Netflix's Bling Empire is warping Asian representation when it matters most: Opinion
People often watch reality shows to turn off their brains — me included. We celebrate the best cast members for being real, yet we tell ourselves they exist in a vacuum removed from real life in order to be okay with their vapidity, ignorance, and table-flipping. But when lives are at stake and the truth is too hard to ignore, what is the role of reality shows then?
Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. Anti-Asian hate crimes jumped 1,900 percent in New York City in 2020, according to one report. Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting database created at the start of the pandemic, received 2,808 reports of anti-Asian discrimination between March 19 and Dec. 31. And for many, the rise in hate has been partially fueled by former President Donald Trump's rhetoric in calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus," "Wuhan virus," and "kung flu."
Our community has been hurting, and it seemed like until the last few weeks, no one really cared except other Asian Americans.
Which was why a Feb. 10 statement about the situation on social media by Kevin Kreider, the breakout star of Netflix's Bling Empire, was even more upsetting. Kreider, a Korean American adoptee, said on Instagram that his followers who wanted him to speak out about the violence were "social justice warriors" whose efforts to "promote the end of racial hate crimes…come across as self righteousness." Kreider also began the post, which he later deleted, "Don't take yourself so seriously."
In response to Kreider's post, writer Phillipe Thao tweeted, "Bling Empire was a mistake. People are asking you to speak up about the anti-Asian hate crimes against the elderly since you claim to be such an 'activist' … and this is how you respond???"
What Kreider said was ignorant and ridiculous, but I was curious if he was just one part of a bigger problem with Bling Empire as a whole. I had already been avoiding watching the show since its Jan. 15 debut, partly because of my own reality TV fatigue (I miss fun Real Housewives of Potomac!), and partly because I thought it was a Crazy Rich Asians rip-off, based on Netflix's own marketing. So despite my temptation to write off the entire show as "a mistake," and at the insistence of my editor, I had to watch it for myself.
The truth of it was messier. After watching all eight episodes of the reality series, which is centered on rich Asians in Los Angeles, I came away feeling both unexpectedly moved by some of its cast members and disappointed in Netflix and other powers that be in Hollywood.
I applaud the cast members for being vulnerable enough to broach topics like surrogacy, therapy, and identity as an adoptee, which Asian Americans don't always get to do on screen. Kreider is actually the most likable of the clique, as the everyman unaccustomed to his new pals' privileged lifestyle. (Only in L.A. can a handsome model be considered the Joe Schmoe of his friend group.)
So it was somewhat surprising to see Kreider respond to a national crisis in such a crass manner. Upon further reflection, though, it made sense. Over the course of the series, we see Kreider change and become desensitized to wealth as his friends shower him with extravagant gifts. Money changes people. Revolutionary thought, I know.
Reality shows about the one percent are nothing new, but the core problem with Bling Empire is that it wants to be three programs in one: lifestyle porn, cultural education, and human interest. It only excels at the former, however, and minimizes the latter two in the process.
When the show strives to humanize its stars, it also flattens their cultures. As Christine Chiu laments her in-laws' incessant pressure for her to bear another child, she draws sympathy for herself by castigating the monolith of "the Asian culture," as if a diverse continent is made up of one country with the same beliefs. And then she goes on to reinforce traditional gender roles herself by chastising her friend Cherie Chan for daring to propose to her boyfriend. This is the woman who also bragged about donating to needy kids at a lavish party for her 1-year-old featuring a Gucci claw machine.
And I laughed out loud at Kreider's assertion in the premiere that "growing up in Philadelphia, I was the only Asian." Really, in a city of nearly 1.6 million that's 7.8 percent Asian? Even if that was just awkward phrasing and not genuine ignorance, the producers make no attempt to correct or follow up on his proclamation.
Outside the show, Kreider has billed himself as a motivational speaker and fitness activist, promoting his documentary that aims to prove Asian men are attractive, and of course he's on the cover of promotional materials, shirtless. He wants us to think he cares about other people, but balks when fans ask him to do just that.
He's basically saying, "I'll stay in my lane and you stay in yours," which is what Asian Americans have been told repeatedly, whether by society, our families, or media. In a Feb. 14 Allure op-ed responding to the recent racist attacks, editor-in-chief Michelle Lee wrote that for years, "my default setting had been silence. In Asian American culture, it's often valued to put your head down and work hard. Don't make waves. Swallow your pain."
