How Crazy Rich Asians Celebrates Powerful Women
*Major Spoilers Ahead*
The hype leading up to the release of the highest grossing rom-com in 10 years was something I undeniably bought in to. This was not only because I secretly-not-so-secretly LOVE rom-coms, but mainly because it was the first major Asian-American film to have been produced in Hollywood since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. The depiction of Asian men and women in pop-culture has oftentimes been problematic. The recipe is as follows: the men are emasculated and the women are submissive and fetishized. When the trailers for Crazy Rich Asians were released and the press interviews were going viral, I took a breath of relief.
So here’s the thing about me, when I watch a film I do not simply watch it. As soon as those credits come rolling in I must, and I repeat, MUST Google everything about it to fulfil this weird desire of mine to truly experience the film, the story, the characters and everyone that facilitated its existence. I went to watch the film with my mum and a friend and we all loved it. But after my extensive Google session, it became extremely evident to me that with the many praises Crazy Rich Asians received followed just as many criticisms.
Like most creative content, films that are not only based on people of colour but also produced by them often come under harsh scrutiny. The film carried a heavy weight of responsibility to accurately portray the identity politics of race and class amongst Asians especially after director Jon M Chu famously announced that “It’s not a movie, it’s a movement”. The Asian or at least Asian-American essentialism that was promoted and subsequently expected from the film unfortunately, “serve[d] to flatten a myriad [of] identities and experiences into a unified abstraction that doesn’t actually exist”. Considering how scarce these large scale productions are for people of colour (particularly Asians) in Hollywood, it is likely that “filmmakers went for a portrayal of Chineseness conveniently similar to the diasporic experiences of Chinese Americans than a culturally specific portrayal of Chinese culture in Singapore”.
When we move away from the critical analyses of racial representation within this film, we can celebrate what is truly revolutionary about it. Not only are the Asian men not emasculated, but the women are allowed to be strong, independent and unapologetically Asian. The film carries a strong tone of female empowerment — “specifically, empowered single women, without the influence or sometimes even the presence of a male figure — is something that radiates out of every single woman in Crazy Rich Asians”. This is a progressive element not often found in romantic comedies. Agency is always given to the female and not her male counterpart, and this is something I noticed to be the very essence of the film, which is that its narratives had a strong matriarchal structure throughout it. Women were in control of this story- there is Ah Ma (Grandmother) the head of the Young household, the mothers Eleanor and Kerry and the new generation of immigrants and heirs Astrid and Rachel.
Rachel Chu played by the fantastic Constance Wu is the protagonist of the film: she is a middle-class, second-generation American immigrant raised by her single mother Kerry. Not only does Rachel face an overwhelming new world of wealth, but has to do so against her boyfriend’s cold “tiger mum” Eleanor Young, who is played by the gorgeous and bad-ass international icon Michelle Yeoh. Rachel’s story is one that many modern Asian women have experienced whether they are first, second or third generation immigrants. Kerry points out to Rachel that although on the outside she looks Chinese and can speak Mandarin, to those in Asia, she will always be seen as different because of her American upbringing. This culture clash is a fundamental theme in the story; Rachel’s identity is equated to the American “focus on individual freedom and the personal pursuit of happiness,” against Eleanor’s which represents “Asian traditions [that] value self-sacrifice and respect the family, in order to benefit future generations”.
Watching Rachel and Eleanor’s attempts to justify their identities and values was like watching my brain have a conversation with itself. What is amazing about their dynamic is that both women eventually accept each other through their own accord without having to compromise either of their “Asian-ness”. Eleanor adds so much colour to this in her staunch defense of her and her family’s Asian culture. She tells Rachel that in her family, “we understand how to build things that last,” rejecting the notion that people should prioritize their own happiness over their family’s success. Her advocacy for traditional gender roles is pitted against the contrasting vibrancy of Rachel, who acts outside of Eleanor’s control. As metaphorically shown in the mahjong scene that literally made me gasp, it was Rachel’s decision to accept or decline Nick’s proposal which determined whether he would be able to maintain a healthy relationship with his mother. Instead of spinning this decision as a sacrifice or loss to Eleanor, she revealed that this decision was in a sense, her power move. Rachel showed that her identity and self determination could not be compromised and she would not take down another woman’s in the pursuit of a man (I shed tears guys).
Another amazing character was Nick’s cousin and socialite Astrid. Played by Gemma Chan, her elegance and on-screen presence genuinely blurred the lines between herself and her character. Astrid is the breadwinner of her family. She is shown struggling to openly practice her lavish lifestyle and embrace her general identity due to her husband’s own insecurities. She is at a crossroads - standing between shielding her husband from the reality of her fortune and power so as not to cause friction within their marriage or embracing these things and losing him. While she grappled with his fragile masculinity, discovering that he was unfaithful was what allowed her to embrace her identity, wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Choosing to be a single mother, she sacrifices nothing for her son- realizing that his “weakness compels her to epitomize her own strength as a woman, a mother, and yes, a wealthy Asian”.
What I loved about this movie is that it allowed its female leads to explore and reveal the complexities of the often seen aspects of traditional Asian family culture. But it’s charm was in how the film showed this in such a relatable way despite its luxurious, gatsby-esque aesthetic and this was all possible through the women. They showed us “filial piety, notoriously mean in-laws, disdain for outsiders and foreigners — and couche[d] them in emotional context and understanding”. The film was almost entirely matriarchal in every aspect. It uplifts the women, it gives them agency and “portrays its female characters as what Asian women actually are: resilient, complex and resolutely human”.
Article by Yaz Omran