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.

 

Orientalism in “The Nutcracker”

A few years ago, back at my old dance studio, I participated in the annual “Nutcracker” ballet that always took place around Christmas. Everyone would dress up in their fun costumes and go out and perform amazing choreography. While I always remembered it as a time of joy and cheer, I now see “the Nutcracker” for all of it’s faults. These faults came in the form of obvious culture stereotyping all throughout the ballet.

Because it has been around since 1892, the Nutcracker has been performed countless times by a countless amount of famous ballet companies. It is so ingrained into the ballet world, that many fail to recognize the Orientalism that plagues it. In particular, this exists in “the Land of Sweets” section of the ballet, and is abundantly present in the “Chinese Dance” and the “Arabian Dance.

While the “Chinese Dance” of the Nutcracker is often completed with many different variations, the most popular versions of it include movements with the index fingers pointing upwards and many bows from the waist. In addition to this, many of the variations include fans or umbrellas. This portrayal is both inaccurate and highly stereotypical.

Another dance that exhibits Orientalism is the “Arabian dance” which has been most popularly done as a pas de deux (dance between a man and a woman). The costumes for this dance usually include a woman in a bejeweled bra top and flowy pants and a man in pants and no shirt. The movements are often slow and the woman is supposed to be seen as beautiful and alluring. This promotes the common and inaccurate western stereotype of Eastern women as existing solely for a man’s pleasure.

All in all, I hope that major ballet companies can work in the future to alter the Nutcracker so that it does not exhibit such blatant Orientalism. Not only this, but many other ballets such as La Bayedere and Le Corsaire also need to be edited to remove all to present Orientalism. While many choreographers feel the need to preserve the historical roots of dance, Orientalism should not be something that is accepted.

God of Small Things and its Showcase of Broken Rules

I would like to start off with my opinion of novel, and I must say, it was not necessarily a favorite. I think the imagery throughout the novel was nice, and I enjoyed how certain characters developed throughout the story. But many times I was left absolutely confused. I think that may have been intentional as questions I had were answered throughout the story, but I think it being written that was didn’t allow readers to truly make connections with the characters and their stories and personal struggles. My favorite character was Velutha, simply because he seemed to have the most depth in character in my opinion.

Although I was not the hugest fan of the novel, I liked how it highlighted the breaking of a number of societal norms, whether they were specific to Ayemenem or just in general.

The first one I noticed was the number of failed marriages. I think divorce is still something people feel ashamed about today (although they should not) and it was interesting to see that almost everyone that was once married in the novel was either divorced or had a terrible marriage (like in Ammu’s mother’s case). And despite it being common in her family, it was still not common in her community. The text states,

Within the first few months of her return to her parents’ home, Ammu quickly learned to recognize and despise the ugly face of sympathy. Old female relations with incipient beards and several wobbling chins made overnight trips to Ayemenem to commiserate with her about her divorce. They squeezed her knee and gloated. She fought off the urge to slap them. Or twiddle their nipples. With a spanner. (43)

Ammu was still treated as if her situation was terrible and incredibly unfortunate just because she was divorced.

Another societal norm that was broken in the novel was the idea of a loving and supportive mother. Ammu seemed anything but that most of the time. She obviously loved her kids, but her love for them was often volatile and detached. Ammu literally said that she “loved her children but their wide-eyed vulnerability and their willingness to love people who didn’t really love them exasperated her and sometimes made her want to hurt them — just as an education, a protection(pg 42).” I don’t really think that’s much of a nurturing mother way of thinking. And when she did things like shrug her kids off when they were embracing her, or telling Rahel she loved her less the epitome of a detached love that lacks insight on how her actions affect her children.

There is also the biggest societal role broken when Rahel and Estha slept together, which I really did not enjoy (but I’m sure that was the point). I was kind of expecting it as the book went on and highlighted their closeness and their “oneness.” But it was just so weird.

Sex, Gender, and Orientalism

Typical examples of Orientalism, at least historical examples, seem to have a preoccupation with gender, power, and sex. In the interview with Edward Said, many paintings are shown depicting women in positions of sensual weakness, either being generally exposed or being aggressively handled by men. This idea of women being sexual objects to be used by men carries over into many of the more popular concepts in Orientalism. The concept of the harem, for example, is one where several women are in a sense owned by one central man and are used by him for sex, often existing in addition to the man’s wife or wives.

