A New Yellow Fever: Alternative Masculinity in Romantic Comedy Film

I can’t speak for the entire Asian American community, I’m obviously not everyone, but I don’t exactly remember having heated conversations with my Asian friends about the lack of Asian representation in film. I accepted it. I said nothing. I kept my head down and minded my own business.

I studied for my exams, did my homework and thought of careers and professions that had nothing to do with entertainment. Actress and singer were completely out of the question, I didn’t even have to think about it. My mom wouldn’t even let me audition for the high school play to prevent me from getting false hopes that I could make it in the industry someday. Honestly, thank God for that. But then again, maybe not. How many talented and charismatic singers and actors had that thinking suppressed? Had that kind of thinking prevented us from making our way into the industry and finding representation sooner? We could spend all day debating what-ifs, but there was an undeniable fact that we knew they (the white people) didn’t want us, and we in turn taught ourselves we didn’t want it either.

However, just because we taught ourselves to look away, to say nothing—that doesn’t mean discontent didn’t fester. If anything, decades of silence finally exploded, after Crazy Rich Asians premiered, into a fervent cry for more. People demanded why CRA didn’t do more to represent all the intricate ethnic groups in Singapore? Why didn’t it show the unfair wealth distribution in Singapore? After walking through a desert, one sip of water isn’t enough. People now demand a torrential downpour.

The Big Sick

A romantic comedy, written by Pakistani American Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick follows Kumail, also played by Nanjiani, as he works as an Uber driver in Chicago while trying to make it as a stand-up comedian. It dramatizes the real-life romance between Nanjiani and Gordon, about the natural tensions that rise between interethnic couples when the relationship crosses over from casual romance to marriage. 

Kumail and Emily meet while Kumail is doing his comedy set, and they start dating. However, after Emily finds out his mom has been setting him up with numerous eligible Pakistani brides, per Pakistani tradition, they break up. Kumail somehow finds out that Emily is in the hospital with an induced coma, and though her parents promptly arrive and dismiss him since technically he and Emily had already broken up, he sticks around. 

This is a good moment of classic Asian tenacity and hard work; it doesn’t always have to be applied to school and work. Love and relationships require hard work too. The way Kumail is able to bond with Emily’s parents, after a few awkward conversations about terrorism and 9/11, beyond cultural boundaries and stereotypes is also particularly heartwarming. South Asians especially have been weathering accusations of terrorism and suicide bombing since 2001, and seeing how Kumail easily makes light of it to disarm others highlights how much flak this community has received. 

Kumail’s Pakistani family, thankfully, are proper funny. They are not caricatures. Nanjiani accurately captures that Asian families, like many others, are concerned and loving yet irritating, snarky and brutally honest yet hilarious. 

The most fantastic scene is when Kumail bombs his audition for the Montreal Comedy Festival because he’s afraid for Emily’s life, kind of losing it on stage. It is great that he cannot maintain his composure during a big moment in his life. The Asian man is not always stoic; he can be emotional and messy and confused like everybody else. He doesn’t know his way around romantic relationships, and it’s pretty hard to concentrate on work if the woman he loves might be dying. It easily goes from snappy and funny to touching and thoughtful, including a fantastic portrait of a South Asian family that neither stereotypes them nor dehumanizes them.

Crazy Rich Asians

It is impossible to discuss alternative forms of masculinity for Asian Americans without mentioning Crazy Rich Asians, which promptly blew up the community when it was released August of 2018. Nicholas Young is attractive, muscular, tall and generally good-looking. He has charisma, money and power, yet remains humble and frugal. Personality-wise, he is thoughtful, soft-spoken and considerate, essentially the perfect Prince Charming of every young Asian girl’s dreams. 

Some discount Nick’s character’s appearance for fulfilling unrealistic American masculinity, mainly his abs and strongly defined muscles. However, in a history of representation that has emasculated the Asian man time and time again as not a viable option for sex, for love, for desire, the first moment of an Asian man finally becoming a desirable man, then so quickly criticizing him feels unfair. Nick doesn’t impose unrealistic ideals of masculinity onto Asian American youths. His fit figure and kind nature simply work to go against the continually emasculated, yet girl-infatuated model minority. 

Thankfully Nick isn’t the only alternative masculine character in the film. His best friend Colin Khoo drew a lot of girls’ eyes, equally muscled, sexy and good-looking, yet still attuned to the nuances of social interaction and the Asian community. Colin and Nick have this awesome conversation by the ocean, and they speak sensitively about how Rachel would be affected if she marries Nick. This is a great scene to portray how Asian men interact; they’re not always concerned about duty and honor, practicing martial arts and getting into fights. Sometimes they can just hang out: two dudes sitting by the ocean, drinking beer and talking about girls. 

 

 

Goh Wye Mun, Peik Lin’s father, takes on the role of the typical Asian dad who cracks jokes that no one else finds funny except for him. Bernard Tai is bizarrely comical in his hypermasculinity, always trying to out do everyone around him by flaunting his money and puffing out his chest (literally). Eddie Cheng, like many Asians I personally know, is consumed with his image, how to look good to his family and the press. Oliver T’sien, is obviously gay and effeminate, but still a major fashionista and the family mediator. Then there’s P.T. Goh, Peik Lin’s brother and my particular favorite, a hilarious nod to the boy who obsesses over K-pop idols, more comfortable with women at a distance than in real life. 

There are more male characters in the film, but all of them are wonderful snapshots of Asian American masculinity. Gone is the shy, quiet nerd who wouldn’t dare ask out the “it” girl to prom and instead stayed home to study for the SAT. These men are variable, interesting, funny, weird, distasteful, you name it. If we feel something when we look at them, it’s because we’re finally looking at ourselves, and finding the comedy in it all.

Like in any rom com, the film doesn’t have time to give each male character a detailed backstory into their motivations and goals, their strengths and weaknesses. In a sense, they are not necessarily stereotypes but archetypes. However, this time they embody archetypes that hit closer to home, that are more realistic and true to life than the model minority. While watching this movie as part of the target audience, as we laugh at these characters the rest of the theater is finally laughing alongside us instead of at us.