How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ could help change stereotypes about Asian men

This week, the highly-anticipated “Crazy Rich Asians” movie will hit theaters. The film, based on a novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan, has generated widespread excitement, particularly among Asian-Americans.

It’s the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years to feature Asian-Americans in leading roles (the earlier movie was “The Joy Luck Club.”) It has an all-Asian cast with actors from around the world. More importantly, it shows Asians in a refreshing light: The men are attractive and charismatic, the women are headstrong and independent, and there isn’t a stereotypical nerd or martial arts master in sight.

“We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there’s one example to point to, and that’ll be us,” the film’s director Jon M. Chu told the Hollywood Reporter. “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.”

While it’s billed as a romantic comedy a la “Meet the Parents,” the film could have an impact not only on the Asian-American community but also, if successful, on Hollywood. It could change an industry wary of casting Asians as leads and notorious for “whitewashing” roles — casting white actors as nonwhite characters.

As a result, the cast and crew made an effort to ensure the film avoided blind spots or cultural cliches, even if that meant deviating from Kwan’s novel, according to the Hollywood Reporter. One of these changes, suggested by Asian-American actress Constance Wu, was to remove dialogue from the book in which her character, Rachel Chu, “boasts about never dating Asian men.”

Rachel, an American-born Chinese, is the film’s protagonist. The movie’s plot follows the economics professor as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, a fellow professor, to Singapore for a wedding and to meet his family. What she doesn’t know is that her boyfriend is “the Prince Harry of Asia,” from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore.

To some, changing a small section of dialogue in a roughly two-hour movie might be of little significance. But Asian men have long struggled against the perception that they are romantically undesirable.

“Asian, ew gross.”

That was the response Sinakhone Keodara, an actor and entertainment executive, once received from a white man he had messaged “hello” on a dating app.

“It was a gut punch,” Keodara, who is Lao, told The Washington Post. “I felt so invalidated as a person.”

It wasn’t the first time Keodara, the founder and CEO of Asian Entertainment Television, a streaming service, had been met with negative responses while using Grindr, a popular gay and bisexual dating app.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “When I first came out of the closet, I was confident. I had no idea what being a gay Asian man in America would mean. On these apps, it’s been really humiliating and degrading and dehumanizing.”

He would often be told, “Asian guys are not attractive,” “Asian guys are undesirable” or “I don’t sleep with Asian guys.” Sometimes the message would even be posted on the user’s profile for all to see: “Not interested in Asians.”

Keodara said his experience has driven him to fight back, and he is now in the process of filing a class-action lawsuit against Grindr, a decision he made about a month ago.

But, the negative perception of Asian men as romantic partners is not limited to the LGBT community.

In a 2014 study published by the dating site OkCupid, statistics showed that Asian men were generally considered by women as less attractive than the average man. Although the study did find that Asians are attracted to each other, data revealed that Asian women still thought white men were more attractive.

“All the dating data I’ve seen fits OkCupid’s pattern: Black people and Asian men get short shrift,” the study’s author, Christian Rudder, wrote.

Another study published in 2015 in Population Research and Policy Review, a peer-reviewed journal, found that “with the exception of Filipino men, Asian men are significantly less likely than white men to be currently involved with a romantic partner.”

Last year, in Psychology Today, Sam Louie, a Washington-based psychotherapist who specializes in multicultural issues, wrote about the struggles Asian-American men face when trying to date.

“While there are different theories for the reasoning, the clients I work with all agree with the premise of not being able to fit the hypermasculine culture perpetuated by Western society,” Louie wrote.

Louie, who was born in Hong Kong but raised in Seattle, told The Washington Post that he’s met many clients who are one of few Asian men in their predominantly white communities. The challenge, Louie said, is exposing non-Asians to Asians beyond what the media portrays.

In movies and TV shows, Asian characters have evolved from sinister villains to goofy or nerdy sidekicks, Louie said. More often than not, these characters are not masculine enough or seen as asexual.

“You don’t have an experience that an Asian-American can be normal,” he said. “We can be funny, we can make jokes, we can be witty. We can be everything underneath the sun. What you see on TV is such a sliver of reality.”

In Psychology Today, Louie wrote that these stereotypes will only continue to be perpetuated unless Asian men are cast in leading romantic roles in the mainstream media.

Louie told the Post that if “Crazy Rich Asians” can “generate enough buzz,” the film could allow people to see Asians and Asian-Americans not as comedic relief, but in roles that showcase a full range of emotions. He said he hopes to one day see Asian men rise above the ingrained perceptions tied to their race.

“He’s Jim or John first and, oh, he happens to be of Asian background as well,” Louie said. “That would be the greatest hope, that these stereotypes wash away and the individual piece comes out.”

The news of Wu successfully convincing Chu to remove the dialogue sparked a largely positive response on social media.

When Keodara learned about the change, he said it represents how Asian-Americans are now controlling the narrative. The film, he said, “means the world to me.”

“Our time has come,” he said. “Finally, we’re going to see ourselves reflected back to us on the big screen.”

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