Crazy Rich Asians is Not “the Asian Black Panther” - it’s the Asian American Royal Wedding
Why Crazy Rich Asians Matter
Review & Essay by Edwin Peng
It is inevitable that, when a Hollywood film performed spectacularly well at the box office and with the critics, everyone will try to see which future film can duplicate its success. This is even more so when the particular movie was not supposed to do well. In 1977, a poorly marketed sci-fi B movie that only opened at 40 theaters became one of the highest grossing films - and film franchise - of all time. Star Wars proceeded to spawn countless copycat works all seeking to be “the next Star Wars”.
This year, Black Panther is the “it” film that everyone is talking about - and everyone wants to know what can be “the next Black Panther”. As the first big budget movie with a predominantly African/African American cast and crew featuring a lesser-tiered comic book superhero, Black Panther wasn’t supposed to be the incredible box office and critical success that it became. Not only did it break box office records (it grossed the 3rd most all time - 30th all time adjusted for inflation), the critics loved it so much that many are saying it can finally convince the Academy of Motion Picture to nominate a superhero film for Best Picture. Of course, Black Panther had major impacts on African Americans, in terms of representation on screen, forcing conversations about difficult black issues such as colorism and tension between Africans and African Diaspora, and much needed opportunities for African Americans working in Hollywood.
As Crazy Rich Asians, the movie based on the best-selling book series by Kevin Kwan, is about to debut, inevitably we have the Black Panther comparisons. On the surface, there certainly are many similarities between the two movies. Asian Americans, like African Americans, have long been marginalized by Hollywood, publishing, and the rest of the entertainment industry. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood movie starring a predominantly Asian American cast since Joy Luck Club, just like Black Panther is the first superhero film with majority black cast and crew. Even the plots and settings have similarities - both feature heroes who hide their princely identities to the outside world, POC Americans who return to an unexpectedly sophisticated and wealthy homeland, and conflicts between “Old World” elites and their marginalized relations born and raised in America.
All this “Crazy Rich Asians = Black Panther” hype has understandably attracted debates and opposition. If anything, making this comparison is simply lazy reporting and film critiquing. The two films have dramatically different genres and budgets - and earnings expectations. I’ll argue that Crazy Rich Asians is actually more akin to the last British Royal Wedding than Black Panther.
Regardless of the proper analogy, many of my fellow Asian Americans in the entertainment industry want Crazy Rich Asians to have the same level of impact and influence as Black Panther. The success of the book series - and that of the movie - is crucial for Asian Americans - and for all Americans who want fairer and better media representation - because 1) Crazy Rich Asians illustrates the major issues and problems plaguing Asian Americans while still being an enjoyable romance novel/romantic comedy, 2) shows positive, fully-fledged Asian and Asian American characters to Asian and non-Asian Americans audience, and 3) creates opportunities for Asian American creators.
Black Disney Princesses, Meghan Markle, & Asian Prince Charmings
Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of Rachel Chu, a young Chinese American New Yorker, who agrees to visit the family of her longtime boyfriend (and fellow university professor). For many Asian Americans, especially guys, we are most impacted by the one of the book’s first scenes where Rachel narrates how she met. Like many Asian American women (especially middle/upper class and East Asian-both fictional and nonfictional), Rachel prefers dating white men and adamantly refuses to date Asian American males, whom she thinks are all nerdy geeks obsessed with getting great grades and jobs. Then, her best friend introduced her to Nick Young, who, despite being a Singaporean/Chinese man, turns out to be the love of her life and - minor spoiler alert - the most eligible bachelor in all of Southeast Asia.
Let me preface by acknowledging that all minorities, including Asian and African Americans regardless of gender, suffer from lack of non-stereotyped roles in media, as well as discrimination at other aspects of American society. Also, “princess symptom” - how from birth women are taught by the media to be the ideal princess who would marry an ideal prince - is a real problem. Many mainstream feminists have argued that romance novels, romantic comedies - and the British Royal Wedding - are harmful to women for promoting the assumption that they should be beautiful princesses and marry a handsome prince.
But for many African American women and Asian American men, we perceive the “princess symptom” differently than what mainstream (i.e. non-intersectional) feminists. We share the distinction of being the least sexually and romantically desirable ethnic/racial groups. This is due to the dichotomy of Africans being masculinized while Asians being feminized. As many have noted before, black women and Asian Diaspora men are the “losing gender” of their respective racial groups, not just with dating/marrying within their own or other races, but also with assimilation and acceptance into the middle/upper class of the Western world. Both in Western media and society, Black women do not have the privileges of being beautiful, desired princesses and Asian men do not have the privileges of being handsome, desired princes.
