Blast from the past…Remembering ‘All American Girl’

The comedy sitcom ‘All American Girl’ is the focus of this blog post. It was first aired in 1994 and featured a mostly Asian cast. The protagonist of the show, Margaret Cho, plays an American girl of Korean origin, in her twenties and living with her extended Korean family. Most of the story lines of the episodes revolve around Margaret trying to find her way in life and usually being met with disapproval from her more conservative family.

All American Girl

Surprise, surprise! The sitcom was met with mainly negative reviews, most of them coming from the Asian-American community. The show was criticized for casting non-Korean actors (many of the cast were Chinese or Japanese) and the subsequent down slide the show went through by replacing most of the Asian cast with Caucasian characters particularly came under fire. Cho’s character was subject to many of the stereotypes that are associated with second generation Asian-Americans. She was portrayed as wanting independence (mainly to move out of the house) while she was being held back by her tight-knit family. Her insistence to date Caucasian men with unorthodox professions (musicians, actors) met with severe disapproval from, particularly; her mother with her mother wanting Margaret to date ‘doctors, lawyers or engineers’ and that her choice be ‘a Korean boy. This clash of generations leads to a strained relationship between the two. There is also the quintessential wise old grandmother, who dispenses wisdom in her own unique way and is her granddaughter’s only solace in the family. Margaret is frequently compared to her more studious and uptight brother who is a medical student.

What went on behind the scenes of the show is particularly interesting. After the show was developed, primarily around Cho’s stand-up comedy routine for which she had become quite well-known by then, the producers decided that she needed to lose weight for the role and deemed her as not fitting the stereotypical appearance of an Asian girl (who most imagine as being skinny with long, dark, straight hair; which is what the producers wanted). Cho reports that she went through a period of intense personal strife because of the pressure that was put on her. Things were only made worse with the makers of the show replacing all the Asian actors with Caucasian ones, thereby unsettling her character’s place in the sitcom even further. The fact that only a small minority of the show’s producers were Asian American contributed to the fact of it being culturally incorrect. As Xin Jung quotes the Japanese American director Kayo Hatta in his book ‘Asian America Through the Lens: History, Representations, and Identities:

“I feel it is really important that Asian Americans get more into the producing, controlling the means by which films are made and distributed. That’s where the artistic control comes in. If you don’t have the means to make the film, you can’t control the content. On the financial and the distribution end, film-making is going to be white, with Asian Americans being more in the background.” (Xing, 35)

I have discussed this issue, albeit in the context of gender representation behind the camera in another post on this blog. The sitcom is strewn with cultural stereotypes, maybe too many to mention. The most offensive might be the attempt of the mostly non-Korean cast to speak in a ‘Korean accent’, and failing miserably to do so. The show most drew flak for its flawed representation of the Asian community and its subsequent mishandling of the storyline.  This is an interesting benchmark for me to do a comparative analysis and with my other few analysis posts, I believe I should be able to come up with a strong conclusion to my research on this topic.

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