I never had a thing for Disney princess movies. Yes, I love fairytales. Sure, I appreciate the colours, and I can probably half-sing most of the songs. Maybe it’s the stereotypical characters, the passé plotlines, or the accumulated incidents of people calling me “Princess Jasmine” as an attempt at seduction (because I’m brown, get it?). I just don’t relate.
I do have a thing for romantic comedies though. They’re funny, easy to watch, sometimes ridiculous, and occasionally downright awful. The most cringeworthy aspects of any rom-com are usually the most relatable ones. If you haven’t yet seen the hottest one of the summer, you’ve probably at least heard something about the allegedly transformative film Crazy Rich Asians. Before seeing it, I would hear something different about it every day.
What my friends said: “I love this movie. I’ve seen it twice and would see it again. Go see it now!”
What the critics said: “93 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Excellent production and beautiful design. Great acting on all parts. Good job.”
What my grandma said: “So, where’s your rich Asian man? Indians are Asians, you know. Also, let’s go to Singapore.”
What Asian-American social media guru Chrissy Teigen said: “You never know how much you miss being represented on screen until you actually see what it’s like to be represented. And represented by all different types of characters with all different types of personalities, just like any other great movie.”
Set in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of Rachel Chu, an American-Chinese professor who goes to visit her boyfriend’s family, finding out along the way that he might have massively understated his family’s affluence. Funny, cute, and aesthetically pleasing, the movie is a modern twist on a classic Cinderella tale, gaining points for delivery of feel-good rom-com vibes. Released in August, the film, based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, has since grossed $137.2 million worldwide.
The film is also being widely heralded for its all-Asian cast. More specifically, it has been received as a much-needed antidote to a gap in holistic media representations, and to whitewashing in Hollywood. While we often see minorities and people of colour on screen, these roles are usually limited to supporting and one-dimensional roles, or roles reliant on stereotypes, that demonize minorities or reinforce negative biases towards people of colour. What’s worse, roles written for people of colour sometimes even go to white people (see Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell). In contrast, a film like Crazy Rich Asians portrays a spectrum of personalities on screen. As Teigen describes, the feeling of being adequately represented for the first time is a powerful experience.
This is especially true for kids and young people of colour, as identifying with dynamic, fully fleshed-out characters is a formative element in growing up, which people from marginalized groups have largely been denied by Hollywood. Maybe if Disney had a “diasporic Canadian princess” movie, I’d actually be interested in Disney princesses.
Under-represented groups have a greater responsibility to represent themselves holistically, in a positive light, and not at the expense of anyone else.
Despite the praise, we still have to ask whether Crazy Rich Asians is truly a win for representation. Some have pointed out that though set in Singapore, the film does little to reference the marginalized Indian and Malay ethnic groups on screen, or to address racial and class dynamics surrounding a Chinese economic elite. The praise for the film has also drowned out controversies surrounding casting decisions to choose biracial actors over actors of Asian descent. Accusations of whitewashing and Western-washing, despite the purported emphasis on representation, are not unfounded. In response, director Jon M. Chu recently said in an interview with Deadline that the movie isn’t intended to be the “end-all be-all Asian-American film.” In essence, this is a different story, and we can’t solve everything about representation with one film.
Realistically, there are limits to the amount of racial nuance a 120-minute romantic comedy can be expected to flesh out. If the same plotline were to be applied to aristocrats in a European country (think The Prince and Me), no one would bat an eyelash. They would dismiss it as just another Cinderella story, and they would see nothing controversial about it.
In the same interview, Chu admits that “[he] doesn’t have all the answers. All [he] knew was [he had to] to tell the truth about what [he has] experienced as an Asian-American.” If the box office sales are any indication, clearly his truth has resonated with others, especially Asian-Americans like Chrissy Teigen. The global backlash, however, shows that Chu’s side of the story is not an universal truth, and that the Asian-American experience is radically different from the experience of other Asians. Yet, at first glance, it might be difficult for a non-Asian (or non-Asian American) viewer to see this difference.
Personally, I bristled seeing how the only brown people in the film were portrayed as “scary” security guards dressed in strange, exoticized outfits.
In representing ourselves, we sometimes forget that we’re inadvertently representing a collective. Herein lies the burden of representation: under-represented groups have a greater responsibility to represent themselves holistically, in a positive light, and not at the expense of anyone else. As marginalized groups still get very little representation in mainstream film, when you take it upon yourself to depict your experience, you are doing so on behalf of the group you belong to. You become an advocate and informer of your community.
Equally, there is less space in one’s representation of a marginalized group to include the bad, the ugly, and the immoral. Despite the fact that these are real aspects of human nature, the need to balance the risk of reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes must take priority. Personally, I bristled seeing how the only brown people in the film were portrayed as “scary” security guards dressed in strange, exoticized outfits. Moving forward, we all have to consider the extent to which new attempts at representation open doors for fresh narratives, and how much they reconfigure the same ones, but with a different group as the oppressor.
Representation matters. It matters that people see themselves on screen, in film, and that they connect with characters that look like them. It also matters that beauty norms be challenged. Like a glass slipper, new efforts for better representation in Hollywood are fragile: they won’t fit everyone, and they are to be handled with care. These efforts all require creative transparency. Though not a perfect fit, Crazy Rich Asians is a step forward and a call for more representative films with more representative roles, so that people of more (and ultimately, of all!) backgrounds can feel that their experiences are being acknowledged, shared and appreciated.