The Death of the Author: From American Gothic to the Fresh Off the Boat

The American Broadcasting Company took a provocative step to use American Gothic (1930), which is one of the most well-known art pieces from Grant Wood, as a reference for the poster of its situation comedy named Fresh Off the Boat.  Fresh-off-the-Boat                                  Grant Wood-PBSAccording to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), “Since first shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930, Grant Wood’s American Gothic has been fodder for speculation. In one camp were those who believed the painting was a celebration of “American” values; in the other were those who saw it as a satiric critique of the selfsame thing.”[1] Decades after Wood created the image, the argument about the ideology that imbedded in the picture remains alive.

In my opinion, the poster of Fresh Off the Boat has the same effect as Wood’s painting. To mimic the composition of Wood’s famous picture, on one hand, the poster makes audience curious about the character setting of the TV series. On the other hand, the poster gives audience extensive space to discuss the relationships between different characters.

At the same time, we can ask ourselves some similar questions: Does Fresh Off the Boat celebrate the America values? Or the sitcom is a satiric critique of racial integration? However, given the huge amount of contextual information of the show, I do not believe we can ever come up with an all-or-nothing answer for these questions now.

Rather than focusing on the influence of the show or rushing into the value judgment, I think we should first examine the representativeness of the character settings and the character relationships in the TV series. In other words, how does the sitcom make audience believe they are a typical Asian American family?

Regarding to authenticity of the TV series, I ask myself, to what extend do Louis and Jessica represents a common couple? In contrast to Wood’s painting, the facial expressions of two main characters in the foreground of the poster are distinctly different. While the husband is portrayed as the happy breadwinner, who carries the pitchfork that symbolizes hard-working, the wife is portrayed as a poker face homemaker. I think the breadwinner-homemaker structure will correspond to most audience’ understanding of family role division (Let us admit that most of us are influenced by the patrilineal society more or less). However, the power relationship between Mr. Huang and Mrs. Huang does not follow the typical patrilineal model.

Going through the episode one of Fresh Off the Boat, audience will notice that Louis does not always plays the dominant role in his relationship with Jessica. The husband is neither another version of Jay Pritchett nor Phil Dunphy of the Modern Family. I cannot even recall any memory of Louis rejecting other people in the story. When you take a look at the poster, Louis’ big smiley face is very iconic. In contrast, Jessica is the decisive wife. She is not afraid of conflicts when she stands for her own beliefs. For example, she resorted to every conceivable means to practice the micro-management plan in the restaurant. In short, while Louis is the yes-man, Jessica is the no-way-women. Even though the character setting of the couple is very complementary, the changeable power relationship between the less-tough husband and the hyper-determined wife contrast to the male-dominant paradigm (something like James Bond and his lady).

I then ask myself some another questions. Is there a problem to portray Louis as a polite and easy-going man? (Especially when he is an Asian man) Similarly, What is wrong to make Jessica a hard-hearted woman? (Especially when he is an Asian man). I do not think I have the answer for these questions now, but I hope I will be able to answer these questions (as if they were good enough to be answered) later when I finish the study of ASAM-118 course in UCSB.

[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sisterwendy/works/ame.html

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