Many black women were absolutely delighted by how Black Panther depicts them. The women of Wakanda are fully-fledged characters with agency - and they are depicted as beautiful “despite” having their natural features (hair, darker skin, etc.). T’Challa, arguably the most eligible bachelor in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (not only is he wealthier than Tony Stark but is also the king of the most advanced human nation) has his pick of females to be his queen - yet he humbly seeks the love of a black woman. Black Panther does all this while also promoting positive depictions of black men. The movie not only has 3-dimensional black male characters, it also shows via Erik Killmonger the toxicity of extreme masculinity. The vibranium-infused cherry on top of the Wakanda sundae is that non-African Americans also finally see black men as action heroes and black women as smart and beautiful heroines.
Fictional princesses are great for representation, but what’s better are real princesses. This year, we also get our bonafide black princess (complete with a real Cinderella story set at actual fairy tale castles). Yes, Meghan Markle may not be “fully black” - many have noted her privileges of having lighter skin and the royal family is the epitome of WASP patriarchy. But as the New York Times’ Salamishah Tillet and Ellen Barry argue, seeing an actual black princesses is incredibly meaningful and inspiring for black females. Maya Rupert expertly explains how while mainstream feminists condemn the desire of modern women to “be a princesses” (i.e. beautiful and desirable), it’s different for black women as they are stereotyped by society as undesirable.
The Crazy Rich Asians movie - if it becomes a blockbuster - can have the same powerful cultural and societal impacts on how Asian Americans view themselves - and how non-Asian Americans view Asian Americans.
In mainstream literature and Hollywood movies, Asian American women are stereotyped as oversexualized, submissive exotic partners for white men with yellow fever, while Asian American men are stereotyped as desexualized, emasculated eunuchs who are not viable partners for anyone, not just non-Asian women but even for Asian women or gay men. The Crazy Rich Asians series has been providing the medication to counter these harmful views of Asians Americans for nearly a decade.
The Asian eligible bachelors are fully humanized romantic heroes - and they speak not with the stereotypical fake Asian accent (yep-the “Asian accent” you hear from Hollywood is totally fake), but their real native accent. For Nick Young and his upper class male relatives and friends speaks with a sexy British accent, which by itself can surprise and shock American audiences (there are actually many Chinese/Diaspora Chinese who speak like the British Royal Family, not like Charlie Chan). In fact, I would argue that Nick Young is a far superior - and progressive/feminist - romantic novel hero than the abusive glittering vampires or abusive Seattle billionaires that the mostly female gatekeepers of traditional YA/romance publishing promote for their female customers.
If there is a weakness to Crazy Rich Asians’ male characters, it is that they are too passive. Nick Young and his father (who unfortunately doesn’t make an appearance in the movie version) react more than they act and defer to the women of their family. I really appreciate how Crazy Rich Asians turn the previous effeminate stereotype of Asian men as passive into a positive, not negative trait. The series and the movie promote a new type of masculinity for a romantic hero, where we see the stereotypical rich hunk actually cares about, respects, and listens to the important women in his life.
Crazy Rich Asians are no less revolutionary with depicting Asian women. Like their male counterparts, the female characters are diverse, fully-fledged, and actually drives much of the series’ plot. Instead, the Asian and Asian American women who scheme and fight for themselves and their families. They definitely are not “China Dolls” - the passive, submissive ultra-feminine stereotype seen in Western media. The Youngs is basically a matriarchy, with Nick’s grandmother and mother as the most powerful family members. Rachel and her beautiful relationship with her single mother (even more dramatic with the novel) and their rags-to-riches story is celebrated as the Asian American version of the American Dream. What’s more, Rachel, with her New York accent and American-accented Mandarin (the opposite of the “broken English” that’s depicted for Asian characters) are meant as the audience surrogate - allowing non-Asian Americans for the first time to see Americans of Asian descent as Americans as well.
Crazy Rich Asians & Sane Poor Asian Americans
Beside harmful gender stereotypes, Asian Americans are also plagued with the “all Asians look the same” and perpetual foreigner stereotypes. American society assumes that there’s an inherent “Asianess” common to all “Asians” and there isn’t any difference between Asians in Asia and Asian Americans in America. Of course, Hollywood and other American entertainment industries have perpetuated these stereotypes since their inception. The problem with this type of racism is that it dehumanizes Asians, saying that their individual character and personality doesn’t matter, and that they - unlike European Americans - can never be American.
