Crazy Rich Asians: the startling revelation of homogeneity in diversity and multiculturalism

In the days leading up to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, I was fascinated by how the reviews were framing the film. There was plenty that remarked on how historically monumental it was, given its contemporary setting and all-Asian cast. Indeed it was. And yet, there were some that mused on the fantastical aspects of the film (ie. the opulent wealth), as if it’s odd to see Asians surrounded by so much money they could afford to buy jewellery worn by royalty, or on a whim, take a private jet to a private island. Would it be fantastical if those characters were white? I think not.

Closer to home, it’s with a bit more critical lens; chief of which is its lack of diversity and how it doesn’t really represent the “real”, everyday Singapore. Given the film’s title and its subject matter, what is considered authentic here though? The food courts and HDB flats (the equivalent of council flats for those of us who are more British-inclined) or the high-flying lifestyles of the private school, overseas educated trust fund heirs to conglomerates? We chide at the film’s embrace of abundant post-colonialism: the British accents, the ties to England — yet, isn’t it a reflection of Southeast Asia’s colonial history? In the East-meets-West culture we promote, our command of English, and the colonial buildings we fight to preserve as part of our heritage. And yet, when Henry Golding (the Sarawak-born, mixed race lead actor) was cast, many question his identity, critical of his “Asian-ness”, or for some, it’s yet another “Eurasian” face on the screen; but none, however, seemed to want to acknowledge his indigenous identity, one the actor seemed to be proud to proclaim.

When faced with seeming homogeneity in our so-called proclamation of diversity and multiculturalism, we seemed to be very uncomfortable with this representation; preferring instead to impose what we deemed to be ‘authentic’ in a film featuring an all-Asian cast, except it’s a cast that’s unlike that of Joy Luck Club, released 25 years ago to cinema-viewers. I remember Joy Luck Club — it was quintessentially “Asian”: dire; serious; as if to be Asian, one needs to let go of all joys in life and just be miserable. And suddenly, faced with the opulence and the flashiness that the Asian 1% lives (fast cars, loud parties) in Crazy Rich Asians, the dire seriousness of being Asian is under threat.

On a personal note, I loved the film. Not because it finally represented me per se, but it’s finally an Asia that’s truly familiar, if not reminiscent of people and scenarios I’ve encountered or heard about. While living in the UK, (East) Asian culture was pretty much Chinese, with Hong Kong being the closest and most familiar. Since moving back to Borneo, the assumption has pretty much been that I must partake in the pan-Asian (or perhaps I should say global now) fascination with anything K-related (pop, drama, fashion, etc.). But Constance Wu’s character of Rachel Chu, described as being a “banana” was somewhat more familiar (case in point of a lost-in-translation conversation surrounding some of the actors in the film who were popular in Singaporean sitcoms, of whom I have no knowledge of — so again, it’s that assumption of so-called collective knowledge; as if by being ‘Asian’, or by moving back to Asia, I must be immediately attuned to whoever was/is popular).

Wu’s character is reminiscent of how easily people are judged within their own ethnicities. She looked Chinese, but she’s not Chinese “enough”. She’s educated (an NYU economics professor in gamification theory) but it’s the ‘wrong’ education because it’s American, not British. It’s interesting. It’s also very much familiar to a Southeast Asia that’s still negotiating its complicated post-colonial past. And for the uber rich depicted in the film, the old world (boarding schools, Oxbridge, British accents) still holds the ultimate social status even if a Chinese matriarch holds the family together. The British have left, but the English sensibilities haven’t.

I can only speak for myself, and others with whom I’ve had this conversation with after watching the film. Crazy Rich Asians speaks about a particular class of Asians in a national context that is often extremely uncomfortable about class, where the national propaganda speaks of multiculturalism and diversity but in a superficial manner that reflects their homogeneity more. And I’m not merely talking about Singapore, even if recent studies have shown that it is becoming more segregated by class, with people who go to private schools being less likely to mix across the class divide. In Malaysia itself, the race card trumps political discourse for as long as the country has claimed independence, and the narrative of the formation of Malaysia is itself rooted in divisions of ethnicity and class. Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the casual discriminatory remark thrown around without anyone batting an eyelid; where even among different Chinese ‘ethnicities’ (e.g. Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese), division reign.

