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Asian Representation and Stereotypes in Crazy Rich Asians

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It has been 25 years since audiences from around the world have mainly seen an all Asian cast in a big film. With limited exposure to the big screen, Hollywood would typically “whitewash” the Asian characters by casting white actors in their roles. In certain cases, Asians were placed in very stereotypical roles, for example the sidekick, exchange student or someone who knows mixed martial arts. Asian representation and stereotypes have progressed in Hollywood, with the 2018 North American box office hit Crazy Rich Asians. 

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The movie tells the very familiar romantic comedy story of a man bringing his girlfriend home for the first time to meet the family. This movie was directed by John M. Chu and nominated for Best Picture- Musical or Comedy at the 2019 Golden Globes. Although this movie does showcase diversity in Hollywood with its song choices, wardrobe and scenic views, it takes a common westernized story and casts it with an all Asian cast. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how Crazy Rich Asians did break down barriers for Asian representation but not entirely. Firstly, this paper will explore the stereotypes and criticism the Asian community has faced when Hollywood was very white dominated. 

Secondly, it will analyse how this typical westernized storyline was used to make it digestible for the mainstream audience. Lastly, it will shed light on how the movie did not make it as big in China, as it felt underrepresented and not authentic.  In the 20th century, during the beginning of Hollywood and the creation of cinema, it was known to be a very racist institution. Majority of the people working and acting on sets were white and amongst the upper rich class. The most common term is known as WASP; White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. This type of “whiteness” was isolated in Hollywood cinema because they believed this to be a normal and stable concept. People who were not considered “white” were often given roles behind the scenes as they were seen as lesser. Through this, the Asian cultures and characters were simply stereotyped. The stereotypes portrayed were they could not speak very good English, they had narrow slanted eyes and they always had a sneaky behaviour or personality. Any character that was casted to be an Asian role, was always played by a white person. “It did not matter if the character (or actor playing a character) was from China, Japan, India, Korea or Malaysia: he or she was marked as physically different from Caucasian characters through costume, makeup and performance”.

Thus, they never got the main lead in any type of entertainment. The Asian actors would sometimes be casted as secondary characters usually laundry and domestic workers or cooks and servants. Due to Asians being stereotyped in a mysterious jumpy way, they appeared in a lot in the mystery and crime genre of movies, often playing the role as the villain. This category of “yellowface” continued up until the time “blackface” was no longer acceptable, which created a shift in the American film industry. This allowed one Asian star to have his big break in an American silent film. Sessue Hayakawa became one of the leading men of his era. He often played characters that were princes or exotic noblemen. His most iconic and remembered role being his Oscar-nominated performance in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as a Japanese military officer in World War II. 

Since World War II, American moviegoers have shown an interest in films made in Asia which created a new wave of film content. “Such interest continues to this day, as prestigious art films from all over Asia, Japanese animated films known as anime, and Hong Kong action film’. Although Asian creatives and actors were breaking down barriers, towards the end of the 20st century some still felt neglected and stereotyped. For example, in the Disney hit movie Mulan (1998), Noriyuki Morita, a Japanese American was casted as a Chinese emperor. Even today, young actors are facing these hurdles as well. They are often casted as supporting actors on multicultural shows like Lost or Law & Order: SVU. 

It was not until recently in the 21st century where we saw shows or films all focusing on an Asian cast and making them the main characters, as demonstrated in ABC’s family comedy Fresh off the Boat and the film, Crazy Rich Asians. People are still questioning whether or not these movies or television program are doing the Asian culture any justice in Hollywood.  Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel, Crazy Rich Asians gave Hollywood a chance to create something special for the Asian community since the release of Joy Luck Club in 1993. It is a big deal to have an Asian director and an all Asian cast, to create a film that could portray this community in a positive light. Although, people often wonder if the storyline of the movie was too mainstream. “Each genre incorporates a sort of narrative shorthand whereby significant dramatic conflicts can intensify and then be resolved through established patterns of action and by familiar character types. These dramatic conflicts are themselves the identifying feature of any genre; they represent the transformation of some social, historical or even geographical (as in the Western) aspect of American culture into one locus of events and characters’ 

Crazy Rich Asians follows a structure that is very commonly used throughout Hollywood. As mentioned above, it follows the very familiar storyline of a man bringing his girlfriend home to finally meet his family. In short, Rachel Chu is to accompany her long-time boyfriend, Nick Young to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. She soon finds out that Nick has been keeping some secrets. He is the country’s most eligible bachelor and his family is extraordinarily wealthy. Through this, Rachel must now experience what it is like to be in the spotlight and deal with Nick’s disapproving mother. In the end, the two do end up together and happily ever after. Although, it showcases cultural and spiritual beliefs of ancient Chinese traditions and the fast pace of their lives, there is still a long shadow of Westernized expectations through the storyline of it being a typical romantic comedy. For example, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), where the Greek family are at odds with the man their daughter is about to marry. Even Cinderella (1950), just this time around, the courageous woman does not have a clue about the personality of the man she has passionate feelings for. With these similarities outlined in the plot, the depiction made is that this storyline is easily digestible for the mainstream audience as it has been seen time and time again. It is something that has been featured for so many years, that it is comfortable for everyone to watch. China is the world’s second largest film market which has played a huge role in Hollywood’s calculations for achieving success. Crazy Rich Asians did wonders in the American box office, and even dominated in places like Singapore and Taiwan where it was shot, but it was not a big success in China. 

The movie features mostly Chinese characters, a number of Chinese songs and notes some traditions in Chinese culture but still it did not resonate with their movie-goers. They tend to believe the movie is a “banana.” This term is used to describe people of Asian descent who are “westernized,” typically Asian Americans; meaning yellow on the outside and white on the inside. It does not represent the core of Chinese culture and they believe it is just an American way to showcase billionaires. It may have done very well in North America, but it barely touched the hearts of Chinese people. For example, John M. Chu wanted to reclaim the racist term “yellow” to create a movement for their ethnic pride by using Coldplay’s song “Yellow.” In the movie they used a Mandarin cover sung by the Chinese American singer Katherine Ho. In China, this term has hardly any connection to the community and they are not bothered by it. “Such differences highlight the difficulties that Hollywood and the Chinese film industry face as they continue to seek ways to make content that appeals to both mainland Chinese and American populations”.

 In addition, some opinions believe that the movie was too cliché and only focused on the rich. It did not represent the real scenarios in China and gives only a biased perspective as the movie only features the riches exotic cars, parties and living situations. It is almost as if they exhibited this setting as if it does not happen anywhere else. The Asian community is calling for entertainment that mirrors their country and all its diversity so people can make their own connections with the different experiences people have. Asian representation in film has progressed in a very substantial way in Hollywood, but there is still work that needs to be done. With breakthroughs like Crazy Rich Asians, it gives hope for the new generations of Asian descent, but they may need to work a little harder to please the entirety that is their culture. The problem being Hollywood, sticking to their stereotypes and creating underrepresented films by keeping their storylines very westernized. This lessens the chance of creating diverse and cultural films to showcase the many different experiences people have. Filmmakers need to stop creating films that will just be comfortable for the mainstream audience to watch but create a new cinema experience for people to appreciate. This will create a new authenticity for places like Asia to have a sense of positive representation for the world to see.   

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