MANAA Urges Fox to Redo TV Show

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Brenda Song with (from left) Martin Mull, Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green in a controversial scene from “Dads.”

A new Fox sitcom that hasn’t aired yet is being accused of racism and sexism, with Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) demanding that the pilot be reshot.

The show, “Dads,” is from Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, the creative team behind Fox’s hit animated series “Family Guy” and the feature film “Ted.” It stars Seth Green (“Family Guy,” “Robot Chicken”) and Giovanni Ribisi (“My Name Is Earl,” “Avatar”) as two successful guys and childhood friends whose lives are turned upside down when their pain-in-the-neck dads, played by Martin Mull (“Two and a Half Men”) and Peter Riegert (“The Good Wife”), move in with them.

At issue is the treatment of Veronica, played by Brenda Song (“New Girl,” “Scandal”), in the first episode. The character — described in the synopsis as the two guys’ “witty and entitled assistant, who is a force to be reckoned with” — wears a revealing schoolgirl outfit at the request of her bosses.

The criticism is not only coming from the Asian American community. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman wrote that the show is “not only is the show not funny, it has heavily racist overtones for Asians.” 

Song, who is also known for the Disney sitcoms “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and “The Suite Life on Deck” and the TV movie “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior,” defended her role in “Dads.” Variety quoted her as saying, “I feel like if you can’t laugh at yourself, you can’t laugh at all.”

Song added that she has joked about being good at math because she’s Asian, and has pretended she doesn’t speak English when getting unwanted attention from men.

Esther Zuckerman of The Atlantic Wire wrote that during the TCA (Television Critics Association) press tour, “Green tried to place the show in the tradition of Norman Lear’s shows ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ which dealt frankly with the changing cultural attitudes on matters like race and sex. But none of the characters on ‘Dads’ seem to have the inner moral life of an Archie Bunker or George Jefferson. And instead of being a show about generational differences, Green and Ribisi’s characters spout as many stereotypes as their fathers do.”

Some critics also suggested that McFarlane might get away with controversial content in his animated shows, but that a live-action sitcom is another matter.

Brenda Song

Members of MANAA, a watchdog group for Asian American media issues, saw the pilot at a pre-screening of upcoming series for the 2013-14 season on July 24 as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, which meets with the top four broadcast networks every year and pushes for more diversity and better portrayals of Asian Americans.

Guy Aoki, founding president of MANAA, sent a letter on Aug. 12 to Fox executives Kevin Reilly, chairman of entertainment; Joe Earley, chief operating officer; Marcus Wiley, senior vice president, comedy development; and James Oh, vice president, current programming. It reads, in part:

“At the screening, APAMC co-chair Daniel Mayeda and I expressed our disappointment at the racial and sexual stereotypes in the pilot. Because the sons (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) were about to meet with Chinese businessmen, they asked Brenda Song to dress up as a sexy Asian schoolgirl with Green suggesting she also giggle (which is more a Japanese stereotype). 

“One of the dads (Martin Mull) called Asians ‘Orientals’ and no one corrected him (will he later call blacks ‘Negroes’?). He later warned his son that he couldn’t trust the Chinese, that ‘there’s a reason Shanghai’s a verb.’

“Supposedly all was made right when the Chinese agreed to the deal after the ‘creepy interpreter’ sent a picture of his penis to Song, who, predictably, said that it was tiny.

“Randy [Cordray], one of the producers of ‘Dads,’ tried to excuse the racial/sexist humor as coming from the dads, who are of an older generation and ‘don’t know any better.’  However, as I pointed out at the gathering, the idea for the Asian schoolgirl outfit came from the sons. Therefore, Asians were being hit from all sides with no relief in sight.

“On March 11, 2011, the day thousands were killed in the Japanese tsunami, ‘Dads’ co-creator Alec Sulkin tweeted, ‘If you wanna feel better about this earthquake in Japan, google “Pearl Harbor death toll.” Given the level of hostility we felt in the ‘Dads’ pilot, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Sulkin’s involved.

“MANAA does not understand how this episode could be seen by the top executives at Fox without anyone pushing for major changes. In the past, Kevin Reilly impressed us with his sensitivity towards our community when he pressured the producers of ‘Terra Nova’ to take Shelley Conn as the female lead due to the series’ lack of diversity and how he cancelled a pilot because it made stereotypical remarks against an Asian character.  

“Also, Marcus Wiley, who is half Chinese and helped develop ‘Dads,’ should’ve known this would be problematic.

“As you saw by the reaction from the Television Critics Association, this pilot is universally despised …We understand Mike Scully’s perspective that what was once considered offensive (e.g., Homer Simpson repeatedly choking Bart) is no longer a big deal. In other words, people got used to it. We hope that if ‘Dads’ becomes a hit, this country will not eventually become comfortable with needless attacks on Asian men and women.

“We also don’t feel comfortable with the suggestion that we should just give the series time to develop to find its balance. In September 2011, MANAA VP Miriam Nakamura-Quan and I saw a pre-screening of CBS’ ‘2 Broke Girls,’ where Han Lee (Matthew Moy) spoke with a heavy accent and was called ‘Rice Lee’ by star Kat Dennings. Thankfully, that latter scene was edited out and Han was never called Rice again. Although we were told that as time went on, Han would receive better treatment and be seen as smart, nothing has changed in the two years since. 

“Yes, the show is successful, but critics continue to hate it, and because of the constant barbs against Han, it continues to disparage Asian Americans.

“Our community can’t continue to be the target of racially insensitive jokes. Fox has an opportunity to fix fatal flaws in the pilot and to improve the show’s chances for success when it premieres next month. We are asking you to reshoot the inappropriate scenes of the pilot.

“Considering the consistent feedback from our community and television critics in general — and the creators saying they hadn’t properly defined their characters nor gotten used to their actors when they shot that first episode — this sounds like a no-brainer.

“Instead of reinforcing tired, negative stereotypes of Asian people, consider what Daniel Mayeda suggested: Turn these stereotypes on their heads. So if Asian women are assumed to be subservient, make Brenda Song’s character outspoken — someone who won’t take crap. If Asian men supposedly have small penises, give this interpreter a large one.

“Doing unexpected things like this creates talk, buzz, and ratings, and it gets the Asian American community more behind the series vs. being resentful toward and suspicious of it. It can be a win-win situation.”

Reilly has publicly stated that the show needs to be recalibrated and find the right comedic balance, but Fox has not yet responded to MANAA’s letter.

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