An Open Letter to Henry Golding: “Everybody Wants to Be Us” and “I Want a Divorce”

Mary Gregerson

Mary Gregerson

Dowon Choi

Dowon Choi

Mary Gregerson, PhD
Heartlandia Psychology, Leavenworth, KS
mary.gregerson@aol.com

&

Dowon Choi, MA
Florida State University
dowonchoe@gmail.com

Reviews of Crazy Rich Asians, Director: John M. Chu and A Simple Favor, Director: Paul Feig

Dear Henry,

“Everybody wants to be us,” ad libs actress Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. Henry, this classic in-group/out-group struggle imbues your 2018 films, Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) and A Simple Favor (ASF). Perhaps these two modern films have other similarities with cultural and archetypal values more than simply signaling your breakout appearance as a non-European star.

Counterpointing your two different roles telescopes foreground and background. CRA’s lead Nicki Young is foreground while ASF’s supporting role Sean Townsend is background. Juxtaposing both brings into hyper-focus a middle ground fertile with paradigm shifts serving like plot gardens. Both Nicki and Sean trigger cultural paradigm shifts for archetypal female foils.

Cultural scholars love to use the phrase “paradigm shift.” So many Non-Europeans, however, poignantly and personally, in their paradigm shift subjugate their traditional values and social concepts that cannot peacefully coexist with the strong predominant European-based culture. For instance, in the 1980 film, The Last Emperor, the second wife of the emperor says, “I want a divorce” since her role does not exist in the Western world—no English word recognizes her marital niche. She is forever “gone” in this new world, running in the rain. More than three decades later, non-Europeans in CRA persevere in that overpowering new world to steadfastly express those lost non-European but traditional Asian values and concepts after outgroup immigrants drift from their hometown anchor. CRA differs. They are still in Shanghai, their home turf—they appear as homogenized Euro-Americans, yet espouse lost traditions—a reverse “banana,” yellow on the inside while white on the outside. Some might say a “cream puff with lemon filling.” Their core Asian value persists in Family, Face, and Fluidity. 

Family is the core of Asian development. Both Nicki in CRA and Sean in ASF show filial piety for their mothers while their fathers are virtually or actually non-existent. Where is the wise male elder archetype (Jung/Hull, 1953/1992)? Henry, your youths drift without elder males as rudders. In CRA, your Nicki had moved fruitlessly it seems to the other side of the world to escape his scion mantle. Your white lie to girlfriend Rachel (portrayed by Constance Wu) omits facts about your family wealth, position, and power over you.   Similarly, in ASF your lackluster English Professor Sean obscures from his wife Emily Nelson’s (portrayed by Blake Lively) friend (Stephanie Smothers portrayed by Anna Kendrick) your non-writing, your conflicted marriage, and your fatal attraction to her, Stephanie. Are both roles the face of the new family, whether Asian or transplanted American—all about appearances, or “face,” with no depth of character? Jung (1953/1992) called this unhealthy state over-identification with the persona where the neglected “self” fails to develop independently and strongly. In both male roles you effortlessly and guilelessly deceive. Neither Sean nor Nicki show any tortured superego or inner self struggles—they simply fill out the cardboard characters more infused by handsomeness than depth of character.

Superficiality, thy name is Henry Golding.

And, whether a Shanghai Asian insider or a married insider, your characters get away with lying, only weakly brought to task by your female foil for how unpleasant your non-forthrightness results in a lack of protection. Whether lead or supporting character, you, Henry Golding, embrace a new bankrupt cultural model (Bandura, 2001) for young males bereft of integrity—-slick at navigating whatever culture, at seducing an outsider female to edge into your world, both she and you accountable to no one—even if you both semi-feistily defy elder females upon occasion. Is this the vacuous knave the Asian culture wants young males to emulate, whether in Shanghai, New York, or small town America? Even family is not a matter of honor for your characters but, rather, a source of expediency, comfortableness, haven. Your characters have only “face” with no fathoms.

