Crazy Rich Asians, released on August 15th, is the first film in 25 years to feature an all Asian-American cast. The last movie to accomplish this was the Joy Luck Club, a drama released in 1993.
The casting for Crazy Rich Asians, and the release itself marks a milestone for Asian Americans in the film industry hoping to usher in a new era of Asians in popular media. Asians have long struggled to find footing in Hollywood, comprising only a minute number of actors and actresses and an even smaller number actually cast in movies.
Even recent releases such as Ghost in the Shell cast white actors/actresses in Asian roles. Outside of popular media, Asians also struggle to gain representation in the wider industry, failing to attain leadership positions. Professional career development is more difficult for Asian Americans, leading to an achievement gap between Asian professionals and their counterparts. However, Crazy Rich Asians potentially marks a milestone for progress in the representation of Asians in America.
In Hollywood, Asians are dramatically underrepresented. Despite making up 6% of the United States’ population, 1 out of 20 speaking roles in Hollywood go to Asian Americans; only 1% of leading roles go to Asian Americans. The disparity between the general population of Asian Americans and their representation in Hollywood is drastic. This leads to Asians being removed from popular media and denies them a voice. For example, film and media narratives lack input from the Asian community. Without a place in popular media, it becomes more difficult for Asians to see themselves in positions of leadership and power, further reinforcing the problem of few Asians attaining leadership positions. With the lack of representation, the media overlooks the Asian American community and marginalizing its achievements and success.
Additionally, the stereotypes of Asian Americans persist without proper representation in the media. Traits such as passivity, inoffensiveness, and emasculation depicted by casting Asian Americans into a narrow portion of roles. Between the unattractive nerd and karate kid, there is a lack of diversity in the roles cast. This causes stereotypes such as the model minority and undesirable Asian man to persist, damaging the Asian American community. Ignoring issues such as underperforming students and socioeconomic struggle, the public learns to envision Asians in one specific manner. This ignores the vast diversity within the Asian community, of prosperity, personality, and culture.
The movie goes against numerous Hollywood norms by casting an all Asian American cast in atypical roles. Forgoing the nerdy companion trope, Crazy Rich Asians is set in Singapore, surrounded by extreme wealth. Portraying Asians in aspirational roles—as desirable multimillionaires occupying the upper echelons of society, Crazy Rich Asians provides a new dimension to Asian roles in Hollywood. The movie challenges stereotypes on multiple fronts, all while packaging them into a widely distributed Hollywood movie.
Crazy Rich Asians avoids the stereotypical immigrant story and model minority traits. Instead of a hardworking second or third generation immigrant, many of the characters belong to “old money,” established families with heritage and wealth. Meanwhile, the movie also has untraditional rom-com/drama elements, by portraying an Asian couple as the lead characters. Instead of emasculating the Asian male character and casting a white woman for the lead roles, Crazy Rich Asians embraces the Asian aspects of the film. Besides the main characters, the supporting roles also vary in personality and background. They portray Asian Americans as the truly diverse community that they are in real life.
Film critics and commentators have deemed this movie as a gatekeeper for future films starring majority Asian casts. Thus, the success or failure of this film will have lasting effects. If the movie performs well commercially, studios will have resounding results that Asian led movies can be commercially successful, which in turns provides the opportunity for Asian Americans to secure a place in popular media. In effect, the success or failure of the movie will have results far more impactful than the movie itself. The movie is shaping up to exceed expectations, tracking for a debut of $26 million. This estimate was already an upward revision, and there is a strong chance of surpassing that number as well.
Hollywood is not the only industry that underrepresents Asians. In fact, regardless of industry or profession, underrepresenting Asian Americans in leadership positions is common. Despite comprising 25% of Ivy League graduates and 50% of the Silicon Valley workforce, only 6% of board members are Asian. As demonstrated, Asians have found difficulty breaking into the leadership ranks and progressing in their professional careers. However, as shown by the movie Crazy Rich Asians, change is possible. With the correct training and opportunities, any Asian American professional can make it into the leadership ranks. Through addressing primary issues such as lack of professional networks, unfamiliarity with corporate expectations, and general lack of advice, Asians can find the representation they deserve. There is not one solution to addressing these problems, but programs that provide career coaching and guidance to young professionals have the potential to shape the future of the Asian American community.
By addressing issues specific to the Asian professional community, young professionals will no longer be held back. Having guidance and role models, whether that’s in the form of direct mentors or figures in popular media, will be transformative. The opportunity to gain advice and experience as a young professional will empower the Asian community to work to eliminate the achievement disparity. With the proper support, Asian American professionals will be able to find equal success in their careers as their peers.
With the potential to empower young Asian professionals in industries reaching far beyond Hollywood, Crazy Rich Asians is much more than just a movie. It is a cultural phenomenon. And it’s a movement. Though it may be an enjoyable summer romantic comedy film, the context that the film carries is hugely impactful. Irrespective of whether or not the film will be a breakaway financial success, it has already made a strong statement—that Asians can be and are successful in their representation in Hollywood films.
naisA Global is a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization dedicated to helping talented young Asian professionals unlock their potential and become great leaders.