Asian-American Representation Matters: Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved, and Searching Are Only the Beginning

Recently, three remarkable and very popular movies have come out: Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved, and Searching, all which feature Asian leads. These movies have become highly-acclaimed and well-loved, all garnering positive reviews and ratings. The three movies obviously are must-watches, but they mean something so much more to Asian-Americans: their positive, humanized representation in the media after a history of disparaging stereotypes.

Asian Americans have been mistreated by popular culture and media for decades, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and white-washing characters relentlessly. Asians are stereotyped as nerdy, anti-social, and unathletic; Asian women are seen as submissive and quiet and are sometimes over-fetishized, while Asian men are emasculated and seen as undesirable and unattractive. These are seen in popular movies from Breakfast in Tiffany’s to Pitch Perfect. The amount of blatant white-washing is almost uncountable; from Ghost in the Shell to The Great Wall to Doctor Strange, where roles that were meant for Asian actors were given to white people (one being Scarlett Johansonn, unsurprisingly), Asians are virtually invisible in the show business and subject to racial abuses.

Crazy Rich Asians is so important to change the perspective of Asians in the media. It is the first majority-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club, which was made 25 years ago. Crazy Rich Asians proves that Asians, despite popular belief, can do well in the box office: it is now the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade.

After Crazy Rich Asians, many Asian Americans have taken to social media to express their gratitude and happiness for finally seeing people that look like them on the screen. Jeff Yang, an Asian journalist, tweeted “Why am I #ProudToBeAsian? I’m #ProudToBeAsian because I FINALLY feel like we’re being seen and heard.” He continued on to state how “all of my life, I’ve been told to hide my food, speak louder, hold my tongue, go back where I came from, break out of my box and now I literally DGAF what you have to say if you’re not coming with respect for me and my people.”

Another tweet by an Asian writer and director, Gary King, stated how it feels wonderful “to see [Henry Golding] on screen vs. what I grew up on (and was told by the media how they thought of me). Representation matters.” The tweet was accompanied by a photo of Henry Golding and contrasting photos of the negative, emasculated, racist portrayals of Asians in the media, such as Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, who was played by Michael Rooney wearing yellow-face and emphasized Asian stereotypes as a form of comedic relief.

Similarly, another tweet stated how “Representation matters. Not just for actors but for everyone who wants to see someone that looks like them in a big Hollywood movie. I hope this movie smashes records and shows young Asian Americans they can be the hero of their own story.”

There was even a viral thread made by Kimberly Yam, a journalist, who spoke about her moments of shame and realization growing up Asian in a world that “makes a mockery of our existence.” She explains how the people around her made her not want to be Asian anymore and how slowly she began to love her heritage and culture again; Crazy Rich Asians is a symbol of long-deserved victory.

Crazy Rich Asians is an incredible, but long-awaited development for Asian-Americans. Crazy Rich Asians was also followed by the popular Netflix film, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved, which features Lana Candor, a Korean American actress, as the female protagonist. This is another development in changing the way Asians are viewed in the mass media. Even Lana Candor, the actress herself, has expressed surprise about landing the role.

“I never thought I would be so lucky to be the lead of a romcom,” said Lana Condor in an interview. “Simply because I don’t get those opportunities, for probably many reasons, but one of would likely be because I’m Asian. So when I got the audition and it said they were looking for an Asian American girl to play the lead love interest in a romcom, I was shocked. Truly. I just had never gotten that before.”

She continues on to say how Asians are rarely considered for movie roles. “I have had experiences where they say open to all ethnicities, and then I get there and it’s a bunch of blonde, blue-eyed beautiful ladies. And then myself,” said Condor. “And then I have to ask, why am I here? If we’re all auditioning for the same role, it clearly looks like you [the production] already have a picture in your mind.”

The writer of To All the Boys, Jenny Han, has also expressed how the film was almost white-washed. “Early on, I had conversations with producers who were interested in optioning the book, but the interest faded when I told them Lara Jean had to be Asian,” Han said. “They didn’t understand why she had to be Asian when there was nothing explicitly in the story that required her to be. For me, it’s not a matter of why, she simply is. And in a more equitable world, I wouldn’t have to justify that.”

To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved might have been an enjoyable, refreshing rom-com expressing young love to most people. To Asian-Americans, it is another step toward the journey of being accurately represented in the media.

Arden Cho, a Korean-American actor, expressed the importance of Lara Jean as the female lead. She states that as a child,  “I loved every romcom movie but they always made me feel like you had to be white to be beautiful, to fall in love, to be the lead . . . all I knew was I looked different and I hated it  . . . Seeing Lara Jean as the lead of [her] stor[y] was so powerful, so necessary.”

What is so important about To All the Boys is that Covey’s love life is not affected by her ethnicity. There are no stereotypes about her being a nerdy, quiet, or submissive Asian girl. To All the Boys normalizes the fact that all races fall in love and can have a cute love story — Asians included.

Finally, the most recent movie in theaters is Searching, a movie that features John Cho as the male protagonist, a father who is searching for clues about his missing daughter. This movie is also changing the narrative around Asian-Americans by featuring an Asian-American as a lead instead of a white actor. The movie has a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and many people have expressed their happiness that an Korean-American actor takes a role that would traditionally be played by white men.

The golden age of Asian-Americans is dawning. No longer will we be invisible. This time, we will not be quiet.

-Audrey X.