Most of us can recite the story of Cinderella, her glass slipper, and the handsome rich prince she nabs in our sleep. It’s a fairy tale that has enamored girls for centuries; and a questionable script for love that has followed many of them right into adulthood. The building blocks of the story — a pretty white girl, dreaming of a better life, and a handsome, rich man choosing her to be his wife — are loaded with subtle codes about what kind of femininity women need to embody in order to marry rich. These messages have been re-packaged and re-told to women in all kinds of love stories, from fairytales to romantic comedies. Crazy Rich Asians — the book turned feature film about an Asian-American woman finding out her boyfriend is super rich — is the latest project to put a modern spin on the classic trope that has traditionally been reserved for white (or at least white-adjacent) women.
Crazy Rich Asians focuses on the specificities of elitist Asian class politics. Its female protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a great example of how the Cinderella script is flipped when women of color are plugged into this limited narrative. The cultural cues are adjusted, but the moral of the story remains the same: only some women deserve both the ring and "the bag," and they’d better be prepared to prove it.
Rachel is a New York born and raised economics professor at NYU who has been dating a guy named Nick (Henry Golding), who hails from Singapore, for over a year. Nick is going to be in his best friend’s wedding and uses the trip as an opportunity to introduce Rachel to his family. It is on this trip that she finds out that Nick is the heir to the wealthiest family empire in Singapore — they fly across the world on luxurious beds in first class, and his family home is worth $200 million.
The only thing more overwhelming than his fortune is the hostility that greets Rachel when she arrives. Friends think she’s a gold digger, and Nick’s own mother (Michelle Yeoh) refuses to give their relationship her blessing. According to Nick's mother, Rachel is a scrappy New Yorker, only interested in the American fantasy of pursuing her passions. As such, she lacks the commitment and determination to marry into their family. Rachel takes ridicule and bullying throughout the duration of film without raising a single fuss, unless you count an intense game of mahjong. She only gets the approval of the Young family matriarch when she proves that she’s willing to walk away from Nick and his money.
In the early aughts, Jennifer Lopez was the poster child for women of color marrying above their station on screen. In The Wedding Planner, her service job helps her fall in love with a doctor. She went from cleaning hotel rooms to dating a senatorial candidate in Maid In Manhattan. In Monster-In-Law, she once again paired with doctor whose mother doesn’t think she’s good enough for her son. It’s not a mistake that Lopez is slightly whitewashed in all of these roles. Her hair is straightened — even blonde in The Wedding Planner — and her ethnicity is downplayed and drowned out by the white characters around her.
For Black women, coming into money is an even more dangerous game. In Disney’s The Princess & the Frog, Princess Tiana had to become a frog herself under a voodoo spell to find her true love, a prince. In the Tyler Perry universe, Black women who pursue men with money end up dead, like Taraji P. Henson’s character in the recent thriller Acrimony. In some of Perry's other movies and plays, Black women are supposed to struggle in poverty with their men before he becomes successful in some other venture.
Crazy Rich Asian’s Rachel is a far cry from Cinderella, who was victim to a pair of mean step-sisters and a cold, callous step-mother who relegated her to a life of domesticity. However, the principle is the same for both characters. As a professor at a prestigious New York City university, it’s a bit of a reach to suggest that Rachel traveled a road from rag to riches ending up with Nick. However, according to the bootstrap narratives that America loves, being the daughter of a single immigrant mother is supposed to signify that Rachel “started from the bottom.” She worked hard. She followed the rules. In the same way that Cinderella’s victimhood made her worthy of a happy ending — if for no other reason than to spite her step-mom and step-sisters — Rachel’s resilience earned hers. When women of color can’t pass as white and aren’t born into generational wealth, they need to be hardworking with pure hearts to reap those kinds of benefits.
This criteria, the one that demands women of color align themselves with whiteness, a superhuman moral compass, and/or an extraordinary but modest success story of their own, is a far cry from the way wealth is actually distributed amongst partners. Rich people usually marry other rich people. Middle class and poor people do the same. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that doing otherwise puts too much of a strain on relationships. So while they make for really good, cheesy stories, let’s remember that for women of color, they’re often just that: fairy tales.