When there are so few opportunities to represent a marginalized community, every action innately becomes a signifier for greater, politically driven meanings. Each and every artistic decision thus becomes open for critical dissection. Crazy Rich Asians is a big-budget film that has finally given the Asian community a platform to exhibit Asianness to a larger audience, an opportunity that has long been ignored in tandem with critically low Asian representation in film. I long for the day when we can watch Asian-centered movies (like Crazy Rich Asians) and rather than treat it as an Asian-
centered movie, we will be able to treat it as... a movie.
An iconic scene from Crazy Rich Asians (2018), distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
"Representation" is a perplexing concept, isn't it?
At some point during undergrad, a fellow classmate railed away in front of our crowded Media Studies class of over 100 students, bellowing in impressive detail about why he absolutely hated Citizen Kane (1941). The student's argument was from over six years ago and a bit fuzzy now, but I remember his unrelenting contempt for Orson Welles. He could not understand why mainstream media institutions continued to regard it as the "greatest film of all time," when there was an endless trove of movies that were "objectively much better." Though my memory fails to fully remember every bit of his impassioned argument, I very much remember the response from another student. Deeply paraphrased, the student considered, "But isn't that the great thing about cinema? If you don't find a movie to be particularly good, there are an infinite amount of other movies to choose from." This exchange has found its way to stay with me. Maybe it was because most of us clapped. Looking back, why did I clap? Both students were flawed in their exposition.. The prior because an objectively measured "greatest film of all time" cannot exist (and the movies he offered in Citizen's Kane place were, in my opinion, not much better). As for the latter, though a beautiful standalone statement for any movie lover, it remains utterly untrue for those of us who still do not have an infinite - let alone, even a handful - of movies to choose from. What happens when so few movies for you exist, that it makes any movie of its kind into a movie that is publicly responsible for accurately portraying an entire racial identity?
In Fall 2014, for my final paper in my "Feminist Theory" course, I wrote about the representation of Asian women in American film (specifically, the lotus blossom/dragon lady dichotomy). During this time, I also wrote a paper for my "LGBTQ Communities" course that explored the representation of queer Asian American men in pornography. In both scenarios, Asians were dismally represented, confined to the same specific 1-3 Asian-designated tropes, and most of the time, it depicted "Asianness" in ways that only further problematized stereotypes and stigmas surrounding the Asian identity. In the eyes of America, we Asians are perpetual foreigners. This statement was no longer based solely on how I felt it to my core, the way I was harshly treated growing up in predominantly white spaces, the way I was sexualized/exoticized at a young age due to being an Asian female. No, both quantitative and qualitative research regarding Asian representation demonstrated this sentiment to hold truth to it. The infinite hours I spent parsing through film, television, and news representations reiterated only drove the knife deeper.
Based on my findings in 2014, I knew that the mainstream was not for people who looked like me - the chop suey fonts in Caucasian-owned storefronts reminded me, perpetuation of one-dimensional model minority characters on TV reminded me, and the fact that Fresh Off the Boat (2015 - ) was the first show on mainstream television with an all-Asian cast since Margaret Cho's short-lived All American Girl (1994) really reminded me. Eddie Huang, the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, criticized its representation of his life as diluted in order to best appeal to the white audiences who are the key demographic for cable television. Think pieces that tried to counter Huang's response often argued in some manner of: consumers simply are not yet ready for Asian America. Read as: this country is not ready for its own people.
In Spring 2015, in the course "Gender and Multiculturalism," I read Mitsuye Yamada's "Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman" (1981) for the first time and it wholly broke me. After feeling like such an advocate for Asian American women for the past few years and only being one semester short of my degrees, reality set in and I did not realize how unprepared I was to face it:
In this age when women are clearly making themselves visible on all fronts, I, an Asian American woman, am still functioning as a 'front for those feminists' and therefore invisible. The realization of this sinks in slowly. Asian Americans as a whole are finally coming to claim their own, demanding that they be included in the multicultural history of our country... The Asian American woman, is just now emerging to become part of that group. It took forever. Perhaps it is important to ask ourselves why it took so long. We should ask ourselves this question just when we think that we are emerging as a viable minority in the fabric of our society. (Yamada, 1981: 36)
I remember trying so hard to fight back tears, because in all my years that I had been a feminist scholar and activist for people of color, I had never learned to recognize my own invisibility. Despite writing exhaustingly about Asianness and identity, I had never thought to actively seek out the words of Asian American activists (much less Asian American feminists). I would like to think this was in part due to blatant stupidity, but I also believe that a large part of me thought that by addressing issues in my research and proposing concrete solutions, that perhaps the realities of Asian marginalization could be framed as something other than what it was: invisibility.
