The new film Crazy Rich Asians is a triumph of representation in Hollywood. It’s the first film in a quarter century to have an all-Asian cast.
Crazy Rich Asians is wonderful, on so many levels. It’s a charming and fun movie with a great cast. For the characters, Chinese culture is not foreign, as Chinese culture is often portrayed in movies aimed at white audiences.
The value of having an all-Asian cast shouldn’t be understated.
The film shows diversity in personalities, showing that there’s not just one way to be Asian, just as there’s not only one way to be any ethnicity. The characters are all Asian, but they’re going through universal human problems that everyone can relate to.
Often Hollywood chooses a white person as the hero or protagonist in the story, and then casts a token person of color or two in a supporting role. For example, the main characters of Harry Potter are all white, but he has a black classmate, crushes on a Chinese girl, and asks an Indian girl to the Yule Ball.
For white audiences, this feels normal and right. If you’re white, you feel like the protagonist in your own life. The people around you may include people of color, but like everyone else who’s not you, they’re supporting characters.
It seems like Hollywood only casts more than a token number of people of color if there’s a plot-driven reason. Hidden Figures, Selma, and other films about anti-black racism need black actors to play black characters fighting racism.
The same is be true of sexual minorities. And here’s where I think that Crazy Rich Asians makes a misstep.
If you’re writing a film about a gay character coming out, then you need a gay character. If it’s simply a story about an action hero, well…. Why would an action hero need to be gay? So they aren’t. The action hero is straight.
Otherwise, minority characters play stereotypes: the Latina maid, the Chinese kung fu master, or the nerdy smart Asian kid.
And, coming to my point… the flamboyant, hilarious gay best friend.
In Crazy Rich Asians, a character named Oliver plays this role. He’s funny, he’s flaming, and he provides the main character with fashion help when she needs it.
Just like there’s more than one way to be Asian, there’s more than one way to be gay. Not all gay men lisp, obsess over fashion, and overuse the word “fabulous.” Not all gay women wear flannel and drive Subarus.
When we’re protagonists in films, it’s because the plot centers on something straight people recognize as gay: coming out, conversion therapy, or same-sex romance.
But just like Chinese people don’t exist for white people’s entertainment, gay and bisexual people don’t exist for straight people’s entertainment.
The character of Oliver is hilarious and entertaining. But it feels to me like a gay version of minstrelsy. Our identities shouldn’t be someone else’s comic relief.
Lack of representation in Hollywood drives home the point that straight, white people are truly human, undergoing the whole range of human experiences and emotions, and the rest of us are two-dimensional stereotypes.
We play supporting parts in a straight, white world. We’re tokens. We’re not fully human.
Movies and TV reflect our world, but they also shape how we see it. For people of color and LGBT people, the world of Hollywood doesn’t reflect our real world experiences — but it does shape how others in the real world perceive us.