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The Troublesome Future of Representation: American Fiction & Crazy Rich Asians

In recent weeks, we have explored Hollywood’s relationship with race and racism through a lens of stereotypical representation. Through close analysis, we have come to understand that representation becomes stereotypical when incorporating racist and sexist ideology, ultimately supporting the standing hegemonic powers. This inclusion automatically voids any authenticity the characters might bring to their race and ethnicity. So, what does the future of contemporary representation look like?


I, shockingly, cannot predict the future. And with no political, cultural, or monetary power, I cannot create a sustaining impact. However, “Critical cultural studies of media audiences have always recognized the importance of situating individual interpretations within larger cultural and social contexts, as no reading occurs within a vacuum” (Lopez, 2021, 142). So, by researching and advocating for a racial awakening rooted in authenticity, we can collectively build the power to change how race is shown in entertainment. A recent case study focusing on diversity, media, and racial capitalism within the UK publishing industry can further our understanding of how media weaponizes race and diversity, supporting the racial hierarchy. 


Capitalism and racial capitalism are one and the same; however, the term racial capitalism highlights how two separate ideologies ingrained in our society are forever intertwined. “Rather than a mere byproduct of capitalism, racism helps capitalism expand while capitalism in turn keeps racial hierarchies in place” (Saha, 2020, 220). In other words, racism and capitalism cannot exist without the other; they interact like the nefarious, satanic white man’s version of yin and yang. 


the DNA of racial capitalism

According to Diversity, Media, and Racial Capitalism: A Case Study on Publishing, the publishing industry is built on a meritocracy, and the majority of the 113 interviewees agreed that authors are selected based on merit and skill set. However, the lack of diversity within the industry spotlights white privilege and forces neoliberals to question their belief system and possibly the merit of their own work (Saha, 2022). This theory has come to fruition in the film industry with the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite and the subsequent social movement. According to a USC Annenberg website, Inclusion List, between 2007 and 2015, overall diversity at the Academy Awards was 9.5%; in turn, 2016-2024 proved a 7.5% increase in general diversity, coming to a whopping 19%. 

The diversity gap in the academy awards

While I hope that this diversity continues to increase, I worry that “‘diversity’ commodifies race for the benefit of the dominant culture” (Saha, 2020, 218). Historically, dominant cultures have pillaged people of color. Stuart Hall stated that popular culture has been stolen and commodified from Blackness and Black culture. So, increasing overall racial diversity could allow for the appropriation of more cultures (Hall, 1993). For instance, the white narrative of the white savior genre has instilled racism in our popular culture and whitewashed the representation of people of color.  

Other races are given a narrow minded, one size fits all definition of what positive representation can be: good Latinas and model minorities instead of the derogatory criminal Latino or fetishized and objectified Asian and Pacific Islander characters. Every race has been commodified as they have been stereotyped and commercialized for white mainstream audiences. 


Racial mix of all leads in tv shows by distribution type

Since audiences crave authentic diversity, white creators with pocket strings decide how mainstream media represents this “authenticity”––removing autonomy from people of color. As a result, films and series lead the way to racial capitalism and consumerism. “Under neoliberal consumerism, civil rights become expressed as economic rights or consumer rights, where free markets and other neoliberal measures are understood as the most efficient way to deliver equality” (Saha, 2020, 221). In other words, to satisfy neoliberal demand for diversity, races are distorted and contorted to fit the rigid stereotype that will produce the most profits, ultimately fitting consumer and economic trends. 


Consequently, diversity and civil rights fall by the wayside as these stereotypes falsely fulfill the diversity quota. This corporate diversity whitewashes the culture behind the character’s race, dictating what it means to be Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, or Pacific Islander, containing people of color designated roles. Unfortunately, this satisfies the unspoken and spoken diversity initiatives, which feed into the monetary success of the entertainment industry. Since creatives of color are statically excluded from creating or starring in films, they do not reap the monetary benefits, resulting in upholding the status quo and sustaining racial capitalism. 


Conclusively, Diversity, Media, and Racial Capitalism: A Case Study on Publishing critically examines the juxtaposition of diversity and how media decides racial representation and stereotypes in the UK. The study produces a myriad of applicable theories that can be related back to Hollywood and the future of representation in contemporary media. In fact, these ideologies are mimicked in the recent film American Fiction (Cord Jefferson, USA, 2023). 



