The (mis)representation of immigrant parents on screen

By

The diverse relationships between parents and children are frequently explored on screen, constantly providing fresh takes on the difficulties of parenthood. Whether it’s the profoundly heart-breaking story of a father’s love for his son through his addiction, as in the movie Beautiful Boy, starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell. Or the comedic moments of the inevitable tension between parents and children – who can forget Rachel from Friends fleeing her wedding on the first episode and her frustration at her parents for not understanding her need for independence: “it’s a metaphor, Daddy!”. 

A series that seems to really understand the intricacies of communication between parents and children is the early 2000s show Gilmore Girls. At 16, Lorelai Gilmore is pregnant and decides to escape from her parents and raise her daughter entirely on her own. This family trauma reshapes the relationship between Lorelai and her parents, Emily and Richard Gilmore, setting a permanent barrier between them that may sometimes be chipped at but never completely broken down. The show is fuelled by the tension between them which seems to implode at their weekly Friday night dinners. It portrays so realistically how the pain of the past can manifest itself in spontaneous hurtful remarks, in the weaponising of a single word or change of tone, to the point that these fights can even be exasperating to watch. 

But what happens when we look outside the Gilmore bubble of rich white privilege? In the show’s margins are Rory’s Korean American best friend, Lane Kim and her mother Mrs Kim, a strict Seventh Day Adventist. Mrs Kim prevents Lane from doing a lot of things she would enjoy like wearing makeup, dying her hair, having a boyfriend and listening to rock music. Lane’s experience of a sort of double life and “contained rebellion” is undoubtedly important, representing a significant shared experience of people who grew up in strict Asian immigrant households and tried to find their footing in Western society. 

The show reinforces the image of Mrs Kim, and by extension immigrant parents, as outsiders to the white majority.

However, while Lane is a popular and well-loved character on the show with developed arcs of her own, Mrs Kim is depicted as the typical ‘Tiger Mum’ stereotype, controlling her daughter. Mrs Kim is portrayed as the opposite of the white, younger, more fun and open mother that Lorelai is. In the eccentric town of Stars Hollow, with its community meetings and festivals, Mrs Kim is rarely included in the bubble, often appearing alone and running her antique store. Ultimately the show reinforces the image of Mrs Kim, and by extension immigrant parents, as outsiders to the white majority.

To its credit, Gilmore Girls delves deeper into the strained mother-daughter relationship between Lane and Mrs Kim, allowing for moments of intense confrontation, such as when Lane rebels and finally moves out on her own, as well as the tender moments of love when Mrs Kim supports Lane’s dream of being a drummer and helps her organise a local tour. 

But such moments of humanising immigrant parents and empathising with them are rare, and even fewer in other shows, both modern and old. For example, the family comedy Modern Family features Gloria, the Colombian mother of Manny who is married to the rich and white Jay Pritchett. Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara, is undoubtedly influenced by the overly common ‘spicy Latina’ stereotype, presented as oversexualised, sultry and armed with a fierce temper. 

As she tries to connect with her new white family she is ogled at and made fun of for her accent in English, all for the sake of comedy. On the other hand, her son, Manny, himself fully Colombian, is not confronted with similar racial stereotypes and grows into his own independent personality in the show. Before we praise television shows and movies for fulfilling a checklist of diverse casting, we need to think more critically about the representation offered.

You will find that a lot of the racial stereotypes that are rejected for the younger generation of characters on screen are ultimately displaced onto their parents.

Often, if we look close enough you will find that a lot of the racial stereotypes that are rejected for the younger generation of characters on screen are ultimately displaced onto their parents. What does that say about the media today? Can we really only accept limited versions of diversity because the younger characters possess Westernised elements while continuing to subject their immigrant parents to racial assumptions and exclusion? 

Image: Ajeet Mestry via Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.