Updated: Sep 18, 2021
Many people love Constance Wu’s character Jessica Huang from Fresh off the Boat but the exploration of her inner personal life makes this character and show a classic. The very fact that a show can show a woman’s good qualities, as well as her failures, and has her come around full circle as a human, and does not judge her, makes this portrayal rare, and extremely important. Wu plays Jessica Huang, a wife, mother, co-owner of a restaurant, part-time realtor, and friend, among other things, who does all of these to the best of her ability and with extreme effort. Unlike the portrayal of women and TV mothers of the past, say, Rachel in Friends, or Marge from the Simpsons, Kitty Forman from that 70’s Show, or even Margaret Cho’s character in All American Girl, the first show about an Asian American family, revolving around Margret rebelling against family traditions, and more like Jackie in Nurse Jackie, or Rainbow in Blackish, or Penelope in the remake of One Day at a Time or Sarah Lane in the Path, Jessica Huang’s life is explored in a multi dimensional way.
Fresh Off The Boat follows a Taiwanese American family navigating their experiences, in the 1990’s, in an all white Orlando, with extended family members and each other. The action mostly surrounds Eddie, the weirdo in the family for liking hip hop, and an outcast at school for being Asian, and how he deals with achieving an authenticity and identity. But Jessica is the star for her humorous biting way of speaking, witty lines of orders, wisdom, and affirmations, and her spirit. Jessica is always trying to make things better for her family and herself.
The show is just as much about Jessica’s journey as it is about Eddie’s. When Eddie deals with trust issues with his girlfriend, Jessica deals with same issue with her husband Louis (Randall Park) when he gains a pool partner in an attractive woman via Jessica’s suggestion, as to not have him bother her during book club. When Eddie gets his first job and learns to be responsible and empowers himself, Jessica is looking for jobs, falls into real estate, which leads to her own empowerment. The show is about the fact that parents are not that far from edification as their kids, and that adults are imperfect, and can stand to learn too. It’s about owning ones imperfection, and recreating oneself, which makes the show captivating, endearing, powerful, and more human. It is very different from depictions of the stereotypical Asian Americans on current TV like the fobbish, dence, immigrant in Jian in Sillicon Valley, the jester like, inexperienced Asian in Dong in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the dunce dude-bro in Justin in Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Jason on the Good Place, the passive Asian/helper in Jenny/Fortune Cookie in Glow, or the submissive love interest in Colleen Wing on Iron Fist/Luke Cage. Fresh’s portrayal of Asian Americans however, places us into less static and negatively coded Asian depictions.
Both women and men can learn about the lives of women and the lives of Asian American women from watching the show. In a time where films and TV shows surround a woman or a group of women more than before, and still feature scantily diverse casts–where feminism, and women’s rights are more on display and racial injustice is being called out–the depiction of Jessica Huang’s personal life is an example of how to move past saying we are for women and visibility politics, for inclusivity in film and TV, and actually tell stories about women, and poc’s and understand more about who women and poc’s are. One of the best things about Huang is that she is flawed, she knows this even if she works hard to hide it, and works to better herself and continues on with her pursuit. She is a three-dimensional character who changes and morphs through interaction and reflection. Through a character like Jessica, Asian American women’s lives are treated and are presented on a major scale.
In the third season we see Jessica’s inner fears influence how she behaves and also how she comes to learn from her missteps. It is sometimes hard to watch, because the pain is deep, the leap to where Jessica goes to attain her goals is great, and the results sometimes hurt. In an episode where Jessica takes the side of a scamming dry cleaner over Emory (Forrest Wheeler) to keep peace, to achieve a clean slate for the New Year, she ends up hurting Emory's feelings. After she suffers Emory’s resentment, she returns to the cleaners, goes off on the owner, apologizes to Emory, and reveals she does not want him to think he has to fight all the time like she does, and that she wants to be more peaceful like him. Or, when she convinces the family to work on Thanksgiving. When she makes a comment to the boys that she doesn’t want them to inherit the restaurant, Louis overhears and gets offended, convinced she is using the restaurant to avoid a dinner, but has no love for the restaurant. Jessica apologizes to him, telling him that she has “ridiculously high hopes for her boys”, and their ability to dream wouldn’t be possible without the work Louis has put in. When Wu plays these scenes, she looks mortified and deeply sorry. Jessica reveals the root of her actions, and goes deep into why she did them. These are moments that threaten to bring tears, and it is Wu bringing something human to the character that gives Jessica the full spectrum of humanity. She turns these kinds of confessions we usually see in TV, to working through of the self, self-healing, and a chance to grow her relationships.
