by Katharine Strange
My first hero was Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” Maybe she was a step forward. She was brunette, after all, and liked books. She didn’t need Gaston (or any man) to rescue her...until she kind of did...? Watching this movie as an adult, I notice the odd stockholm-syndrome tendencies and wonder if it has some pernicious message about women “civilizing” or “taming” men.
American girls are bombarded with love stories from the time they’re old enough to say the word “princess.” There are endless supplies of sappy romcoms on Hallmark Channel or Netflix, and most of them are basically the same. A clumsy, attractive heroine falls for a bland-but-hunky hero, but there is a very minor obstacle (usually A BIG SECRET) which is inevitably resolved with a sprint through the airport and an embarrassing proclamation.
There’s nothing wrong with these movies, but consuming a steady diet of them without asking questions can lead to some disturbing narratives. Looking at these films we can ask ourselves:
Who is beautiful?
Who is worthy of love?
What is the ultimate goal of these characters?
Typically, the answers are: thin, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered women and muscular, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered men. The ultimate goal of these characters is falling in love and getting married. The heroines, in particular, want a love worth sacrificing everything for, which is not a great narrative for our girls.
All of this is why “Crazy Rich Asians” is such an exciting counter-narrative. In this film, we see Asian men not as buffoons or weak nerds (as they are often stereotypically portrayed) but as charming, handsome, romantic leads. And the portrayals of Asian women are not as exoticized vamps or dragon ladies, but as three-dimensional characters with complex goals and relationships. Plus, our happily ever after is not reserved for the woman who sacrifices everything for love, but rather the woman who holds onto her ambition and sense of self.
This kind of representation is vital for all of us. The film’s themes surrounding cultural identity and the intersection between race and gender will resonate with viewers of all races. We become invested in these characters’ stories and the questions raised within: Who is Rachel? Asian or American or both? Can she be ambitious and get her happily ever after? Or will she be cornered into a supporting role, like Nick’s mom, Eleanor? Will she hide a part of herself so as not to “emasculate” her husband, like Astrid chose to do?
At times watching this movie, I was surprised by how it felt so strange and yet so accessible. CRA isn’t a movie about explaining Singaporean or Chinese culture to white people, but its fish-out-of-water story was understandable to an outsider like me.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination—the film glamorizes conspicuous consumption ($1.2 million earrings, anyone?) and pushes darker-skinned Malays and Indians to the margins. It does not represent THE Asian-American experience (there is no such thing), but by centering the stories of Rachel, her mom, Eleanor, and Astrid, it places intersectional identity at the heart of the film.
But for all those caveats, as the Kids & Race team watched this movie, all we could say to each other was, “It’s even better than I hoped.” We recommend it for mature kids age 11 and up. (There is some sensuality and swearing.) For a fun afternoon or evening, take your kids to a movie and then ice cream. Let them share their reactions to the film. What did they like and not like? Was the film realistic? Did they identify with anyone in the movie? You don’t have to push a “racial representation” conversation--just enjoy the movie and the window it gives onto an often-overlooked culture.