In traditional American media, Asian characters are frequently stereotyped as meek, corner-dwelling folks with little to say. They’re rarely more than a shorthand: bully victims, the romantically inept, people who are good at uncool stuff like math or piano. (Occasionally, they know kung-fu or they dispense ancient wisdom.) Nuanced Asian representation is hard to come by in Hollywood. That’s why so many people seem to be hoping that the strong critical and box office success of the widely released romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, which features an entirely Asian cast playing a variety of character types, will help change the media landscape. The “quiet Asians” stereotype already looks out of step next to the film’s bombastic arrival, which has ignited discussion and praise in every corner of the internet pretty much since the project was announced.
There’s also been a fair bit of controversy over the film, starting with an outcry over the casting of the male lead, Henry Golding. Some people questioned whether his mixed heritage meant the studio was defaulting to Western standards of beauty: was he Asian enough for Crazy Rich Asians? Next (and most notably) came vocal criticism about the film lacking diversity in depicting its chief setting of Singapore. The few darker-skinned characters who showed up in the trailers were subservient to the glamorous crazy-rich East Asians in the principal cast. Those criticisms were renewed after the film’s release: what about the South and Southeast Asians?
The title of the film is partly to blame here. It’s taken from the title of the book it adapts, Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians. In bringing the story to a wider audience, Jon M. Chu’s film has attracted attention and debate over the use of “Asians” as a term. With such a broad promise of representation in the title, the film has inevitably drawn scrutiny for who it depicts and how it depicts them. And it’s been held to a burden of representation it couldn’t possibly meet.
The film follows Chinese-American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young (Golding) to meet his family. Though they’ve been dating for some time, Rachel wasn’t aware that Nick’s family is immensely wealthy. The title works two ways: “crazy rich” is an accurate descriptor of the Young fortune, but “crazy” also describes how the rich Asians resist Rachel’s presence. Some family members and hangers-on think she’s a gold-digger, while the Young matriarch Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is convinced Rachel and her American pursue-your-passion philosophy are a poor model for a dutiful Chinese son and heir.
The movie’s cultural stakes and the scrutiny they’ve invited come perilously close to eclipsing every other facet of the movie. Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the last chance for Asian-American filmmaking outside the indie circuit, partially because “last chance” implies that there have been many other chances. It is, however, an all-too-rare test case. There hasn’t been an Asian-heavy Hollywood production like this for decades, and Chu’s film is unapologetic about that fact. There are no white audience surrogates. Non-Asian viewers are invited to see the movie’s world through someone else’s ethnic lens, as minorities have had to do since the beginning of cinema — and still have to. The film’s financial success could open the floodgates for further representation, or so the thinking goes.
But in this case, the quality of the film also matters. Though five Michael Bay Transformers movies might beg to differ, Americans tend to conflate a film’s financial success with its quality. For a film that represents a marginalized group, however — films like Moonlight or Tangerine or The Florida Project — the demands become more complicated. For people who are so rarely depicted on-screen, the well-documented hunger to be represented is surpassed by a deep-seated need to be represented well.
Decades of representation that’s either trivializing or nonexistent have made many groups protective of their image. Nobody wants Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or Apu from The Simpsons to be the definitive cultural touchstone for their background, and yet it’s painfully apparent that with so little representation, any representation easily becomes the definitive representation. The 25-year-old film The Joy Luck Club is cited in countless Crazy Rich Asians articles not because it’s an easy reference, but because it’s historically the only reference for a major studio picture solely about Asian-American characters. Crazy Rich Asians has prompted retrospectives on Joy Luck Club, Better Luck Tomorrow, and a handful of other movies specifically because they represent the entirety of the mainstream Asian-American cinema.
And within such a small space, films like Sixteen Candles, The Joy Luck Club, or Crazy Rich Asians are essentially what Asian people will be to millions of people. For Slate, Inkoo Kang has written about how such a burden has had negative repercussions for The Joy Luck Club in particular: “an environment where only one person, or portrayal, is permitted to stand in for the whole is bound to turn into a breeding ground for resentment.”
American society is heavily defined by the media we consume. Our real-life exposure to different types of people is supplemented with (or in some cases, superseded by) the people we encounter in our entertainment, fictional or otherwise. I grew up in the Midwest, a half-Vietnamese kid perpetually mistaken for the only other Asian kid (half-Chinese) in my grade. Growing up, I was repeatedly asked whether I spoke Chinese or Japanese (never Vietnamese) and whether I knew karate because the kids around me had only seen people like me through martial arts movies and TV shows or stories about people with strong accents.
I grew up with my appearance compared to Korean-American actor John Cho (I look nothing like him) or outright called “Harold” because all the kids in school had seen Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. This kind of profound ignorance of other cultures is reflected in and reinforced by the culture at large where the types of projects that do or don’t get greenlit depend heavily on what people think of Asian-Americans. Can they lead films? Play love interests? Manage any role greater than the local geek, the walk-on delivery boy, or the martial-arts henchperson?
