What Asian-American Kids Watch on TV: Phineas and Ferb

Character Baljeet Rai studying during summer vacation

One of my sons’ favorite shows is a Disney Channel cartoon called Phineas and Ferb.  It’s about two stepbrothers who have adventures while looking for things to do on a summer day.   Phineas and Ferb are excellent engineers and builders and create incredible machines and other constructions.  As a continuing plot device, their older sister Candace tries to get them in trouble, and every episode she tries and fails to reveal their incredible handiwork to their mother.   Phineas and Ferb have a pet platypus named Perry, who is really an  undercover secret agent.   An ongoing subplot is Perry’s struggle with the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz.  Their fights often destroy Phineas and Ferb’s work just as Candace is about to show that work to their mom.

But what does Phineas and Ferb have to do with Asian-Americans?   The show’s use of Asian-American characters and actors in the show is interesting – in many ways laudable, in other ways, not so much.  Candace’s best friend is a character named Stacy Hirano, voiced by Kelly Hu.  Stacy’s mother, Dr. Hirano, is voiced by Ming Na. Another recurring character is Baljeet Rai, an Indian kid who is a friend of Phineas and Ferb. Baljeet’s voice is done by actor Maulik Pancholy (pictured below).  I like the fact that Stacy and her mom are portrayed as just regular people with no funny accents.   I also like the fact that while they are regular folks, they aren’t completely stripped of any kind of ethnic identity – the show mentions their Asian last name and even stages a visit to Stacy’s relatives in Japan (along with a funny anime parody).   The show took the time and effort to use Asian-American actors for Asian-American roles – something that as a cartoon, the producers of the show really didn’t have to do.

Maulik Pancholy does the voice of Baljeet Rai

One thing about Phinese and Ferb that I don’t like is how Baljeet, the one Asian-American male character, has an accent, acts nerdy, and gets bullied. During one episode where the kids have to recreate their greatest fear as part of a haunted house, Baljeet reveals that his greatest fear is an “F” on a math test.  “You don’t get to go to the college of your choice,” he adds.  While I admit that this is a funny parody of grade obsessed Asian-Americans, I really wish didn’t make him an “other.” Baljeet does have difficulties with girls, but to the show’s credit, he does end up with an Asian girl at the end of an episode.  Don’t see that very often on TV, much less cartoons.

Despite some of its shortcomings, I still like Phineas and Ferb. The treatment of Asian-American characters and actors, while not perfect, is better than most.  Also, the best children’s cartoons have something for adults, and Phineas and Ferb has that.  The musical interludes, the subtle pop culture references, from Star Wars to Men in Black to The Great Escape, and the show’s generally cleverness make it an enjoyable show for my sons and me.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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