As a half-Filipino, half-white, wholly racially ambiguous woman living in the Midwest, I didn’t know what I was missing from romantic comedies until I saw Crazy Rich Asians. It wasn’t until I was watching the relationship unfold between Nick Young (played by the aggressively handsome and endearing Henry Golding) and Rachel Chu (played by my personal lord and savior Constance Wu) that I fully realized how rare it is to see a female Asian or Asian-American actor who isn’t hypersexualized as a lead, romantic or otherwise — even in a PG-13 movie with no actual sex scenes.
The fetishization of Asian women in media is nothing we, as a culture, are secretive about. (Unless you’re talking about people’s PornHub search history — but even then, it’s less a secret than an expectation.) You see it in stand up sets, where Asian women’s anatomy is the punchline. You see it in movies like Full Metal Jacket, which is to blame for the infamous line “me so horny,” where Asian women are reduced to seduction through broken English. We even have a ~*fun*~ and colloquial phrase for it all: “yellow fever.”
When misunderstood, the fetishization of Asian women is written off as harmless. Shouldn’t it be a compliment that people find you sexually attractive because you’re Asian?, as if being fuckable were there whole point of being female. Writer Patricia Park concisely explains the harmful consequences of “yellow fever” and its ilk for Bitch Media: “At its core, to fetishize something — or someone — is to objectify it to the point that it becomes divorced from the person herself.”
Because culture does not exist in a vacuum, these kinds of representations feed into real-life consequences. Additionally, this wide acceptance of fetishized representation in media is derived from the real-life ways Asian women are treated every day. A 2016 study from the National Network to End Domestic Violence found between 41 and 61 percent of Asian women experience sexual violence from a partner during their lifetime. This number is “significantly higher” than all other ethnic demographics.
Which is partly why the way Crazy Rich Asians' treatment of Rachel matters so much. There are a lot of things the movie does right — the costuming and set design are why the word “opulence” exists, while a wedding scene made me cry about as much as I cried during my actual wedding. But it's the film's treatment of its characters, especially the women, that is especially significant. A movie that treats the sexuality of Asian men and women in a humanizing way? Practically revolutionary.
It’s so rare I see faces that look like mine on TV and in movies, and so I’ve felt obligated to be grateful for what I’ve gotten: a sidekick to the white lead; a shy girl who (pause for gasp) gets a streak of color in her hair; maybe, like, a picture of Brenda Song on the mantle of a frat house. In the past, whenever I saw an Asian woman in a movie, she was probably going to be peripheral, hypersexual, or really good with knives.
But I don’t feel peripheral in my own story. I feel the normal amount of sexual, and just saying “knife throwing” gives me hives. As such, Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians is major. She's smart and confident and silly and sincere. She has interests and values that extend beyond her male counterpart. Nick falls in love with her a whole, entire person — not because of her presumed demureness or implied sexual prowess as an Asian woman — and that, unfortunately, still feels new and surprising as a viewer.
On the whole, Asian characters (“characters” often being a generous description) are widely unseen in TV and film. A recent study on the underrepresentation of Asian Americans on TV, conducted by six scholars and professors at California universities, dubbed Asian Americans the “most tokenized” racial minority on television. The now-cancelled Netflix series Marco Polo alone made up for 10 percent of Asian representation on TV during the 2015-2016 season. As I’ve posited before, could you even imagine the cancellation of one TV show resulting 10 percent fewer white characters seen on television?
When you have that few characters of any racial demographic, the risk of perpetuating certain stereotypes increases exponentially. Sure, Marco Polo upped Asian representation significantly, but some argued it came at the cost of female exploitation. Asian characters, especially those in romantic comedies, are reduced to stereotypes, their presence alone being the butt of a joke.
In turn, watching a romantic comedy like Crazy Rich Asians, which acknowledges an Asian-American woman’s ethnicity without exoticizing it, also feels radical. Rachel is Chinese but that isn’t her whole storyline. Rachel is the romantic lead but her ethnicity isn’t ignored; she isn’t a love interest who just so happens to be Chinese. Her ethnicity, the fact that her mother is an immigrant, the ways in which she feels too Asian in America and not Asian enough in Singapore are all embedded in who she is without being all that she is because that’s how people actually are.
And in writing an Asian man as the romantic lead, Crazy Rich Asians also combats the cultural desexualization of Asian men, whose sexuality is also used as a punchline. We all know what pop culture says about Asian men’s anatomy. This kind of sexual racism in conversation extends beyond comedic gags, influencing who we are attracted to and why we believe we are attracted to them. “Not interested in Asians” is a common enough denotation in profiles on dating apps that one man is planning to file a class-action lawsuit about it. In the same way that the fetishization of Asian women is not a compliment, claiming disinterested in an entire racial group is not “just a preference.”
In Crazy Rich Asians, Nick serving as the romantic lead isn’t surprising or questioned. No one is looking at him like, “He’s hot...and Asian...at the same time???” It is worth noting that Henry Golding is arguably conventionally attractive, specifically when it comes to body type. Some have also argued that he is “not Asian enough” for the film, and he has expressed empathy regarding those sentiments. “People are right to question my ethnic background,” Golding told Bustle in a previous interview. However, he reaffirms that his cultural identity is valid: “Just because by blood I’m not full Asian doesn’t mean I can’t own my Asianness.”
After seeing Crazy Rich Asians yesterday, I watched the latest episode of Bachelor in Paradise, the reality dating show that puts former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants together in a tropical location with a bunch of alcohol and sexual tension. (I recognize that the decision to watch those things in that order is like taking a chaser before a shot.) In Tuesday’s episode (spoilers ahead), Venmo John, a fan-favorite contestant, gets some long overdue romantic attention during a conversation with new-to-the-island Jubilee, a veteran who specializes in radio and computer programming. Jubilee, one of two black women in this season’s current cast, notes how she felt “very different” from the other girls during her season of The Bachelor in 2016. John nods in agreement saying, “I had that same thing, too.” John, who is half-Chinese, half-white, continues that he came into his season of The Bachelorette “intimidated,” saying that he isn’t the “archetypal...homecoming king” kind of contestant he was surrounded by.
The part of my heart that Crazy Rich Asians repaired broke a little bit. Accusations of The Bachelor franchise being kinda, pretty racist aren’t new or surprising; The lack of contestants of color is evidence enough of that. John’s comments aren’t new or surprising either; they speak to the way our culture thinks of Asian people, their sexuality or lack thereof, as a whole. They speak to the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is still very much fictionalized, wish fulfillment to our current reality.