For people of color, representation and ownership of images are far and few between. Before Jane the Virgin (2014), the last show featuring majority Latinx characters was George Lopez show (2002) which lasted until 2007. That’s 7 years, two shows centered on Latin-American life. And before Lopez, was Chico and the Man (1974). It was 24 years before there was Latinx lead. Meanwhile Latin-Americans make up eighteen percent of the U.S. population.
Asian Americans make up about six percent of the population, that is around 19 million people. Before Fresh off the Boat (2015), Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994) was said to have been the first sitcom featuring an all Asian-American cast, and Cho received much praise for being the first Asian American lead. is often credited for being the first Asian American star. (It should be noted that between AAAG and FoB was, a show called outsourced featuring Indian hybrids, but we can reserve the bias toward East Asians in television and sheer invisibility of Indian families on television for another entry.) Some research after binging Cobra Kai led to the discovery that Mr. Myagi (Pat Morita) starred in the sitcom Mr. T and Tina (1976). which had actually been one of the first (if not the first) network sitcom featuring a majority (East) Asian-American cast.
He was always Mr. Myagi to this millennial (or is it GenXer?), but Pat Morita was born in California to Japanese immigrants. Like many Asians in California during in the 1940s, his family owned a restaurant, but he would later find his fortune in entertainment. I may have recognized him in Happy Days when I’d watch Nick at Nite, but I wouldn’t come to see him until The Karate Kid. Before the The Karate Kid, however, Morita played many roles with his big break as Taro Takahashi in Mr. T. and Tina, a show about a Japanese inventor who immigrated from Tokya to Chicago with his family. The show only aired four episodes, but it’s certainly worth learning about as we consider the dearth of representation of BIPOC communities and the opportunities, albeit limited for immigrants and their children, to feature in stories which reflect their community.
It’s interesting to see the primer episode featuring cast members from Welcome Back Kotter, an Italian, an African-American, Latino and a Jew(?) approach a Japanese man. The enactment of racial and ethnic identity in the 1970s is eye-opening. It begs one to consider not only how Black actors were trained to perform blackness, but how Asian-American actors enacted Asianness, accents and all.
It is also important to understand the decision making that goes into who gets air time and how groups are portrayed. Margaret Cho has been open about the compromises she was foreced to make in presenting Asian-Americans including being forced to conform to the thin ideal and experiencing barriers to portraying Korean-Americans humorously, but authentically including the negotiations that second-generation Americans make between their parent’s culture and an American culture. In fact, Mr. T attempted to showcase these tensions in identity-formation among Mr. T’s kids who spent a lot of time with their American nanny, Tina.
Today, there are more shows centered on immigrant life and challenges. Maybe Mr. T. was before it’s time. But one thing is sure, and that is the visibility of an immigrant contributing to America, and making life better for his family is significant to our cultural media landscape and the value we ascribe to ourselves and others.