On its opening weekend, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the No. 1 movie in the domestic box office, earning $26.5 million. Of all Warner Bros. Entertainment movies in 2018, it has so far earned a domestic total of $150 million, making it the studio’s top movie this year over expected blockbusters “Ocean’s 8” and “The Meg.”
While the film has acquired significant numbers and acclaim, the weight of the success of a film with an all-Asian cast in Hollywood has a larger importance for Ohio State students in the university’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community.
Growing up without Representation
As a kid growing up in the early 2000s, Ridhwan Sediqe didn’t see much Asian representation in the media.
Sediqe, president of the Asian American Association at Ohio State, said there were only bits and pieces of APIDA representation in shows like “American Dragon: Jake Long” or YouTube channels such as Wong Fu Productions and Nigahiga.
Even so, Sediqe, a fourth-year in political science, said he still felt much of the representation focused a lot on the East Asian community and did not relate as well.
“My family’s from Afghanistan originally, so I guess being from Afghanistan, you don’t see a lot about that in the media besides, you know, reports about issues within Afghanistan itself,” Sediqe said. “So, you know, seeing more representation for South and Central-Asian communities — from India, Pakistan and such as well — is something that we haven’t seen as positively or frequently in recent years.”
For Elizabeth Dang, the external vice president of the Vietnamese Student Association at Ohio State, she also recalled bits and pieces of APIDA media representation in movies and shows such as “Mulan,” “Codename: Kids Next Door” and “Lilo and Stitch.”
“It was a different dynamic because sometimes we were not the best portrayed, like in ‘The Simpsons,’ … or we’ll be portrayed in such a manner that we have to deal with settling with it,” Dang, a third-year in public management, leadership and policy, said. “So it’s like, how do I look up to someone that looks like me but also they’re not being portrayed like me?”
A History of Underrepresentation
Asian representation in the media has a long history, dating back to the 1920s, according to Kirk Denton, an Ohio State professor who teaches Asian-American film and Chinese film.
Denton said even though there were a handful of Asians involved in film production either as actors or directors, Hollywood in general was still lacking, with many films about the Japanese or Chinese still directed and acted by Americans.
“The norm was for American actors to play the role of Japanese and Chinese characters,” Denton said. “This is something that is referred to as ‘yellowface.’”
However, the stereotypes and “yellowface” weren’t only prevalent in the early 1900s.
Even today, Hollywood films continue casting Caucasian actors and actresses in Asian roles, such as Emma Stone in “Aloha,” Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” and even Mickey Rooney playing a stereotypical Japanese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Many of the Asian characters played by women throughout history, Denton said, were generally stereotyped to be hypersexualized, evil and exotic. As for men, the stereotypes usually involved the “evil genius” type characters such as Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless, or as characters that were “totally desexualized Asian men.”
“A film like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is kind of responding to this whole history of stereotypical representation of Asian characters,” Denton said.
Crazy Significant Impact: A Step in the Right Direction
Despite the lack of variety of APIDA representation growing up, Sediqe said he’s glad movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and other films with main Asian characters — such as John Cho in “Searching” and Lana Condor in “To All the Boys I Loved Before” — are showing up now rather than never existing at all.
“People are starting to understand that social inequalities are still very much a part of the American experience, an unfortunate part, and I think that’s definitely emboldened our communities to speak out on that a little bit more.” —Ridhwan Sediqe, president of the Asian American Association at Ohio State
His theory behind why these films have been more common within the past couple of years: It’s a reflection of today’s society, with people becoming more socially aware of today’s issues like the repercussions of the 2016 presidential election and instances of police brutality.
“People are starting to understand that social inequalities are still very much a part of the American experience, an unfortunate part, and I think that’s definitely emboldened our communities to speak out on that a little bit more,” Sediqe said. “That’s kind of pushed Hollywood and different companies like Nike, for example, to see social justice and representation as profitable markets to tap into.”
Sediqe has heard split feelings from the APIDA community about “Crazy Rich Asians,” ranging from those who were excited about what the film would do for the community to those who had concerns about the film’s diversity. Even so, he said he feels those who were concerned still enjoyed the movie.
“It’s not a perfect film. It has its deficiencies,” Sediqe said. “It has some problematic elements in parts of it. But I think holistically if you take what the film was able to do and walk away with that, you understand that it’s a step in the right direction.”
And Dang said she agrees, despite the movie perpetuating some stereotypes like the “model minority myth” — where Asians are generally seen as extremely wealthy and successful.
“We can’t expect one movie to do it all for us,” she said.
Dang said a movie like “Crazy Rich Asians” is significant because it shows the younger APIDA community they have a space in media.
Heading Towards a Different Future
Moving forward, Dang said she hopes the release of “Crazy Rich Asians” will help society dive more into separating data on the groups within the APIDA community in order to beat the “model minority myth” that causes the community to be seen as one homogenous group.
“So if we’re able to get more accurate portrayals of different ethnic groups and different groups within the APIDA community, that can also help start the conversation with the data disaggregation and helping us seek out and allocate resources to the communities that need it,” Dang said.
Sediqe said he sees Hollywood learning from “Crazy Rich Asians” and wants to see it begin to make more films focusing on other APIDA groups, such as Southeast, South and Central Asians, and casting more APIDA actors and actresses in prominent roles.
“My hope is that in the next couple of years, we’ll see more films not just focusing exclusively on the Asian or Asian-American experience, but taking Asian and Asian-American actors and putting them in ordinary roles like in superhero films and such,” Sediqe said. “I want to see a black Superman, I want to see an Indian Captain Marvel.”
As for Dang, she wants the APIDA community to keep proving people wrong about what they are capable of, because she feels it’s better for the community in the long run.
“Think of our younger siblings and the younger generations that needed that representation and stuff, like what we needed as kids,” Dang said. “Be that person you needed as a kid.”