Hollywood doesn’t often make room for Asian men to be worthy of affection.
When my sister and I were younger, we found out that my father, a resoundingly heterosexual man who occasionally patronized gentlemen’s clubs and held torches for both Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman, had a crush on Heath Ledger.
“He’s handsome,” I remember him telling my sister, while watching 10 Things I Hate About You, seeking some sort of assurance.
“He’s handsome,” I remember him telling me, adding that my high school friends and I were more like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Krumholtz than the Ledge, and that we should be more like the latter.
My sister and I laugh at the weirdness of that moment now, entertaining for just a split second the absurdity of my father being gay specifically for Heath Ledger. I was in my late teens, desperately trying to cover up my flagrant homosexuality. She was around 9 or 10, probably just figuring out what crushes were. And in between us was a grown man trying to talk to his kids about Heath Ledger’s physical attractiveness.
It took me a while to realize what he was doing wasn’t that different from what I had been doing while watching years of romantic dramas and comedies starring Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant, Jude Law, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Bradley Cooper: appreciating their handsomeness, the way their jawbones square off, the points and arc of their noses, how their hair falls — and then somehow reconciling that fantasy with the reality of looking absolutely nothing like them.
My father and I don’t have much in common, other than we’re two Asian men with a love for American television and movies. And both of us, along with generations of Asian-American men, spent so many years learning how to appreciate, even live vicariously through, the Westernized versions of physical masculinity we were presented with, but never really seeing anyone onscreen who affirmed our own physical desirability.
I thought about my dad’s crush on Heath Ledger and my own hang-ups during Crazy Rich Asians, the first American studio movie in 25 years to feature an Asian and Asian-American cast. It’s a movie that delivers on many types of fantasy (mostly those involving extreme wealth), but one in particular that is exceedingly rare to see in an American film: the idea that the physical looks of Asian men and women — our noses, our hair, our eyes, our skin — are worthy of desire.
Crazy Rich Asians turns on the assumption that men and women of Asian descent are inherently worthy of an unapologetic big-screen American fairy tale of love and desire. Watching it, my jaw hurt from the relentless smile that had carved itself into my face halfway through the opening scene. And I just kept thinking about how I couldn’t wait for my dad to see it.
Crazy Rich Asians represents a thorny love story between assimilation and acceptance
Crackling underneath Crazy Rich Asians’ opulent veneer is a complicated story about identity and American assimilation. Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) believes that Rachel (Constance Wu) will never be good enough for her son Nick (Henry Golding), and that she’s far too American to understand the values the Young family holds so dearly.
In the first scene of the movie — the only scene featuring white characters with speaking roles — the Youngs are looked down on when they enter what’s perceived as a white space. (Granted, the scene takes place in London and not the US, but the social dynamics at play are roughly the same.)
They come to a hotel in the dead of night, and the staff asks them to leave, suggesting a hotel in Chinatown instead. The hotel staff can’t fathom the idea of Chinese people being able to afford their plush accommodations. Eleanor’s wrath is quick and indulgent. Watching the hotel staff realize their grave mistake is the last time the movie gives a white person’s judgment a moment’s consideration.
Seeing how Eleanor was treated, it’s easy to understand why she’s not convinced that Rachel, raised within the sort of society that’s shunned the Young family, is the right fit for her son. The Youngs refuse to shrink themselves to fit into another society’s perception of what they should be. Assimilation, in Eleanor’s eyes, means giving up the very bits that made her family strong. Assimilation means shrinking to something lesser-than to make room for something that’s not worth it.
I don’t think Eleanor would approve of my family or the life we created in the United States — not that I fully blame her. But for my parents, assimilation was survival.
My parents moved to California from the Philippines after medical school with a handful of contacts, and a year or so later, they had me. Alongside my parents and my nanny (who came to America perhaps not fully realizing she’d become a second mother to the children of incredibly busy parents), I’d watch hours and hours of American television and movies that served as instructional guides to American life.
It started with me learning the basics of reading and writing on Sesame Street, the morality of Mister Rogers. That evolved into gleaning what Americans ate (McDonald’s, fish sticks, pizza) during commercials. I learned about the interior lives of teenage girls from The Facts of Life, and the interior lives of not-so-teenage women from The Golden Girls; I learned American family values from reruns of The Brady Bunch and new episodes of Growing Pains.
