In response to the social media outcry about Crazy Rich Asians’ lack of diversity we asked one of our founders for her opinion
Whilst I think the film’s ‘lack of diversity’ issue is extremely pertinent, the focus and energy spent decrying the casting of a Hollywood movie is misguided. Misguided because Hollywood is not the’ real world’. I am well aware how culture can and has been used as ‘soft power’; the perfect example is American pop culture’s global dominance. Whoever controls media has power - even more so in our digitally connected world, where subtle messages can travel the world in an instant gaining hearts and minds at the touch of a button.
I also agree that whilst disseminating culture, society - especially women and young people - are subjected to unobtainable images of beauty ideals and this can have serious negative consequences. If you care to search for it, there is a slew of research showing the link between media and the rise in eating disorders. Organizations like Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender In Media argues that much more research needs to be done because evidence suggests that media plays a powerful role in establishing social norms, individual identity and well-being. Even more alarming is the recent evidence which shows media’s links to racism and bullying in the united states.
But I am sorry to say that whenever, I hear an actress of colour, who has just won an award, tearfully telling the world how happy she is because growing up she didn’t see an image of herself in the media and now all her dreams have come true because Hollywood chose her and by proxy has made her ‘good enough’, my heart sinks. Since when did a movie become the litmus test for who we are as individuals? Our self worth should not be based on what we see on the screen or in print or on billboards.
In my opinion individuals need to consider how they consume media responsibly and parents have a duty of care to explain how to access media to their children. Hollywood or the movie business is about pure fantasy and by definition meant as entertainment. Cinema is an industry which was only able to grow once economic development and industrialization gave Joe (and Jane) Public more leisure time. Film is a product and cinema history if you care to read it, is about making movies to get the masses to part with a few dollars a week as relief from their dreary lives. Movies were never meant to be a moral guideline or a standard of beauty, they simply reflected stories that would intrigue and engage an audience or push government propaganda.
It is only human to use popular culture from movies to fashion as a standard and of course movies have power, not just to entertain us but to help us question and make sense of the world - just like all good art. But don’t forget less than a 50 years ago actors where ‘infamous’ not famous. A good family would be horrified at the idea of their child, especially a woman becoming an actor. You may as well have announced you were starting a career as an exotic dancer or escort. Fast forward to today: society looks to media (hollywood and the fashion industry) to tell us how to see ourselves. Ergo unless I see myself reflected on the big screen I have no worth. Whilst I agree Hollywood and the fashion industry should promote diversity to reflect our non homogeneous societies of all races, skin colours, sexual orientation but we should also take responsibility to think about what we consume and why we consume it and the meaning it creates in our lives.
Back to Crazy Rich Asians for me the focus should not be only on getting representation in Hollywood but getting more diversity in the 'REAL' world where things matter more. Some critics of the movie complain that some of the richest people in Asia are actually Indian and there are no Singaporeans of colour in lead roles. But the writer I’m told is a Chinese Singaporean writing about the Chinese Singapore ‘beau monde’. As far as I am concerned he should be allowed to write a book about any race or gender he likes. More pertinent for me is that it didn’t even occur to whoever cast the movie that casting brown faces as drivers and house staff was off colour (excuse the pun) because this in many ways reflects Singapore Society. I say this not to criticize a society I am a guest in (I have been lucky enough to live and work here for 6 years) but to draw attention to the marginalization of minorities which happens in every society. I repeat every society.
As a third culture child who didn’t fit in any one place I have spent years watching and learning from each country I found myself in because I had to learn how things worked and fast. My family heritage is from West Africa but I was born and bred in the UK and because of my fathers job I lived between Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of my earliest memories were about dealing with difference - from living in a small mining town in Africa and being the hoity toity ‘British kid’, to living in Asia in the 90’s and having to pose for photographs with strangers (even happens today and never fails to delight me). The sense of ‘otherness’ continued even after university and I got my first graduate job in the UK. Almost everyone was ‘white’ at the company Headquarters. It didn't bother me because to give me stability my parents sent me to boarding school in a small town in the UK which had zero diversity and 80% of the population were over 60’s. On the first day at work I realized there seemed to be an unspoken racial hierarchy because all the staff who had brown faces worked in the cafeteria or the shop floor. The higher the floor at Head Office the more male it was (senior managers and board members) the lower floors were by and large more female (junior and middle managers) and as you got lower in the building more diverse (i.e. brown faces in the basement). I was the aberration because I worked in the buying office.
I saw this same racial hierarchy in company after company across my my 20 year career, the same pattern was repeated with suppliers when I set up my own business. Once you see a pattern it quickly becomes apparent it is a reflection of something going on in society. One job is no better than another in my mind because the company needs all those staff from the basement up to the corner office to function. Except for one critical thing which means not all jobs are made equal and that critical thing is salary. Those on the higher floors are by definition better paid and if minorities cluster in certain types of jobs they have lower pay which gives them less access and opportunities.
In Singapore visit any hotel or F&B outlet the best place to quickly observe any patterns. Additionally in your work day check out who works in the basement and who has the corner office or has manager as a title. Work with any SME and go to their distributor centers vs their management office I would wager the same patterns are repeated. Minorities tend to cluster in manual, unskilled or skilled blue colour jobs, whereas white colour professional jobs are kept for majority whether you are in the US, UK or Australia. This is such a pressing issue the World Bank has an Equality Project because they see the marginalization of minorities as a global problem which needs addressing.
I'm not Singaporean but if I was, I would be using the Crazy Rich Asian discussion to ask deeper questions about my society. Is there is a lack of access which echos the aforementioned issues in the UK? I would also ask myself what I can do because as a participative citizen who wants to improve society I too have the power to create change and address issues I find important. I would not be spending time focusing on a Hollywood movie which was meant to entertain me. Instead I would spend my time promoting diversity in a positive way. Since racism can be institutional I would consider how I could change those institutions. For example volunteer by reading with children who’s mothers have been incarcerated (usually a high cluster of minority groups) or volunteer with at risk youth. A concerned citizen might start a group for minorities in their industry or within their company or join a mentorship programme and mentor young aspiring kids from minority groups so they can get support and advice about the industry so they believe they have a chance to succeed. If you are a decision maker you could ask your people to consider their policy on minority hires, management progression and check out the latest best practice. If I was rankled by the film’s lack of diversity I would start to question and lobby for more representation not just in the media but also the number of minority CEOs, Board Membership access, management access and government jobs. I would be curious to find out if there is any supporting data which proves minorities management and leadership roles reflect the population or if statistics show a lack of access.
All of us need to do our bit if something annoys us about our society because as long as it’s positive contribution to society then it’s probably worth doing. I do my bit by co-founding a Social Enterprise Boheme Style Nomads. The e-commerce platform helps single Mums in Singapore by training them to make jewellery from home so they can earn money and look after their kids. I give my time to the organization as a volunteer and all profits go back to the company. Whenever I can, I try to give students opportunities to volunteer so they can learn about the importance of investing in making society better. By allowing them to volunteer in areas they are interested in they can see how a few hours of their time impacts people’s lives. Students have volunteered on various projects such as sorting out donated goods, helping backstage at a fashion show for disabled young people and manning booths at design week. So where ever you find yourself you can do your bit.
In the meantime we have to thank Hollywood for buying the rights to the book and making CRZ because it has made the issue of diversity topical. Hope some good things will come out of it. Good things meaning not just casting brown faces in adverts and Hollywood movies or showing how diverse the super rich are but really looking at the lack of access and representation that affects our everyday lives. Also the movies is a good reminder about how individuals need to take responsibility to consume ‘media’ responsibly and teach young people to do the same.