Crazy Rich Asians: Some cultural context for non-Asians
I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this movie, so this is going to be short. Fundamentally, it’s a rom-com, and the demands of that formula soften the keenness of whatever social commentary was buried in there. But I do want to clarify one thing for any non-Asians watching this movie. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that the movie hinges on the difficulties Asian-Americans have navigating the filial duties demanded by more traditional Asians, and that the resolution is ultimately positive and uplifting. I want to explain why, given the realities of East Asian culture, the happy ending is psychologically unrealistic.
It’s common for Western leftists to discuss these axes of oppression: gender, race, and class. Disability, fortunately, is also achieving more recognition. I’ve often thought that the discourse ought to include age as well. Because very roughly speaking, Chinese families are run as gerontocracies, and age-based oppression, where the youth are firmly under the thumb of the old, is one of the organizing principles of Chinese culture, and East Asian cultures in general. (And probably many Indian cultures too, though I intend to stay in my lane.) Any good leftist worthy of the name should want to abolish age-based oppression as well.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that children are property, in the way that enslaved humans were treated as property, and to my knowledge, there aren’t explicit laws enshrining younger people as second-class citizens. As far as I know, it’s a matter of informal custom. Regardless, older people are at the top, and people at the top have little incentive to develop empathy for their lessers, and even less reason to develop any respect for them. Imagine a white person listening to a black person’s concerns about police violence, and imagine that white person telling the black person to get over it. Or imagine a man telling a woman that she’s silly to be afraid of walking alone at night. Get on Facebook, and see all the abled people who don’t know a single disabled person, confidently expound that disabled people don’t need plastic straws and the straw ban should go full speed ahead. Take that breezy, unconscious, even unintended, contempt, take that inability to admit that the other person might know something you don’t, or have different feelings that are as valid as your own–now imagine a country full of old people doing that to their children, and any younger person within striking distance.
A happy ending for Crazy Rich Asians is even more impossible when you apply some intersectionality and account for the fact that the main antagonist, the potential mother-in-law, is a woman. Chinese culture is pretty sexist, and when I think about it, I’m quite surprised that the story of Mulan is as popular as it is. When you’re a Chinese woman, doomed to being a second-class citizen your whole life, you really, really look forward to being the mother-in-law and getting to boss around your daughter-in-law. Who else are you going to boss? Up until your own mother-in-law kicks the bucket, you’re the bottom of the totem pole. When your mother-in-law isn’t even dead yet, are you going to put up with any guff from your potential daughter-in-law? Oh hell no. At the very least, you will make her suffer. And you will believe that you deserve to do so. It’s your reward for putting up with so much crap in your own life. This is somewhat analogous to the psychological wages of whiteness, as first explained by WEB Du Bois.
Is it a bad thing that the movie didn’t address these nuances of East Asian culture? Well, Roger Ebert had a delightful sentence in his review of Shaolin Soccer that I’ll never forget–“It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle.” Meaning, that one ought not compare apples to oranges, or in this case, a rom-com to the output of an Asian Spike Lee. For what it is, Crazy Rich Asians is superior. But I don’t want anyone to mistake it for something more than piffle.