There is also the concept, popular in times of over conflict between the United States and the Middle East, of the ravaging Middle Eastern man sexually assaulting women and children in battle. This concept is not exclusive to Oriental/Middle Eastern stereotypes, but it goes hand in hand with depictions of Islam in Middle Eastern countries being one with female oppression and assault at its core.

Finally, I want to talk about the concept of Middle Eastern women being commodities not only for Middle Eastern men to consume, but for Western men to consume. Even in children’s films such as Aladdin, the main woman, Jasmine, is shown in clothing that is often associated with belly dancing. Belly dancing itself is largely considered sensual, centered around the movement of the hips. Its typical clothing involves a low-rise skirt and something to cover the chest, with flowing fabric that moves with the dancing. When Googling belly dancing in order to write this, I found YouTube videos with “sexy” and “hot” in the descriptions. I also found some Halloween costumes for children, which I don’t have much to say about as an intellectual point. Just thought it was weird.

What is up with this preoccupation with Middle Eastern people as either sexual objects or sexual aggressors? As to the sexual objects, I think it has something to do with how India and the Middle East were (and still are) viewed as commodities themselves. Colonialism views the world as full of things to be taken and owned. Often times, those things include people. White, straight men traveled around the world and took everything they possibly could. In a way, portraying these women as scantily-clad, sensual women that were regularly dominated by the men in their countries already made it seem as though they were asking for it. Asking to be dominated, abused, and owned by the white colonialists. For the men, I think it has something to do with similarly justifying the violence and ownership of themselves, their possessions, and their land. When we portray people as savages, less than human, it makes it that much easier to abuse their rights.

Check out this video by Lindsay Ellis if you’re interested in Orientalism and musical theatre; it’s a fascinating breakdown of one of the more obscure, yet fetishized characters from Phantom of the Opera.

A Bird’s-Eye View

The personal is political.

Second-wave feminist slogan

In AP Literature Class, we’ve talked a lot about power, including massive power structures such as race, class, and gender. However, I know that for me, sometimes these concepts can become very abstract. I don’t always connect our talk of these issues with the real world, because in my everyday life, power structures have always just surrounded me, as seemingly natural as the air I breathe. I am desensitized to them, and I have no way of seeing the extent to which they actually shape my life. That is, until, every once in a while, a really good piece of literature makes me zoom out and gives me a bird’s eye view of life with which I am able to realize how much large-scale power structures do impact individual lives. In my opinion, The God of Small Things might do this the best of any book we’ve read this year. 

The God of Small Things deals not merely with power dynamics, but it makes clear their consequences in a very poignant way. By juxtaposing the characters’ personal power struggles with their power struggles on a systemic level, it shows how large-scale power structures can have deeply personal impacts. 

One quote that I believe shows this very strikingly is on page 101. It consists of Estha’s thoughts as he has just come back into the auditorium after being molested by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man and is watching the Sound of Music. He wonders if one of the characters from the film, Baron von Trapp, would be able to love him and Rahel and be a father to them, and imagines that Baron von Trapp has the following questions that Estha and Rahel must answer before he can decide.

(a) Are they clean white children?

No. (But Sophie Mol is.)

(b) Do they blow spit bubbles?

Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)

(c) Do they shiver their legs? Like clerks?

Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)

(d) Have they, either or both, ever held strangers’ soo-soos?

N… Nyes. (But Sophie Mol hasn’t.)

“Then I’m sorry,” Baron von Clapp-Trapp said. “It’s out of the question. I cannot love them. I cannot be their Baba. Oh no.” 

To me, this quote is particularly heartbreaking because it highlights so many of Estha and Rahel’s vulnerabilities and insecurities due to both the state of their personal lives and their status in society. 

