It’s a small moment: Rachel Chu is in bed, admiring her boyfriend, the extremely handsome Nick Young. She pulls her glasses away from her face in a cartoonish gesture. “Hubba hubba,” she says.
This scene in Crazy Rich Asians, fleeting though it is, captures something crucial about the film: its celebration of the female gaze.
The movie, which topped the box office in its first weekend with earnings of $34 million, has been praised for offering meaty roles to Asian and Asian-American actresses, who remain underrepresented in Hollywood. In the top 100 films of 2016, just 5.7 percent of speaking characters were of Asian descent, according to USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. And as Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos has written, the movie is groundbreaking in its depiction of Asian men as desirable and sexy, unfortunately a rarity in American popular culture. But there’s another way Crazy Rich Asians breaks with most contemporary American movies: by telling its story, at key moments, through women’s eyes.
The men of Crazy Rich Asians look amazing — and the women take notice
Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu unabashedly encourages his audience to gawk at the film’s male leads. Henry Golding, who plays Nick; Chris Pang, who plays his best friend Colin Khoo; and Pierre Png, who plays Nick’s brother-in-law Michael Teo, all appear shirtless at some point, often with the camera lingering lovingly on their muscles.
Png has said he had to work out for one of his scenes, in which his character emerges from a shower. “I am, by nature, on the scrawny side,” he told Harper’s Bazaar Singapore. “I had to bulk up within a short time — three weeks.”
But the audience doesn’t just watch the men of Crazy Rich Asians — we watch the women watching the men. Rachel’s playful gesture with her eyeglasses is just the beginning. When Nick arrives at a party in a beautiful white suit, Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) gawks and exclaims, “He’s like the Asian Bachelor,” a moment that appears in one of the movie’s trailers.
Later, Rachel checks out her boyfriend in a tuxedo and notes approvingly that he should wear one more often.
Crazy Rich Asians as a whole pays extended homage to the well-cut suit, from Nick’s white linen look (from the Malaysian label Wardrobe) to the navy tuxedo worn by Charlie Wu (Harry Shum Jr.) in the movie’s mid-credits scene. Chu and costume designer Mary Vogt clearly put as much thought into the menswear in Crazy Rich Asians as the womenswear, and it shows — the men look amazing, and the women notice.
Then there’s a moment between Nick and his mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Rachel has spilled wine on Nick’s shirt, and he’s gone upstairs to change. As he’s stripping, giving the audience a clear view of his muscled torso, Eleanor walks in and suggests he put on a blue shirt. She helps him into it.
“How do I look?” he asks.
Her response: “Perfect.”
It’s not a sexual moment (though Michelle Ruiz at Vogue detects some Oedipal undertones). Rather, it’s a telling exchange between a mother and the son she’s been preparing since childhood to be a leader in his family — we learn later in the film that she sent him to live with his grandmother so he would be in a better position to inherit the family fortune. Eleanor cares what her son looks like because it reflects on her and on their whole family. When she looks at him and pronounces him perfect, it reflects the goals she’s had for him for decades, and how close those goals are to fruition.
When women are the ones looking, they have power
Moments like this one — a woman evaluating a man’s appearance — are unusual in mainstream movies. Film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” in a 1975 essay to describe the way women often appear on film: as passive images to be looked at both by male characters and by the audience. Men in movies, meanwhile, get to be active; they are the ones doing the looking, the ones who desire rather than the ones who are desired. They make the decisions.
For Mulvey, male heroes also act as stand-ins for the audience. “As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist,” she writes, “he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” Looking, in essence, is power.
More recently, critics and film students have started using the term “female gaze” to refer to a rarer phenomenon: an active female point of view represented onscreen, either through the perspective of a female filmmaker or female characters. If the male gaze reduces women to static sex objects, the female gaze turns them into protagonists. No longer just the ones who are looked at, they’re now the ones who look.
One famous recent example: the scene in season 4 of Game of Thrones in which Daenerys Targaryen invites swordsman Daario Naharis to disrobe, and sits back and watches as he does.
“The thrill of being invited by the camera to regard a naked man in an explicitly erotic context as a woman drove home how rarely I’ve felt that when watching mainstream TV, let alone ‘prestige’ TV,” Lili Loofbourow wrote at Salon when the episode aired in 2014. “Only male arousal wins awards.”
Since then, Game of Thrones has catered more frequently to a female perspective, adding more male nudity as well as a lesbian character who turns her female gaze on women. But Loofbourow’s still right — women on TV and film remain more looked-at than looking.
That’s why it’s groundbreaking for Crazy Rich Asians to tell its story from a female point of view, in a very literal sense. When Rachel hubba-hubbas at Nick, she’s not just expressing her desire for him — though that in itself would be unusual in a pop-cultural landscape still primarily centered on male desire. She’s also stepping into the active role — she’s the one whose desire drives the action forward, even though the action in this case is just a light-hearted exchange between two lovers.
When Eleanor pronounces Nick perfect, meanwhile, she demonstrates the power of the female gaze. In that moment, she decides what Nick wears, how he presents himself downstairs to family and friends. Her control over that moment mirrors her control over all the characters in the movie — she’s the one whose decision nearly splits Nick and Rachel up, and whose reversal allows them to marry. She’s the one whose gaze truly matters, the one everyone has to impress.
As Mia Mercado notes at Bustle, Asian and Asian-American women have typically been either marginalized or fetishized (or both) in American films. “In the past, whenever I saw an Asian woman in a movie, she was probably going to be peripheral, hypersexual, or really good with knives,” she writes. “But I don’t feel peripheral in my own story.”
By giving the female characters the power to look at, ogle, and appraise the men in their lives, Crazy Rich Asians makes them central to the story. They, not the men, are the surrogates for the audience, and moviegoers — millions of them, according to the box office figures — are invited to see the world through their eyes.