My point being, when I watch a Southeast Asian film made supposedly for me, a fellow Southeast Asian, I feel even more isolated and excluded. Malaysian films are essentially that: Malay; whereby diversity is represented through food and language. So when I watch a Malaysian film that is supposed to be quintessentially ‘Malaysian’, it isn’t about or for me, it actually makes me feel less affinity to this place that has embraced its Malaysian-ness, whereas for some, if not many, home is Sarawak, with a radically different historical trajectory. And Like Joy Luck Club and countless other Asian films that have made it big in the West, these films are always grim, serious drama. If it was a comedy, it referred very specifically to in-jokes, languages in, and cultures of Malaya.

This lack of in-betweenness was revealing, as if telling those of us not specifically Malay or Chinese educated that we don’t belong because we’re never authentic enough. Much as Henry Golding was always criticised for not being “Asian enough”; as if others deemed more authentic — and yes, more homogenous — have attained the rights to decide who we are. The fact of the matter is, Crazy Rich Asians was generic in its storyline. Strip away the Asian cast, it can be about anyone. It just so happens that the film is set in Singapore, with an all-Asian cast. It normalises the Asian-ness, and honestly, do you really believe the real crazy rich Asians aren’t mingling within their own kind? But this normalisation, as skewed as it may be for some, is what matters to me: I don’t need to be exoticised further than the Malaysian or the Sarawak government has already exoticised the place I come from. Asians aren’t grim and serious all the time. And for me, that’s why this was more relatable: it’s easy on the eyes, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it has gorgeous sets and colours, and riveting music.

Yes, it’s about a privileged class of Asians. Don’t pretend they don’t exist beyond the minuscule 1%. Many of us had a Western education because we were ‘privileged’ enough to attend the right schools, to be at the right place, to find our own identity — pathways forged by parents who worked hard, who still have a complicated relationship with postcolonialism. Many still have close ties to England, be it through family, or that postgraduate education in Oxford/Cambridge.

It was also interesting, from a media studies perspective, that many commentators failed to explore the mechanics of the Hollywood film industry, an industry where numerous studies have shown is scant on minority representation. Someone like Golding — a complete newcomer with no professional acting credentials to his name (hosting doesn’t really count) — would not have been cast as a lead in a mainstream Hollywood film. Many dismissed his Eurasian looks as another form of whitewashing, but none wanted to acknowledge his indigenous identity. It harks back to how easily we assign labels on people based on what we want to see, rather than what we hear. But in a Southeast Asia that is so easily defensive about race, ethnicity, language, accents, gender, sex, many can barely look beyond the British accent.

For me, Crazy Rich Asians broke another milestone which were swallowed by the criticisms on diversity. Jon Chu’s direction lingered on the male bodies numerous times throughout the film. In one specific scene used in the film’s promotional materials, Rachel is seen openly admiring Nick’s body. It’s clear their relationship was also sexual in nature, breaking this Victorian notion of shame surrounding sex, and the enjoyment of sex, within the Asian context. On the big screen, the pairing of Rachel and Nick is enabling the world (the film retained its top spot at the box office for the third week at the time of writing) to see an unmarried Asian couple enjoying themselves; it is allowing the audience’s gaze to linger on the (Southeast) Asian male body.

That’s also important to acknowledge. As much as the criticisms on the lack of diversity represented are important criticisms to recognise, it is also equally important to remember that diversity and multiculturalism, as much as it exists in tourism promotional materials, people remain segregated within their communities on a macro level in reality. On a micro level, the discrimination and segregation occurs subconsciously on a daily basis. In fact, it says more about inequality than it probably means to. These are important conversations to have, let’s not get defensive about it either.

“Orlando Jones needs to GTFO of our fandom”: Supernatural conventions and gate-keeping

*This paper was presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand, held at Massey University, Wellington from 29 June – 1 July, 2015.*

OJ announcementOn 21st March 2015, Rogue Events, the event company that organises Supernatural conventions in the UK announced the inclusion of actor, writer and producer Orlando Jones as a special guest to an already-packed convention featuring the show’s main and popular recurring cast members for an event celebrating the 10 years Supernatural has been on the air.

Jones has never appeared on an episode of the show; rather, at the time of announcement, he was still attached as one of the main cast of Sleepy Hollow on Fox, a rival American network to CW, which airs Supernatural. Jones is, however, a fan. Or as he prefers to identify himself: a fangirl. He frequently live-tweets when Supernatural is airing; openly declares himself a shipper, which some fans see as an endorsement of the pairing he ships, while others find it problematic; collaborated with fans in Gishwhes (an annual charity scavenger hunt organised by Supernatural actor Misha Collins, which invites participation from fans, and last year, featured Jones competing in a team against William Shatner); Jones also banters on Twitter with Supernatural producer Robbie Thompson where they teased fans on the possibilities of a crossover between the two shows called SuperSleepy (with Thompson even writing out a teaser script, which he tweeted to fans).