First of all, their desire for Baron von Trapp to be a father to them shows their yearning for a father figure in their lives because of the absence of their own father. While this is personal to them, it is also connected to the political because the reason their parents divorced was because their father was abusive, and the reason Ammu even got into a relationship with an abusive man in the first place was because she was desperate to escape from her own abusive father and was not allowed a college education because she was a girl, so she had few options other than marriage (38-39). Therefore, Estha and Rahel’s lack of a father, while it is very personal, is also connected to issues of women’s rights and feminism. Likewise, Baron von Trapp’s questions about whether Estha and Rahel blow spit bubbles and shiver their legs also shows how their relationship with Ammu can be tense because they sometimes remind her of their father (especially when they blow spit bubbles an shiver their legs) (80), and therefore how the effects of something as large as sexism can be felt even in a deeply personal sphere.

Another way Roy blends the personal and political nature of Estha and Rahel’s insecurities in this quote is the mention of all the ways Sophie Mol meets Baron von Trapp’s standards while Estha and Rahel don’t. Estha and Rahel are acutely aware of how much their family adores Sophie Mol, and this not only sparks in them children’s natural jealousy at another child seeming more loved by their family than they are (if any of you have little siblings, you might have felt this when they were born), but also a sense of inferiority based on a WHITE/person of color and WEST/east power dynamic. Estha and Rahel are cognizant of the fact that Sophie Mol is so beloved by their family not only because eight-year-olds are cute and it’s always fun to see a family member who you haven’t seen in a long time, but also because the fact that Sophie Mol is white-passing and British makes her somehow extra special and superior. Thus, once again, Roy shows how large-scale systems of power such as racism influence things as intimate as family dynamics and children’s’ self-esteem. 

But for me, the word that blends the deeply personal and the political the most strikingly is the word “clean.” 

(a) Are they clean white children?

No. (But Sophie Mol is.)


The idea of Estha and Rahel not being as “clean” as Sophie Mol and the white children in The Sound of Music is a really loaded concept in this passage in so many ways. On one level, it reflects racism, as people with darker skin have often been seen throughout history as less “clean” than people with lighter skin, particularly in the West and countries that have been subject to Western colonialism. However, it also relates to Estha’s experience of abuse, as it is not unusual for survivors of sexual abuse to feel they have been made “dirty” somehow by their abusers if they have not yet been able to come to terms with what happened to them. So, as Estha sits watching The Sound of Music, he feels doubly “dirty” both because of what happened to him on an individual level and because of what society tells him about who he is. To me, Roy’s multilayered use of the word “clean” and her repetition of it throughout the chapter is a perfect example of how the lines between personal struggles and political struggles can become very blurry for marginalized people and how each type of struggle can have an impact that is extremely profound.

What “Beauty Queens” Will Do For Beauty

For the 50 teenage female contestants in the “Miss Teen Dream” beauty pageant, beauty is everything. A lot of them have spent their whole lives believing that this was the only thing that they could strive to do. So when the plane that they were traveling in crash lands on a deserted island, it immediately becomes apparent that they care much more for their looks and outside characteristics than they care about surviving and getting off the island. This creates a gloriously funny satire that coveys the point that the current standards of beauty for women are completely ridiculous and girls shouldn’t let them define who they are.

While all of the characters are completely hilarious, a great deal of the satire regarding beauty standards can be attributed to Miss Taylor Krystal Rene Hawkins (Miss Texas). During the beginning of the novel, her character serves as almost an internal antagonist to the other main characters. This is in most part due to her extreme desire to ensure that everyone is still doing all they can to prepare for the beauty pageant and conform to the society’s beauty standards even when they are running out of food and water on the island. Since this is obviously wrong, the reader can take away Libba Bray’s point that society needs to stop pushing women to prioritize beauty over everything else.

Interspersed throughout the novel are “commercial breaks”. These are short yet hilarious interruptions of the plot and usually come at times of great intensity in the novel. Most of these commercials advertise weird beauty products that seem completely ridiculous to the reader. These “commercial breaks” are one of the main sources of humor in the book and reflect the unnecessary beauty standards of the world we live in. By reading these advertisements, the reader can see how sexist and misguiding the current media is regarding the way women should act and dress.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but laughing every 10 seconds. Each of the different personalities and voices of the girls was represented on the narration and the way that they interacted with each other was hilarious. The satire of the book was clearly understood and beautifully written and I completely agree with the argument she made about the beauty standards that society forces women to follow.

