In August 2018, several films with Asian American leads were released within days of each other: Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Searching. It seemed that Asians were having a cultural moment, which some people dubbed #AsianAugust. While some critics voiced concerns about #AsianAugust being a passing trend, its momentum still continues almost a year later. Warner Bros. is developing a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians; in December, Marvel announced that it was working on Shang-Chi, the studio’s first film led by an Asian protagonist; and next month, Lulu Wang’s Sundance hit The Farewell, which centers a Chinese family, will hit theaters.
Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe continues #AsianAugust’s momentum, especially around romantic comedies led by Asian American women. The Ali Wong and Randall Park-written and produced film has a classic rom-com set up: After Sasha’s (Wong) is traditionally handsome, successful boyfriend turns out to be a jerk, she realizes she’s actually in love with Marcus (Park), her schlubby childhood best friend. Always Be My Maybe features characters that are only incidentally Asian; their race and ethnicities are important, but not the central driving force behind their stories. Though this shouldn’t be revolutionary, Hollywood still has a lot of ground to cover after decades of whitewashing Asian American stories.
As per usual, the Bitch staff had some FeelingsTM about representation. In this roundtable, we discuss what we love about Always Be My Maybe, what we hate, and the wider implications of the current wave of Asian American-led rom-coms.
Many people were ecstatic when Netflix announced nearly two years ago that Ali Wong and Randall Park were working on a romantic comedy script. Did Always Be My Maybe meet your expectations, exceed them, or disappoint?
Jessica De Jesus, creative director: Admittedly, I don’t remember when the project was announced. Multiple friends recommended it, so I watched Always Be My Maybe after it premiered. I set my standards at “cute, lighthearted rom-com,” and it didn’t disappoint. It didn’t exceed them either. It just gave me joy.
Marina Watanabe, social media editor: I also missed the announcement, but I was beyond thrilled about the trailer. I’m probably the Debbie Downer here, but the film disappointed me. I think there were a lot of great elements that ultimately didn’t come together. I found Randall Park’s character Marcus to be really unlikable, and I struggled to understand what Sasha (Ali Wong) saw in him. I understand that the movie was trying to make a point about Sasha becoming divorced from her roots, but it was frustrating to watch Marcus criticize her for being passionate about her career. I think his criticisms came off as an adult man still living at home shitting on a successful woman who’s navigating a white male-dominated industry.
KaeLyn Rich, executive director: I love Fresh Off the Boat, so I was excited to see Nahnatchka Khan working on this project alongside Park and Wong. Khan, who’s Iranian American, brought a real understanding of how to center Asian people and culture without pigeonholing and mocking them to Fresh Off the Boat, so I trusted her to bring that sensibility to her directorial debut. Always Be My Maybe is a great film, if you measure it by typical rom-com narrative tropes. I wholeheartedly enjoyed it in that vein. If you look at the whole rom-com genre through a feminist or queer lens, then you know the genre is full of sexist and heteronormative messages. Always Be My Maybe didn’t do much to confront or change that dominant narrative. I enjoyed it, though, in the way I enjoyed You’ve Got Mail except this time the people looked like me.
What did you love most about Always Be My Maybe?
JDJ: It was a typical love story where the main characters just happen to be Asian. Yet, we see how that love story works within an Asian American context. It felt like they were saying, “We don’t have to be token characters, but our culture is integral to this story.” I burst into tears when Sasha’s parents told her they paid full price at her restaurant. I think many different types of people can relate to absent parents who try to make up for the past through certain gestures, but understanding just how specific that gesture was as an Asian/Pacific Islander person with immigrant parents broke my heart in a good way.
MW: While I didn’t like the film, I loved Wong’s comedic delivery. She can make virtually any line funny. And though Always Be My Maybe wasn’t for me, I’m so thankful it exists. Aside from Sasha’s best friend Veronica (Michelle Buteau) being a queer woman of color, Asian American actors comprise the entire main cast. Asian American representation in Hollywood is very near and dear to my heart—so I’m always happy to see these kinds of movies being made.
KR: I loved Veronica, and I loved the quiet subversive choice of having the pregnant best friend assistant sassy Black character, which is a lot of stuff to hold, also be married to a woman and do more than crack jokes and stand in the background. I liked that she got to be a semi-whole person who showed up in scenes outside of her job. She had a history and a future in the story. I liked that her queerness wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot for what is often a throwaway typecast role. If there’s gonna be a queer Black BFF in the script, let it be one like this. Oh, and Wong and Park were perfect together and had believable chemistry in both romantic and comedic scenes.
Always Be My Maybe joins a chorus of newer rom-coms, including Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, that feature Asian leads. Why are rom-coms, in particular, embracing such an underrepresented community? Are there stories that haven’t been told in this space that should be?
JDJ: We never see ourselves as the love interest unless it’s fetishized. I hope more people of color filling up writers’ rooms will change that. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a pivotal casting because Lana Condor wasn’t a familiar name. Set it Up had the iconic Lucy Liu. John Cho was a charming, leading character in ABC’s Selfie (and I’m still mad it got canceled). But these are established actors who the Asian community have been cheering on throughout their careers. Condor didn’t first play a lovable side character and then became a leading character. She had her breakout role as the star of the film.
I want to see us in more leading roles as complex characters, superheroes, wizards, ordinary fucking people. I want to see us portrayed dealing with mental health or see the experience of a queer, Asian immigrant. I want to see Filipinx stories. I want to see us.
