Having grossed $159.4 million in the United States and Canada, just 5 weeks since being released in these territories, Crazy Rich Asians has now become an accurate description of its own cast members. To put this number in context, it means the film is now ranked as the 7th most successful rom-com of all time, ahead of blockbusters like Sex and the City, Silver Linings Playbooks and Bridget Jones’s Diary. The film has been praised for taking a strong step toward bridging the gap between the cultural environment of Hollywood love stories and those of their audiences. Jon M. Chu brings the much cherished star-crossed lovers story arc to a world which represents and celebrates Asian Americans, who make up nearly 6% of Americans. Crazy Rich Asians is a cog in a broader movement championing a tide of diversity in Hollywood; a movement which ensured Black Panther became the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time. With money like this to be made what took Hollywood so long to stop dragging their heels?
Crazy Rich Asians is an incredibly important landmark for racial diversity in popular film, but in the feverish excitement surrounding its success finding time to celebrate the splendid tenacity and abiding wit of the female characters it portrays has been difficult. Heroine Rachel Chu possesses the admirable characteristic of being truly self-assured; a woman who need not belittle others in order to express her sense of self-worth. She is an NYU game theory professor of working-class Chinese migrant descent. Her status as a self-made intellectual positions her as a paragon of meritocratic virtue in an American cultural context but renders her a self-serving hedonist in the eyes of her lover’s old money Singaporean mother. As the film unfolds Rachel rises to the occasion and commits herself to undertake the collision course of obstacles she must surmount in order to win the favour of Nick Young’s family. Rachel is certainly an impressive woman and it’s clear that Nick loves her because of she is strong-willed and immensely bright. Beyond animating stock fairy-tale characters, such as the evil matriarch and an eminently hilarious fairy godmother figure, in a formerly lacking 3rd dimension, Crazy Rich Asians breathes new life into many more tropes of the genre.
Typically women are damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by men. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are all nearly entirely passive in securing their happily ever after. Two of them are literally unconscious until they are ‘collected’ by their lovers. If that isn’t objectification I don’t know what is. Even Cinderella, who uses her wit to hide the second glass slipper, waits for her prince to pursue her before she takes any action. These women never use their abilities to actively guard their own happiness, furthermore, they are rarely even written to possess such skills at all. Fairy tales promote a strategy of focusing on becoming such an apex of femininity that your iridescent sheen of fragility beckons irresistibly to the male ego, so much so that they cannot resist emancipating you from your own complacency.
Crazy Rich Asians turns this trope on its head. During the ‘Final Push’ scene Rachel invites Nick’s mother, Eleanor, to a battle of wills, disguised as a selfless surrender, at Mahjong parlour (a Chinese strategy game played with tiles). Rachel informs Eleanor that Nick is willing to give up his fortune to marry her but that she turned him down because she knows he will live the rest of his life being unhappy if he becomes estranged from his mother. If you believe that Rachel ever intended to give up Nick, this would seem to epitomise how women in love stories are forced to sacrifice everything for men time and time again. Two important call-backs from previous scenes tell us otherwise. At the beginning of the film Rachel tells a student in her class, after a game theory demonstration, that you should always play to win rather than play not to lose. Later on she analogies Eleanor’s cruel attempts to scare her away from Nick to a game of chicken; exclaiming that in order to win she needs to call her bluff.
Rachel knows that Eleanor will never accept her until she believes that Rachel will always put Nick’s needs before hers so she devises her own game of chicken. She could have played not to lose; she could have taken Nick up on his offer and run away to America with him. Instead, she plays to win her happily ever after, securing a bitterness-free happily ever after by tricking Eleanor into thinking that she has become worthy of Nick. The most wonderful thing about the ending of Crazy Rich Asians is that Rachel wins through being totally and utterly herself; she uses her intelligence and expertise to fool her antagonist into believing that she has shrunk herself to make space for a man. Rachel’s story exemplifies how real women must navigate a world which attempts to diminish them every day. Feminism is critical of fairy tales but it has its own fair share of fairy tales to answer for. Very few women succeed in the face of the world’s ubiquitous sexist adversity because they turned their back on every person and situation which endeavoured to diminish their sense of self. Like Rachel, the women who transcend the stifling ideals imposed upon them learn to define their identity from within. Most women will fall in love. Most women will endure unfair expectations. Most women receive no real guidance on how to live through the aforementioned without losing themselves. They deserve love stories which tell them they can have the man and still keep themselves.
By Richéal Ní Laoghaire – Film Writer