A Vegas-style yacht bachelor party. The disapproving potential mother-in-law. A white mansion with luxury cars rolling up to the door with just enough time for stylish, designer-clothing clad couples to step out before the private valet takes over.
While the images above could describe a variety of flashy rom-coms, the buzz around “Crazy Rich Asians” hinted that many audience members saw the movie as more than just another film in the genre. The plot itself is nothing special; the movie’s synopsis follows the traditional rom-com story structure almost to a tee: A couple in love (Rachel and Nick) faces obstacles (socioeconomic differences, cultural differences, a disapproving mother in law), overcomes them against the odds (Rachel shows up in an acceptable designer gown to an important party, and beats her potential mother-in-law in Mahjong), and concludes with a satisfactory fairy tale wedding (in this case, Nick’s best friend’s wedding, but Rachel and Nick do get engaged).
Despite this traditional story structure, fans and critics alike loved the film, which still boasts a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating nearly four years later. In particular, “Crazy Rich Asians” was lauded for being the first Hollywood film in 25 years that has an all-Asian cast and an Asian American lead. Yes, “Crazy Rich Asians” deserves five stars for a “diverse” cast. But, upon closer scrutiny, does the film really earn five (or four, or three) stars for representation? I would argue not.
Like all rom-coms, “Crazy Rich Asians” is full of love, drama, and fun. While by nature, rom-coms are supposed to be lighthearted, I do think filmmakers should take any claims of representation seriously. Unfortunately, “Crazy Rich Asians,” even judging by the title alone, plays into the problematic stereotype that all Asians are extremely wealthy. In the movie, Nick is known by name to the Singapore airlines staff, Rachel’s college friend Peik lives in a gold-gilded mansion, but isn’t considered rich enough to associate with Nick, and the bride to be hosts her bachelorette party on a private island. While there are individuals of diverse backgrounds (including Asians) that possess this level of wealth, the film’s portrayal of Asian people is far from representative.
While many Asian audiences were happy to “see” themselves on screen, others raised concerns about the film’s superficial and inaccurate representation of Asian people. In a piece for The Atlantic, Mark Tseng-Putterman acknowledges the film’s heartwarming surface-level representation of East Asian people, but laments the way “it takes care to represent its characters according to white norms” and repeatedly tries to emphasize the “right” type of Asian (i.e., the extremely wealthy). In a Vox post, Kirsten Han outlines how the film does a poor job accurately depicting Singapore, the country it’s set in, including an overrepresentation of those of Chinese descent at the exclusion of those of Malaysian, Indian, and Eurasian descent, who are also a part of Singapore’s ethnically diverse population.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to trivialize the importance of seeing people who look like you in the movie industry (or any industry, for that matter); what I’m calling “outward representation” can be empowering. But, I think it’s important that we view such surface-level representation as a first step towards shaping workplaces to be more inclusive and representative of the incredible diversity around the world, rather than as an end goal in and of itself.
One could argue that “Crazy Rich Asians” is, in some ways, “just” a film, but it does provide a valuable opportunity for everyday citizens and policy makers to brainstorm safeguards against superficial representation in the workplace. Corporate policies that support greater representation in the workforce are often treated as something to be checked off a to-do list, rather than as a chance to work towards genuine change.
This presents a similar conundrum to appreciating “Crazy Rich Asians.” On one hand, it’s tempting to view such policies as a significant step forward towards greater diversity in the workplace, and to praise them accordingly. However, while it’s important to acknowledge companies’ efforts in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as individuals and as a society, we should not be satisfied with these preliminary policies, particularly when they are implemented at a bare minimum to appease stakeholders.
For example, while many banks like to highlight the increasing gender and racial diversity of their intern and entry-level analyst classes, executive and senior-level roles remain the stronghold of the traditionally privileged few, at 86.5 percent white and nearly 60 percent male. Banks’ hesitancy to increase DEI at senior management levels suggests that low-level interns and analysts merely serve as a handy way to artificially boost their DEI “progress” and appease progressive stakeholders.
