Saturday, November 27

‘The Butt of All Jokes’: Why TV Must Ditch Stale Immigrant Stories | TV

She feels sad, amid a wave of such positive, nuanced and complex portrayals of immigrants on television, that United States of Al had to be released this month in the US.

“How do you say, ‘We are so happy to see you’ in, what language do you speak in Afghanistan? Afghanistan? is the first line of the new program, about an American war veteran whose Afghan friend, Al, is going to live with him in the United States. Chuck Lorre, the writer known for other great hits like The Big Bang Theory, Roseanne, and The Kominsky Method, knows that one of the country’s two native languages ​​is Pashto, not “Afghani”; he wrote it in the script on the next line. – but what better way to express how irrelevant you think another country is than to write a joke for which the auction is a question that Google could answer in a second?

The show is about a Muslim man and a U.S. Army veteran, but it was clearly written for people who identify with Parker Young as Riley, a handsome white man going through a divorce and dealing with alcohol issues, instead of those who identify with Al.

Maybe we should have known when the main character’s name was shortened from Alwalmir to “Al”. And if that wasn’t so, then it should have been clear that when the show cast a South African actor (Adhir Kalyan) of Indian descent with a fake accent for its main Central Asian character, it was written for people who were thought to do it. . not noticing or worrying about the difference.

But it’s also clear from the script that you’re not supposed to find Al very interesting, much less relatable. In episode four, it’s easier to relate to peripheral characters like Riley’s sister Lizzie (who is mourning her husband’s death) or his wife Vanessa than to Al, whose backstory appears to be that he doesn’t drink. nor does he date. he likes tea and comes from a country comparable to the American festival Burning Man, where – in Lorre’s words, not mine – “people run like crazy, set everything on fire and then leave”.

Al is a harmless character, who is very grateful to be in the US He does not like to impose his religious standards on other people; he gives his friends rugs handcrafted by his uncle, and compliments many American practices, such as that the bins have wheels here!

He is an interpreter who speaks several languages ​​but, nevertheless, habitually spoils his grammar and cannot hit phrases like “double standards”; a man haggling at the grocery store, as if there were no supermarkets in Afghanistan, and never before had known that in America people stop at traffic lights.

In other words, he’s the archetype of a “good immigrant,” whose sole purpose is to be the butt of all jokes and to help the show’s white characters find happiness.

Lorre has gone out of the way in this – after all, he wrote The Big Bang Theory, whose only non-white central character is Rajesh Koothrappali, whose main character traits are his Indian accent and the way he can’t speak directly to women. . and whose parents are always trying to get her into an arranged marriage. And of course there’s that little thing about the constant Indian jokes. “I made chicken. Now I hope that’s not one of the animals that people think is magical, ”Sheldon Cooper’s mother tells Raj in one episode.

Ramy Youssef in Ramy
Nuanced … Ramy Youssef in Ramy Photograph: Hasan Amin / Hulu

Compare this to some of the more exciting immigrant characters we’ve had on television recently and you will see that such depictions are as regressive as they are sloppy. Golden Globe winner Ramy Youssef’s eponymous show Ramy looks at how his parents cope with the pressures, cultural differences, and contradictions of being immigrants to the US while raising American children. They are not model citizens: they make shameful mistakes, they constantly insult the United States and question its values ​​(as is their American right), and you see that their morality is sometimes doubtful, their motivations sometimes selfish.

One episode, shown through the eyes of Ramy’s mother Maysa, whose first language is not English, gets worse when she tries to understand their / their pronouns. After being suspended from her new job as a Lyft driver, Maysa is terrified that the reprimand will affect her citizenship application and realizes that she misled a passenger who may have reported her. It’s hilarious and, yes, difficult. It shows the ridiculous requirement for non-citizens to know more about a country than its citizens (as if that were a measure of patriotism, or validation of one’s right to live freely without fear of deportation). It makes clear the daily cost that immigration processes take on people’s lives, the incessant code change and gratitude, and it also shows you that Maysa can be self-motivated, delayed and provincial. Like any other American.

Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) in Pen15.
Challenging clichés… Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) in Pen15. Photograph: Erica Parise / Hulu

In Pen15, the real-life mother of writer Maya Erskine, Matsuko Erskine, plays her on-screen mother and defies the “strict Asian” stereotype that is often reserved for Asian mothers on television, perhaps captured from most perfectly on The Gilmore Girls, where her best friend Lane Kim’s mother is the epitome of a terrifying “tiger mom.” In contrast, Erskine’s Emmy Award-winning show about the awkward, horny, and fun trials and tribulations of being a teenager follows Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) and her best friend Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) into puberty. In one episode, Kone stays with Ishii-Peters while his parents go on retirement to repair their marriage, a more ingenious twist than the usual story about the Asian boy who finds freedom in the houses of his white friends, where they get involved. in activities that their immigrant parents would not approve of.

All of this is to say that the image of immigrants on television seemed to have improved in recent years. We have moved from the days of rigid and regressive stereotypes, of the mother tiger, the repressed immigrant trying to learn to be more American, the strictly religious outsider, and we have moved on to the representations of immigrants who really grapple with what it is to be a human first and second, someone who has moved from another country.

For programs that still fail to grasp that concept, we must ask ourselves: who are they for? They are certainly not for people who look like me.

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