Crazy Rich Asians: Exploring Classism While Maintaining White Relatability

Directed by Jon M. Chu
Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018

Commentary by Sarah Sooter

Crazy Rich Asians Movie PosterThe film Crazy Rich Asians is a sort of Cinderella story told through a Chinese lens. Rachel Chu grew up in a poor, immigrant family in America, while her beau, unknown to her, grew up in an extremely wealthy Chinese family in Singapore. Nick Young discloses his family’s wealth after inviting Rachel to meet his family at his best friend’s wedding. Nick’s family is less than thrilled that he is bringing home a relatively poor Chinese American girl and lets him know it immediately by refusing to let her stay in their home. Throughout the film, they make degrading comments about and toward Rachel due to her upbringing in a much lower socioeconomic class.

In Peter Debruge’s film review in Variety,1 he describes the situation this way: “Rachel may be an embodiment of the American dream, having been raised by a single working-class immigrant mom, but her lack of family ties is an issue with the Young clan, whose many generations are assembled for the occasion.” Debruge also explains that “money may be the surface distraction here, but the true theme is family – and what it means to Asian culture in particular.”

The systems at play in the film include Rachel’s family and Nick’s family, as well as Singapore’s Chinese high society. Sue, Rasheed, and Rasheed note certain assumptions as a part of ethnocentric monoculturalism, including, “a strong belief in the superiority of one group’s cultural heritage,” “belief in the inferiority of the entire cultural heritage of members of racially/ethnically marginalized groups, which extend to their customs, values, traditions, and language,” and “the dominant group possesses the power to impose its standards and beliefs on the less powerful group.” 2

These assumptions are repeatedly demonstrated through micro- and not so microaggressions perpetrated by Nick’s family and friends as they attempt to push Rachel out of the social group and the family through intimidation, insults, and invasion of her privacy. She is referred to as a “gold digger bitch” in a particularly violent display involving a slaughtered, bloody fish and “murder letters” on her hotel bed and window in one scene where the women in Nick’s social circle attempt to intimidate her into leaving him. Rachel is blatantly told by Nick’s mother, in one intimate moment on the stairs of his mother’s mansion home in Singapore, that she is not, and never will be, good enough for Nick or his family. Rachel’s friend uses a racial slur, “banana,” to refer to the way Nick’s family views Rachel, indicating she is somehow not Chinese enough to be taken seriously. Eventually, Nick’s mother and grandmother cross a final line by investigating Rachel’s family and uncovering part of a heartbreaking story of love lost in her own mother’s life and using it to push Rachel out entirely.

These demonstrations show a readiness to believe that Rachel’s socioeconomic status and her upbringing tell the whole story of who she is as a person and that the person revealed is less than. Fortunately, Rachel’s own, albeit small, family system is a supportive one and is able to offer her love and encouragement that leads to her resilience in the film.

It is important to note the significance of the film itself in relation to American society in general, as “it takes an ethnic group that is seldom given more than one or two supporting roles per movie and populates an entire blockbuster with memorable, multidimensional characters.” 1

In his article, “One Way That Crazy Rich Asians Is a Step Backward,” in The Atlantic, Mark Tseng-Putterman states, “despite its groundbreaking nature, the film also takes care to represent its characters according to white norms.” 3

The Asian population is underrepresented in American film, and this film has an all-Asian cast, making it unique in the industry. That said, there are some reasons for concern that the film is “white washed,” in spite of having been written by Kevin Kwan loosely based on his own upbringing in Singapore, in that the family of Nick Young, although Chinese, is still Christian, extremely wealthy, and obsessed with fashion designers and other types of tangible shows of wealth in much the same way white, American, wealthy people are portrayed in film. There is an emphasis on a culture of plastic surgery, high fashion, and obscene displays of wealth, such as renting an island or an entire barge for bachelor/bachelorette parties.

There are some shows of Chinese-specific culture as the characters play mahjong to symbolize a battle of wills, they celebrate the blooming of a very rare flower, they honor the grandmother of the family at all times, and they make a traditional dish of dumplings together as a family.

On the other hand, many Asian stereotypes play out in the film, the hardness of character displayed by the Asian mother, especially with regard to who her son will marry, and most particularly with Rachel’s profession and her friend’s quirky dress.

It is important to note that not all Chinese families would behave in these ways, choose these professions, or value material goods in the way they are portrayed to do in the film.

Joshua Miller and Ann Marie Garran point out in their 2007 article, “The Web of Institutional Racism,” in Smith College Studies in Social Work that “the saturated ubiquity of whiteness in the media promulgates a covert, ongoing narrative of racism, while rarely drawing attention to racism as a central social problem . . . it is the cloak that shrouds and obscures the web of racism by normalizing it.” 4 This position holds true with Crazy Rich Asians in that in order to “sell” the story, the main characters are simultaneously portrayed as having white values and stereotypical Chinese values.