At the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference earlier this year, Suzanne Scott called Jones a “celebacafan” – Jones’s engagement with fans, as well as with fan studies and media scholars makes him an anomaly in the industry (for example, he appeared as a guest of Henry Jenkins in the Transforming Hollywood conference in UCLA, participated in a live chat with other fans and academics organised by the Organization of Transformative Works to discuss fan works, and Skyped into the Fan Studies Network conference held at Regents University, London last year).

His “star text of convergence”, Scott argues, opens a space in which the intersectional construction of the fan identity, usually centred around gender and race, can be addressed; something which, Scott reminds, fan studies has yet to critically engage with. As such, Jones’s intersectionality, including the intersection of his role as both industry insider and fan, calls for a way to think and talk about notions of “plus/and” rather than “either/or”. Paul Booth, in his new book, Playing Fans, also called for considerations of fluidity in examining fan practices and identities; in that rather than trying to define boundaries of fandom – or fandoms, as is the case – and industry, or even defining fan and indusry relations, we should, Booth argues, instead investigate sites and moments of interaction, of intersectionality, even if fans are themselves constantly drawing these boundaries. Identifying it as the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,” it “updates, develops, augments, and nurtures alternative views, practices, identities, and meanings with the commonly understood (but underinterpreted) relationship between media fans and the media industries” (Booth, 2015: 5).

OJ tshirtIn this paper however, I want to make use of Scott’s notion of Jones’s intersectionality, particularly his identity as creator/industry insider and fan to look at fandom policing, and how this intersectionality and Jones’s emphasis to insert the notion of play and pleasure back into fandom may have created an Orlando Jones anti-fandom within the Supernatural fandom.

Rogue Events’ announcement initially drew confusion from some fans about Jones’s presence at a Supernatural convention, even though it wasn’t uncommon for the organiser to invite guests who are only marginally connected to the convention’s main focus. For example, at a recent convention for the CW show, Arrow, guests consist of actors from the show itself, its spin-off The Flash, as well as actors in other TV shows and films associated with DC Entertainment (where with the exception of The Flash, none were set in the same universe or related to Arrow beyond being properties of DC Entertainment).

However, over the course of Supernatural‘s 10-year history, the show has collected a long list of guest actors, a large number of whom have become regulars at, and become popular among fans at the North American convention circuit [1]. As it is, some fans were already voicing their dissatisfaction at the exclusion of some, especially female, cast members to an event billed as the European celebration of the show’s 10th year anniversary.

Fans’ general confusion soon turned to anger (which can also be exemplified in the title of this paper, taken from a tweet, which has since been deleted), and this was probably most evident on Tumblr, where, as Jones himself highlighted, the ‘anti-Orlando Jones’ tag came into existence.

A lot of fans’ frustrations and anger stemmed from Jones’s apparent support for one of the major ship pairings (Destiel) in Supernatural [2]– which some fans view as a form of endorsement for the pairing – and his friendship with Misha Collins. As one fan writes on a Tumblr post:

“So he was invited to a Supernatural convention and no one knows why. He’s not on the show, so why would he be a part of a panel? I think a lot of people are assuming that because he’s this big Destiel shipper, he’s going to be talking about Destiel and feeding the shippers everything they want to hear. Which would then make tumblr all the more unbearable since Destiel shippers like to think they run this fandom…because they think they’re so entitled or something”.

Jones has repeatedly stated that anything he says, or the support he shows for particular pairings, in public forums does not hold any bearings on the writers, but fans continue to assume that his words equals endorsement because of his role as a media industry insider.

This can also be read as what Nick Couldry identifies as the “symbolic hierarchy of the media frame” (2000: 20), in which Jones, as an actor – a media industry insider – is considered a representative of the media who maintains symbolic power over fans, even when he has identified himself as one of us. The symbolic power of the media is constantly naturalised through the relationship between people and the media, in the way that the media (or representations of the media) is always assumed to be reporting and representing facts. Couldry argues that, “The media’s status as a reporter of ‘the facts’ about social reality (a strategy he identifies as naming) helps naturalise their status more generally as the ‘frame’ through which we obtain access to social reality. This helps reinforce the symbolic hierarchy between ‘media’ and ‘ordinary worlds’ which in turn helps reinforce the status of media material (whether fact or fiction) as social ‘reality’ or ‘actuality’” (2000: 52).

