Is Crazy Rich Asians Enough?

I have now seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians 3 times. What can I say — it’s a great movie. Awkwafina is hilarious, Constance Wu is brilliant, and Henry Golding is attractive. But something I hadn’t taken into account until recently is that maybe it’s a little too simplistic. I’m not here to bash the movie because at the end of the day, it was a HUGE win for Asian Americans. But it was exactly that: a win for Asian Americans. What never crossed my mind, though, was how it portrayed Singaporeans. Once again, I still believe this was a landmark film in increasing representation in Hollywood. As director Jon Chu said a while back, it’s a movement. While the movie has enjoyed massive success and shed light on a non-white cast, some people still think it could’ve gone even further.

Take this quotation from a profound article on Vox, “While it’s definitely significant that Hollywood is finally producing an all-Asian film, the anticipation for this film demonstrates that representation can mean different things to different groups of people, and that there is a divergence between the needs and priorities of Asian Americans and Asians in Asia.” I couldn’t agree more. Here, as a Singaporean of Chinese descent, author Kirsten Han touches on how she felt the film was flawed in more ways than one. What she wrote next made me come to another realization. In western films, we really only see Asia depicted in 1 of 2 ways: as “rising Asia” with modern architecture, servants, and next-level wealth, or as an extremely impoverished place with a lack of social mobility. When I think about the films I’ve seen with an Asian cast in the past year, it totally fits the description. In one of my personal favorites, Parasite, we see this deeply-entrenched divide between the rich and the poor. In Raise The Red Lantern, we see extreme generational wealth and tradition. While I loved both of these films and I actually think they did a great job with representation, it makes me wonder. Is Orientalism at play here? Is this really an accurate depiction, or are these over simplistic?

In other western movies, what we see of Asian countries is very little. And what we do see motivates these 2 narrow stereotypes. We see overwhelming markets with foods that seem foreign to us, tech-savvy people, expensive homes, and action movie backdrops. We see a place with more than 4.4 billion people through one, white-washed lens. I think it’s interesting because something perceived so incredibly progressive in the U.S was actually perceived as not diverse enough to people from Singapore.

 

A Feminist Look at GOST: The Power of Female Characters

I recently read this paper about feminism within GOST and thought this sentence summed up my thoughts perfectly: “The God of Small Things portrays the truthful picture of the plight of Indian women, their great suffering, cares and anxieties, their humble submission, persecution and undeserved humiliation in male dominating society.” (article here!) As a reader we get to see the unique experiences of being a woman in 20th century India, a time when women had little autonomy and faced the prospect of arranged marriages and were essentially barred from receiving education. We also get this window into severely abusive relationships. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve read so far have been about Ammu’s and Mammachi’s experiences with abusive and controlling husbands.

I specifically like that Roy gives female characters a sense of agency even in a deeply patriarchal society; Ammu chooses who to marry, when to leave the marriage, and reclaims her life, and Mammachi runs a successful company on her own. Even after reading these last few chapters, my favorite passage is still when Ammu’s background is described. To me, this remains one of the most powerful scenes and is laced with a lot of great feminist discourse. In describing Ammu’s wedding, Roy writes:

“Ammu had an elaborate Calcutta wedding. Later, looking back on the day, Ammu realized that the slightly feverish glitter in her bridegroom’s eyes had not been love, or even excitement at the prospect of carnal bliss, but approximately eight large pegs of whiskey. Straight. Neat”.

(39)

In class we talked about how these lines are the kind that stay with you for the entirety of the book. This is an especially powerful moment because Roy builds up the excitement of a wedding and young love, and then completely subverts expectations all in two sentences. A page before Roy wrote, “…in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had one chance. She made a mistake. She married the wrong man” (38). This entire scene functions to emphasize Ammu’s struggle for independence. In what she thought was an act of independence- running away to marry a man her parents disapproved of- was instead an entry-way into an abusive marriage. Ammu’s realization is even more hard-hitting because of Roy’s syntax. She employs many stand-alone paragraphs and one-word sentences like “Straight” and “Neat”. Her writing style emulates how heavy and tragic Ammu’s past was, making this scene even more powerful.

As I touched on earlier though, what I appreciate with the story is that Roy gives these female characters autonomy. After bearing the brunt of male domination-from her father denying her education, to marrying an abusive husband, to raising kids alone- Ammu reclaims her body. In another powerful paragraph Roy beautifully writes: 

“Occasionally, when Ammu listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place. On days like this there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divoree-hood”

(43)

The phrase “liquid ache” combined with words like “witch”, “restless”, and “untamed” evoke this sense of female liberation. Ammu is further described as wearing flowers in her hair and taking midnight swims. She is also described as having this deep, almost insatiable, love for her children and having this sporadic energy that mirrors the women’s liberation movement in the 70s. Moreover, I think all of the female characters in GOST play such a pivotal role in defining the common female experience. Over four generations, we see a lot of similarities with all of these characters, but we also get to see their individual agency and yearn for happiness in a patriarchal society.  

