Crazy Rich Asians and the Limits of Representation
Everywhere I look on social media, I am inundated by ebullient posts by my friends—mostly my Asian American friends, I should clarify—about the cinematic experience that is Crazy Rich Asians (CRA). A box-office success that has smashed opening weekend expectations, the movie will recoup its $30M cost and then some, has drawn rave reviews, and has already been “certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes with a 93% rating, which declares that the movie “takes a satisfying step forward for screen representation.”
Representation, in fact, is what I see many of my fellow Asian Americans highlighting as one of the key triumphs of CRA. With an entirely all-Asian cast—aside from some non-Asian bit actors as backup dancers, synchronized swimmers, and racist hotel clerks—the movie has been touted as a major cultural step forward. “Crazy Rich Asians Is Going to Change Hollywood. It’s About Time,” declared Time Magazine featuring a sultry Constance Wu on the cover, surrounded by a faux fur in yellow. (Ah, Time, I see what you did there.)If people of color are the only ones raising their voices and celebrating increased representation, then our collective forward progress will be minimal, indeed.
I went into the movie expecting to love it, and I was eager to add my voice and accolades to the social media chorus of Asian descent. And on one level, I did love what my fellow Asian Americans have loved—the chance to see a movie that decenters whiteness and elevates Asianness; that features cuisine I may have never before tasted but that would still suit me better than any standard American fare; and that touches on themes of Asian and Asian American values in a nuanced way that is rare in most of what we see on the big screen.
I came out of the movie having enjoyed it thoroughly; even so… I’m somehow feeling ambivalent.
It feels a betrayal to admit this, to be raining on this Singaporean Chinese parade (as that cultural context is where the bulk of the movie takes place; more on this in a moment), and I feel like the ultimate Asian wedding party pooper to not be 100 percent enthusiastic about this supposedly historic cultural moment. The Japanese mantra of “the nail that sticks up will get hammered down” weighs heavy on me both as I write this and whenever I feel compelled to raise my voice in a context in which I feel like the lone dissenter. But then again, I am old enough to remember when The Joy Luck Club came to theaters a quarter century ago. Back then, Amy Tan, the author of the book on which the movie was based who also shared screenwriting credits for the film, wrote:
“If we could make a movie that seemed honest and true, a movie about real people who happened to be Chinese-American, we would have a better shot at making a movie people would want to see, that they would be moved by, that would get them talking to their friends, that would possibly give the movie legs, that would possibly bring in enough receipts to put Hollywood’s mind at rest that movies about Asian-Americans can’t be successful. And then, maybe, just maybe, many negative assumptions about Asian-Americans on the big screen would then be called into question and rethought.” (LA Times, September 5, 1993).
One might say that a movie like CRA is the fulfillment of what Tan hoped for back in 1993. And I certainly believe in the power of movies to catalyze cultural change. But I also know that real change in increasing diversity and cultural sensitivity takes so much more than just time, more than mere representation, although both are necessary ingredients. The fact of the matter is, if we are waiting for sufficient representation for things to change, whether in the movies or in the various spheres we inhabit, then we could be waiting a long, long time. The changing demographic shifts will push the envelope in some areas of the country, but as someone who has worked for decades in the context of Christian publishing (an industry, both in secular and Christian spheres, that continues to struggle with representation), I can’t tell you how many times I have pleaded for greater diversity to no avail. It is, in the words of author Kent Annan, a “slow kingdom coming.”
I recently spent a few days in the company of a multiethnic group of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship colleagues; half of us were people of color. (The campus ministry of IVCF has done a wonderful job over the years of becoming a much more diverse body.) As I spent time in the presence of this group, I felt a lightness and an ease that I haven’t felt for quite some time in a conference room, where often I have been one of the only, or one of the few, people of color. So I know firsthand that representation helps those on the margins feel less isolated and affirms that we are seen and heard. It’s wonderfully comforting, and any person of color needs those moments of reassurance that he or she is not alone. But the purpose of that reassurance is not for us to be satisfied in the moment and content to wait another quarter-century for some evidence of change in the structures and systems that define what we see, what we hear, what we read. The purpose is to build on that reassurance and push for a richer human experience for us all, one that recognizes the imago Dei in each person and values the contributions of a vast array of opinions, perspectives, and backgrounds.
