crazy rich asians stereotypes

Crazy. Rich. Asians. Every adjective in the title of Crazy Rich Asians sounds loaded at best, distasteful at worst. When trailers for Jon Chu’s movie started hitting the web, cries of racism inevitably began to surface. Why did it have to be Asians? Doesn’t that generalize an entire population of people? And does this mean that they’re crazy? Or crazy rich? What about poor Asians?

Asian-led projects are so rare in Hollywood that it becomes unavoidable that every movie, TV show, or media property will undergo intense scrutiny for how well it represents a minority group that makes up 5.6% of the U.S. population. Sure, every now and then a blockbuster will feature an Asian character (cue grumbles that it’s to appease the growing Chinese movie market), but they rarely appear as more than a supporting character or gasp, a token.

So immediately, Crazy Rich Asians is in a lot of hot water. While its protagonist is an Asian-American NYU professor, it mostly centers on the privileged Singaporean elite whose wealth and jet-setting lifestyle couldn’t feasibly represent every single Asian and Asian-American. And it doesn’t help that its tawdry title immediately calls to mind the abundance of stereotypes associated with Asians. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Crazy Rich Asians - Michelle Yeoh

Everything For Everyone

Asians have been the butt of far too many harmful stereotypes. For much of Hollywood history, Asian men have found themselves emasculated (hello Long Duk Dong), portrayed as sadistic pigs (Madame Butterfly and its still-running successor Miss Saigon), or portrayed as inscrutable, magical masters — when they’re not reduced to a comic buffoons in yellowface. As for women, there are just as many to count — either they’re submissive sex puppets, prickly “dragon ladies,” or abusive tiger moms. And all this while they’re dealing with the myth of the model minority, which only serves to further divide Asians from other minority groups and leave Asians out of conversations when it comes to diversity. There’s a reason why no one blinked an eye when Get Out, a film that so shrewdly tackles anti-black racism, featured an Asian man bidding at the auction.

Asians themselves have spent virtually the entirety of Hollywood history as nearly invisible. The few Asian-American movie stars from the silent and Golden ages of Hollywood like Anna May Wong or Sessue Hayakawa found themselves passed over for high-profile movies featuring Asian characters, while we were stuck with caricatures of the desexualized Asian man or exotic Asian woman. It wasn’t until 1993 that we would have a film that came even close to accurately representing the Asian-American experience: The Joy Luck Club. But even The Joy Luck Club, a tender melodrama that chronicled the fraught experiences of two generations of Chinese immigrants and their American-born daughters, faced its share of criticism for not capturing the entire scope of the Asian-American experience.

So there’s an immense pressure on Crazy Rich Asians to be everything for everyone. Before it even opened to the public, Crazy Rich Asians faced criticisms that it was too Asian or not Asian enough, or it was feeding into Eurocentric beauty ideals by casting a male lead who was half-white, half-Malaysian.

But it’s clear once you go into Crazy Rich Asians that it doesn’t care for your sky-high expectations. The film is based off Kevin Kwan’s frivolous, gaudy ode to the Singapore elite, and goddammit, if it’s not going to deliver the cinematic experience of that. And in the format of a romantic-comedy — a genre not especially known for its nuance — Crazy Rich Asians will deliver on the stereotypes too.

It Was All Yellow

Towards the end of Crazy Rich Asians, singer Katherine Ho softly croons a Chinese-language cover of Coldplay’s hit song “Yellow.” It took me a while to recognize the song, but when I did, I chuckled, wondering if the song choice was some tongue-in-cheek nod to the long history of racist connotations with that color. It turns out, it was.

“[The word ‘yellow’] has always had a negative connotation in my life … until I heard your song,” director Jon Chu wrote in a letter to Coldplay persuading the band to let them use “Yellow” in the film. “We’re going to own that term,” Chu told The Hollywood Reporter. “If we’re going to be called yellow, we’re going to make it beautiful.”

Crazy Rich Asians definitely owns the culture in which it’s embedded. And that means playing up some of the stereotypes that have plagued Asians for decades. Because a stereotype might be a widely-held, often derogatory perception of a general group of people, but for a stereotype to form there may be some truth to them. Take Jimmy O. Yang‘s blowhard character Bernard Tai, for example. He’s loud, ridiculous, and definitely not sexy. His cartoonish and crude character is like a nightmarish realization of every stereotype about Asian characters. But in a sea of fleshed out, complex, good-looking Asian men, he is just another character. This is further emphasized by the fact that, in a conscious reversal, all of the white characters in the film are either props or background characters appearing in service of the Asian protagonists’ stories.

Crazy Rich Asians is not trying to retire these stereotypes, star Constance Wu points out. They’re trying to make them more than a stereotype. “I do not want to see any stereotype retired from Hollywood. I want to see the people who have been stereotyped given their own story. Because the danger of the stereotype is that they’re one-dimensional,” Constance Wu said in an interview with Variety. She added:

“I love that we have sexy Asian leading men, but I also want nerdy Asian men to feel that they are worthy of love. And the problem is when you make fun of them in a secondary role where you don’t explore their whole lives, that’s why I keep stressing this thing about being the center of the story. Because that’s how you get rid of stereotypes, not by trying to be the cool guy because that makes the other guy feel like they’re not worth anything. But if you say to that other guy or that other girl, ‘Even though you’re not the beauty queen, you have a story that people want to know, and you have depth to you in more than on dimension.’ So I think we should take a lot of the stereotypes and just give them their own stories so they can show they’re more than one dimension.”

By virtue of being an all-Asian cast, the stereotypes in Crazy Rich Asians aren’t stereotypes. Because they’re given center stage in a two-hour feature film, the Asian stereotypes we’re used to — that have the dragon lady, the effeminate nerd, the quirky best friend, the submissive sex pot — become breathing, living characters. Michelle Yeoh in particular gives a layered, vulnerable performance as the intimidating matriarch Eleanor Young, and would-be dragon lady in this situation. She has an arc, agency, and even a bit of a tragic backstory. Now I’m not going to say they’re all the most nuanced depictions (Ken Jeong‘s ludicrous “new money” patriarch and Fiona Xie‘s bimbo actress both fall flat), but in large numbers it doesn’t matter. In the words of the immortal Coldplay, it was all yellow.

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