If you are Asian-American, you have most likely heard of a movie called “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on the popular novel of the same title by Kevin Kwan. If you are not Asian-American, maybe you are wondering why a romantic comedy is causing so much excitement. If you are saying to yourself that it’s just a movie, you probably take for granted that there are many movies that feature people like you. For Asian-Americans, however, one movie can be of enormous consequence.
One of the movie’s stars, Constance Wu, explained that the importance of “Crazy Rich Asians,” with its all-Asian-American cast, comes from a desire for “narrative plenitude.”
I came up with that idea in my book “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.” Narrative plenitude is what makes it possible for Hollywood to make so many Vietnam War movies. Not just “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter” but also “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” and “Rambo.” They are all set in Vietnam, and some of them are excellent works of art, but they are all dramas of white American masculinity. The Vietnamese are extras in these movies, who exist only to mutter, grunt, groan, curse and jabber incomprehensibly until they are rescued, raped or killed.
But these are American movies, you might say. Of course they should be about Americans. That does not explain why blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women or yes, Asian-Americans, all of whom served in the American military, barely appear in these movies.
It matters because I, and most other Asian-Americans, grew up and still live in the opposite of “narrative plenitude.” We live in an economy of narrative scarcity, in which we feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories and fight against the stories that distort or erase us. Many Americans will take these Asian images — which are usually awful — and transfer them to any Asian-American they encounter.
The most notorious examples are characters like the Japanese landlord in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” played by a bucktoothed, slant-eyed Mickey Rooney, or the heavily accented foreign student Long Duk Dong of 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” who was at least played by an Asian-American, Gedde Watanabe. Many Asian-Americans winced at these portrayals, knowing that they might be subjected to the slant-eyed, bucktoothed, ching-chong mockery of their classmates or random people, including adults.
This is narrative scarcity — the lack of characters who looked like us, and when they looked like us, were not really human.
One solution was to change how stories were told. I remember my shock and joy at reading “The Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan’s best-selling novel, when I was 18. I never even knew there were Asian-American writers (there were actually many before her). Then Wayne Wang made a movie from the book, and for a moment Asian-Americans experienced what it was like to have narrative plenitude — both a book and a movie full of complex, human Asian-American characters and stories.
Still, “The Joy Luck Club” was not the breakthrough that we hoped for. Mainstream movies with Asian-American leads eluded us. Meanwhile Hollywood continues to remake Asian movies with white actors, have characters with Asian names played by white actors and make movies set in Asia with white lead actors.
The lesson is that telling our own stories is not enough if we do not own some of the economy as well. We had no influence in Hollywood in the 20th century, just as we had little to no influence in publishing, in politics, in the highest levels of corporations.
This is why a single breakthrough work cannot, by itself, create an economy of narrative plenitude. If “Crazy Rich Asians” succeeds in transforming how Hollywood perceives and represents Asians and Asian-Americans, it will be due not only to this one movie being good, or at least profitable, but also to the long, slow work done for decades in Hollywood by hundreds of Asian-American actors, writers, directors, producers, agents and more.
“Crazy Rich Asians” should just be a feel-good entertainment about obscenely wealthy people of Chinese descent from Singapore that happens to star Asian-Americans. But we do not have enough movies about poor Asians, or sane Asians, or Singaporeans who are not Chinese, or revolutionary Asians who want to overthrow a system of global capitalism that enables the lifestyle of obscenely wealthy and oblivious Asians who would be just as problematic if they were white. So “Crazy Rich Asians” becomes more than what it would have to be if it were just about crazy rich white people.
For Asian-Americans, if “Crazy Rich Asians” succeeds, we all do; if it fails, we all do. This is what it means to live in an economy of narrative scarcity.
If and when we achieve an economy of narrative plenitude, a bad movie about Asian-Americans will just be a bad movie. An excellent movie would be great, but a mediocre one will be no big deal. A mediocre movie about Asian-Americans will not kill careers or be seen as a failure of and for Asian-Americans, just as a mediocre movie by and about white people says nothing about white people.
The real test of narrative plenitude is when we have the luxury of making mediocre movies. And after having made mediocre movies, we would be rewarded with the opportunity to make even more mediocre movies, just as Hollywood continues to make enormous numbers of mediocre movies about white people, and specifically white men.
That is one measure of equality — the right to be mediocre and rewarded for it, rather than the demand, placed on Asian-Americans and “Crazy Rich Asians,” to be exceptional just to be seen.
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