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'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'To All the Boys I've Loved Before' bring Asian American representation to the mainstream


"To All the Boys I've Loved Before" is a romance film directed by Susan Johnson. It was released on Netflix on Aug. 17.  Buy Photos

After IU lecturer Lisa Kwong saw “Crazy Rich Asians" she was watching “Kim’s Convenience,” an Asian-Canadian TV show, and remarked at how awesome it was that both starred Asians. 

“This must be what a white person feels like,” said Kwong, a lecturer in the Asian American studies program.

In the United States, “Crazy Rich Asians” debuted in theaters about two weeks ago. Two days later, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” dropped on Netflix. The two movies, both romantic comedies, feature Asian American cast members and have sparked a national discussion in the United States about Asian American representation in film. 

That conversation hit home for students and staff at IU.

Growing up as a child of the ‘90s, Kwong never saw herself on screen. As an AppalAsian, an Asian from Appalachia, she grew up in an even smaller minority group. Although it made her sad, she never knew a life where she had that cultural representation.

“I was used to it,” Kwong said.

IU sophomore Chithra Vedantam, who grew up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, also felt this way.

“When I was in high school, there were not movies that portrayed Asian American women in lead roles,” Vedantam said.

That is why “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” meant so much to her. When your race isn’t represented in a romantic comedy, Vedantam said, it’s hard to participate in conversations about love.

“Media is the lens through which we learn our place in society,” Vedantam said. “If a group is not represented or is misrepresented, it gives society a warped view of that group, or that group has a warped view of themselves.”

Seeing Lana Condor as an Asian American romantic lead showed Vedantam that Asian Americans can be more than just a sidekick. Additionally, when there’s only one or two Asian American characters on screen, it can feel like they’re representing their entire race. 

“When we’re represented poorly, it becomes a stereotype,” she said.

Kwong enjoyed “Crazy Rich Asians” and seeing someone like her on film. However, she said these films need to be appreciated for what they are: romantic comedies. 

“Comedy can be a way to talk about topics and make them accessible to a wide audience,” Kwong said.

In her Asian American Literature and Media class, Kwong shows her students comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special “Homecoming King” for this effect.

While humor may be a good way to introduce representation, Kwong said that not all Asian stories are told through them. She would love to see movies about the Asian perspective of the Vietnam War or World War II.

She cited “George Takei’s Allegiance,” a Broadway musical about Japanese-American internment camps in World War II, as a starting place for this. The musical was filmed and released as a movie, but Kwong said she would like to see a mainstream movie about Asian Americans.

“There are independent Asian American films without any visibility,” she said. “The stories are told. They’re just not elevated to the mainstream.”

Although Kwong doesn’t think its level of mainstream should dictate any artist’s success, if a work is not mainstream, no one pays attention.

Some, like junior Sarah Covey, are interested in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Crazy Rich Asians” because of the representation.

“Because there’s diversity, it makes me want to see the movie more because it’s something unique,” Covey said.

Making over $26 million in the box office on its opening weekend, “Crazy Rich Asians” has been successful, proving others feel similar to Covey. 

At the end of the day, Kwong said she hopes movies with representation continue being made, to the point where labels like “the first all-Asian movie” or “a movie with an Asian American lead” are unnecessary.

“I want to see a movie that just happens to feature an Asian cast,” Vedantam said. 

A previous version of this article misspelled Chithra Vedantam. The IDS regrets this error.

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