Nothing compares to the thrill of meeting a new crush in an exotic place. For me, it was at summer camp. I didn’t go on many vacations as a kid, so Big Bear, California, was like the south of France. That’s where I met Paul, an older high school boy. I was 14 and I liked Paul almost as much as I loved the movie “Pretty in Pink.” I loved his cool rock ‘n’ roll vibe, and the way his jet-black bangs just cleared his brown eyes when he played his guitar. He was like a Korean-American Ducky, but with the cool ease of Blane.
All of my life, I mapped out my life in films, especially romantic comedies. As a teen, I cared less about specificity and more about the adventure and aspiration of rom-coms. But as I grew up, my love for the genre waned, because none of the leads in these movies ever looked like me. On a recent list of the 55 best romantic comedies of all time, not one starred an Asian-American woman.
This summer, audiences can see two romantic comedies starring Asian-American women: “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” And it’s not a moment too soon: When Asian women are missing from two-thirds of the top 100 Hollywood films of the year, we are in dire need of films led by women who look like me.
“When I saw "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before," I felt seen for the first time in a rom-com.”
It makes a real difference when the protagonist looks like you. When I saw “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” I felt seen for the first time in a rom-com. The story, based on Jenny Han’s bestseller, centers on Lara Jean Song Covey, a 16-year-old Hapa Korean-American girl played by Lana Condor. Lara Jean, who has two loving sisters and a widower father, is an avid reader of romance novels, and prefers to write love letters to boys (and store them in a box) rather than engage in any real romantic relationships ― until her little sister sends her letters to their would-be recipients, and her quiet life transforms into a teen romance drama.
Lara Jean perfectly embodies my teenage self: vulnerable, quirky and always lovestruck. Like Lara Jean, I wrote love letters to my teen crushes; I even sent one to Paul after summer camp (I never heard back). And like her, I have two sisters. Watching the three sisters on screen was like reliving the beautiful parts of growing up in a family of girls.
If “To All the Boys” is the rom-com that speaks to my teens, then “Crazy Rich Asians” is the rom-com for today. Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book, the film centers on Rachel Chu (played by “Fresh Off The Boat”’s Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor who is dating Nick Young (played by Henry Golding). Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. They visit Singapore together for Nick’s friend’s wedding, where Rachel meets Nick’s friends and family for the first time.
I relate to Rachel as a Chinese-American woman professor, but even more, I understand why she feels like an outsider in Asia despite maintaining semblances of her Chinese language and culture. I was born in Taiwan, but no matter how fluent my Mandarin, I remain a foreigner there. But in the United States, where I’m a citizen, I am told often to “go back to [my] country.” In many ways, Rachel’s relationship with Nick is a metaphor for how many Asian-Americans feel about Asia: longing for a homeland that feels simultaneously familiar and foreign.
With its international cast of Asian actors, “Crazy Rich Asians” delights as a rom-com, and it’s also one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to show a slice of the Asian diaspora. The film showcases a variety of Asian actors, a significant departure from the one-dimensional depictions of Asians we see so often in Hollywood rom-coms (if Asians appear at all). With a cast of multiple attractive Asian men, “Crazy Rich Asians” crushes the stereotype of “Long Duk Dong,” the buffoonish Asian exchange student from “Sixteen Candles” (1984). Not since the independent film “Saving Face” (2004) have I seen a rom-com feature multiple East Asian women in major roles. From Awkwafina’s comedic relief to Michelle Yeoh’s dramatic performance, “Crazy Rich Asians” enriches the rom-com genre with its strong Asian women. The last major Hollywood film to feature this many Asian women was the drama “The Joy Luck Club” (1993), released 25 years ago.
On the surface, having Asian-American women-led rom-coms may not seem like progress. After all, rom-com stories center around women wooing or being wooed, not saving the world or leading a feminist revolution. But Asian-American women live in a society that exoticizes and fetishizes them as objects, and films that depict them having agency over their desires can be empowering. Historically, romantic depictions of Asian women in studio films have ranged from the tragic geisha in “Madame Butterfly” (1915) played by white actress Mary Pickford, to Nancy Kwan’s objectified sex worker in “The World of Suzy Wong” (1960).
“The film showcases a variety of Asian actors, a significant departure from the one-dimensional depictions Asians we see so much of in mainstream Hollywood rom-coms (if Asians appear at all).”
These depictions shape how women like me are viewed by mainstream society. Amanda Nguyen, who was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of sexual assault survivors, says “the objectification of Asian female bodies and the stereotype that Asian women are submissive …dehumanizes us and … creates a greater chance for sexual violence.” In the entertainment industry, Asian-American women fall victim to this sexualization not just in front but also behind the scenes. Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” co-creator and showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen recounted a 2001 incident in which an executive sent her an unsolicited email showing an Asian pornographic actress engaged in graphic sex with the subject line, “Is this you?”
As Asian-American women protagonists of romantic comedies, Lara Jean and Rachel Chu dispel these stereotypes. They are not tragic geishas or sexual objects. They do not exist for the male gaze; they’re women of color in control of their own affections. In “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Lara Jean is not waiting around for a boy to choose her. Rather, she negotiates her relationships with measured consideration and personal growth. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” Rachel faces her obstacles with resolve and strength and stays true to herself. I teared up with pride watching a particularly poignant scene in which she tells Nick’s mother (played by Yeoh) about what it was like to grow up as the immigrant daughter of a single mother who built a life from nothing.
When it’s done right, the rom-com can help redeem how Asian-American women are viewed in society ― not as objects of other peoples’ fantasies but as empowered subjects pursuing romantic yearnings on their own terms. Lara Jean Song Covey and Rachel Chu are positive role models for a new generation of Asian-American women. Like them, we’re ready to take on small-town America and big, beautiful Asia in pursuit of our dreams — romantic and otherwise.
Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen is an associate professor and chair of sociology at Biola University and the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.