"Serving" American Orientalism: Negotiating Identities in the Courtship of Eddie's Father

Article excerpt

JUST AS BROADCAST TELEVISION is informed by popular ideologies, so too is public discourse informed by televisual images and stories. People's "appropriate" places and roles in society are often displayed on and promoted by television. In my previous work on the image of the Latina maid on network television, I discussed how televisual texts are not merely representative of culture, but participatory in it: "Representations are mediations-visually, discursively, and culturally-and as such, are not only displacements of the real world, but are themselves, enactments of social relations" (107).

The representation of domestic servants and domestic work on television generally, and in the 1960s program The Courtship of Eddie's Father in particular, prompts questions about domestic roles, racial otherness and difference, interracial relationships, and ideals about the American family. The Courtship of Eddie's Father is an important object of study because it demonstrates how racial meaning and identity are subject to discursive struggle, even when this struggle is contained generically and ideologically. The program was based on a 1963 film starring Glenn Ford, Shirley Jones, and Ronnie Howard (who played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, a show that also featured a surrogate mother character in Aunt Bea, and later played Richie Cunningham in the popular and populist series, Happy Days). The film was based on a novel by Mark Toby. Neither the novel nor the MGM film had an Asian character, so we ask, why was a Japanese character brought into the television adaptation? Why as a maid? And what functions do these decisions serve?

The figure of the racialized domestic in The Courtship of Eddie's Father represents not only racial and gender identities, but the struggle and negotiation of these identities. The image of the Asian woman becomes significant vis-avis the image of white, male (and female) American characters, and the story of her Asianess unfolds in relation to the story of idealized American domesticity. Televisual discourse involves racial discourse, and it is a site-historically and ideologically-where racial meanings are generated, depicted, and negotiated (e.g., what it means to be "Asian," what it means to be "American," and what it means to be "Asian American"). Race, beyond skin color or heritage, is a marker of difference.

In The Courtship of Eddie's Father, which ran on ABC from 1969-72, the figure of the racialized domestic marks differences in race, gender, and nationhood within the overlapping contexts of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the Vietnam War. The series features bachelor-father Tom Corbett (Bill Bixby), an editor for the tellingly titled TomorrowMagazine. His search for a new wife is prompted by his precocious six-year-old son Eddie (Brandon Cruz), who misses his deceased mother yet longs for a new one. Although Tom Corbett never finds quite the right woman, both he and Eddie have Mrs. Livingston (Miyoshi Umeki), a widowed Japanese war bride who serves as their always-dependable housekeeper. She is close to the family in that she takes care of their most basic needs in a space that is private and intimate, the home; at the same time, she is distinctly set apart from Eddie and Tom, not only by being their employee, but by being Asian and a woman.

In each episode, racial, gender, and national identities are offered and yet questioned; such identities, then, operate not merely as reflections of society, flat pictures, but rather as discursive strategies, as modes of participation. Stuart Hall has written that "How things are represented and the 'machineries' and regimes of representation in a culture do play a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role. This gives questions of culture and ideology, and the scenarios of representation ... a formative, not merely expressive, place in the constitution of social and political life" (443). …