Editor’s Note: Regina Kim is a freelance writer focusing on Korean pop culture and AAPI issues. She has written for Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, ELLE and other national news outlets. You can read more of her work at reginakim.com. Follow her on Instagram (@curious_idealist) and Twitter (@ReginaEKim). The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
When I first heard about the film “Joy Ride,” an unabashedly raunchy comedy about four Asian American friends and their misadventures in China, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Finally, a Hollywood movie that shows that Asian women can be funny, loud and relatable and aren’t the meek, submissive “lotus blossom” stereotype that the industry has long perpetuated.
From the opening scene where an Asian American girl punches a White boy in the face for using a racial slur (which I imagine must’ve felt pretty cathartic for many Asian Americans who’ve had to endure playground taunts and bullying during their childhood), nearly every moment in the movie feels novel and refreshing. That’s because – even though parts of the film harken back to outlandish comedies like “The Hangover” trilogy or “Girls Trip” – we’ve never seen Asian American women do stuff like this in a Hollywood film before.
It felt exactly like the kind of movie that the Asian American community had been waiting for.
Created by Asian Americans (it was directed by Adele Lim, who co-wrote “Crazy Rich Asians,” with a script by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, and stars Ashley Park as Audrey; Stephanie Hsu as Kat; Sherry Cola as Lolo; and Sabrina Wu as Lolo’s cousin, Deadeye) “Joy Ride” tests our limits for bawdiness and impropriety, while simultaneously making some remarkably astute observations about the Asian American experience.
To be perfectly honest, after going to a screening of “Joy Ride,” it took me two days to fully process what I’d seen. While I’d anticipated some degree of outrageous behavior and gross-out humor, I hadn’t quite expected this level of off-the-wall debauchery. (No spoilers here, but one particularly revealing scene will probably be forever seared into my brain.)
Then something occurred to me: Would it have felt so shocking if the movie had shown Caucasians — or even Black or Latinx people, for that matter — indulging in such crazy antics and sexcapades, telling off-color jokes and getting into all sorts of trouble?
Perhaps I was so startled because I wasn’t used to seeing Asian Americans — especially Asian American women — depicted like this. After decades of consuming Western media, it seemed that even I had been conditioned to expect Asian American women like me to be presented as quiet, boring and inconsequential on-screen.
The film skillfully subverts the audience’s expectations around certain roles. It breaks from Hollywood’s tradition of pairing Asian American women with White men, instead casting Asian actors to play several male romantic interests and giving us not-so-subtle reminders that Asian men, too, can be sexy. And some viewers may be surprised to see that the foul-mouthed, free-spirited Lolo grew up in an Asian household, whereas the more reserved and over-achieving Audrey was raised by White parents.
Raunchy Hollywood comedies have always granted non-Asian people license to say and do whatever they want, sometimes at the expense of Asians. If “Joy Ride” had centered on, say, White women à la Bridesmaids, I probably would’ve thought all the wild shenanigans were simply par for the course. But a bawdy romp featuring an Asian American cast seemed nearly unimaginable — until now.
Perhaps such a no-holds-barred, ridiculously unhinged shock fest is precisely what’s needed in a society where the media’s portrayal of Asian women over the past century has had a detrimental impact on how Asian American women have been treated at school, on the job and in various social settings.
Asian American women are the least likely to be promoted in corporate America, largely due to harmful stereotypes that often lead employers, clients and colleagues to assume them to be docile and subservient. For many Asian American women, it’s a lose-lose situation in the workplace: Speak up, and you’re automatically labeled as “difficult to work with” because your assertiveness falls outside of the submissive Asian woman stereotype, and hence can be viewed as “surprising and threatening” by your White coworkers. But don’t speak up, and people may see you as just another quiet workhorse who lacks leadership skills.
In a country that continues to ignore, dehumanize, fetishize and brutalize women of Asian descent, a movie like “Joy Ride,” that casts Asian American women as complex, three-dimensional human beings with their own unique and interesting personalities, feels direly needed and long overdue.
Although the film’s extreme raunchiness initially left me dazed and dumbfounded, in retrospect I think it provides the sort of shock to the system that’s required to dismantle all the deeply ingrained, insidious narratives that America has built around Asian American women and the AAPI community in general.
I’m hoping that more people will realize that Asian American women can be sassy, outspoken, hilarious, weird or all of the above — but, most importantly, that we, too, are human.
And I’m hoping that there’ll be more movies like “Joy Ride” that help empower Asian American women — who often feel burdened by societal expectations and stereotypes around our race and gender — to unapologetically present our whole, authentic selves to the world.