Is Crazy Rich Asians Goof for Representation?
By Nathan Liu
I recently read Mark Tseng-Putterman's article in The Atlantic titled "One Way That Crazy Rich Asians Is a Step Backward." It essentially argued that despite the film’s groundbreaking nature, it also took care to represent its Asian characters according to white norms. Those norms being things like having western names, going to western universities, wearing western-style clothes, and being wealthy and materialistic. To Mr. Tseng-Putterman, the fact that the Asian characters in the movie were all so well off and westernized made them un-relatable, and not at all emblematic of the experiences shared by the vast majority of Asian Americans.
Now, normally, I wouldn't give an op-ed piece like this much thought. Every time a movie about a certain group or issue comes out, even if the intentions of the filmmakers are clearly good, there will inevitably be detractors. There were women who thought that Wonder Woman wasn't feminist enough. There were black people who thought that Black Panther perpetuated western stereotypes of Africans as being warlike and tribal. So, of course, Crazy Rich Asians will have its fair share of Asian detractors. But two things happened—the publishing of Kelly Marie Tran's New York Times piece, and the release of Netflix's romantic comedy To All The Boys I've Loved Before—that got me thinking about the article and its questions of Asian representation more seriously. So I decided to address them, and, hopefully, figure out what, if any, solutions can be found.
So the biggest question to answer is: Does Crazy Rich Asians represent the Asian American experience accurately? Well, in the broadest sense, no it doesn't. This is a story about very wealthy, very well-educated, very westernized people of Chinese descent. In no way whatsoever is that emblematic of the entire Asian American experience. "Asian American" is a very broad term that encompasses countless different ethnicities and religions. And within that huge, umbrella term, you've got people working in all manner of professions, from transportation, to entertainment, to food, to medicine, to law, and everything in between. So in that sense, no, the film doesn't represent the Asian American experience accurately. And to Mr. Tseng-Putterman's point about the characters being westernized, and that westernization being a sign of class, of them being the "right" kind of Asian, he's not entirely wrong there.
Throughout American history, white has been upheld as the most "beautiful," most "powerful," most "righteous" race. Manifest destiny taught white Americans that it was their God-given right to conquer the West and wipe out native peoples. Slavery and Jim Crow laws taught white Americans that they were the superior race, and deserved to have people of color do their work for them. And, for years, your success as a person of color was dictated by how well you were able to assimilate into the white man's world.
This is a point articulated with painful clarity by Kelly Marie Tran in her New York Times piece. Back in June 2018, the actress was driven off social media by racist, sexist trolls who disliked her inclusion in the Star Wars franchise. Then, after a long absence, she spoke out concerning her abuse. She said that it wasn't so much the things these people said, but the fact that she started to believe them. It was the fact that they reinforced a narrative that she had been told her whole life as a woman of color; that her worth as a human being was dictated solely by the opinions of other people, white people. It was this narrative that drove her to stop speaking Vietnamese, and to change her name from Loan to Kelly. Reading her piece, and doing research into her experiences as a child, which included her parents having to take low-paying jobs at Burger King just to make ends meet, reinforced many of Mr. Tseng-Putterman's points about Crazy Rich Asians' very limited representation. But, at the same time, it got me thinking; Crazy Rich Asians is intentionally limited in its representation.
As I mentioned before, the film is about wealthy, well-educated, westernized people, and it never pretends to be about anything else. At no point do the filmmakers try to say, "This is how everyone who's Asian lives." As a matter of fact, the film constantly reminds us that these people aren't representative of the vast majority of Asian Americans. Constance Wu, the audience's POV character, is constantly surprised and confused by the way her boyfriend's wealthy family behaves. And if that weren't enough, both the movie and the book show these wealthy westernized Asians as being shallow, petty, and not at all the kind of people you want to aspire to be like. So already that undercuts one of Mr. Tseng-Putterman's key points.
But what's perhaps more important to keep in mind is that just because someone is successful, or well-educated, or westernized, it doesn't mean that they've forgotten who they are, or that they aren't what they are. An Asian person who went to Oxford is still Asian. They still face the same kind of discrimination that people like them of lower socio-economic standing do. In some cases, they face more, since the "model minority" stereotype that has been perpetuated about Asians and Asian Americans leads many companies to judge them more harshly and hold them to higher standards. So saying that westernized Asian people don't matter, or that their stories shouldn't be told because they don't represent everyone, is in its own way discriminatory. It's limiting.
A great example of this phenomenon is the response to To All The Boys I've Loved Before. Based on a popular series of novels by Jenny Han, the film is about the experiences of a half-Korean girl, Lara Jean Song Covey, in high school. Now, the filmmakers went out of their way to cast Asian American actresses to portray Lara Jean and her two sisters, and, for the most part, the response from critics and audiences has been positive, with particular praise going to Lana Condor's sweet, relatable turn as the main character. But there are also people who criticized the movie for not having a male Asian love interest, ignoring the fact that the character was written to be white in both the book and the script. Basically, they criticized the movie for not being inclusive enough, or, rather, for not being their idea of inclusivity.
That's not to say that there isn't a dearth of leading man roles for male Asian actors. There is, but complaining that a movie isn't inclusive enough when it, in its own way, is a big step forward for representation, isn't productive. It's basically getting into an argument over which person is purer, which is never a good idea. I know this from personal experience. See, my Chinese family's been westernized for a long time. They were some of the first people in Guangzhou to convert to Christianity, they were educated at American universities, like Stanford and Cornell, and many, like my father, married foreigners. All of this was used against them during the Cultural Revolution, with the communists citing their wealth and religion as proof of their bourgeois status and their need for "re-education." They lost everything—their homes, their businesses—because they weren't "Chinese enough." They were too "western."
So, having gone through all this, the question remains: Is there a solution to the Asian representation issue? Well, I would argue that there is. Crazy Rich Asians may only be about a very particular subset of people, but that's not to say that there won't be more films with Asian casts and crews. That's not to say that there aren't already tons of films out there that address the vast spectrum of Asian American experiences. I know this for a fact, since I volunteered at the 41st annual Asian American International Film Festival this summer, where I watched features and shorts from directors of every background imaginable, tackling every topic under the sun, from domestic violence to drug abuse, to military service.
People who opine the fact that Crazy Rich Asians doesn't tell their story should just take a look through the vast catalog of Asian American movies that already exist. I guarantee that something, somewhere, will speak to them. And, of course, new films get made every day. In the past, Asian American stories were relegated to low budget indie fare, but, if the critical and commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, and To All The Boys I've Loved Before teach us anything, it's that there is a market, a big market, for Asian American stories. And if Hollywood—which is all about making money—pays attention, they'll start making other Asian American films, ones that tell different stories; stories for everyone.
Nathan Liu is a screenwriter, playwright, and true blue pizza addict. Spending most of his early life in Germany, and being part Chinese on his father's side, Nathan was exposed to many different cultures growing up, all of which inspired him to become a storyteller. His experience in film and theater includes penning scripts for Pixeldust Studios, and writing the play "Christmas By The Pond," which was awarded "Best One Act" at the Broke People Play Festival. He's the type of guy who can talk about cinema, Superman, and Asian American identity for hours. Follow him on Twitter @TheNathanLiu, and read his blog, Liusviews.wordpress.com if you'd like to know his thoughts on those topics.