I felt relief sitting in the theater for 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. And I felt equally relieved sitting on my couch, watching the first episode of Iron Fist or the American Death Note movie on Netflix. These projects didn’t have Asian leads, but they might have. There were vocal pushes for someone other than Scarlett Johansson to play the definitively non-white character of Motoko Kusanagi (renamed Mira Killian), and the same went for Nat Wolff as Light Yagami (re-envisioned as Light Turner from Seattle). People wanted the comics character Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, to be rewritten as an Asian guy to push back against the original comics’ white-savior overtones. None of these anti-whitewashing campaigns succeeded. And none of the resulting projects were enjoyable or worthwhile, either, which is where the relief came in: Asians had escaped any marquee association with these clunkers, avoided any damage to the “brand” of Asian representation. Bullet dodged; crisis averted.
I felt relief of a different kind while sitting in the theater watching Crazy Rich Asians. The leads have great chemistry. The jokes are funny. The film is profoundly normalizing and pleasant to watch. When a group is given such a small space in the media landscape, it leaves no room for error. Creators can’t blow their handful of chances on financially unsuccessful or creatively unfulfilling projects: they need to make the most of their space by being powerful, enriching, and unique. When your voice is so rarely heard, you have little choice but to use every opportunity to prove that everyone should have been paying attention all along. A project like Crazy Rich Asians is a rare chance to change minds, and if it flops, it might be another 25 years before a similar chance comes along.
That’s why there’s been so much backlash around Crazy Rich Asians. Detractors say the film fails to represent the true diversity of Singapore, while headlines ask whether it’s “Asian enough.” With so much pressure to get things right the first time, “right” has come to mean reflecting the sheer breadth of the Asian experience in a single film. The film has been heralded as a victory for diversity, so members of a widely diverse group are all hoping to see themselves represented.
Crazy Rich Asians does have its shortcomings. Its heavily criticized narrow perspective does make sense in the context of the insular, classist culture of Nick’s family, who are largely poised as the film’s antagonists. But the movie stops short of reproach. Rachel is, after all, fighting for their approval, and she eventually reaches an accommodation with them. The darker side of the movie’s wealth fantasy dissipates once Rachel is welcomed into the fold.
Although that’s an expected part of this romantic fantasy, it’s still somewhat disappointing, given the otherwise authentic emotions the film invokes. Crazy Rich Asians shows Rachel’s sense of inadequacy and alienation in a place where it would seem she should be accepted; she’s second-generation Chinese and a young professor at the prestigious NYU. Henry even remarks that he thought she’d impress his mother. But while an outside observer might think she fits in, Rachel is all but shunned. Her feelings are amplified as Eleanor recognizes her pain and even empathizes with it yet still gives her the cold shoulder.
That combination of sensations feels deeply relatable to Asian viewers who feel disconnected from their heritage. Personally, as the child of a Vietnamese mother adopted and brought to America by a white family, I often feel like I only have a slightly stronger connection to my “homeland” than anyone else who has spent time in a pho joint. I left the movie wishing it had gone a little deeper into that interrogation of Asian-American insecurity. Ultimately, however, Crazy Rich Asians seems to prize a more broadly appealing celebration of extravagance. It must, after all, play to the largest crowd it can.
And why shouldn’t it? For BuzzFeed, Alison Willmore notes that the movie is an escapist fantasy, “blithely liberated from the obligation to offer up suffering that has long been part of the implicit bargain made with so many mainstream movies focused on characters of color.” Chu and the writers are out to tell a fun story, with Asian actors front-and-center in a narrative that could not easily be painted over with white characters. The movie does grapple with racial insecurities, but it isn’t required to. And the feeling that it must comes from a similar place as the demands that it represent a broader swath of the Asian experience. Ideally, a movie like Crazy Rich Asians could simply be what it is: a light, enjoyable good rom-com that dramatizes the lives of the wealthy, as white films have been allowed to do for more than a century. Instead, it’s being saddled with 25 years of built-up expectations and unfair hopes.
In an age where blockbusters are driven more by brand names than the people who actually star in them, Asian representation is still sorely lacking. Though films like Crazy Rich Asians may be PR wins for distributors who briefly bring the marginalized up onto the wide-release stage, that space could just as easily go to white-male-centric entertainment that’s still considered a safer, more familiar bet. We are made to fight for our space, and we argue over how to divide the scraps. We hope for optimistic box-office reports, and we pray for any movie we’re in to be good because these are the tools we have to fight and to justify the use of the small space we’ve been given. Crazy Rich Asians opened as the biggest film of its weekend, and its success has continued into its second week, with a minuscule drop in viewership. The way audiences have embraced it only proves how unfair this cycle has been, as Hollywood has consistently failed to represent the marginalized while asking them to prove the existence of an audience that has been there all along.