into a foreign country, and the everyday trials and errors of being part of a family. As it turns out, immigrant families have just as many ups, downs, and weirdo moments as any others, even if Hollywood hasn't fully caught on yet.
2) They never reduce immigrants to one-note stereotypes
In fact, these shows actively fight back against television's grand tradition of mockery by pointing out just how ridiculous the stereotypes are.
Fresh Off the Boat flipped the mockery script in its very first episode and hasn't looked back since. Instead of serving as flat, pan-Asian stand-ins for white people to enjoy as novelties, the Huangs are constantly befuddled by their white, American neighbors. But Fresh Off the Boat has always acknowledged and eviscerated racism and skewed standards. In its series premiere, for example, Eddie got in trouble for fighting with a kid who called him a "chink." Rather than allowing the school to punish him, however, his parents unequivocally stood up for their son, asking why the boy who used the slur wasn't hauled into the principal's office, too.
In Fresh Off the Boat's November 3 episode, Louis (Randall Park) was invited to do silly impressions on a morning talk show. He was thrilled about the appearance — until his wife, Jessica (Constance Wu), berated him for playing into the white hosts’ hands. They weren’t laughing with him, Jessica worried, but at him. "Name one Chinese person on TV," she demanded. When Louis couldn’t respond, she went on: "We don’t get opportunities to get on TV. That’s why when we do, we need to present our best face." To explain her anxiety, she cited a particularly sore spot for past Chinese representation in media and pop culture: the Sixteen Candles character Long Duk Dong.
In this moment, Fresh Off the Boat acknowledges the fraught history of Asian representation onscreen, even as the show actively bucks that trend.
Wu, the series’ sharpest asset as the domineering Jessica, has spoken beautifully about the challenges Fresh Off the Boat faces, the victories it's achieved, and its overall place in media. But she summed up what Fresh Off the Boat does best when the entertainment show DFLA requested that she whip out Jessica’s thick Taiwanese accent for show and tell. "It's very specific," Wu said. "It's not a Shanghai accent, or a Beijing accent. It's a Taiwanese accent with some DC influences." And then she politely, but firmly, refused to recreate it on the spot, smiling even as she shut it down with just a few words: "It’s not a party trick."
Masters of None creators Ansari and Yang are similarly careful to steer their immigrant characters' stories away from cliché, which makes sense given that both men are children of immigrants. (The families of main characters Dev and Brian are rooted in Ansari and Yang's own lives, with Ansari's real-life parents essentially playing themselves as Dev's parents and with Brian's Taiwanese father based directly on Yang's.)
The series' entire fourth episode is a blistering condemnation of Hollywood's racist double standards for minority actors and characters alike. "Indians on TV" opens with a stark montage of cringeworthy Indian "jokes" that features The Simpsons' Apu, Ashton Kutcher doing a Popchips commercial in brownface, and a Short Circuit 2 scene with Ben Jabituya, the movie's Indian scientist character who was played by white actor Fisher Stevens. It then cuts to Dev in a room full of Indian actors, all of whom are auditioning for a tiny role as a cab driver — and when Dev refuses to perform a thick Indian accent, he's dismissed. It only gets worse from there, as Dev finds out that he's not getting a part on a potentially huge sitcom solely because the network has already cast an Indian actor, and there can't be two, lest anyone think it's "an Indian show."
"Indians on TV" is one of the frankest episodes of television of the year, an unflinchingly bold takedown of Hollywood's broken, bizarre approach to race and its disturbing reliance on stereotypes. As it throws light on television's more insidious instincts, Master of None makes it that much harder to ignore the problem.
3) Firsthand experiences are valued over secondhand assumptions
A key component of all three of these shows is that they have voices behind the scenes that can speak to what's happening onscreen from their own personal experiences rather than making assumptions based on toxic stereotypes.
Fresh Off the Boat ran into controversy when Eddie Huang, a chef who wrote the memoir upon which the show is based, spoke out about how far the sitcom had strayed from his harrowing childhood. That relationship ended poorly, with Huang stepping back from his producer and voiceover roles as the ABC sitcom stuck to family-friendly plot lines.
But Fresh Off the Boat has made a real effort to ensure that even if it doesn't accurately retell Huang's life story, it still rings true. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, born in the United States to Iranian immigrants, has brought her own insights to the table, even as she is aware that her childhood doesn't necessarily reflect that of a second-generation Chinese-American kid's. So she and the other writers who don't know as many specifics of the Huangs' story listen to the Chinese writers, producers, and actors on staff who know that they would cook with oyster sauce, not fish sauce.