In the world of sports, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores made waves when he sued the NFL for discriminating against Black coaches. What perhaps provides the most convincing evidence for Flores’ case is how his former boss mistakenly sent him a congratulatory text for landing a coaching job meant for another Brian (who is white) before Flores even completed his interview for the same role. This revealed that certain members of the NFL were only interested in fulfilling the Rooney rule, which was adopted in 2003 to increase diversity in coaching by requiring teams to interview at least one or two external minority candidates, at face value rather than pushing towards real progress in DEI.
These are just a few examples of how half-hearted efforts towards increasing representation in workplaces can be harmful to real progress in DEI. That being said, I acknowledge that real societal change is hard, and I am heartened that so many companies, in fields ranging from sports to finance to entertainment, are proposing higher DEI standards; creating and implementing internal company DEI initiatives is an important first step towards achieving greater representation at all levels in an organization. However, in order to cultivate company and industry cultures that welcome individuals of diverse backgrounds, there are additional steps we need to take at the personal, community, and national level.
To start, the general public needs to (continue to) lobby their political representatives, companies, schools, and other organizations they’re a part of to take representation seriously. Among other things, this means putting their money (or votes) where their mouth is. At the local level, non-profits and community organizations can help foster greater diversity in traditionally elitist and racially-exclusive fields, such as finance and the fine arts, by providing financial support and mentorship for minority candidates. At the state and national level, the government should not be satisfied with merely outlawing the explicit exclusion of minority groups, but work to promote the active inclusion of these groups. Progress in this area could include earmarking specific government funds to support the rise of minority artists, writers, and scientists, crafting policies that will ensure minorities have equal access to new economic opportunities (for example, equal access to licenses to grow and sell marijuana legally), and setting higher legal standards for the private industry regarding discriminatory hiring and wages.
Granted, these various individual, community, and governmental-level policy suggestions will not work in every case, and will likely face great resistance from those who currently benefit from the status quo. But, I’m optimistic that by realizing the detrimental effects surface-level representation can have, we can take more intentional, effective steps towards achieving greater representation and diversity in all industries.
7 thoughts on “Outward Representation: More Harm than Help?”
Hi Rachel, I really enjoyed reading your blog post! I really loved how you used “Crazy Rich Asians” to preface the underlying problems that come about with Outward Representation. The buzz with Crazy Rich Asians was astounding when it came out, especially where I lived in the Bay Area, where the Asian population is very high. The effect was similar to what you stated, people seemed thrilled by the idea of having an all Asian cast, finally having the representation in films that was lacking thus far in Hollywood. However, given the rather trivial romcom storyline, a case can be made that the movie only did so well due to the representation in the film. The immense appraisal of the film gives people the false idea that we as a society have reached the point where diversity is being embraced to the fullest – when in reality that is far from true. As you mentioned, this is only the first step and not an end goal.
I can especially speak to the implications of such outward representation in the finance industry. As a sophomore in college going through the recruitment process for internships, I have attended numerous speaker and networking events. Not surprisingly, almost always the representatives from the top companies like Goldman and JP Morgan are white men, and a lot of the peers who are attending these events happened to also be mostly white and male. All of these top companies have DEI initiatives, with separate internships for women and diversity inclusion. However, the average person I see working at these firms shows little to no evidence of their being any significant push to increase diversity. I think in this case, the first step would be to have a more diverse recruitment team to encourage more POC to apply; and for colleges to have resources to inform students of opportunities and give more guidance. Outward representation is a good first step, but policymakers should aim to create a more sustainable model for diversity inclusion.
Hi Preethie, I really appreciate your comment! It’s interesting to hear how you also noticed the somewhat misguided “hype” around the film.
I also totally relate to your comments about half-hearted attempts to present a semblance of diversity during business recruitment. Perhaps I’m a bit of a cynic, but I’ve always found it ironic when employees at firms advertise company DEI initiatives (likely because they have to) while simultaneously playing into aspects of finance culture that makes the industry uncomfortable for non-white and/or non-male individuals.