Why We Need Comedians Like Wanda Sykes…and More Inclusive Specials

While I was thinking of different movies and shows to choose from, I realized that a lot of my favorite humor has come from stand-up specials and old SNL sketches this past year (and they are about the same length as movies at this point so I consider that long-form). As Netflix and Amazon have been making a more conscious effort to include original stand-ups from womxn and people of color, I’ve watched a lot of them. The comedy realm is yet another world, profession, and space in Hollywood that has become dominated by white cis males over the years. While most people can recognize comedic veterans like Robin Williams, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Colin Jost, a lot would struggle to put a face to names like Chelsea Handler, Tiffany Haddish, Aidy Bryant, Wanda Sykes, Ali Wong, Iliza Shlesinger, Lily Singh, Samantha Bee, Ilana Glazer…and while the list could go on forever. In this sense, I think comedy is one of the most powerful mediums in understanding the human condition. While there is still a long way to go in giving representation to everyone, it gives a voice and a stage to people who might not get one otherwise. We get to hear- and most importantly laugh at- experiences specific to genders/races that are different from us. And stand-up specials adhere to the definition of comedy because they are a form of reflection after a life-changing event where the comedian is a better person afterwards.

Given the current political climate, many comedians have used their shows as a chance to speak out against injustices. They use careful humor as a way to shed light on political issues and encourage people to vote (i.e Ilana Glazer in “The Planet is Burning, and Dave Chapelle in Sticks and Stones). But my favorite example from this past year is Wanda Sykes in her special “Not Normal”. Sykes- a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm- has spent a lot of her career commenting on politics. She was even the first African American womxn to host the Correspondents Association dinner. Her pushback against Trump is smart, funny, and increasingly relevant. She educates her viewers, and shares a point of view we rarely see in comedy, let alone in Hollywood. As a female of color and a part of the LGBTQ+ community, Sykes has shown how important it is to use a platform of fame wisely and what we can learn from it. This is why we need comedy and it’s also why we need representation; we need to learn about experiences that are different from ours and have alternative outlets of educating ourselves. And we need someone with a platform to call out corrupt politicians like Trump, and humor is a great way to do that.

Satire in SNL’s Debbie Downer

Debbie Downer goes to Disney World Aired 05/01/04

On birthdays she brings up hurricane victims, at Disney she mentions terrorist attacks and mad cow disease, at Christmas she makes Santa depressed, and at every waking moment she’s concerned with feline AIDS (it’s the number one killer of domestic cats) …she’s Debbie Downer. 

Debbie Downer, created and portrayed by Rachel Dratch, is one of the funniest, recurring satirical characters on SNL. The first sketch came out back in May 2004 and included then Snl cast members Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon. In one of my favorite sketches- and a great example of satire- Debbie Downer goes to Disney World and brings down the mood while simultaneously making her cast mates completely break (also why it’s hilarious). While Lindsey Lohan is excited to meet Pluto, Debbie says, “It must be fun to work here! Although the biggest drawback to working in a theme park is that you must live under constant fear of deadly terrorist attacks.” She continues to only bring up depressing topics around her excited friends by saying things like, “”By the way, it’s official…I can’t have children!”

This sketch is a fantastic example of hyperbole, irony, and situational humor all working together. It’s ironic that at the “happiest place on earth” all Debbie can bring up are diseases and global crisis. The settings of all of the sketches take a similar approach by centering around birthday parties, weddings, and holidays- seemingly happy times. The entire sketch also exaggerates the “debbie downer” persona by only having her mention sad things for 5 minutes straight with the wah-wah sound of a trumpet after each depressing fact. 

This sketch also represents how satire doesn’t solely function to make fun of people, but instead functions as a form of social commentary and catalyst of change. While this sketch isn’t as politically-charged as more recent SNL ones are, it’s still relevant and satirical. The point they are trying to get across is that people shouldn’t just be negative all of the time. Even though bad things are happening in the world, people should avoid being a debbie downer and try to focus on positive stories as well. I think that while paying attention to world news and being aware of catastrophic events is extremely important, you don’t need to feel constantly depressed by it and bring others down as a result. I think it’s also commenting on how the news in the past decade tends to focus on really sad things. If you turn on the news at night, there are good chances that it will be about death, crime, or global crisis.

In My Life

In less than 10 years, The Beatles produced over 200 songs, which often makes it hard to come up with a favorite. But,  when I heard “In My Life” for the first time, I just loved it. I think those are the most powerful and even poetic songs: the ones that immediately speak to you, transcend your pain, and stay with you all those years later (and of course what Perrine said too). I have memories even now listening to this with my sister while dropping her off at college, with my dad on any given night, and with myself during stressful moments. 

This is the song that when people tell me they aren’t Beatles fans I tell them they should listen to. Though I’m not as big of a fan of their earlier work, this song is the highlight of their 1965 album Rubber Soul. It’s credited to both Lennon and McCartney, but Lennon wrote most of the lyrics here. It tends to be a favorite among many Beatles fans, and, well I think that’s because it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever. 

