Ali Wong's instant Netflix classic deftly subverts so many tired Hollywood tropes.

By Michelle Yang
Updated: Jun 06, 2019 @ 6:47 pm
Ed Araquel / Netflix

When the Netflix hit film Always Be My Maybe opened with a young Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) cooking herself a spam and rice dinner, eating alone while her parents worked into the night, visions stirred of my own childhood spent in front of Full House reruns while my parents toiled at our family restaurant. The authenticity of this first scene was inescapable, hitting me with nostalgia and forgone loneliness. And it didn’t stop there. The lighthearted rom-com directed by Nahnatchka Khan represents a nuanced, relatable Asian-American experience like no other film before it. Co-writers and co-stars Ali Wong and Randall Park deftly captured the experience of the Asian diaspora while subverting one stereotype after another, zapping the Hollywood tropes that have plagued Asian actors for decades.

Read on for the characters, scenes, and subtle nods that knocked down one tired stereotype after another. 

Stereotype: Asian men are not sexy.

Takedown: Asian men have too long endured racist desexualization and emasculation in the media and in society. The film burns down this tired trope. Fans all over have been applauding Ali Wong for writing herself a role in which she gets to make out with not one, but three sexy Asian-American men. Daniel Dae Kim’s character is described most aptly as a “sexy, chiseled Korean Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid.” While appearing on Ellen, Wong described herself kissing Kim as "a grown women experiencing joy. Pure joy." Park’s Marcus Kim is equally winning as a charming, good-natured, boy-next-door type whose steamy chemistry with Sasha keeps viewers committed to the very end. (That sexy stairway makeout scene!) As far as Keanu Reeves’ role, there are no words. He was reportedly grateful that they even remembered he is Asian. Someone get him an “It’s an honor just to be Asian” shirt stat.

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Stereotype: Asian women are submissive, exotic sex objects.

Takedown: Each Asian female character in this film annihilates this archetype. Sasha Tran is the unapologetic, powerful boss from day one. She is unafraid to express what she wants. Sasha speaks the truth to everyone, including those she loves the most. She alone determines her future, owns her sexuality, and makes the first move. Sasha lets the men know when she wants them and when she doesn’t. She is the perfectly imperfect, self-possessed strong female character I’ve been waiting for.

Meanwhile, Marcus’s girlfriend Jenny, played by Vivian Bang, also breaks the mold. She is a free-spirited slam poet who is passionate about making a positive impact in the world. Jenny is singularly devoted to chasing her own desires and fulfilling her own professional dreams. Charlyne Yi’s character, Ginger, the drummer of Hello Peril, is cool, musical, and quirky, definitely unbound by any predefined expectations of Asian womanhood. These three characters represent their own stories. The film demonstrates, though it shouldn’t have to, the obvious truth that each Asian woman has her own interesting story to tell.   

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Stereotype: Asian food needs to be “elevated” to be more desirable.

Takedown: Sasha ultimately pays homage to authentic Korean recipes from her surrogate mother, Judy Kim, in her newest restaurant after building her career — with the help of her brand-obsessed fiance — TRANSforming Asian food. Sasha honors the innate value of what is wholesome, comforting, authentic and unchanged. Marcus reintroduces Sasha to the unassuming quality of a San Francisco hole-in-the-wall dimsum joint that has remained exactly the same for decades, while helping the viewer understand that value, too. This film reminded all of us that Asian food does not need to be Westernized to be made valuable.

Ed Araquel / Netflix

Stereotype: Asian parents are overly demanding and harsh.

Takedown: Neither the Kims nor the Trans subscribe to the strict method of parenting that places high demands and pressure on children to succeed academically, sometimes referred to as ‘Tiger parenting.’ The Kims are both nurturing and supportive. Judy Kim is a talented painter who no doubt supported her son’s artistic pursuits in rap music. The audience is invited along as Judy, full of affirmations, patiently teaches Sasha to cook. Harry Kim is such a loving and funny father that Marcus does not flinch when Harry walks in on him smoking pot and dancing alone in front of the mirror. Instead, he calmly invites Harry to join him, and we are treated to a touching father-son dance party. Sasha’s parents, too, though absent in her childhood, are very supportive of her career as a chef.

Stereotype: Asian parents are one-dimensional.

Takedown: Sasha was left alone too much as a child. The film does not sugar coat her suffering, which was formative to her character, to her career success, as well as her insecurities. Wong and Park avoided turning Sasha into another dutiful, forgiving Asian daughter. Instead, Sasha confronts her parents and speaks of her pain in order to heal. The relationship depicted is authentic without being overplayed. Mr. and Mrs. Tran are loving parents who recognize their earlier failure, who want to focus on mending the relationship with their adult daughter. This could not ring truer to my own experience. Asian parents are neither singularly saints of self-sacrifice to be revered nor are they abusive villains to be reviled. There is so much in-between, but without appropriate representation, complex, human characters have been too readily flattened. ABMM may be a rom-com first, but its sensitive and nuanced handling of family dynamics is another way it sets itself apart. The parent-child relationships here are a revelation.

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Stereotype: Asians are obsessed with honor and self-sacrifice.

