The Impact of Casting Female Asian Leads From an Asian-American

Asians: we’re good at math, we’re bad at driving, and you can bet that we can play piano or violin. When it comes to Asian women, we’re quiet, nerdy, submissive, and shallow. That sums us up, right?

Not according to Rachel Chu and Lara Jean.

In a big win for Asian-Americans, two movies recently came out both with Asian female leads, which has been virtually unseen since Mulan was released twenty years ago. To no one’s surprise except for Hollywood’s, Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have become instant hits. This is a huge step forward for Asian representation on the big screen. But just how significant is this milestone? For you to know, let me tell you what it was like to grow up as an Asian-American myself without this representation.

Let me begin by stating that I was a typical American kid.I was born in the States, and I grew up in the predominantly white neighborhoods with my nuclear family. I played with Barbies and Polly Pockets, and the Powerpuff Girls and Disney princesses were some of my favorites. The only difference between me and the other kids was, a) my mom is a Southeast Asian immigrant, and b) I looked different. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great childhood, but looking back now I realize the subtle ways I was impacted.

For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of dying my hair blond and envied my light-eyed classmates. These characteristics were the epitome of beauty to me, and this affected the way I saw myself. Also, the lack of cultural exposure that was available while I was growing up affected the way others saw me. When my brother and I were little, people would see two brown kids with my white dad in a grocery store and thought we were being kidnapped. Or, people would assume we were adopted before they saw my mom. They probably meant well, and it's likely that they just had never been exposed to anyone much different than themselves.

In the media, we are used to seeing mostly white protagonists. If Asians had any roles, they were as minor characters—sidekicks if they were lucky and villains if they were not. London from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody? Minor. Miranda from Lizzie McGuire? Sidekick. Traci Van Horn from Hannah Montana? Villain. And shows like Zoey 101, Saved By The Bell, and Full House didn’t have any recurring Asian characters! Once we expand into movies, Asian actresses have gotten everything, from know-it-all friend to prostitute with no speaking lines, except for roles as the protagonist. And when the rare Asian-lead opportunity comes along, Hollywood has a track record of “whitewashing.” I could go on, but you get the point.

With all of this said, you KNOW I had to watch Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Let’s begin with CRA, and I’ll start this by saying that this is the first movie I have seen—scratch that, heard of—that centers around authentic Asian culture. Viewers are exposed to two families: a dynasty that includes traditional Asian expectations, and the family of an immigrant just trying to get by. Both have their quirks and quarrels, but more importantly, we see different ways that love can be found and expressed. We are able to experience the spectrum of emotions the characters endure, especially with lead Rachel Chu. She's witty and profound, fun and sensitive. The audience can easily empathize with this character, ethnicity aside. And that is what makes this movie so impactful.

In TATBILB, protagonist Lara Jean is just as three-dimensional, which, might I remind you, is unlike almost any other Asian character in entertainment. It’s so refreshing to see these women on the big screen and actually being able to relate to them. Lara Jean, in particular, stole my heart. Seriously, where was this movie when I was a teenager? She destroys every Asian female stereotype (except for being bad at driving) by being a character who is strong, complex, emotional, funny, flawed, lively and beautiful.

I’d also like to add my appreciation for this movie’s inclusion of a mixed family. Lara Jean’s late mother is Korean and her father is Caucasian, which means he does not look like her and her sisters. But the story really lays into their family dynamic, showing that, although they don’t look alike, their bond is exactly the same as any other family’s.

One of my favorite aspects of this movie is how effectively and simply it normalizes Asians in American society. Lara Jean fights with her sisters, she falls in love, she confronts (and avoids) problems. Her sisters are full of personality and are opinionated, feisty, and protective. Their father loves them, embarrasses them, and they try their best to make each other happy. It shows that Asians...get this...are just like everyone else! Who would’ve guessed?

But most of all, it shows that Asians are deserving. We deserve to be heard and we deserve respect, acceptance, and love. It’s that realization that made this movie so meaningful for me, personally. I didn’t expect to be so moved when I watched this, but I then again, I had never seen a movie that represented Asian-Americans so positively and beautifully. So there I was, sobbing my eyes out as the credits rolled.

So Asian representation. How important is it? It allows us to better understand and more readily accept our Asian peers. It shows Asians that we should love ourselves. It encourages us to embrace our heritage. And it gives us all a little more appreciation for our differences. All I can say is, I can’t wait to see more.

Images: 1, 2, 3