The layers of white relatability are a fundamental element of the film and seem to show that the directors and producers did not believe the film would do well if the characters were portrayed more accurately and if more elements of Chinese culture had been central to the story. This in itself says something about the racism that persists in our country today. Tseng-Putterman puts it this way: “while the film’s defenders have admonished critics for expecting one work to fill the cultural void left by decades of Hollywood exclusion, it’s noteworthy that this is the sort of story industry advocates and audiences have coalesced around—one that eases collective anxieties about Asian and Asian American difference by adopting the universal aesthetic of the ultra-rich.”

Rather than truly celebrating a rich and diverse culture as it exists, only well-known cultural phenomena were cherry picked for display in the film. It is imperative that Asian and Asian American actors are given roles in American film that depict them as just that, Asian and Asian American people. Tseng-Putterman poses the question, “What happens to culturally specific storytelling when representation means literally swapping Asian faces onto white bodies?”  Asian roles should not be bound by stereotypes or comedic relief roles, as they so often are, but allowed to be rich, multifaceted characters with their own stories and experiences.

Rachel’s character, in particular, has a history that speaks to the idea of the American dream and some of the hardships of growing up in an immigrant family of low socioeconomic status with a single parent. While the film does not really portray any of the many hardships she would have been met with growing up in America, they are alluded to via mention of her upbringing in general. She manages to grow up, go to college, and become a professor at New York University, rising from the very low socioeconomic status of her hard-working immigrant mother to a middle-class status as a result of her efforts to pursue higher education.

Nick’s character is raised among the upper echelon of the wealthy class in Singapore and educated in England. He, too, becomes a professor at New York University in spite of his family’s expectations for him to take over the family business. His family system has deeply ingrained expectations for each member of the family for which his character shows little interest. Nick’s family’s wealth is a major point of interest in the film, as they are depicted in their expensive vehicles, homes, and clothing.

The commonalities between this wealthy Chinese family and wealthy white families depicted in Hollywood are evident in the nature of the purchases, interests, and pastimes of the obscenely wealthy as they are depicted in American film.

Conflict theory can be clearly seen in the film. According to Dave Tomar in his article, “12 Common Social Work Theories . . . and 5 Major Practice Models – Study Starters,” on The Best Schools website, “Conflict theory holds that all societies are inherently unequal, and that power disparities have a direct impact on people’s lives.” 5

If it shows nothing else, this film shows the differences between social classes based on wealth. The extravagance of the lifestyles of the wealthy characters in comparison to Rachel and her mother’s lifestyle is blatant.

What the film fails to portray, really, is the difference between such extravagance by the Youngs and the people who work for the companies owned by the Young family in the film. There is a scene at the opening of the film where the Youngs are trying to get a hotel room in a upper crust establishment but are discriminated against for being Asian. In response, Mrs. Young simply purchases the hotel entirely and immediately shows her disdain for the employees of the hotel. Most families would not have this capability, but the situation shows how the affluent look down on those who are not affluent through both the actions of the hotel clerk and those of Mrs. Young.

In conclusion, this film deals with classism at its most extreme. The relationship between Rachel and Nick is not supported by his family, as they judge Rachel unfit for inclusion due to her lower socioeconomic status. She endures repeated microaggressions at the hands of his family and friends before finally being able to prove her worth is inherent to who she is as a person rather than to her wealth, or lack thereof.

 

 

References

1 Debruge, P. (2018). Crazy Rich Asians. Variety, 341(4), 101–102.

2 Sue, D. W., Rasheed, M. N., & Rasheed, J. M. (2016). Multicultural Social Work Practice: A Competency Based Approach to Diversity and Social Justice. Second edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

3 Tseng-Putterman, M. (2018). One Way that Crazy Rich Asians is a Step Backward. The Atlantic.

4 Miller, J., & Garran, A.M. (2007). The Web of Institutional Racism. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 77: 1, 33–67.

5 Tomar, D. (2019). 12 Common Social Work Theories . . . and 5 Major Practice Models – Study Starters. The Best Schools.

 

Sarah Sooter
Sarah Sooter graduated in 2014 from Wayland Baptist University with a Masters in Arts Management. Her undergraduate degree, also from Wayland, was in Applied Science specializing in Psychology. She’s currently working on her second Masters at Baylor University's Garland School of Social Work. Sarah says she hopes to make a difference in the lives of others, like a back alley superheroine with her two dogs and cat as sidekicks.

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