Yamada's essay was published in 1981. Her work was particularly hard to swallow because it meant confronting myself as part of a broader issue that still remained as clear as ever in an essay that was decades old. Despite already having spent so much time researching the positionality of Asian Americans, it was not until reading the words of someone else, from a much different time and occupying a much different place in history, that I realized the true power of representation: the overwhelming security and affirmation I felt, just by reading words from someone who I immediately recognized as understanding my own grief. Yes, this was why representation mattered. To read something and feel as if you could so fully identify yourself within it.. I recall it was a startling experience, the feeling of both immeasurable warmth and discomfort all at the same time.
As part of my senior seminar paper (a requirement to complete my degree in Women, Gender & Sexuality), I let out over two decades' worth of grief by addressing systemic issues that perpetuated the marginalization of students of color, and titled it, "Navigating Through Invisibility: Confronting my Racial Identity in a University of Whiteness & Locating Asian Americans in the Public Space." Then, in winter of 2016, I prepared writing samples for graduate school applications. I synthesized the knowledge I had accumulated through the years and composed 35+ pages that detailed the multiple facets of mass media's misrepresentation and under-representation of Asian Americans in context to gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and the hierarchies of power that perpetuated these issues.
It is now September 2018, and I have finally seen Crazy Rich Asians. Just like reading Yamada's essay, I cried almost instantly as I watched the film's trailer. I cried again when I found out the movie was extremely successful. I cried more times than I would like to mention when I scrolled through my feed and saw a plethora of think pieces, dissecting the movie. (I promise I do not cry often…) Truthfully, I think it's because it still had not set in for me. Each time I was reminded that such a movie existed - a movie with a full Asian cast that was receiving enough publicity to be talked about on such a mainstream level - and each time, the reality would barrel through and hit me and out of nowhere I would burst into tears, always surprising myself in the process.
After many weeks of dodging spoilers and op-eds, I was excited to be able to sit in my feelings, read through the long list of critiques, and make informed opinions on its portrayal of Asianness. Yet, as I sat at my computer's blank screen after the movie, I was faced with a silly predicament: even after seeing this Asian-centered movie with one of my few Asian friends, it still had not set in. I found the movie to be quite enjoyable. Though Crazy Rich Asians was criticized by many fellow Asian American writers I admire, I found myself so distracted within my own bubble of "reality." I was finally seeing people that looked like me, customs I understood, culture that was parallel to my own upbringing, seemingly minuscule mannerisms that connected me to the warmth of my own Asian grandmother, and... no, it was not "too Asian" for white consumer audiences as Hollywood had lied to us all along. As I continue trapped within my own bubble of Asian bliss, I am confident that no longer can we use the excuse that Asian representation is dismal because it is not what America wants to see. Rather, the movie has broken box offices and continues to do so, far past its opening weekend. Finally, Asianness in America has successfully delivered a small sliver of ourselves to the (non-Asian) American public and demonstrated that yes, we have stories worth telling. Moreover, we as Asians have to be the ones to tell our own stories.
Perhaps it will sink in tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe after I see the movie a second or third time. Yet as a natural contrarian who sees so much validity in the critiques of Crazy Rich Asians and has spent the summer reading up on semiotics, I believe I can admit my own ironic vulnerability here... that despite the plethora of well-delivered arguments made regarding how Crazy Rich Asians was less than perfect in checking all of the boxes that it had the pressure of living up to, I can live with this knowledge. As an academic and activist who should ostensibly be far more critical of this movie, I have decided I will not feel guilty for how much I unrelentingly loved it; how much of a milestone this was in my own life, and for the lives of thousands of other Asian individuals who saw even the smallest snippet of themselves in this movie. I come from a family of poverty. I am not from continental Asia, but rather, my mother is from a small island of indigenous fishermen where it is common for the rooms not to have floors and our community is prone to natural disasters that annihilate the entire town. Despite all of this, I could not shake the deep connection I felt to this movie.. as if its success somehow was directly tied to my own, as if being a mere spectator in my local movie theater felt as if I was participating in an act much larger than myself. To me, this is the power of representation.