Face” is an Oriental concept. Jung (1953/1992) termed “persona” this social image, or “face,” that we project to the world of ourselves. The cultural concept of “face” transcends religions, families, and organizations in Asian culture. All seem to understand the importance of how the group sees us, of how we project to the group how we feel about ourselves. Both CRA and ASF embody at various points the crux between what one’s group wants and what one wants. Freud (1930/2010) detailed these individual/societal cross-hairs. Henry, your solution in CRA was to move locales so your family would not overshadow you. In ASF, your Sean stays in your family while reflexively importing a new female to fulfill the usual needs of childcare, homemaking, and meal preparation. People are interchangeable. What cinematic appreciation do we as audience miss when in not one single moment of either film do you grapple with yourself?

Your ease with your incongruities, failings, and general lack of leadership smacks slickness. You are a Robin Hood, robbing from your personal value to smoothly pay the poorness of your social heart, soul, and psyche so you can wend fluidly upright through the vicissitudes that the world, whether family or not, presents. Yes, you are all “face” with no fathoms. We the audience are poorer for this fact, robbed since these cardboard roles marginalizing men unceremoniously snub out your very evident personal intelligence, character, and energy.

This “new” paradigm simply substitutes male for female as the exploited.  It was like seeing Henry as Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee (in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)—we love watching you, but never respect you, while yearning you shift into “more.”

Fluidity. Paradigm shifts require movement from one world to another. Assimilation can occur easily as in ASF when Stephanie, without fanfare, assumes the disappeared Emily’s roles as mother, wife, and lover. All Henry’s Sean does is participate willingly. He really does not lead. He really does not object. And, neither do the children. The family structure simply swallows content and players. In CRA, though, the movement assumes the volume of a tuba in a brass band. The culture of excess inhabited by these mind-bogglingly affluent jet-setters is its own jet ski. They throw extravagant parties faster than a wink of an eye.

Yet, fluidity shown here is more than that. Vertical relationships among family members finally become circular. When Rachel gives up her individual desire to marry Nicki, she has a clear awareness of her fluidity from Asian-American to Asian. And, she brings her rejecting possible mother-in-law to the humble realization that Rachel—warped Asian-American that she is—fluidly gives this tradition and her son to this elder female. The irony is that this selflessness brings Rachel her now mother-in-law-to-be’s blessing. And, we come full circle.

Family, face, and fluidity in both films are joined by a fourth “f”—food. Centerpiece CRA and ASF scenes reinforce the importance of food to nourish, to bring together, and to communicate to the larger world the status of the family. Yet, food as a cohesive force is not just Asian, it is universal, archetypal. Every single person eats, and usually in the presence of others. Ironically, Henry, in both films rarely do we see your characters nourish themselves.

So, this fourth “f” carries a message special to you, up and coming cinematic heartthrob Henry Golding. Choose carefully the next roles sure to beat their way to your door from this wave of box-office success. Yet, beware. Neither film received any Academy Award nominations although other award shows took notice of parts of CRA, but not of you, Henry. They brought in the $$$$ and critical acclaim without bringing in American peer respect nor the consummate satisfying viewing experience that makes a film and roles noteworthy, iconic, and classic.

Take notice, Mr. Golding. Do not just be another pretty face that fades as age weathers ingenue looks. Choose a Rachel Wu-like role. Choose to be the tortured, not the one simply looking the other way, used by others, using others.

Show us what ya got! Choose roles that are more than foils. Do more than “face” it.

Your real fans in psychology,

Mary and Dowon

References

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media Psychology, 3, 265–299.

Freud, S. (Author) & Strachey (Translator). (1930/2010). Civilization and Its Discontents. Reprint edition. Jamaica, Vermont: W.W. Norton & Company.

Jung, C. G. (1953/1992). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London, UK: Psychology Press.

 

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