Black Robes

Nadia is consistently wearing her robes even when they are no longer in her home country. Nadia never wears the robes as a religious statement but more as a way to prevent people from messing with her.

The type of robe that Nadia was wearing was probably a chador, which is a full-body shawl that is held together at the neck either by a pin or hand. It is popular in Iran.

In my Modern Middle Eastern Class, I did a culture project on reasons why women would wear head covering and robes. In Western Culture, it is sometimes tough to not see head coverings and robes as oppression of women. However, for many it is a very personal choice and not an oppressive act at all.

Dr. Mrs. N.Z. Vakil explains, “ I feel protected and confident when I step out [in a hijab].” This is very similar to Nadia’s reasons for wearing her robes. In America, we see dressing super modestly as a form of being politically conservative or as old-fashioned. But for Nadia and Dr.Vakil, it is something way more then that. Deciding to wear some sort of covering could be because of religion, style, protection or a statement. We have to understand that not every head-covering or robe is a forced act or as extreme as a burqa. There is no denying that Nadia is strong and independent with or without the robes.

Is Existentialist a Synonym for Pessimist?

Every time we’ve entered class this week I was thinking about whether or not an existentialist could ever have true joy. Could a person who ultimately believes nothing is real and has no meaning find any kind of purpose in life? Could an existentialist play the game of life while still maintaining their beliefs? To me, that just seems absolutely dreadful. Like it is explained in Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus,” the true tragedy comes from consciousness and ignorance seems to truly be bliss.

I personally, am very okay with living in that ignorance. I don’t think I would like to look into the eyes of my father and think “this is not real,” or marry someone someday out of practicality. To me that seems like sticking yourself in one hopeless, never-ending box.

But in what parts of existentialism could one find happiness? Sometimes I think about what I would do if I truly did not care what people thought or about the consequences of my actions. If I didn’t believe in the system of education, I know I most certainly would not do my homework, I would not be, what seems like, relentlessly stressed over college. I definitely would not equate my value to the 4 digits of my SAT score. In that sense, I believe I would be happy.

But I feel like existentialism is inherently selfish. Those things I mentioned before, only benefit me. Existentialism seems very much solely focused on self and not on how the choices I’d make would affect others as well. If I suddenly stopped caring about school then I would be negating the hard work my parents put in to move to Oak Park so I could get a good education.

So, if I did not care about others and I didn’t care about probably ending up impoverished and bitter, I would be an existentialist. But I don’t prefer those things, so I’m good.

Terrans and Women Face Similar Reproductive Pressures

When we know something is science fiction we are quick to write off any weird characters or unnatural worldly elements. We see them as something that would never happen in real life because it’s a work of fiction. However, when looking at the underlying themes of “Bloodchild” and analyzing the role reproduction plays in it, there are similarities to the world we live in today. The people who are in power are also the ones who can’t have children, thus they make reproduction the sole purpose of the ones who can.  Though that may be a little bit of an exaggeration (but not really), there are clear gender roles in Octavia Butler’s story, but the reverse of the ones we see today.  

Today, women are constantly fed this image of a glorified homemaker and are told that their place is in the home, caring for children. The paragon of a woman is conflated with the paragon of a mother. Women are expected to be the submissive one in a heterosexual relatioship and bear the children. After all the baby comes out of a female reproductive organ. Thus, women feel the pressures of having a baby all the time. 

I saw this as my sister recently got engaged and after 6 years of dating the constant question from family members changed from “when’s the ring coming” to “when’s the baby coming.” Similar pressures are existent in this story as Gan has no agency over his body. He is brainwashed into having T’Gatoi’s baby because that is what he sees as normal in society, specifically his own family. 

Gan’s mother was one of the few people in her family who never hosted eggs before. After Gan eat his eggs, T’Gatoi convinces his mom to take the rest of his so she can enjoy the anti-aging benefits. Butler writes, “Unwillingly obedient, my mother took it from me and put it to her mouth. There were only a few drops left in the now-shrunken, elastic shell, but she squeezed them out, swallowed them, and after a few moments some of the lines of tension began to smooth from her face”(65). Here, the mother is pressured by T’gatoi to take the rest of Gan’s egg even though she never really wanted to in the first place. After taking it, Gan recounts that his “mother cried out- probably in surprise”(66). This is just a glimpse of the pain that the Terrans experience while taking the eggs. They were also described as “convulsing” and “bloody” since all births are via painful  c-sections. The pain that they endure while giving birth is similar to what a lot of women go through today, especially given the fact that about 30% of births are via c-section. 

