The Dragon Lady Has Landed: Tired Tropes of Asian American Women in Fresh off the Boat

Fresh off the Boat

By Jazlyn Andrews (FGS ’16)

NOTE: This article is an extended version of the article published in the Block 3 2015 issue of The Monthly Rag.

Fresh Off the Boat, an ABC sitcom based on the story of chef and author Eddie Huang, has been heralded as bringing visibility to Asian American families for the first time since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was canceled 20 years ago. While the show is making waves with its predominantly Asian cast and discussions about everyday issues Asian-Immigrant families face, the legacies of colonial construction of the Other live on, especially through the women characters. Specifically, the construction of Eddie’s mom, Jessica, as demeaning, emasculating, and scheming reinforces the Dragon Lady image of Asian American women that is used to control all women’s behavior.

The Dragon Lady construction functions to maintain beliefs that constrict Asian women to a submissive identity performance out of fear of being labeled undeserving. As Lisa C. Ikemoto points out in “Male Fraud,” when women choose not to perform a submissive, sexually available, yet modest portrayal of Asian women, they are characterized as “scheming, duplicitous, and tyrannical” predators who take advantage of American men and values to get to the top (253).  When the Huang family is forced to move to Florida to follow their journey to the American Dream, Jessica is vehemently opposed. In the trailer, she can be seen mocking her husband’s idea through a sarcastic grin and “broken” English, claiming, “This is why we left our family and friends. This is why we left everything we know to come to a place where we know nothing and the humidity isn’t good for my hair.” Throughout the move, it becomes clear that Jessica is constructed in opposition to her husband’s assimilationist values. However, the audience is meant to relate to Randall’s individualistic American values, priming us to see Jessica as a shrill, uptight, and detrimentally traditional woman. While her character raises serious concerns about being an Other in a predominantly White neighborhood, the audience is trained to laugh, minimizing Jessica’s anxieties and perpetuating the notion that Asian women who step out of line to assert themselves shouldn’t be taken seriously.

In this image released by ABC, Constance Wu, from left, Forrest Wheeler, Hudson Yang and Ian Chen appear in a scene from the new comedy series "Fresh Off the Boat," previewing Wednesday with episodes at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. EST. (AP Photo/ABC, Jordin Althaus)

The lack of respect the audience is supposed to have for Jessica’s concerns reinforces the idea that Asian American women only have value when submitting to White heteropatriarchal supremacy. As Sumi K. Cho points out in “Converging Stereotypes in Racialized Sexual Harassment: Where the Model Minority Meets Suzie Wong,” through performances of the Lotus Flower, “Asian American women are particularly valued in a sexist society because they provide the antidote to visions of liberated career women who challenge the objectification of women” (351). The construction of the Dragon Lady also functions to punish Asian women who fall outside the trope, all while blaming their denigration on their decision to deviate from submission. While Huang provides an alternative representation to the Lotus Flower trope, her aggressive characteristics only hinder the family in their restaurant business, since her commanding presence is not received well by customers.

The depiction of Jessica as an overbearing Dragon Lady also functions to discipline the audience, as we are programmed to laugh at her Otherness while relating to her husband and sons’ assimilations into American culture. As Cho notes, the “ objectified gender stereotype also assumes a model minority function as Asian Pacific women are deployed to ‘discipline’ white women, just as Asian Pacific Americans in general are used against ‘non-model’ counterparts, African-Americans” (351).  Whatever the identity performance of audience members, Jessica’s deviation from gendered and racialized norms and the subsequent punishment she receives for them send a message to women that we are not meant to question or challenge the values we are asked to assimilate.

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