When less is more: Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is too Asian for its own good| Aug 18, 2018
White Americans can finally congratulate themselves on being not racist — at least towards Asians as the non-threatening “model minority” — by going to see Jon M. Chu’s new film, “Crazy Rich Asians.” They can celebrate that they, unprompted by a token Asian friend or family member, chose to spend 15 hard-earned dollars to sit through a feature-length film that boasts an exclusively Asian cast in an Asian setting. What’s more, white Americans can now consider themselves informed viewers, thanks to the film’s secondary role as a millennial idiot’s guide to pan-Asian culture. In an effort to pander to expectations, the film is peppered with self-referential reminders — such as lessons in dumpling making, panoramic shots of jewel-toned chinoiserie, and romantic strolls in lotus flower gardens — that it is, above all, “Asian.”
For white viewers of a certain ilk, I can see how praising the film has instrumental value in the form of social currency; by showing support for an Asian-dominated project, they can appear culturally inclusive and politically correct. However, as an Asian American who eagerly pre-ordered a ticket for its opening night, I have no qualms in saying that I left the theater disappointed. To call the film’s commercial success a groundbreaking moment for Asians on screen is naïve and even harmful to future attempts to integrate Asian faces in mainstream media, sans an emphasis on race. Frankly, the fact that Asian pundits have glorified the film as having allowed Asians to break free from stereotypes is disturbing. Asians’ complacency with such lowbrow fluff as “Crazy Rich Asians” suggests that they have been culturally conditioned to accept portrayals of themselves as perpetual foreigners.
“Crazy Rich Asians” neither normalizes Asians as complex characters nor allows them to be at their core anything other than Asian. The film still relies on its protagonists’ identities as appealing representatives of their cultural backgrounds. They present a sanitized image that is palatable to Asians and non-Asians alike. The story line, taken from Kevin Kwan’s novel, is partially at fault; by trying too hard to be about Asians, “Crazy Rich Asians” perpetuates the stereotype of Asians as cultural extracts who require glamorous packaging before being introduced into the white-dominated media landscape.
The film suffers from the misguided but probably accurate belief harbored by many studios that white viewers — who comprise the majority of moviegoers — will not respond to a storyline with minorities in leading roles that are not in any way connected to their race. Just think: How many Hollywood features have ever portrayed Asians as love interests, superheroes, U.S. presidents, sports stars, or even just average joes without dragging in not-so-subtle references to tiger moms, dragons, martial arts, or fortune cookies? “Crazy Rich Asians” — by reveling in its “Asian-ness” — does not transcend any barriers that Asians face to achieving equal media representation. Instead, the film only places more unnecessary emphasis on race and cultural identity. By capitalizing on the “otherness” that has dogged Asians since the 1800s, this misplaced attempt at celebrating Asian heritage paradoxically fuels xenophobia.
Despite my reservations towards “Crazy Rich Asians,” I have a begrudging respect for the film and believe it deserves support if only for inspiring other Asian-led projects in the future. With its in-your-face racial theme, it offers little ground for complaint from well-intended viewers for good reason, despite its actual lack of technical merits as a cheesy Hallmark rom-com. After all, no one wants to be labeled an accidental racist by calling out any flaws in the film’s thematic or artistic content, lest an innocent attempt at post-racial criticism be misconstrued as having been racially motivated. Still, to its credit, “Crazy Rich Asians” does not entirely rely on the race card to bolster its reputation. It’s worth acknowledging that the film, while not Oscar-worthy, manages to deliver on one of its major promises — it represents the first major Hollywood vehicle to star an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.”
Furthermore, while “Crazy Rich Asians” may not be the giant leap forward that it is touted to be, its presence has set a precedent for upcoming films that seem to show more promise in featuring Asian actors without playing up their racial identities. For example, I was pleasantly surprised during the previews to see the star of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Henry Golding, cast in the thriller “A Simple Favor” as part of a husband-and-wife duo with Blake Lively. At least in the trailer, no mention of his race was made, and his character’s only outstanding quality seemed to be that he was slightly shady. My takeaway from the appeal of such a race-neutral portrayal of a flawed character is that when it comes to integrating Asians into mainstream media, less “Asian-ness” may be worth more in terms of normalizing Asians on screen.
In lauding “Crazy Rich Asians” as the Holy Grail for Asians in film, we have set the bar too low. By confining its stars to playing people who are, for the most part, just a summation of their racial identities, the film leaves behind a gap in Asian representation that has yet to be bridged. The next step is for Asian actors to be allowed to shed their “Asian-ness” rather than cling to it as the only justification for their role. They should be able to play characters whose dominant features are their unique personality traits, and better yet, traits that aren’t necessarily linked to tropes of Asians or used as the punchlines of jokes at Asians’ expense. Ultimately, until we can watch a film without wondering why the protagonist is [insert Asian ethnicity here], the way we do not care whether a white character is English, German, or Italian, then we have yet to truly accept Asians for who they are.
Hayley Siegel is a junior from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.