I copied movies, too. I went through a phase spinning my plastic toys like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. I wanted a cowboy hat like Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise. And as I got older, I learned that romance to American audiences often featured Leonardo DiCaprio or Hugh Grant or D.B. Sweeney, star of The Cutting Edge, without a doubt the greatest American love story ever told.
What assimilation stories don’t often touch on, though, is how much these stories of American life involve seemingly superficial stuff that’s less about American values and behavior and more about what Americans should look like.
If you’re consuming decades of American television and movies, featuring beautiful, handsome, and almost universally white leads, it’s all but impossible not to internalize the unspoken standard of beauty they represent. These gorgeous men — Jake, Tom, Jude, Leonardo, and D.B. — were what I aspired to be and was possibly very attracted to. (A trope of gay male culture is not fully recognizing whether you want to sleep with the men you’re attracted to or just want to look like them.)
Compared to what I grew up with, the demographics of who Americans are and what’s onscreen have changed for the better. But even recently, Asians and Asian Americans on television and in movies have been nearly invisible.
“Asian characters made up only 3%-4% of roles in scripted broadcast and cable shows in the 2014-15 season,” the Guardian reported last year, citing an annual study from UCLA. “Of the top 100 films of 2015, 49 had no Asian characters, and zero leading roles went to Asians, according to another study.”
Exacerbating this problem is that even when Asian characters do make it onscreen, they’ve largely been crystallized into tropes. Growing up, I learned to be thankful for small graces like onscreen Asian men who weren’t embarrassing buffoons, or men who were martial artists, because even if they were stereotypes, at least they weren’t geeks. If they were geeks, then I’d pray they wouldn’t be the butt of a genitalia joke.
A cumulative effect of learning which white men are fawned over in our culture, and which Asian men aren’t, was that I also learned to dislike parts of myself that were core to my identity — namely, my looks.
“Attractiveness is a very haphazard dish that can’t be boiled down to height or skin color, but Asian men are told that regardless of what the idyllic mirepoix is or isn’t, we just don’t have the ingredients,” Fresh Off the Boat author Eddie Huang wrote for the New York Times, spurred by an offensive segment Steve Harvey had on his talk show. “I told myself that it was all a lie, but the structural emasculation of Asian men in all forms of media became a self-fulfilling prophecy that produced an actual abhorrence to Asian men in the real world.”
As Huang points out, it’s impossibly tough to escape these things if you’re raised on American culture. You can tell yourself that they’re just movies or it’s all just fiction, but some part of you can’t help but take a little part of each movie, each episode, each story home with you. And it’s even more difficult when the reality around you reflects those ugly bits.
An Asian leading man shouldn’t be a revelation, but it nonetheless is
It’s a bittersweet milestone that it’s taken so long to see someone who looks like Henry Golding assume the role of a leading man in an American studio movie. To see him portrayed as someone worthy of love, the object of sexual desire and affection — not only from Rachel but by multiple women, and one man — is something I wish teenage me could have seen.
I’m fully aware of how silly it sounds to argue that achieving equality onscreen means that people of Asian descent, men especially, will finally be able to be held to same impossible standards of beauty that white Americans have been subject to (which speaks to the embarrassing lack of representation over decades).
And I’m also fully aware that this movie fetishizes extreme wealth without wading into the ugliness and consequences of inequality. And there are admittedly a few characters in the movie that can’t escape the same nerdy, foolish, virginal tropes that never seem to die.
Yet seeing Golding in crisp formalwear, seeing him hanging out with friends who look like him, seeing him in a sexual relationship, seeing him be the center of attention without it being a big deal or “a very special episode” — it all feels like a strange new possibility that I had never considered, had never even gotten the opportunity to consider in all my years of television consumption and moviegoing.
To think that if Crazy Rich Asians does well enough, it could result in Hollywood greenlighting more movies with leads who look like Golding and Wu — and perhaps a future where a fun, frothy romance featuring Asian leads is part of the norm, rather an exception to be sought out — is mind-boggling. Hopefully it will represent just the beginning of a conversation about Asian-American life, rather than an endpoint.
Crazy Rich Asians is remarkable for a variety of reasons, but most of them boil down to the fact that it allows Asian and Asian-American men and women to be stars of a story about their own desires and their own lives, independent of Americanized assumptions of what those desires and lives should look like. It gives viewers who never get to see themselves reflected onscreen the opportunity to recognize their own strength and beauty — even dads who wanted their sons to be more like Heath Ledger.