It is something uncommon for TV. Most shows outside of Sex and the City, where we constantly see Samantha screw up, learn, and apologize, or in Living Single where Regine quite often has to chip at her ego, or in Jane the Virgin, where Xiomara’s relationship with her daughter weakens because her failure to make healthy life choices, as well as a few others, never go this far–and Jessica’s multi dimensionality is explored the same as these women. Asian American women are rarely seen like this on American screens, and it is a shame. To see a character experience pain and defeat, remain confident, and move towards transformation, brings an audience more into this woman’s world, and more into the life of an Asian American women. Depicting what women think about, aspire to, feel, what they desire in the world, is the work towards humanizing and understanding women. Whether it is Jessica’s support of her friends and family, or her existential crises, these are things that widens the scope. It is the focus on her everyday life– from doing her taxes right, parenting her boys, finding her way in the real estate business, practicing how to accept other people’s ideas in her HOA, her intense love for Denzel Washington and Stephan King novels, to asserting herself in her friends and families affairs, competing with her equally competitive sister, Connie (Susan Park), understanding how to be a better partner to her husband– which brings us into her plight as an Asian woman.
One of the reasons for the shows success is because audiences relate to Jessica. Through the writing led by show creator Nahnatchka Khan, Wu’s acting, and material laid out by Eddie Huang's, memoir, Mrs. Huang is made more of a person, more than a stereotype, more than a representative of a gender, certainly more than a “Tiger mom”, and more than a exoticized, otherized being. If anything Jessica’s existence represents the women who are often forgotten, and made to seem and feel like they don’t exist in our country. Jessica’s portrayal is one many people by now feel great about. Jessica is not a type of woman to play around with, boss around, or give shit to–she is also loyal, graceful, charming, and spontaneous. She exhibits these many qualities time after time on Fresh, whether its taking over a debate class to debate the teacher for not letting Evan (Ian Chen) join because he is too young, or the time she sings, “I Will Always Love You” to new friend Honey (Chelsey Crisp) when it is revealed that Honey eats her pie at a potluck because she likes it, not because she’s trying to be nice. Wu is able to be Jessica Huang, and remain separate. She does not just embody the character, she elevates the character. In Wu’s work she has created someone memorable. Jessica’s interpersonal life is not a type, or type of person, or a way of being. One of the best things about Fresh, is the chance to witness a young Asian American woman, continuously develop and display humanness.
On an episode from the second season, where Jessica is inspired to become a realtor after showing a house to a couple, when squatting and job hunting in a model home for its free A/C, she realizes she has to get a license. She doesn’t get why because she does it with ease, but when going in for the test she is pressured to be exceptional, surrounded by real estate veterans. The episode shows Jessica in doubt, shows her existential concerns coming out in bits and pieces as she encounters people throughout the day who wonder why she isn’t at the testing, while in her feelings of competitiveness, her resiliency, her ability to push through and to accept criticism and love. It is one of television’s near masterful depictions of an Asian American woman–it is pertinent to how creatives depict Asian American women in the future. Asian women’s lives on-screen, rarely ever has this much of their inner lives displayed, let alone shown without it being a part of a cultural restriction, genre convention, or because of a man. The shows creators allow Jessica the format to show us who she really is.
“I think you serve the community best when you’re serving the work and not getting caught up in community anxiety or the idea of representation…if you let that effect your work it becomes political and not human. And I think when you do work that is deeply human, those are the things that change people’s perceptions,” Wu said in a 2015 interview before the Emmy Awards. Wu’s talent and ability to inject honesty, fearlessness, humor, and intelligence into her character, makes interacting with Huang one that requires nothing of you but to get ready for the ride.
Fresh Off The Boat has made changes in the way we engage with Asian American images and gives insight into the lives of Asian American women. The depiction of Jessica Huang, the woman and the character’s life is important, because as a society it is clear that we don’t know women and we don’t know Asian Americans. Her depiction is something that we need now, and it is important that the folks being represented on-screen feel good about it. If women are the future, seeing this woman’s inner life on-screen is an example of how we get to the future and how the future should look.