Going virile: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ redefines Hollywood’s Asian man
Finally, there are moviemakers and writers who can debunk these racist stereotypes
There’s a scene in the new movie Crazy Rich Asians when Singaporean actor Pierre Png walks out of the shower toward his gorgeous wife, played by British model Gemma Chan. The camera lingers on him and his fitness-app abs for a few seconds longer than normal, his shirtless body objectified just as thoroughly as actresses have been for decades. Think Halle Berry in Swordfish. (I don’t know why I can’t think of a more recent movie, but that was the first, most blatantly gratuitous nude scene that came to mind.) But there’s a clear objective to this objectification: detonation — to blow up the stereotype of the emasculated Asian man. In the wise words of Leon Black from Curb Your Enthusiasm: “Topsy-turvy that m—–f—–.”
If you’re not familiar with Hollywood’s troubled history of portraying Asian men, think of how it used to be a given that the black actor gets killed in a horror film, unless you’re LL Cool J. Well, it’s a Stephen Curry free throw that if an Asian man pops up in a mainstream movie, he’s going to be asexual. Even the positive portrayals. Let me refer you to the case of Asian Men v. Romeo Must Die. Jet Li plays the titular Romeo, Aaliyah is the Juliet character, and Li doesn’t even get to kiss her. How do you do a take on Romeo and Juliet and make one of these star-crossed lovers more interested in kung fu than Aaliyah?
Numbers never lie
These portrayals aren’t limited to movies; they still persist in television. CBS’s recently canceled 2 Broke Girls featured an emasculated, broken-English, butt-of-all-jokes Asian regular. A recent study of Asians on TV from 2015-16 indicated that of 2,052 broadcast, digital and cable TV series’ regulars, only 6.9 percent of them were Asian-American. Of that number, 87 percent are on screen for less than half of the episode. So, when one of those roles is the equivalent of a modern-day Asian minstrel, the frustration is understandable. I should note, I rarely blame the actor for taking the role. We all gotta eat. I blame the producers and writers for creating and perpetuating these caricatures.
Making yellow mellow
Of course, the history goes much further. Way beyond Long Duk Dong and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wouldn’t you know it was the American government that helped establish the emasculated Asian male image back in the mid-1800s when there was a wave of Chinese immigrants coming to build the Transcontinental Railroad? A period known as Yellow Peril.
Many Americans felt threatened by the Chinese and feared the immigrants would steal their jobs, women and Western values. Sound familiar? To counter, Chinese men were portrayed as immoral, villainous, undesirable and threatening, especially to white women. Laws were put in place to deny them masculine ideals such as marrying freely and owning property. It culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America’s first major law restricting immigration.
Truth and consequences
Jon Chu, the 38-year-old Chinese-American director of Crazy Rich Asians who grew up in Palo Alto, California, knows the history and stereotype of the desexualized Asian man all too well:
“I was always taught to keep my head to the ground, keep working, be better. Not let those things [negative media portrayals] affect me. That’s not easy when you’re growing up trying to define your own masculinity, trying to find out what it means to be a man to yourself, when everyone’s telling you you’re not. It’s almost like you can’t comprehend it until after you’ve been through it and look back. You don’t know why you feel like you want to hide your Asian-ness because you think people will look at you weird; or you don’t know why you’re so scared to meet your girlfriend’s parents because they have no idea that you’re Asian, but when they look at you, you’re going to see it in their eyes immediately. Those things are painful to think about. Even right now I’m feeling emotional talking about it. But you don’t know how that feels until it happens.”
The congregation may now be seated! Chu describes a universal feeling that anyone who’s ever been in an interracial relationship has probably felt. That’s why it was so important for him, and the entire crew, to reject that male stereotype like LeBron James swatting Andre Iguodala in Game 7. There was a throwaway line in the script where Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat) says she doesn’t date Asian men. It was actually Wu who insisted on taking it out.
“We’re propping up Asian men and at the same time we’re cutting them with this,” Chu recalled. “So, we’re looking at it, we can bring in the writers, producers, myself, the studio, and come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t have this in our movie. That takes time. That takes money to stop things to discuss that. Takes effort and takes people to listen instead of rushing through it. That’s the power of a collaborative representation.”
Crazy rich representations
Emmy Award winner Brad Simpson, who produced the film with Nina Jacobson and John Penotti, didn’t realize the depths of the stereotype before making this movie and reached a new level of woke regarding the difference between diversity and tokenism.
“Don’t make the mistake that some people do, which is to feel like: I brought in one person of color, or one person who’s different from me into this process, therefore I have diversity,” stated Simpson. “Real diversity comes from having a multitude of voices who are in a dialectic with each other, talking about culture and identity. As I got more involved in this process, the idea of the goofy Asian guy or the desexualized Asian guy was something I became more aware of. I became aware of the ways in which I myself may have participated in that cultural conversation.”
There’s even hard data that shows Asian men and black women are the least desired racial groups when it comes to online dating, according to a study by OK Cupid in 2014. Even Issa Rae alluded to it in her book The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Sure, there could be sample bias, but it’s hard to argue against the media’s role.
“Beauty is sort of set by the media. When someone like Leonardo DiCaprio has a very specific look, before him, was that look really desired?” explained Chu. “No. Then all of a sudden Leonardo DiCaprio becomes the guy and anyone at any high school that kind of looks like him becomes popular. Anyone who kind of looks like Kim Kardashian is suddenly so beautiful. It redefines what beauty is. It’s our responsibility to expand that idea and show these amazing Asian men in the light, prop them up so they can be as stylish, fit or gentlemanly as any old classic Hollywood movie star or modern action star. [It’s] important because it literally affects people who are in high school, grade school, college — because people see that as beauty.”
Kevin Kwan, executive producer and author of the best-selling novel that the movie is based on, was born in Singapore and moved to the U.S. when he was 11. Coming from a very westernized country that featured plenty of Asian role models, he didn’t understand where the stereotypes were coming from. Now he’s ready for this movie to be a watershed moment.
“I hope it shows off a whole spectrum of the Asian man as desirable, as attractive, and hopefully leads to more work for all these amazing actors who are of Asian-American descent, who are used to being kind of neutered in their roles. Let them be the romantic heroic lead. Let them be the action hero that isn’t slapstick comedy, that doesn’t have to be Jackie Chan, even though I love him. It’s time for a new paradigm shift.”
The shift begins when the movie opens nationwide in theaters Wednesday. As it were, the most meaningful “rich” in Crazy Rich Asians has nothing to do with wealth at all.