We need more than just minority representation

As we see in Crazy Rich Asians, just because minorities are represented doesn’t mean we are living in a post-racial society

Since its opening on August 15th, Crazy Rich Asians grossed more than $110 million in less than three weeks and continues to dominate the box office. Crazy Rich Asians’ daily revenue per theatre consistently doubles that of its next closest competitor. Additionally, Warner Bros., the movie’s production studio, recently announced the plan for a sequel. There’s no doubt that the movie has been a huge commercial success.

Many commentators acclaimed Crazy Rich Asians for its application of an all-Asian cast. They consider it the first major studio production to do so in 25 years, when Joy Luck Club was released. Clearly, it is an icon in the movement of minority representation in the media. Indeed, from the author to the director and to the entire cast, an all-Asian team had an unprecedented opportunity to tell an authentic story without cinematographic adaptation through a different cultural lens. Moreover, according to many cast members, they worked with cohesion and comfort unprecedented in their careers. The phenomenal reception of the movie reached at least three objectives: showcasing individual talents, achieving greater minority representation in the media and securing future access to the finest resources at major studios for minorities.

the intentional underplaying of racial-ethnic identities takes away an important dimension of real-life experience.

However, just like in any good movie, there’s a twist. Much congratulations should be extended to the making of the film, yet it represents a missed opportunity for representing the Asian-American experience. Crazy Rich Asians mostly sets its scenes in majority-Asian Singapore, which, according to the author, creates an environment where the characters can develop without looking into their racial-ethnic identity. Nevertheless, because the story mainly explores inter-class dynamics, the movie intentionally downplays any racial-ethnic elements in order to elevate the main theme of wealth. However, this choice pushes Crazy Rich Asians into the rank of countless romantic comedies made and set in Asia-Pacific that explore similar topics. Crazy Rich Asians has received so much attention not so much because it proves that “a certain group of people” can make a commercially successful movie as it gives representation for minorities. Nonetheless, as the story manifests in its current form, Crazy Rich Asians is rather mundane and fails to add new ideas and inspirations to cinematographic creation.

Much like with Joy Luck Club, the Asian-American community expected Crazy Rich Asians to share its experience. However, the intentional underplaying of racial-ethnic identities takes away an important dimension of real-life experience. The attempt to construct the story independent of such discussion creates an incomplete representation of the American experience that many in the Asian-American community are looking for. Lacking depth in its storytelling, Crazy Rich Asians exhibits less cultural complexity than its predecessor and doesn’t live up to its anticipation.

Not only does Crazy Rich Asians miss the opportunity to address the American experience of Asian-Americans, it also fails to dispel many stereotypes. The entire story follows an adventure in Singapore where so much of the depiction exudes elements of exoticism, thus reinforcing the permanent foreignness of Asians at large. Moreover, characters’ attachment to wealth reinforces the materialistic stereotype attributed to Asians in recent decades. For example,  Rachael, the protagonist, represents a class of Asian women depicted as cunning gold diggers and Nick, the heir to a fortune, hints at the mystery of Asian men with troublesome foreign entanglement. Many characters explicitly disdain the underprivileged, demonstrating bad values regardless of cultures.

Crazy Rich Asians is not a perfect movie because it’s impossible for one artistic creation to meet all the goals that people have placed on it. After all, the movie is a commercial creation whose primary purpose is to entertain the public instead of resonating with every social issue.

The lesson learned here should be applied to discussions of diversity here at Vanderbilt. Minority representation is important; it’s why Vanderbilt continuously boasts about the diversity of its classes. Certainly, Vanderbilt is taking the right steps in prioritizing having a diverse community; yet it’s irresponsible to assume that progress in diversity and inclusion is only representing minorities. Getting the “right mix” of people doesn’t automatically reach all the ends, as we can see in our flawed campus culture. Greek Life remains deeply segregated. With a wide array of cultures to explore in the History Department, most people stick to studying their own–I’m the only non-white person in my Roman history class. And campus organizations’ executive boards don’t exactly reflect the demographics of the student population.

Of course, we should celebrate Crazy Rich Asians and diversity at Vanderbilt; however, it’s important to bear in mind that they are still imperfect means to a greater end.

Kevin Shen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at qiwen.shen@vanderbilt.edu.

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