This is constantly evident in the ways in which fans frame Orlando Jones in the context of the Supernatural fandom, and it’s often to the point of policing how he expresses his fandom, and who he supports. In this open letter to Jones from a fan on Tumblr, for example, the fan writes:

I watched Sleepy Hollow in part because I liked you. Then you started pandering to a very small and controversial faction of the Supernatural fandom and I suddenly stopped liking you. Since you seem to spend so much of your time on the internet, you may have a very skewed idea of the make-up of this fandom. Contrary to popular belief, most SPN fans do not ship Destiel. We don’t want it to be canon – most of us don’t want any ship to be canon because it would mess up the show…The ship itself is not the problem. It’s just a small portion of the shippers who are toxic.

A look at the original Tumblr post (which, at the time of writing, has 986 posts) suggests that the original poster holds another pairing on the show as their OTP (one true pairing), and a declaration that the fan’s OTP is “canon” as far as he/she is concerned. In light of this, one has to wonder why Jones is held to a different standard. Does his intersectionality as industry insider and fan prohibits him from showing public support over something he likes because it’ll almost certainly become endorsement? Is this similar to the ways in which some fans expect their favourite celebrities to remain quiet and ambivalent about their politics, because in silence and ambivalence, the celebrity can remain as the fan’s idealised version?

Jones has also continually stated that he’s fascinated with social media, as well as the policing that comes with being active on various social media platforms like he is. The vitriol and hate he receives, particularly in light of this convention appearance in the UK also says something about anti-fandom, and how we construct perceptions of anti-fandom. Jonathan Gray positioned anti-fans as fans’ ‘Other’, an under-studied section of the audience who openly dislike a text but would passionately engage with it through other paratextual means such as trailers, parodies and reviews. Anti-fans of a particular media text or genre impose conditions of morality, value and quality, arguing that audiences should go for, and have access to better-produced material (see, for example, the oft-cited reasons for shunning texts like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey).

However, fans’ turn against Jones is more similar to Vivi Theodoropoulou’s definition of sports anti-fandom, where she argues that “fandom is a precondition of anti-fandom … [whereby] a fan becomes an anti-fan of the object that ‘threatens’ his/her own, and of that object’s fans” (2007: 316), suggesting that emotions of love and hate govern (if you will) media fans more intricately, and while notions of anti-fandom might not be as clear cut for media fans as they do sports fans, that division between love and hate is constantly blurred. Furthermore, with the advent of social media, these emotions can be expressed in a more public manner (as is the case with the open letter to Jones, where fans declare that they will stop watching Sleepy Hollow because of his support of a pairing on another show).

To sum up, what is this telling us? Fan studies often skew to the defense of fans as productive individuals, of the importance of community and camaraderie due to shared love, and of late, there’s even a call to return to the premise of fandom as, or fandom is, beautiful. While these are valid observations, there’s a danger that we often look at fandom(s) through rose-tinted glasses, that in order to prove that fans are productive individuals because so much of what we do and love are often denigrated by the media and culture at large, we run the risks of ignoring other, equally important but not always positive, fan practices. As such, we need to problematise the assumption that fandom is beautiful, for it allows for other stories – such as stories about intersectionality – to come through, and acknowledges that fandom is indeed, not homogenous.

——

[1] Creation Entertainment organises and runs, on average, about 12-14 Supernatural conventions in major cities across the US and Canada per year. In comparison, Rogue Events’ Supernatural conventions run twice a year, and remains one of the major fan conventions in Europe related to the show (the other being Jus in Bello in Italy).

[2] Fans’ support of their favourite pairings are often contentious, and with Supernatural, this is no exception. The two major slash pairings that fans support are Dean/Castiel (known as Destiel), and Sam/Dean (Wincest). Relationship between the two groups of fans are antagonistic, with both competing for recognition and popularity among producers.

References:

Booth, P. 2015. Playing fans: negotiating fandom and media in the digital age, University of Iowa Press, Iowa.

Couldry, N. 2000. The place of media power : pilgrims and witnesses of the media age. London: Routledge.

Scott, S. 2015. “The Powers that Squee: The Intersectional Significance of Orlando Jones”, paper presented at Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, Montreal, Canada, 25th-29th March, 2015.

Theodoropoulou, V. 2007. The Anti-Fan within the Fan: Awe and Envy in Sport Fandom. In: Sandvoss, C. et al. eds. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. NYU Press, pp. 316–327