Editor’s Note: Ranier Maningding is a copywriter and mastermind behind the social justice page “The Love Life of an Asian Guy.” The opinions expressed in this piece are solely his own.
If you told me 10 years ago that a movie called “Crazy Rich Asians” would star a handsome Asian male protagonist, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“Positive representation? Is that the name of your indie rock band?”
Hell, back when I first starting writing about Asian American identities in 2008, there was nothing but William Hung references, Ken Jeong in a speedo, and “small Asian penis” jokes as far as the eye could see. People were blatant about their disdain for Asian men, and it made watching TV, movies, or any media a nail-biter because I’d always have to wait in anticipation, hoping they wouldn’t shit on us again. An Asian guy would appear on camera and before he opened his mouth I’d be in child’s pose repeating my favorite mantra: “Please make the Asian guy normal. Please make the Asian guy normal.”
Fast forward to opening night of “Crazy Rich Asians” and my eyes were fed a silver platter of grass-fed, well-aged and supremely toned Asian men. Low-key, I was annoyed because Henry Golding, Pierre Png, and Chris Pang were three handsome, shirtless Asian men on screen and nobody in the theater but me was crying inside.
“THIS IS THE REPRESENTATION WE NEED!”
But what the hell is representation, and when do you finally capture it? Now that “Crazy Rich Asians” is a thing, at what point do we hang our coats and say, “Welp. That’s enough representation for me! I’m stuffed!”
As a Filipino American writer and civil rights activist, I’ve been chasing the elusive white rabbit of representation for years. They don’t tell you this in high school, but when you’re a person of color, positive representation can be given just as easily as it can be taken away. Is “Crazy Rich Asians” a new plateau for Asians in media? Sure. But it’s also a new standard, and with new standards come new expectations.
I have no idea how “Crazy Rich Asians” will impact America’s expectations of Asians in media. Will they anticipate more movies about wealthy Asians? Will they only cast movies with ridiculously good-looking, biracial Asians? Are they going to expect tall, pale, or skinny East Asians and dismiss everyone else?
This is the battle of positive representation: on one hand, you want to see the best of the best. The hottest, most attractive Asian actresses and actors playing the coolest characters. But on the other hand, you also want realness and authenticity. You want actors who look dopey and relatable, who play down-to-earth roles like the “Vietnamese weed dealer” or the “Indian dude undecided on his career.” You want both and you won’t stop until you’re happy.
A lot of Asians have taken the position that it’s better to be grateful for “Crazy Rich Asians” than be critical because they don’t want us to ruin a bad thing. “Stop being so negative! Crazy Rich Asians will open the door for other Asian TV shows and movies!” And while that is true, it’s also worth reminding everyone that not all doors are worth opening, nor do they all lead you in the right direction.
Hell, Bruce Lee opened the door for Asian American martial arts representation and look how it backfired: for the next 40+ years all Asian male actors were expected to do kung fu, even if they had no idea how. Does this make Bruce Lee problematic or complicit? Of course not. Bruce was being himself, and Hollywhite was too ignorant to realize that not every Asian man wants to become Bruce Lee.
In a similar way, not all Asians identify with “Crazy Rich Asians.” Some people don’t like the characters, the genre, or the plot, and that’s okay. No one should be expected, let alone pressured, to support a film they don’t connect with.
The hard reality is that we as an Asian community will never be satisfied with how we’re represented because we’re a diverse and eclectic people. There isn’t a single movie (no matter how big the cast or budget) on this planet that can accurately represent every single Asian, and there never will be. The legacy of “Crazy Rich Asians” has yet to be written, and it’s up to us to take this momentum and use it push for more Asian movies starring real Asian people like Scarlett Johannson.