I will admit that I arrived a bit late in the game, watching “Crazy Rich Asians” for the first time last week. But I think the film arrived a bit late too— too regressive for all the progress some lauded it for making. Instead of breaking through bamboo ceilings and working to dismantle structural issues in Hollywood, it seemed to simply want to raise that ceiling a bit higher, elevating the position of Asian Americans within the existing racial hierarchy.
For instance, take the scene in which Michael (Astrid’s husband) comes out of the shower, a scene that trains the viewer’s gaze on a bare Asian male body, daring the viewer to desire it. This brief scene contains little content except for a call to the viewer to objectify Asian male bodies. It questions them, asking them to extend their love of the muscular male form to Asians. It recognizes existing standards of beauty and kindly submits a request for Asians to join.
Next, like other recent movies featuring main characters with marginalized identities at the forefront, this film had the opportunity to show producers that Asianness was not an impenetrable veil; that Asianness would not prevent the average (i.e. white) viewer from relating to (i.e. recognizing mutual humanity in) the protagonists. But with the choice of actor Henry Golding to play a character of full Chinese descent, we find ourselves with an old habit of Hollywood: whitewashing.
Now, I certainly support increasing the representation of multiracial and mixed-ethnicity people on the big screen. However, this casting choice both erased the mixed-ethnicity identity of the actor and whitewashed Nick by getting a partially white actor to play him. Thus, the producers managed to whiten the features of one of the characters to whom we were supposed to relate the most. They weakened the racial experiment the film could have represented by providing a bridge across the racial gap non-Asian viewers theoretically would have had to cross to connect to the characters.
A real disappointment, unlike no other, was the scene where Goh and Rachel arrive at the Young estate and are met by two South Asian guards. No lines, no expressions, no attempt at humanization. That was the treatment received by these two of the few actors of non-East Asian descent that made it into the film— just wariness, like the fear of an animal on the preserve that might accidentally damage your car or mistake you for prey. All I can say is that a racial hierarchy manifested clearly at that moment, with East Asians and their presumably white and Asian American audience at one end and the brown figures in the scene at the other. It was like I could imagine the actors saying to the audience, “Hey, we’re not like them, we’re like you.”
On another note, I understand that compared to the extreme wealth of the Young family, Rachel’s salary as an economist was not impressive. But, she was still a game theorist at a premier research university. Given the widely recognized need to encourage more female participation in the economics profession, the largely unchallenged diminishment of Rachel’s career accomplishments and aspirations were unhelpful. It was a missed opportunity to develop this strong female character outside of the common context of romance.
Overall, the story was nice—a decent Asian American remake of the “Prince and Me”— but it sputtered as a breakthrough social moment. Of course, these are just my imperfect reflections and I know for some, especially some East Asian Americans, it was nice to see someone racially recognizable in a Hollywood production for once. However, I think it is beneficial to pair their praise with some critique, so we do not lose sight of where we really want to go while making these small progressions. We cannot settle for near-whiteness; we need full humanity.