Hollywood has spent years presenting racist Asian stereotypes to the public, fueling discrimination and anti-Asian sentiments in society. The anti-Asian hate crimes that have sparked immense anger in the last few years are indicative of Hollywood’s perpetuation of racist tropes and echoes Hollywood’s failures to the Asian American community. From 2015-2017 alone, we saw such failures in the form of whitewashing within the films Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and The Great Wall; these films have been publicly criticized for continuing the erasure of Asians from cinema. Despite a bleak historical record of the silver screen, Asian American directors and actors have recently taken to resisting anti-Asian tropes and stereotypes. In the last few years, Hollywood has seen an immense growth in Asian American representation caused by such a resistance. This representation not only increases the number of Asians in Hollywood, but combats the long-standing tropes that have existed throughout history and have the potential to shift societal narrative.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before centers its story around multiracial Korean American, Lara Jean Covey, and her exploration of self, love, high school, and family. This film presents one of the first Asian American teenagers in Hollywood and is important because although it touches on Lara Jean’s multiracial ethnicity, it is not the focus of the story nor the heart of her identity. Instead, Lara Jean is presented as a normal teenager who is navigating through her formative years in the same ways that many other American teenagers do. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before does not make Lara Jean choose between being American and being Korean; she drinks Yakult (a popular Asian probiotic yogurt drink), celebrates the Korean new year, and visits Korea while also speaking non-accented English, baking American goods, and participating in typical American fashion trends and activities. Lara Jean eclipses Hollywood stereotypes, painted not as the demure Lotus Blossom who needs the white savior nor as the Forever Foreigner who is unable to properly assimilate or speak English. This movie is extremely important for dismantling anti-Asian racism in Hollywood. It allows young Asian Americans to see an accurate representation of themselves and teaches them to not be afraid to explore their sexuality and embrace the entirety of their identity. Asian Americans are not stigmatized in this film and it is one step towards shifting Hollywood away from stereotypical tropes. The young people who view this film are presented with an Asian American that acts like them and lives a normal, average life, whether they be Asian or not. To educate the youth in this way is extremely important and will hopefully shift the current narrative surrounding Asian Americans in a positive direction.1
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Crazy Rich Asians is a monumental film because it was the first modern film with an all-Asian Cast and Asian-American lead since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. What makes this film so different than The Joy Luck Club is that it proved that Asian Americans and Asian centered films are ‘bankable’. While The Joy Luck Club is a beloved film among many Asian Americans, it received little in the way of viewership from the rest of the American population. Crazy Rich Asians, on the other hand, was a box office success pulling just shy of $240 million worldwide and $35 million during its opening weekend, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the past decade.2 Not only does the film’s financial success prove that diversity makes good business and gives Asian Americans a seat at the table, but it pushes to dismantle a significant number of Asian stereotypes. Central figure, Rachel Chu, is a proud Asian-American woman from a lower socio-economic status that faces conflict not from being Asian, but from being American. She must grapple with her mixed heritage throughout the film, and in the end, makes decisions that don’t discount her self-worth. Rachel also turns to her friends and family for assistance throughout the film rather than depending on the help of her male love interest. The love interest in question also dismantles stereotypes because through Nick Young, Asian men are portrayed as attractive and charming, not bumbling fools who wear glasses and have little care for romantic relationships. The supporting characters of the film also dismantle stereotypes. Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin is boisterous, funny, and unashamedly herself. She is also given a unique sense of style that allows her to not be cast in one specific light. Eleanor is a formidable antagonist that is not evil in the way of the Menacing Villain, but instead stands as a matriarch of her family who values unyielding loyalty. Her character is given enough depth to where the audience doesn’t solely despise her, but instead sympathizes and respects her as a woman and a mother. Astrid Leong, Nick’s cousin, is another unique character because despite her politely reserved nature that may initially paint her as the Lotus Blossom, she is a remarkably complex woman who has unwavering determination and stands up to her husband with the show-stopping speech, “It’s not my job to make you feel like a man. I can’t make you something you’re not.” Overall, Crazy Rich Asians presents the audience with a wide range of personalities that makes it a multidimensional film and avoids emphasis on any particular stereotype. Crazy Rich Asians is not the end of the road, but instead a major factor that will hopefully pave the way for Asian representation in media and an exploration of the humanity and nuance of Asian people.3
Minari is a beautiful film that tells the story of a Korean family who has immigrated to the United States and confronts not only the difficulties that come with immigration, but also the working-class lifestyle in America and maintaining familial relationships. The film humanizes Asian Americans because it paints the reality of immigration and assimilation into the United States while also telling a story of loss, happiness, and hard work. The Yi family faces struggles solely experienced by immigrants, but also those that numerous other American families face on a daily basis. The family navigates sacrifices, uncertainty, and faith in a universal narrative that depicts the things that make America home. Minari expresses how we are all human and share the same, if not similar, frustrations and isolations. It reminds us that being American is not defined by where you are from or how you look, but the hard work and determination that one puts into achieving their ‘American Dream’. The ‘American Dream’ is the foundation of our society, and it feels that this history is sometimes forgotten in our discrimination and xenophobia; Minari reminds us of this history and this singular ideology that has the power to connect us all. Director Lee Isaac Chung states it perfectly when he describes his film as a push to “embrace the idea of being human.” This is an important reminder to all of society as we watch this film and think about our neighbors, friends, and family whether they be Asian American or any other race/ethnicity: we are all human.4
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the one of the most recent editions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and effectively turns the tables on the stereotype of the Asian Menacing Villain that exists in Western cinema. The cultural footprint can already be felt just in terms of the record smashing box office numbers the film made for a Labor Day weekend opening with $71.4 million.5 This is Marvel’s first Asian superhero film and being a member of this massive enterprise allows Shang-Chi’s story to stretch across the globe and to a significant number of viewers. Through this, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is given immense power in terms of the narrative it is able to spread throughout society. The characters of this film are extremely nuanced with a compelling depiction of a multidimensional character in the form of Shang-Chi who acts as both a martial arts master from a complex criminal background to a valet-driver who has drunken karaoke nights with his best friend. Shang-Chi is a figure of both heroism and humanity as he struggles to find himself and grapples with the collapse of his family dynamic. Even his father, who is depicted as the villain for much of the film, is a complex character that has an emotional journey driven by love. His motivations are not to destroy the Western world, but to bring back the love of his life. In the end, you feel sympathy for his father and understand how he was easily manipulated based on the desires of his heart. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a heartening development for society and young Asian Americans who need to see characters who look like them that are capable of saving the world while also having human flaws. This film reaches an entirely different audience than the films prior, and further enables the Asian American portrayals on the cinematic screen to create a more positive path forward for this community.6
“You don’t understand how important representation is until you see it and realize you’ve been missing it your whole life”
- Johnson, Susan, director. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Netflix, 2018. 1 hr., 39 min.
- Abad-Santos, Alex. “Crazy Rich Asians Dared to Make Asian Lives Aspirational. Its Success Could Change Hollywood.” Vox. Vox, December 21, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/12/21/18141213/crazy-rich-asians-success.
- Chu, Jon M., director. Crazy Rich Asians. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018. 2 hrs., 1 min.
- Chung, Lee Isaac, director. Minari. A24, 2020. 1 hrs., 55 min..
- Lang, Brent. “Box Office: ‘Shang-Chi’ Dazzles with Mighty $71.4 Million Opening Weekend.” Variety. Variety, September 5, 2021. https://variety.com/2021/film/news/shang-chi-marvel-box-office-opening-weekend-simu-liu-1235056782/.
- Cretton, Destin Daniel, director. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2021. 2 hrs., 12 min.