Crazy Rich Asians (Pt. 1): Progress in Representation, Long Overdue

“This is more than a movie — it’s a movement,” stated actress Constance Wu. Wu recently featured in the blockbuster movie Crazy Rich Asians, the movie that in recent months, has gotten people in and outside of the Asian-American community alike buzzing and talking.

Crazy Rich Asians movie poster (right) and the book by author Kevin Kwan that inspired it all (left)

Crazy Rich Asians movie poster (right) and the book by author Kevin Kwan that inspired it all (left)

In the movie, Constance plays the character Rachel Chu, one of many characters that represent an all-Asian cast, the likes of which has not been seen in Hollywood since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. In recent months you might’ve heard this narrative repeated again and again. So it’s been 25 years since the last movie with an all Asian cast. Since then, what’s changed? What substantive impact can we actually expect a movie like Crazy Rich Asians to have on media representation and the Asian/Asian-American experience?

Early November, the Asian-American Student Union and Student Union & Activities collaborated on an event where these precise topics were discussed.

A group of students discussing Asian-American media representation at ASU’s CRA Film Showing & Discussion event that took place on Nov. 9th.

A group of students discussing Asian-American media representation at ASU’s CRA Film Showing & Discussion event that took place on Nov. 9th.

The first thing worth noting about the movie is that within twelve days of its release, Crazy Rich Asians crossed over $80 million in ticket sales worldwide. Regardless of the societal implications of such a movie (we’ll discuss later), we can all agree that the movie was a smashing success, far surpassing initial forecasts made by industry experts. Based on this alone, we can take away an important lesson that may heavily resonate with movie executives who truthfully, have little interest in bolstering media representation for historically underrepresented cultures and ethnicities. Movie ventures that take a distinctive position such as having an “all Asian cast” are NOT risky ventures and can flourish financially.

The sprawling ensemble of a cast pictured to portray Kevin Kwan’s novel, Crazy Rich Asians. Credit: Rozette Rago for The New York Times

The sprawling ensemble of a cast pictured to portray Kevin Kwan’s novel, Crazy Rich Asians. Credit: Rozette Rago for The New York Times

One well-known argument movie execs have always made against films that are in the sub-genre of Crazy Rich Asians is simply that they don’t make practical business sense. Sure, one could argue that having a movie’s main selling point as the flat-lined ethnicity of their cast would be a kitschy and overblown marketing ploy. And this undoubtedly WAS Crazy Rich Asians’ main selling point. However, the evidence shows that time and time again, being unique is better. Warner Bros. Pictures decided that a cast focused on a wealthy minority group of English speaking Asians based in Singapore wouldn’t be a weakness, it would be a strength. Matt Bluhm, a second year Chinese and Environmental Science major here at the U states that,

“Having an Asian American cast obviously works and this isn't the first time we've seen this. Black Panther was also very successful (Mostly African American Cast) as was Wonder Woman (Female directed). People like these films and creating more like them will not only be good for business but also society.”

The novelty of such a movie wouldn’t restrict mass market appeal. In fact, the novelty allows Crazy Rich Asians to distinguish itself from its competitors, a market currently inundated with majority-white casts playing out the same plots over and over in different forms.

Since Hollywood’s inception, the majority of movies have been made under the premise that the largest audience demographic would unquestionably be the most profitable. Thus it made sense to appeal to create films that would appeal to white men, the audience producers assumed would be most profitable. However, this simply isn’t the case. According to Forbes, “In reality, minorities and women remain the most frequent movie goers, even though white males make up over 70% of all on-screen protagonists.”

Discussions moderators Jenny Tam and William Wang (front) think ahead while audience members discuss their first impressions and ways which they were able to connect to the movie.

Discussions moderators Jenny Tam and William Wang (front) think ahead while audience members discuss their first impressions and ways which they were able to connect to the movie.

Equipped with this information, we can take away an important lesson: There is no justifiable reason for movie executives to refrain from creating films with racially and culturally diverse casts - business or otherwise. It is an unfounded argument to state that these movies lack commercial success -- there is no evidence supporting this claim.

“There is no justifiable reason for movie executives to refrain from creating films with racially and culturally diverse casts - business or otherwise.”

Now that we know such movies have clear financial viability, we can analyze what impact we can hope to have from such movies. Although Crazy Rich Asians’ all Asian cast was spearheaded as a major selling point, it actually did allow for something that was almost never seen in major blockbuster movies -- Asian characters with complex, diverse sets of character traits. Multiple characters in Crazy Rich Asians went through their own arcs, with conflict, development, and finally growth. Gone were the days of “token asians” -- characters that are often grounded in majority white shows as spectacle of “diversity” and “representation,” but are defined only by cliched, banal personality traits such as nerdiness or perhaps being skilled at martial arts. When asked how seeing an all-Asian cast on screen made him feel, 4th year student and Economics major Alex Wu stated that,

“I was glad to see that the roles of Asians in American movies have expanded, beyond the typical stereotypes that are normally presented. I thoroughly enjoyed Asians being portrayed in this different light, that there are athletic Asians, outspoken Asians, strict Asians in a way that isn’t supposed to be funny, even Asians being portrayed as idiots I found to be in a sense comforting. We are people and we have an array of personalities just like any other ethnic group.”

Board member Thi Bui (left) and audience member Lauren Lee (right) smile for the camera.

Board member Thi Bui (left) and audience member Lauren Lee (right) smile for the camera.

“It actually did allow for something that was almost never seen in major blockbuster movies -- Asian characters with complex, diverse sets of character traits.”

A study titled “Tokens on the Small Screen,” coordinated by six California universities, looked at 242 broadcast, cable (basic and premium), and streaming shows that aired between Sept. 1, 2015 and Aug. 31, 2016. The study found that White actors dominated TV, constituting 69.5% of the characters shown, followed by African Americans at 14%, Latinos at 5.9% and Asian American and Pacific Islanders at 4.3%.

Jenny Tam (left) and William Wang (right) moderated discussion for the event.

Jenny Tam (left) and William Wang (right) moderated discussion for the event.

Crazy Rich Asians succeeded in flipping this specific trend on its head while also capitalizing on traditional and perhaps overdone romantic comedy tropes. Eleanor, the evil mother in law who hates Rachel. Nick, the uber-rich young bachelor who happens to sweep Rachel, a down-to-earth diligent NYU professor who in comparison, embodies somewhat of a rags to riches story.

Herein lies Crazy Rich Asians most exceptional achievement. They are able to take a genre dominated by cis-gendered, white actors and characters, and seamlessly make the transition to an all Asian cast. In doing so, they are able to demonstrate how something so peculiar looking, unnatural, and seldom seen in western media can somehow, some way, seem so perfectly ordinary.


References

[1] Liao, Shannon. “How Crazy Rich Asians Turns a Traditional Asian Rom-Com Trope into a Modern Statement.” The Verge, The Verge, 18 Aug. 2018, www.theverge.com/2018/8/18/17690280/crazy-rich-asians-trope-rom-com-modern-statement.

[2] Yin, David. “How 'Crazy Rich Asians' Nailed Brand Strategy And Became A Box Office Hit.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 Aug. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/davidyin/2018/08/27/how-crazy-rich-asians-nailed-brand-strategy-and-became-a-box-office-hit/#521a96144383 https://www.theverge.com/2018/8/18/17690280/crazy-rich-asians-trope-rom-com-modern-statement.


Thank you for reading this edition of the Asian-American Student Union’s Advocacy Journal!