Jane the Virgin also prizes input from those on staff who intimately know the stories the show is trying to tell. When elaborating on Alba's increased role on this season of Jane the Virgin, Urman made sure to give credit to actors Ivonne Coll and Gina Rodriguez, as well as Jane staff members with firsthand immigrant experiences, for helping shape the character's story. "I like the specificity of having Alba speaking in the language that she knows the best, in which she’s the most comfortable, and having her daughter and granddaughter responding in English," Urman said. She went on to specifically cite Rodriguez's input as the inspiration for making that adjustment, which reflects the actor's own experience. (Not for nothing, Fresh Off the Boat's grandmother character also speaks only in Mandarin, even when her family speaks to her in English.)
I then asked Urman about the other immigrant family on Jane the Virgin, namely Jane's erstwhile nemesis Petra (Yael Grobglas), née Natalia, and her nefarious mother. They emigrated from the Czech Republic under trying circumstances, but their story has never focused on their immigrant status. Nor should it, necessarily, as Petra and her scheming mother tend to spend far more time on the soapy, telenovela-influenced side of Jane's reality than Alba does.
This was intentional, Urman says, because in Petra's more melodramatic reality, "[deportation] would probably play more in terms of a plot twist, or someone doing something dastardly to someone else. It didn't feel right." But Urman had more than just an unsettled feeling to go on. She'd also consulted with one of her writers and one of the show's directors, whose lives have both been profoundly impacted by green card applications and deportations.
Diane Guerrero, who plays Jane's childhood friend Lina on Jane the Virgin, watched her parents get deported when she was 14 years old. "It's just an incredibly gut-wrenching story, which she told me early on when we first cast her," Urman said. "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."
And so they decided to save Alba's green card process for season two, the better to lay the groundwork for the character's pervasive fear of deportation and her difficult decision to apply for permanent US residency. They also wanted to take their time in building an authentic and three-dimensional character, one the audience would love and root for. As Urman put it: "When you have a character like Alba who the audience really loves and feels has worked hard to maintain the center of her family, once they attach to that character, you have this opportunity to make politics feel personal." Alba's green card storyline isn't a gimmick, nor is it a self-congratulatory ploy for brownie points from a liberal audience; it's a natural progression for a character Jane has thoughtfully crafted from the start.
Crucially, Alba's story and the Villanueva bond are stronger because people who can speak to that experience from their own lives are part of the process. One of the biggest problems with shows trying and failing to write minority characters is that for the most part, television writers' rooms just don't include that many minority writers, period. The Writers Guild of America's TV staffing brief for the 2013-'14 season (the last full season for which data is available) noted that while minorities comprise 37 percent of the country's population, they make up less than 14 percent of television staff writers.
This isn't to say that only minorities can write for minority characters, since that would be reductive. But if a room of all white writers with no personal knowledge of minority issues or what it's like to be an immigrant try to write those stories without seeking firsthand accounts, they'll almost inevitably fall back on stereotypes and clichés. What if Taxi had tried to understand "Latka" beyond the one-note joke of the character? And conversely, what if someone without any knowledge of Cuban culture tried to create a flamboyant Cuban-American bandleader role instead of Desi Arnaz writing what he knew?
Master of None, Jane the Virgin, and Fresh Off the Boat could — and should — inspire a brighter future for onscreen immigrants
Pushes for more diversity in Hollywood, where "diversity" is a vague term that generally means "everybody except straight, white men," are slowly but surely changing the media and pop culture landscape. But it's important to note that there are still relatively few productions in the grand scheme of things that make an effort to be as inclusive and interesting as Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat, and Jane the Virgin.
Seeing yourself onscreen, even if it's just a fraction of yourself, can be startling, as if someone ripped a page from your journal or was spying on you from just around the corner. It can be satisfying to know that someone understands how you feel — or it can be wildly disorienting if you didn't realize you felt that way until someone else put your experience into words.
On the flip side, not seeing yourself onscreen is a dull study in disconnect — and seeing yourself represented as an outlandish parody, over and over again, can be devastating. Khan, growing up Iranian in Hawaii, loved television even as she couldn't connect to it like she wanted to. "For immigrant families," she once told NPR, "television is what connects you to American culture, but it's also what makes you feel like an outsider."
Representation matters, but it's not enough to simply throw a person of color onscreen every now and then to fill some quota or placate some outrage. What really counts, and can make a real difference in the overwhelmingly monochromatic landscape of television, is giving voice to marginalized people behind the scenes who can make the final product not just authentic, but empathetic.
We have a long way to go, but the lived-in, honest portrayals of immigrants and minorities on shows like Jane the Virgin, Master of None, and Fresh Off the Boat are considerate, visible steps toward a more meaningful kind of representation. 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.