Master of None, a Netflix original show created by and starring Aziz Ansari explores a number of topics including race, gender, and nationality in the context of a comedy series. In addition to poking fun at smaller moments in life, such as having to do a Skype audition for a movie in the middle of a busy coffee shop, Master of None inserts humor into explorations of more complicated areas. The Emmy-winning episode, “Parents” highlights this blend of looking into both the mundane aspects of life along with more exceptional experiences. By discussing the immigrant narrative, the episode sheds light on an experience that is oftentimes not shown in mainstream media, much less in a comedic form and about people of color. However, while emotionally connecting to the difficulties and successes of transnational identity, the show also engages with the hegemonic discourse of the “American Dream” which is typically more difficult to reach for people of color.
The show, while still critical of the unequal treatment of people of color and other marginalized people, does not question the American Dream, the belief in hard work and determination leading to success, as valid. It is important to interrogate the systems of power that promote the American Dream ideal, even while celebrating representation. As a popular show that grapples with Asian American identity, it is important to consider the show’s messages about identity and the significance of the American dream in expressing lived experience. Examining the episode more carefully progresses a conversation about representation, while also critiquing the discourse of upward mobility.
In “Parents” the show looks at Dev (the main protagonist), his friend Brian, and both of their parents in order to explore immigration and generational differences. The episode uses multiple flashbacks in order to explore the backgrounds of the parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1980’s with particular focus given to each of the fathers, Ramesh and Toku, Dev and Brian’s fathers respectively.
Above: A promotional poster. Dev is in the upper left corner and Ramesh in the upper right. Toku is in the lower left corner and Brian in the lower right corner.
Both Ramesh and Toku’s stories emphasize the difficulties of immigration. Their stories reflect the diaspora that takes place as a result of immigration, and thus results in the formation of a new identity that comes from hybridization and globalization (Maeda, Trans-Pacific Flows); this experience is both specific in telling Ramesh and Toku’s stories while also universal in posing an immigrant identity. This universality of identity is reflected when Dev and Brian speak about their parents. Brian says that all he knows about his father’s past is that, “he was poor. He was in another country. It was tough. Then he came here.” Dev responds, “Isn’t that the gist of every immigrant’s story, that it was hard?” (Master of None, “Parents”) This attitude suggests a commonality amongst immigrant stories, thus allowing for a shared story between Brian and Dev, but also a connection for audiences watching the episode who may also be immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. This may explain both the critical and audience praise for the particular episode.
While the universality is touching for many, there are also problems that come from suggesting universality. For example, there can noticeable differences between the depiction of East Asians and South East Asians in popular media. Ramesh is from India and has darker brown skin, while Toku is from Taiwan and has light skin. While very different from Battlestar Galactica, the show demonstrates one example of the impact of racialization in constructing Asian identity by subjecting brown bodies to much different standards and expectations than light skinned people (Nishime). This is not to say that both Ramesh and Toku did not both struggle, and the “oppression Olympics” is not a helpful discourse. However it is important to note that immigration experiences and transnational identities can differ significantly as a result of racialization, colorism, and history. While the show does not aim to homogenize and does not have the same issues brought up by Nishime, it is important to be aware of varying experiences in Asian identity, as well as immigrant identities.
Furthermore the American Dream narrative that comes from the universal immigrant narrative is concerning as it entrenches hegemonic discourses about success and upward mobility. Considering that in the United States, many people continue to ardently believe in the American Dream despite the reality oftentimes not matching such strong belie, it is important to see depictions of this ideal in media. The belief in the American Dream is best summarized in a flashback Toku holds Brian as a newborn and says, “All of our sacrifice is worth it. He will have a better life. Here, he will be able to do anything he wants,” (Master of None, “Parents”). In this moment the show firmly places itself within the belief of upward mobility despite the political economy, and race and immigration politics that have continued to form barriers . The model minority narrative suggests that such issues can be overcome with hard work, but it is repeatedly clear that the American dream can be achieved in its entirety by only a select group (Kim).
“Parents” provides a complicated understanding of the immigrant experience in both its heartfelt depiction, but also in its perpetuation of an American Dream ideal that is not truly available to everyone. The show has much to offer in representation, but there are still important questions about believing in success, in the form of economic stability and material wealth that the show must also consider in terms of accessibility. Immigrant success stories are not bad, but suggesting that universally, working hard will be enough to overcome any challenges perpetuates hegemony that denies systemic oppression.