In the diegetic US publishing industry, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffery Wright) has authored a range of complex and well-written storylines. However, they go widely unregarded because they are not Black enough and aren’t about the Black experience. Yet, they are inexplicably placed in the African-American Studies section of Barnes and Noble. Exhausted and furious by the racist meritocracy, Monk instantaneously writes, Fuck (originally My Pafology), based on the racist, stereotypical tropes of gang members in the ghetto. Written under a pen name, Stagg R Leigh, and birthed out of mockery, the book flourishes throughout the literary community and mainstream audiences, propelling him into chaos, racism, and the hypocrisy of the industry. 


American Fiction poster

The film highlights the truth of the case study, as racial representation can only be imagined and implemented in a rudimentary form. Derivative racial identities become the most efficient way to express race and culture. Audiences also understand the power of marketing and public relations; with little to no marketing plans for his other books, no one reads them, but with an extensive campaign for his new book, it succeeds unlike anything else he’s ever written. In short, American Fiction perfectly commemorates the hardships for creators of color who want to produce stories where people of color are often excluded. 


Monk holding his "Black" books

While American Fiction commented on the stereotypes and microaggressions faced by Black authors, #OscarsSoWhite pulled back the curtain, showing the deeply rooted racism within Hollywood. At first, #OscarsSoWhite called out the Academy Award for decades of racial exclusion from nominations (and the opportunity of winning). The hashtag encouraged viewers and actors to boycott the 87th Academy Awards, making Hollywood question the meritocracy of Hollywood award season. As a result, the Oscars’ and Hollywood set out to diversify; the Academy included people of color in their voting body, and films featured more people of color. Since then, films and series have highlighted a spectrum of any given race with ensemble casts of color like Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2018), Reservation Dogs (Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, FX, 2018), and Crazy Rich Asians (John M. Chu, USA, 2018). 


Crazy rich asian poster

For the first time since The Joy Luck Club (Wanye Wang, USA, 1993), Crazy Rich Asians is the first film featuring an ensemble cast of Asian and Asian-American leads (Kong, 2018). This romantic comedy spotlights Professor Rachel Chu’s (Constance Wu) relationship with Nick Young (Henry Golding), Singapore’s hottest, richest, and most eligible bachelor. Unaware of these attributes, when the pair travels to Singapore for a wedding, Rachel is shocked to be welcomed with such hostility by Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), an array of jealous ex-girlfriends, and rich family friends.


At first glance, this film is a feat for Asian communities in the US and abroad and should only be celebrated. However, the representation in Crazy Rich Asians seems to be a trojan horse, ushering in a new era of stereotypes reflecting Hollywood’s attitude towards Asia and the subsequent change in our social-political climate. This phenomenon is not new, as the US cinema has historically corresponded to geopolitical and economic transactions in Asia, and this relationship has cemented tasteless stereotypes (Yang & Zhang, 2021). 


Top 10 cities with ultra high networth populations in 2017

In other words, with the social, economic, and governmental rise of Asian countries, new materialistic and consumeristic motifs are embedded in our media, creating a deceitful stereotype as it is similar, if not an extension, of the “model minority.” As the film begins and the black screen disappears, a Napoleon quotation appears: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” During the Napoleon era, China was under the Qing Dynasty, and its borders spanned most of eastern Asia. So, this quotation is not limited to the bounds of China that we know today, and the quotation can be taken as a general rise in East Asian countries. 


China D

While this tells viewers what is to be expected within the film, characters, sets, and the storyline itself shows how intrinsic materialism is to the characters and how Singapore (and other East Asian countries) thrives because of it. Between Astrid (Gemma Chan) casually buying $1.2 million dollar earrings during a shopping spree, The Youngs’ ancestral home, Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) and Araminta Lee’s (Sonoya Mizuno) bachelor/bachelorette parties and wedding, and Peik Lin’s (Awkwafina) dogs Astor, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt materialism and consumerism are at the heart of the film. These actions show a shallow, demeaning, one-dimensional, and exoticizing image of Singapore, its culture, and its people (Lopez, 2021).  