Gan also sees the standard of hosting eggs many times within his family. Gan’s “father, who had never refused one [egg] in his life, had lived more than twice as long as he should have”(65). Similar to today, there is a standard of having more than one child as women are expected to go through the process of giving birth 2, 3, 4 times. Here, the father had gone through the process multiple times, another reason Gan normalized the process of hosting eggs.

“Bloodchild” Vs. Society

Indeed, “Bloodchild” is not about slavery. It is about how the Tlic and Terrans formed an interdependent relationship in which they try to leave peacefully among each other.  As the Tlic offer protection, the Terrans offer one male from each family to serve as a host to Tlic eggs. 

The Tlic are viewed as evil because they are non-human creatures. They are parasitic that need host animals for their eggs. The Tlic reproduce by laying their fertile eggs in other living organisms where the larvae feed off of the host’s blood. When the larvae hatch, they release a poison into the host’s body where they start eating their egg cases while continuing to consume the host. 

A major part of this short story is the influence of culture and society’s expectations. Modern society understands slavery as a treacherous experience, sympathizing to the recurrence of oppression. Butler discusses the approaches by which humans simultaneously protect their survival while also maintaining their survival. The Terrans arrived at a desperate time, so the Tlic used that opportunity to use them as host organisms. There is a symbiotic codependency between the Tlic and the Terrans. The Tlic teach Terrans about the process of reproduction. From birth, Terrans are taught and adjusted to the societal order. In the story, Gan and T’Gatoi develop a relationship that is both loving and manipulative. 

Lastly, Butler creates an unusual binary switch in which the men become pregnant. Our modern day society has a fixed view on gender binary. Usually, males have the majority of the power and females are left with little to nothing. Butler criticizes the traditional power dynamic of the gender binary by establishing a world where the power dynamic between men and women are reversed.

Mutual Recognition in “Bloodchild”

Jessica Benjamin explains that people have to recognize everyone as individuals in order to avoid dominance and aggression. People need to build relationships to steer clear of building a hierarchy of dominance. Without building relationships, people will never reach mutual recognition. Benjamin disagrees with Freud’s theory because the theory ignores the need to connect with others. It also only allows for women to be submissive players in their own lives. However, both need to realize the power dynamic in order to reach mutual recognition. 

This need to recognize that you are in a power dynamic is a bit problematic to me because although people in the submissive side do need to realize they are being oppressed for the relationship to change, more responsibility should be given to the dominant side of the relationship. The dominant side enforces the power dynamic and it ultimately up to them to fix the skewed relationship. 

In “Bloodchild” although Gan is ultimately given the choose to decide whether him or his sister should be impregnated, this is not a sign of mutual recognition. The choice is not really his because someone in his family is still going to have to go though this painful process. The terrains do have examples of not completely submitting to the power dynamic. However, the Tilcs are still the ones with the power and will not be willing to give more power to the terrains because then their species would be threatened by not being able to reproduce. The dynamic is very oppressive to the terrains. Gan, since birth, has been brainwashed that it is his duty to be impregnated. When he contemplating not to be impregnated, he was taking some power back but he never reaches mutual recognition. The terrains are seen as a mean to reproduce and not as an individual on the same level as the Tilcs. Mutual recognition would only be achieved if both sides saw each other as equals in all parts of life.



The Old Blog is Dead! Long Live the Old Blog!

For many years, we used the Blogger platform for the AP Lit blog. Since it is owned by Google, it integrates pretty seamlessly with your Google accounts — which made it easy to use, in some respects — but it is a very limited and bug-ridden platform. So this year, we have decided to construct a new class blog from scratch using the most more powerful and stable WordPress platform.

If you are interested, though, in seeing what past AP Lit students have been thinking and writing about, feel free to wander over to the old blog.

old blog