I felt pride in recognizing Asian actors and actresses on screen; they were strangers, but represented an extension of myself and others who have long felt they would always rest in the margins of society. No matter our race's ability to "assimilate" into America, visible difference and visceral prejudices are still enacted regularly. Thus Crazy Rich Asians, a movie with a plot that vastly departs from my own life, somehow penetrated my sense of belonging and gave me hope that Mitsuye Yamada's arguments from 1981 might not be as excruciatingly relevant in another 37+ years from now. Though it does not seem like I am asking a lot, considering it took this long for a film like this to come about, I am still cautious in my hope for Asian American representation (especially for darker skinned Asians, who are still in the margins far more than the beautiful cast we saw on screen).
Regardless of how I feel in the coming days or how America's media chooses to react to Asianness in the coming years, one thought continues to run through my mind: How privileged am I to finally see a movie that features people who look like me. My brain cannot work farther than that, just yet, which is a bit humiliating for someone like myself, who has spent a significant amount of years, researching and criticizing portrayals of Asians in American media. Now that I have seen a movie with an all-Asian cast, this instinctively critical lens has removed itself on its own, despite knowing the critical lens is needed now more than ever. And isn't it sad that in 2018, I somehow feel privileged to see such a movie wherein people look even remotely familiar to me, especially given the fact that there are so many individuals who still have not been provided the privilege to see themselves on screen? Yes, my mind is still having trouble computing, but I believe I will be able to push back on Asian-centered movies soon, especially if we ever reach a point whereby there are enough Asian-centered films in our cannon.. hopefully this is not overtly idealistic of me.
Crazy Rich Asians faced infinite pressures to be an all-encompassing movie that could ostensibly represent a pan-Asian identity (whatever that is supposed to look like to the general public...🐸☕️). In many ways, the film was responsible for signifying much more than the romantic comedy it was supposed to be. The movie was expected to deliver so much, and in the end, I truly believe it did the damn thing. I understand the vast amount of criticisms warranted within the Asian American community, and it is my job to listen to those whose ~crazy rich moment~ within representation has yet to come. I am without a doubt able (and more than willing) to listen to my AAPI community in regards to Crazy Rich Asians, but my brain is failing to do the labor of creating my own arguments for critique in the ways that I know that it should. Truthfully, even days later, my mind is still trying to make sense of seeing the movie at all. Despite my continued shock and unfortunate lack of nuanced critique from the vantage point of an AAPI activist, it only further reminds me that we as Asians in America still lack enough voice in commercial industries to fully critique a movie for its content, rather than its heavy cultural implications.
I am not the only AAPI academic who left the theater, feeling confused in regards to their identity and this new representation they had just witnessed. For me, this confused feeling was also due to not feeling enough criticism inside, when I knew criticisms were there to be made. This is me admitting that I am not perfect in my advocacy. My visceral reaction to Crazy Rich Asians is fulfillment, validation, and pride.. and yet, such sentiment is indicative of how far the AAPI community still must traverse within our cultural landscape. If I already feel privileged now in context to seeing Asians on screen, I cannot imagine how I will feel if there ever comes a time when I will no longer have to cross my fingers and count my lucky stars that a movie featuring Asian actors and actresses will succeed and do my community justice.. when there is not so much on the line.. when a romantic comedy can be a romantic comedy, rather than symbolic for a movement much larger than it should have to be in 2018.
Crazy Rich Asians was given an arguably impossible task in regards to representation, and many more Asian-centered movies will be forced to make these same attempts. Such insurmountable demands must continue to be filled, until the mainstream public can finally see that our stories and cultures as Asians and Asian Americans are worth investing in. That we no longer need to convince them to "see" us. Such convincing will be the labor of AAPI activists until we are able to successfully enact systemic changes in how Asian Americans are framed, not only in the film industry but rather, our population as a whole. I long for this day, because one day, the release of an Asian-centered movie will no longer need to be understood as a monumental and purposeful act for the AAPI community, but rather, simply a movie to be watched at face value. I really, really hope that day comes sooner than later. Until then, I will ruminate in my feelings until they have processed, and reluctantly dream of a time when movies featuring majority Asian casts will not make me randomly burst into tears, prior to finding out what the film is actually about. ~