Ah Ma's house in film

This film showcases an uncharacteristic amount of Asian representation, and to many Asian Americans, this made them cry in theatres (Lopez, 2021). The goal of this criticism is not to cancel the cast, crew, or audiences but rather to minimize the commodification of race in film today so it doesn’t become further entrenched in our culture. A large aspect of Crazy Rich Asians’ success is due to their integrated marketing communication. Warner Brothers hired an outside marketing firm, IW Group, to build excitement in Asian communities. They did this by hiring social media influencers, YouTubers, activation events (like Michelle Yeoh at the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade), and high profile Asian Americans to the film’s premiere (Lopez, 2021). Crazy Rich Asians does not rely on fetishization and whitewashing stereotypes, and most likely, in the eyes of Warner Brothers, there are no stereotypes. So, they invest in the film’s marketing to reach as many Asian Americans as possible (their US target audience). In other words, as the film tries to break the current racial hierarchies, it introduces materialistic stereotypes that continue to abide by the regulations of racism. This racism helps expand Warner Brothers’ profits and capitalism's relationship with diversity in films. And, by default, this strengthens racism within our culture, conclusively perpetuating racial capitalism within Hollywood (Saha 2020). Ultimately, my critique of Crazy Rich Asians is its popularity and glorification of representation, not the film’s creation. There isn’t an Asian culture, but rather a vast array of cultures that should be spotlit in infinite API ensemble films.


Cultural politics changes and shapes how we communicate about race. However, media and art are the only tools to challenge this convention and shape the future (Hall, 2009). So, as the majority of mainstream television and cinema mimics and reproduces derogatory stereotypes, there will be content creators who will question, provoke, and hopefully succeed in changing Hollywood’s status quo. Between our society’s tumultuous cultural politics promoting old and new stereotypes and the commodification of diversity supporting a more fervent racial capitalistic society, I believe that media will continue to utilize new in-authenticities. But racism is not new. 


Images of Hattie McDaniels, Ricardo Montalban, Chris Eyre, Anna May Wong

Racism has systematically excluded people of color from Hollywood, but Black, Latino, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islander individuals have started to break the glass ceiling. For example, while Hattie McDaniels was excluded from attending the Academy Awards like her white counterparts, she still won Best Supporting Actress. On screen, Ricardo Montalban was a legend starring in Star Trek and Planet of the Apes films; off screen, Montalban created a nonprofit to advocate for Latino and Mexican representation in Hollywood in the 70s that still runs today. Chris Eyre directed Smoke Signals, which was the first film with national distribution with a predominantly Native American cast and crew. Anna May Wong started her career in silent films in 1919 and created a long career up until 1961; in her lifetime, she starred in over 60 films and worked in television and radio, solidifying her status as the first Asian film star.


Ultimately, the future of representation is complicated because to truly get authentic representations means challenging racial hierarchies in our society. For authentic representation, characters and storylines need to be curated by people of the same race or similar ethnicities. The dominant powers (white people) will not go quietly, but people of color will continue to fight the good fight, only louder. 



 

Hall, S. (2009). New Ethnicities. In S. Thornham, C. Bassett, & P. Marris (Eds.), Media Studies: A Reader (pp. 269–276). Edinburgh University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrv1h.33

Hall, S. (1993). What Is This “Black” in Black Popular Culture? Social Justice, 20(1/2 (51-52)), 104–114. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29766735

Kong, S. H. (2018, August 10). Why “Crazy Rich Asians” is Groundbreaking for People Like Me. Time. https://time.com/5363724/crazy-rich-asians-representation-meaning/ 

Lopez, L. K. (2021). Excessively Asian: crying, Crazy Rich Asians, and the construction

of Asian American audiences. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 38(2), 141–154. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1080/15295036.2021.1883193

Saha, A., & van Lente, S. (2022). Diversity, Media, and Racial Capitalism: A Case Study on Publishing. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(16), 216–236. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2022.2032250 

Yang, J., & Zhang, J. (2021). The Cultural Politics of East-West Encounter in Crazy Rich

Asians. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 35(4), 600–613. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1080/10304312.2021.1933386

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