Due to these stereotypes and pressures, many Asian Americans don't even know our own history in this country. When recent hate crimes sparked additional conversations, I shared with my other Chinese friend a list of historical injustices enacted against Asians in America. Neither of us had learned more than two or three of these events in high school or college.
"Because there's obviously this misconception of being the model minority, people don't realize the contributions that Asian Americans have made to this country — and also the struggles that they've had," Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, told NBC News in 2019.
While Bling Empire fails as cultural education, I want to make it clear that I don't believe in respectability politics or think representations of Asians can or should be everything to every viewer. In a Bazaar piece published Feb. 17, writer Jean Chen Ho even argued that Bling Empire's "mediocrity" is a representational win because it depicts "the messy stuff of being human, a privilege the white majority has always enjoyed playing out on screen without fear of casting embarrassment onto the entire race."
But what happens when a show about Asians is made for "the white gaze," as the Hollywood Reporter's Inkoo Kang wrote, by exoticizing and judging the cultures on screen? Is this a win? And is it a win when one of its cast members goes on to actively spread ignorance?
Even so, the Bling Empire cast is not the central issue. I don't doubt they're living their truths and they really are that rich. What's worrisome is that Netflix keeps choosing to reinforce the status quo. There was already HBO Max's House of Ho, Bravo's Family Karma, and Netflix's Singapore Social, all premiering after 2018's megahit Crazy Rich Asians, by the time Netflix introduced us to Bling Empire.
To paraphrase Miranda Priestly: "Another reality show about rich Asians? Groundbreaking."
Because if we're talking about receiving "privilege the white majority has always enjoyed," that also should extend beyond reality shows. There's a sea of white men hosting talk shows, yet Netflix canceled the acclaimed Patriot Act, its only news commentary show led by a South Asian star, the razor-sharp Hasan Minhaj. It's the same streamer that in December premiered Andrew Schulz's offensive comedy news series in which he calls coronavirus an "Asian parasite," a riff on the Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite. Meanwhile, fantasy series overwhelmingly feature white actors, yet Netflix's live-action Winx Club adaptation, Fate: The Winx Saga, has been accused of whitewashing an Asian and a Latina character.
A few weeks ago, as I was commiserating with fellow Asian American friends about the spike in hate crimes, one of them told me how frustrated they were by the scant coverage from the media and on social platforms. Our elders are being assaulted, yet some people still believe in the model minority myth and think we're all well off and don't have real problems. Bling Empire does little to dispel this myth. Take cast member Jamie Xie, whose biggest fear is being cut off by her father and having to survive on $40,000 per paid Instagram post.
This is despite a long history of Asian American activists like Grace Lee Boggs and organizations like the Asian American Political Alliance, which worked with the Black Panthers and coined the term "Asian American." We have voices, and many of us are politically active. You just wouldn't know it from most textbooks, or TV and movies.
Bling Empire in particular has sought to ride the coattails of Crazy Rich Asians, a movie it compares itself to within the first five minutes of the premiere, without adding much more depth. It's not that there shouldn't be fun, frothy projects starring Asian Americans, but they shouldn't be at the expense of our humanity and our cultures.
Recently, both Netflix and Bravo released statements condemning anti-Asian hate crimes.
"For everyone who sees themselves or someone they love in Lara Jean, Sasha and Marcus, Ioane, Ellie Chu, Claudia Kishi, or Pin-Jui," Netflix wrote. "We stand united against racism, hatred, and violence. #StopAAPIHate."
While it was nice to see these companies acknowledge the national crisis, their statements fell flat. Twitter commenters pointed out that Bravo's Real Housewives franchise still employs Brandi Redmond and Kelly Dodd, both of whom have been criticized for racist conduct. A representative for Bravo declined to comment on the situation.
Netflix also couldn't miss the opportunity to pat itself on the back by promoting its own titles like To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which stars Vietnamese-born American actress Lana Condor.
Everyone needs to care about and speak out about anti-Asian hate crimes, regardless of whether they "see themselves or someone they love" in Lara Jean Covey. We need help and have, in fact, been begging for it these past few months. Begging for people to care about us and see us as human beings. And to Netflix and other Hollywood power players — do better. It is not enough to do the minimum while also being part of the problem.
If you would like to learn more or support relevant causes, here are additional resources:
Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans Are on the Rise. Many Say More Policing Isn't the Answer, Time magazine
The long history of US racism against Asian Americans, The Conversation
Asian Americans docuseries, PBS
Stop AAPI Hate
Oakland, Calif.: Asian Pacific Environmental Network
Northern California/Los Angeles: API Equality
NYC: Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence
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