Does God care about representation? The vision that John presents in Revelation indicates that He does. God is the ultimate anti-discrimination activist, and His desire for the full representation of every tribe, tongue, and nation knows no bounds. But I think we often assume that the rich diversity of heaven will just happen automatically. We miss the connection between the Great Commission, in which we are called to make disciples of all nations, and this picture of perfect ethnic harmony in Revelation. Each and every one of us who follows Christ is called to pursue the representation of God’s people into the fullness of heaven.
So I don’t believe it’s enough for Asian Americans to celebrate representation. I want to see those from the majority culture to call for that representation, too. As much as I enjoyed seeing my Asian American friends of faith posting about CRA, what I was really hoping for was to see a vast number of white Christians also express how glad they, too, were to see at this groundbreaking film emerge with its all-Asian cast. I was hoping I would see white friends expressing how glad it made them to see their Asian American friends so delighted by a movie like this, that this Asian-centered film was the kind of content we need more of. But on that front, my social media feeds have been largely quiet. If people of color are the only ones raising their voices and celebrating increased representation, then our collective forward progress will be minimal, indeed.
But why, then, have I been largely silent myself about this movie? I have experienced such a range of simultaneous and conflicting thoughts and emotions; I can be glad about all the things that my other Asian American friends are glad about, while also experiencing discomfort with the cultural elements that were on display. After all, not all Asian Americans think alike! Here is one example: one of the challenges that all Asian Americans face here in America is a phenomenon called “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” This is the mindset that results in some people still being surprised that I speak English and assuming I am “from” somewhere outside of this country despite my being born in the U.S.A. Since the CRA story is largely one of Singaporean-based Chinese, the movie cannot help but present the Asians as foreigners, not to mention the showcasing of an extravagant lifestyle that I would imagine is foreign to most anyone reading this article. It’s no fault of the movie, which is just reflecting the content of the book, but it was discomfiting nonetheless.
I also struggled with the reality that Asian American women often have to wrestle with being exoticized either in the media or in the imaginations of those who perceive them in this way; CRA certainly doesn’t reduce the possibility of that happening. And there is a dynamic of “East vs. West” that plays out between traditional Chinese values and Chinese American values. (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the American side wins. When does it not when American values are pitted against non-American values in popular culture?)
I raise these points not to denigrate the success of the movie; I’m truly delighted that it’s done well, and I don’t want another 25 years to go by before we can celebrate the arrival of Asian American influence in filmmaking. And maybe we only have to wait until August 24 for another groundbreaking moment. One of the movie previews before Crazy Rich Asians featured the film Searching, starring John Cho—purported to be the first mainstream thriller featuring an Asian American male lead. In this film, he plays a middle-aged dad of a 16-year-old daughter who goes missing. The film has already amassed numerous awards including the Sloan Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And the most striking thing about it is that Cho’s character’s Koreanness is present but not an issue. It’s just accepted as part of the story. Of everything I saw the night I watched CRA, this 2 1/2-minute preview was what gave me the most hope that real change may actually be happening.
Do we need films like Crazy Rich Asians? Absolutely. Do we need more Asian American representation in Hollywood, not to mention in arenas of Christian influence? No doubt. But we also need to see Asian Americans (and other people of color) just being present in all the places and spaces where you might have typically expected to see a white face, and given access to opportunities and experiences previously unknown or unavailable to them. In a Vanity Fair interview, Cho says, “I want the future to be where it’s completely normal to see an Asian-American family on-screen.”
No fanfare, no hype, no red carpet, no social media frenzy. Just normal, natural representation in a manner that God has ultimately designed and intended. On this point, I couldn’t agree more with Cho’s hope for the future. Sometimes Asian Americans do think alike.
I appreciate the nuance and broad perspective explored here. Thank you for these reflections.
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