The song starts off with a nostalgic tone as Lennon reflects on past places and people in his life. He begins, “There are places I’ll remember/All my life, though some have changed” and continues, “With lovers and friends, I still can recall/Some are dead, and some are living/ In my life, I’ve loved them all”. I think this first verse is particuallry strong because though he uses some vague language, you can tell he looks fondly upon on these memories. To the reader, there is not much specificity, but that really sets up the second half of the song by emphasizing that his current lover is more important to him.

Lennon said that this song was the first time he put his “literary self” into music, and I think that really shows. It has such a reflective and nostalgic tone. He effortlessly discusses the different influential people in his life and how much love he had for all of them. The tone of this song converys the reflection Lennon was doing while he wrote it and pulls the listener in. It makes you stop and reflect on similar people in your own life.

While he begins the song by reflecting on past moments, places, and friends, he quickly transitions to the present in the 2nd verse. He switches to addressing his current, “imaginary” lover (this is pre Yoko Ono). He writes, “But of all these friends and lovers/There is no one compares with you.”

That shift in time is something we’ve seen in a lot of poems. In “Those Winter Sundays” the author shifts from writing about what he remembers to what he understands. Lennon does the same here. I think that shift is an example of multidimensional language as it adds to the overall reflection of the song. He is able to convey how much his current best friend and lover means to him in contrast to past people.

As with many Beatles songs, there is a poetic flow. The lyrics are beautiful and descriptive and the melodies only make it better. On their own, the lyrics are poetry to me because they conjure up images of friends and specific places that Lennon was thinking about at the time.

Towards the end of the song he writes, “For people and things that went before/I know I’ll often stop and think about them/In my life, I’ll love you more.”  “Penny Lane” is famous for literally describing a place, but this song does the same. The images that Lennon creates here are extremely powerful because where his own memories are more vague, you as the listener fill in your own. Perrine, in describing poetry, discussed how it’s about experience and this song fits exactly that. Lennon makes it easy for the listener to understand his experience while reflecting on their own experience with life and meaningful people. 

We Shouldn’t Look Away from Stories like Beloved

When 12 Years a Slave came out in 2013, people were shocked at the violence and atrocities they witnessed on screen. They sat in disturbance as they watched Solomon Northup be forced back in to slavery and endure the cruelty of a vile slave owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Looking back, the oscar-worthy buzz surrounding it reminds me of the controversy surrounding Joker. It’s brutal and far from comfortable, but it boasts fantastic acting, seamless transitions, and  necessary origin stories. But, in both cases people were saying that they had to look away during especially violent scenes. It’s no surprise as in 12 Years a Slave you saw the cruelty upfront with lynching, brazen whippings, and painful sexual encounters. It was a landmark movie because for one of the first times in Hollywood, the story was told from a slave’s first-hand perspective . Unlike Gone with the Wind or even The Help, slavery is not whitewashed or romanticized in any way. The same holds true for Morrison’s Beloved. Since they are from the perspective of former slaves, it can be hard to watch and read at times, but it’s important that we do.


When someone told Morrison at a book reading that they couldn’t read parts of novel because its was so terrible, she responded, “People had these things done to them, they experienced them and they survived them. The least we can do is to write them, and read them, and talk about them.” Beloved, though in the 3rd person for most of the novel, is largely from Sethe’s perspective as we are taken through her intense flashbacks of Sweethome and her journey to 124. Morrison’s language captures the trauma that Sethe went through decades after escaping. As readers, we get the sense that the kind of trauma Sethe experienced is inescapable. Beloved was definitely hard to read at times.  12 Years a Slave was hard to watch. But it’s important to see the full story and actually read from the perspectives of people who went through such horrific things. Morrison was able to recover a story from the past that is often overlooked in Hollywood and even history classes I’ve taken.

The Nuance of Relationships In Exit West

In Exit West, Hamid explores various different themes by subverting the reader’s expectations about relationships, Muslims,  and migration. I specifically liked the way he showed the nuances of relationships and developed a theme of how along with a change in place, comes a change in people. As he explained in his book talk, often times migrants are dehumanized and characterized solely as “the other” by westerners. Thus, we tend to forget that these people have intense relationships, homes, and families that are all hard to leave. 

I found it really powerful how he went through the different stages of romantic relationships between Saeed’s parents and also Nadia and Saeed. The inclusion of the passage about Saeed’s parent’s sex life subverted my preconceived notions about how parents and devout relgious people normally act. The mom initated sex more often and shared a passionate relationship with her husband in the beginning stages of the relationship. Overtime, their sex life fizzled down, but the they were still each other’s best friends and thus stayed together until the mom got killed. Additionally, I liked how in both the description of Saeed’s mother and Nadia, Hamid characterized the women as more sexually aggressive and thereby flipped the male/female binary. 

Although I didn’t want to see Nadia and Saeed grow apart, I thought the ending was both fitting and realistic. It’s no question that going through such a large event like migrating to a different country changes people, so it makes sense they separated. I also liked that they were able to amicably separate, something that is rarely seen in movies or books today. It is expected that relationships have to end when people develop a deep hatred for one another, but in this case they chose to end on good terms and still have occasional contact. I thought it was a very sweet ending where they were able to reflect on their time together and be at peace that they didn’t marry, but still smile at their past.