Between the new blockbuster, “Crazy Rich Asians,” and the Netflix original film, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” it appears that this is the season for Asian American representation. And it sure is a start.
Being Japanese-Chinese-American myself, the lack of Asian American representation has always been very prevalent, especially since I grew up performing in theatre and watching Disney Channel original movies (usually starring white actors) 24/7.
My favorite movies usually feature a Caucasian girl and a Caucasian guy, who overcome some obstacle and end up in a relationship by the end of the movie, (if you couldn’t tell, I’m a sucker for a good rom-com). And when I did see an Asian American on a screen, there was usually one. The stereotypical nerd, two. Defined as a character by their Asianess, or worse: both.
But within the last month, the world has been gifted with “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Both movies highlight and demonstrate Asian American representation in a different way. “Crazy Rich Asians” does a great job at featuring an Asian American cast, but “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” did something for representation that Hollywood needs to take note of.
The Netflix film portrayed the lead, Lara Jean Song Covey (played by Vietnamese-American actress, Lana Condor), as any other American teen. I’ve never related so much to a character in a movie. And the feeling was refreshing. Not to mention that the movie is based on the book, written by Asian American author, Jenny Han.
It is one of the few movies I have seen in which the storyline of an Asian American character was not centered on their ethnicity. Lara Jean Covey is a high school junior who deals with the horrifying reality that all of her crushes (past and present) have received a letter in which she has written about her overwhelming love for the boy.
She lives her life like many other American teens, and not like a stereotyped, introverted, Asian sidekick. Lara Jean is half-Korean and half-white. The movie does highlight some Asian culture such as Korean Yakult drinks and Korean BBQ, and Lara Jean’s ethnicity does round out the character, but it is certainly not the sole-defining trait of this teenage heroine.
“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” author, Jenny Han told PBS in an interview that, “it’s so rare to see a story centered around a person of color. And, usually, that story is all about the person of color’s struggle with being a person of color, and it’s all about their pain and the challenges that come with that. And I think that’s what we’re used to seeing. And we’re not used to seeing just ordinary situations like falling in love.”
By no means am I demoting the power of movies featuring Asian American stories. Any movie featuring Asian American casting is a great start toward representation. Stories about struggles being Asian American (or any ethnicity for that matter), are very important, but can also be very limiting when it comes to the characters and stories that actors and actresses portray.
I also am very aware that these two movies are not the first time that Asian Americans have been represented. One of my favorite childhood shows, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” featured Brenda Song as the airhead and very wealthy, London Tipton. Growing up, I was rather unaware of the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Asian Americans, because of characters like London Tipton who provided me with the gift of seeing people who look like me on a screen.
As I got older, I grew tired of seeing Asian American actors playing stereotypical characters, especially because I could not relate to them, and was beginning to become conditioned to Hollywood’s idea of what an Asian American is. I, and many other Asian Americans are grateful for the directors, actors, actresses, and writers who continue to shape Hollywood for the better.
This movie set the foundation for future movies to cast an Asian American into a character that was not written to be an ethnicity centered character. In many movies, the main character’s ethnicity is not even designated. I hope that someday, Asian Americans can be in movies without their ethnicity being a major part of the storyline and that movies starring Asian Americans can be enjoyed by people of all races. I hope that someday, anyone can play any role no matter what ethnicity they are.