This past week was a big week for Asian-Americans in media. “Crazy Rich Asians” topped the box office last weekend. Another film with an Asian-American lead, the Netflix original “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” has also been garnering a lot of online attention, and for good reason.
When I watched “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” it was the first time in my life that I have ever seen a young woman who looked like me play the lead role in an English-speaking movie that takes place in contemporary America. She wasn’t a sidekick. She wasn’t an extra. She didn’t have to put on a foreign accent. She was allowed to be an American teenage girl for the entire movie. And let me tell you — it’s a big deal.
To grow up in a society and never have any kind of imagery that reflects you limits the way you see the world. Your perception of self and what is possible becomes warped. After all, if you’ve never seen it, how do you know it’s possible?
Growing up in Utah, I didn’t see very many people who looked like me in school, in public or in leadership. This isn’t a surprise, considering that Asians make up approximately 3 percent of Utah’s population.
I spent my teenage years thinking that being a good Asian meant I had to fit stereotypes of getting good grades, working in science and technology and not being opinionated. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized that these stereotypes do not have to define my reality. I can’t help but think how different my life would have been if I could have seen Asian-Americans on film or television as romantic leads, community leaders, artists or musicians.
These movies are not representative of the depth, breadth and diversity of Asian-American experiences, but they are important because of the sheer scarcity of Asian representation on film. A study by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism revealed that Asians made up only about 1 percent of leading roles in films. Asians have been nearly invisible in Hollywood history, so two mainstream releases featuring Asian actors in lead roles in one weekend seems like an accomplishment akin to the moon landing.
In “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” the heroine, Lara Jean, realizes that she can no longer pretend she is invisible when her secret love letters are sent to all her past crushes. “Crazy Rich Asians” highlights a gamut of character profiles, finally giving Asian actors the freedom to portray more than just a stereotype. On the surface, these two movies are innocuous romantic comedies, but upon deeper reflection there is a greater takeaway from this weekend’s box office success.
Like Lara Jean, Asian-Americans can’t be afraid to step out into the limelight. It is time to be the lead roles in our lives, our professions and our local communities.
Cynthia Chen is a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit professional who works in creative youth development at Spy Hop Productions.