Hey Rachel, this was such an interesting blog post to read! After reading this, I can clearly see how the the directors of Crazy Rich Asians did not do a good job of accurately portraying the Young family’s culture in a way consistent with how it was set up. I also really enjoyed the part you included at the end, about what the public and other bodies should/need to do in order to combat the concept of shallow representation — you did a really good job of switching from “advocacy” to “analysis” as Dr. Clayton would put it! I also think that you do a really good job of acknowledging the difficulties of the situation and the slowness of societal change while still staying realistic and pragmatic.
On another note, although Crazy Rich Asians provides a shallow representation of DEI in the film making industry, there are definitely other movies out there that do a better job, and make me think that maybe we’re not as far behind as we could be. For example, Black Panther (in my opinion) seemed to do a pretty good job of taking historical and cultural perspectives into account, and not projecting such a westernized ideal onto different societies. I haven’t done an in-depth analysis of the film as you have with Crazy Rich Asians, but Black Panther came out in the same year as Crazy Rich Asians, so to me that shows that maybe some sectors of filmmaking could be more conscientious of DEI and increased representation than others.
Hi Sarah, Thanks for your comment! I totally agree- I was going to suggest that film industries follow the lead of companies like Disney (which I think had acquired Marvel by the time they made “Black Panther”) that conduct thorough historical & cultural research before making films set outside of the U.S..
For example, Disney Animation artists visited Norway to observe fjords, glaciers, and Norwegian art & culture before making “Frozen” and “Frozen II.”
Hi Rachel! I also really enjoyed reading your post. I had a very similar reaction to Crazy Rich Asians when I saw it. It seemed like it promoted a lot of harmful stereotypes about Asian cultures in general, even when it was trying to increase representation. I hated the inclusion of the unaccepting mother-in-law trope because it felt so fake and contrived. I remember one scene that specifically stood out to me was when the mother-in-law criticized the protagonist for not being able to prepare a dish (a certain variety of dumplings) the exact same way as her family had done. Because of this, the protagonist would “never be good enough for this family.” It felt like such a strange issue to base such a large part of the plot over, and it made me question why the movie couldn’t focus on more important questions to young couples and their family dynamics in Asian cultures. You are right that representation matters, but it needs to be done in the right way and treated seriously.
Weighing in as a NY Giants fan, the situation with Brian Flores was certainly unfortunate. Bill Belichick did indeed mistakenly confuse Brian Daboll and Brian Flores, but I don’t believe this really proves the idea that Flores’s interview was a sham as some might believe. I suppose that’s another conversation. But I will say it is clear that the current “Rooney Rule” for hiring non-white head coaches in the NFL is not working, and that representation has a long way to come for the league.
Hi Drew, thanks for your comment! I agree that there are so many more interesting and complex marriage-related interactions the film could’ve explored. Thanks for your comment about the Flores case as well; I’m not a huge sports fan, so it’s interesting to hear that you think Flores’ case is not as strong as the general public (including myself!) may think.
I really enjoyed this blog and thought it did a great job framing the issue at hand. I always was confused why “Crazy Rich Asians” received so much acclaim for its all-asian cast. The movie was set in Asia, it would have been quite weird if the cast wasn’t majority Asian? I also noticed how much the individual characters portrayed harmful stereotypes. For example, Rachel, the americanized “bad” Asian daughter, or her best friend is materialistic, over the top and representative of “new money” stereotypes. The widespread acclaim around a movie which has a pretty generic rom com plot line kind of gives an impression that the reason for its popularity is kind of a cultural voyeurism, that people enjoyed watching the movie to ogle the flamboyant display of what the movie is claiming is another culture. I never even realized that the movie wasn’t accurately portraying the ethnically diverse population of Singapore, so I appreciate you bringing this up.
I also appreciated your point about DEI efforts which seek to increase diversity, without actually uplifting the voice of underrepresented individuals. This is a huge problem with diversity efforts and results in frustrating work environments and prevents real progress. I appreciate your action suggestions, especially the call for the public to put their money where their mouth is.