MW: Romantic comedies have always been sidelined and overlooked because it’s considered a “woman’s genre.” Though previous waves of rom-coms have been predominantly white and straight, they were still considered niche films because they centered and catered to female audiences. It makes sense that an already marginalized subgenre of film would lend itself well to more inclusive representation of marginalized communities.
It’s also notable that Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe were written and directed by Asian Americans. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on Jenny Han’s 2014 novel, and she had to fight to ensure the film would cast an Asian lead. Though she struggled to find a studio that wouldn’t whitewash the protagonist, she still refused to settle. When we give Asian Americans power behind the camera, they ensure that we’re represented in front of it.
KR: I don’t know why it’s happening other than more women and more people of color are finally being hired as writers. We get it in ways that white people just can’t. That said, there’s still only one Asian director, actor, etc., who gets to “make it” at a time. As Hadestown director, Rachel Chavkin, the only woman director currently on Broadway, said during the 2019 Tony Awards the other night, “This is not a pipeline issue.” There are so many talented people who are ready to work hard AF—harder if they have to.
It makes sense that diverse representation is happening in rom-coms. It reminds me a bit of the earlier days of gay-directed and written lesbian and gay films. A lot of them were rom-coms and that’s still a popular genre. We want to be a part of these stories we grew up on, to know that we’re lovable, desirable, and deserve happy endings as much as Meg Ryan does. It’s also easier to bankroll them because it’s a sellable story and doesn’t require a big special-effects budget. I also want Asian leads in horror films, fantasy films (not in typecast roles), historical fiction, and dramas. I want Asian stories about all sorts of topics, not just family and food. I want Asian leads who have disabilities, who are fat, queer, trans, biracial, adoptees, who have all sorts of jobs, who have complex inner lives. I want all of that for us.
The movie has been criticized online, especially on Twitter, for perpetuating ableism when Sasha points out to Randall that Asians in their community use handicap stickers to get better parking spots. What are ways that comedies can stop reaching for these low-hanging punch lines?
JDJ: Oof. I think they could’ve easily added a line to either character that was like, “Hey, not all disabilities are visible, but I know for sure that is my uncle so-and-so and he’s bragged about it.” It would not have taken away from the moment, but rather enhanced it.
MW: This was so frustrating because the line added nothing of value to the movie itself. It was completely unnecessary. Not only do jokes like that make audiences suspicious of invisibly disabled people, but they also just point to lazy writing. The solution is simple: Don’t include ableist jokes.
KR: Like all ableist, transphobic, homophobic, racist, and sexist jokes, it was entirely unnecessary and thoughtless. There are so, so, so many Asian stereotypes they could’ve taken a swing at that would’ve been inside-joke funny without being ableist. The way to stop reaching for these jokes is to stop writing them. It’s as easy as that.
Always Be My Maybe features characters that are only incidentally Asian; their race and ethnicities are important, but not the central driving force behind their stories.
Ali Wong and Randall Park really got Keanu Reeves to guest star in a romantic comedy. What did you hate or love most about his very long cameo?
JDJ: I love and hate that he was such an asshole because Keanu (“Kee-new” as we lovingly refer to him as in our household) seems like literally one of the nicest celebs/humans. Just Google “nice things Keanu Reeves has done” and prepare yourself to never question anyone’s love for Keanu ever again.
MW: I loved his cameo. I know he was supposed to come off as a total jerk, but Keanuseems like such a sweet person. The juxtaposition was really hilarious.
KR: I loved that all the love interests were Asian. All of them, including Keanu. (I know he identifies as Canadian, but we’re claiming him for Team Hapa-API, okay?)
Romantic comedies were such a popular genre in the ’90s and early 2000s, but have dwindled over the past 10 years or so. What do you think about Netflix’s investment in reviving the genre? What have been Netflix’s biggest hits? Biggest misses?
JDJ: There are generations of people who enjoy rom-coms for whatever big or small joys it gives them, and I think Netflix is genuinely supporting and creating rom-coms for those of us who never saw ourselves in them. I really enjoyed The Incredible Jessica James. Set It Up was cute. The two main actors were very charming, but they were the stereotypical casting of a cis, white, heterosexual couple. I also really enjoyed To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Condor was wonderful. I watched it several times and each time still in shock that I was watching this Asian girl falling in love and being loved in return. One thing that stood out to me though, that I still find hard to articulate, was that Lara Jean and her sisters have a white father and an Asian mother. Her sisters are visibly biracial and played by mixed-race actors but Condor is not mixed-race. It made me do a head-tilt.
MW: Honestly, I have no idea what Netflix’s endgame is, but I’m here for it. It’s possible that rom-coms are cheaper to produce and therefore less of a financial risk. A lot of Netflix’s rom-coms have been bad, but in a fun-bad kind of way. I watched The Princess Switch and Set It Up with a group of friends, and despite the terrible writing, we all had a great time.
KR: I’m admittedly not a huge fan of the rom-com genre and I have a toddler who mostly wants to watch cartoons on Netflix, so I’m not well poised to answer this question. I do feel like there are two kinds of films being produced right now. Those for Gen-Z with younger leads and diverse casting (See Love, Simon) and those for the millennials who are now in our 30s and have nostalgic feels for the rom-com boom of our youth (See Always Be My Maybe, which is essentially Sweet Home Alabama with Asian stars).