Kevin Kwan crafted Crazy Rich Asians with George RR Martin-esque number of fully-fledged characters. The resulting effect for the reader - especially for those who are not Asian Americans - to realize that “all Asians are the same” is absolutely not true. Crazy Rich Asians depicts (often with excruciating details with plenty of comical details) the differences between Chinese Singaporeans, Chinese Indonesians, Malaysian Chinese, mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, Macanese - and of course Chinese Americans. Not only are Chinese Americans depicted as distinct from other Asian Americans and other Chinese, Crazy Rich Asians also made it that there are several kinds of Chinese Americans (i.e. ABCs vs FOBs).
In fact, the many distinct “flavors” of the Chinese characters is main cause of the series’ conflicts. The overall theme is the fight between the old money (Chinese and non-Chinese aristocrats from Hong Kong and Southeast Asia) and the new money (previously impoverished Chinese with self-made fortunes from the mainland, Taiwan, and America). Rachel Chu is demeaned as “too American” by the Singaporean Chinese elite, which delights us Asian Americans who struggle to be accepted by American society. The audience also sees religious, political, and generational differences as sources of conflict among these “crazy Asians”. After watching the movie and/or reading the novels, the audience would be, well, crazy to assume that “all Asians are the same”.
As if Crazy Rich Asians didn’t make it clear enough to a non-Asian viewer that “not all Chinese are the same”, it also has a vast cast of non-Chinese secondary and minor characters. There are Thai royalty, Indian royalty, Malay aristocrats, Turkish aristocrats, and many others who are clearly defined as distinct ethnic/cultural groups, not simply “Asians”. An added bonus to Crazy Rich Asians is that the series presents positive, non-stereotypical images of Muslims (i.e., not terrorists) and Indians (i.e., not an IT worker or a slumdog).
If you think Crazy Rich Asians sounds like Downton Abbey-class conflict set in the extravagance of The Great Gatsby with the noble characters of a Regency romance and the tropes of a classic romantic comedy, well...that’s kinda the point. As Asian Americans, we need our fun beach reads, our escapist romance novels, and date night movies. For a non-Asian American who loves a good romance or period drama, we need them to know that an Asian American man can be Mr. Darcy and an Asian American woman can be Bridget Jones.
“The Asian Bachelor”
Crazy Rich Asians - the movie(s) and the books - is not perfect. Google “Crazy Rich Asians” or click on the #CrazyRichAsians and you will find detractors. Crazy Rich Asians has been accused of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and colorism. As a “full blooded” Chinese American man (there should be a term for non-hapa Asian American that doesn’t sound Harry Potter-ish), I was especially disappointed by the casting of Henry Golding. The casting choice reinforced the colorism/privileges that Asian Americans with a white parent have in Hollywood and most other aspects of society. To his credit, the actor did not shy away from the controversy. Instead, Golding is very honest about this problem and acknowledge that colorism is a problem. Furthermore, there are plenty of non-Hapa Asian and Asian American actors cast for the other male characters.
I am part of many Asian Americans who support Crazy Rich Asians despite its problems. Not only does the film and books benefits more than it harms Asian American, the people behind it did everything to minimize the flaws and maximize the strengths. Kevin Kwan and the film’s producers fought hard against not only racist Hollywood yellowface/whitewashing but chose a wide theatrical release with the express purpose of providing wide exposure to all the positive portrayals of Asians/Asian Americans.
We also have a related controversy of the removal the explicit mention of Rachel Chu only exclusively dating white men before meeting Nick. I understand the frustration of my fellow Asian American brothers that this lessens the impact of one of the book’s most powerful social commentary. But I also understand the reasoning. Given the fact that, unlike the original series, the movie is meant to be viewed by a mainstream, mostly non-Asian American female audience, having Rachel explicitly state she refuses to date Asian/Asian American men may actually reinforce the negative stereotype and increase the sexual discrimination we face - opposite of what the movie is intending.
I believe the criticisms of the Crazy Rich Asians film ultimately stem from the burden of representation. When Asian/Asian Americans have been so marginalized by Hollywood and other Western media, we often fight over what little representation we receives.
Rich People Problems
Yes, Crazy Rich Asians is not representative of the entire Asian American experience. But for films about non-Chinese Asian Americans or other aspects of Asian American life to succeed, Crazy Rich Asians must destroy the myth that “Asian movies” doesn’t sell, just like Black Panther destroyed the myth that non-blacks want to watch a “black movie”.
My fellow Asian Americans creators and I are ready and willing to provide the proper representation of our peoples. This is why I’m willing to pay for overpriced soda and popcorn and endure the endless trailers and advertisements at the movie theater - and so should you. Let’s make Crazy Rich Asians a success and spawn more - and better - works about and by Asian Americans.