Takedown: The silver screen icon and pioneer Anna May Wong once said, “When I die, my epitaph should be: I died a thousand deaths. That was the story of my film career.” Wong is referring to all the roles in which she dies by suicide or is killed on screen. Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon are two classic examples where the Asian female lead "sacrifices" herself for the happiness of others. Sasha refuses to sacrifice herself by any measure. She refuses to sacrifice her own ambitions and desires for Marcus’ or for anyone’s. She refuses to view her parents’ neglect as a form of sacrifice to be honored. Harry Kim also rejects the idea that his son Marcus should sacrifice his own life to care for him. “I don’t need a caretaker,” he says, rejecting the preconception that Asian parents value filial piety above all else.  

Stereotype: Asians are STEM-career focused "Model Minorities."

Takedown: This film celebrates Asian artists in many forms: Sasha as a chef, Marcus and his bandmates as musicians, Mrs. Kim as a painter, Marcus’s girlfriend Jenny as a slam poet and community organizer. Each character loves what they do. Professional careers in medicine, law, or engineering that would contribute to the singularly-focused Asian stereotype never come up. The model minority myth perpetuates the stereotype that all Asians are wealthy, school-obsessed, hardworking professionals. This myth not only negates the vastly diverse experiences of the approximately 20 million Asian Americans but pits minority groups against Asians. ABMM continues cutting down the model minority myth with its depiction of service industry careers, treating them with honor and prestige. Marcus works in the family heating and air service company, Sasha is a celebrity chef and restaurateur, and Jenny is a community organizer working with underserved youth. This film has not allowed even the day jobs of these characters to be stereotypical, instead it seizes the opportunity to showcase the diverse vocations — and passions — pursued by Asian Americans.  

Stereotype: Asians and black people don’t get along.

Takedown: A side effect of the model minority myth is that it creates false narratives of pitting one minority group against another, which can be felt between Asian and black communities in the U.S. If you look closer, historically, there has been friendship and support among these groups, too. Take for example, the collaboration and mutual admiration between fierce civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X and the long-standing partnership between Asian American organizations like OCA with the NAACP. The camaraderie and kinship as fellow people of color, as neighbors, is highlighted in ABMM. Sasha’s best friend and business associate Veronica, lovingly portrayed by Michelle Buteau, is African-American, as is Harry Kim’s love interest, Kathy, played by Karen Holness. Though there is room for improvement in how the black roles are written in this film, I’m grateful for the existence of these key characters and for the demonstrations of friendship and love.

Stereotype: Asians are meek.

Takedown: This stereotype makes me bristle. I’m so tired of Asians described as polite or quiet, first and foremost. Sasha’s expletives-filled breakup tirade, Marcus’ funny raps, Brandon’s playboy suaveness, Jenny’s uninhibited ramblings all counter the ‘meek sameness’ that has been thrust upon Asian Americans for far too long. Each character is unafraid to express and fight for their desires, and to speak up when they are wronged.    

Stereotype: Asians are apolitical.

Takedown: The film subtly and subversively attacks the perception that there is a lack of Asian-American interest in politics and activism. Jenny’s character is an outspoken community organizer who steals Paula Deen plates as a form of protest against her racist views. Marcus’ “Stay Angry” shirt is a tribute to Phil Yu’s popular Angry Asian Man blog, which reminds readers not to accept societal injustices. Marcus’ band name “Hello Peril” is a play on “Yellow Peril,” a racist ideology evangelizing the threat of Asian immigrants against the Western civilization that lasted over a century. This fear mongering led to xenophobic legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and violent hate crimes.

Band member and friend Tony’s excuse for ditching Jenny’s Vienna sausage dinner is, “I gotta go… vote.” This line, though funny in its absurdness, cannot be an accident. Tony’s character also stumbles to comedic effect while expressing his support of Veronica and her fellow LGBTQ+ community. The inclusion of these diverse characters and messages hidden as jokes are thoughtful and pointed. Finally, Marcus’ reluctance to leave San Francisco's Chinatown is in part rooted in his pride and protectiveness for the historic neighborhood. It is a quiet resistance to gentrification.  

Ed Araquel / Netflix

Stereotype: Asians have one style — cutesy.

Takedown: A fashion stereotype of Asian women brings to mind images of the brand-obsessed to the Hello Kitty worshippers of cute. The costume design in Always Be My Maybe nimbly transcends these generalizations with a style that is chic yet approachable. Sasha’s clothes are luxurious, vibrant and simultaneously understated, fun, sexy and professional. Costume designer Leesa Evans makes masterful use of colors traditionally popular in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures. Bold, lucky reds are woven throughout the film as well as dazzling, celebratory metallics.

Evans explained to EW, “[Sasha] was using shopping and fashion and dressing as another part of her artistic expression, and that she was a person that wasn’t afraid to push herself to be and do anything she wants in life.” Sasha’s choice of colors and textiles embodies her Asian pride, as an expression of herself. “A lot of the clothes that Ali wears in the movie, they either have an architectural element, or they have an edge to them,” Evans adds. The wide-leg white jumpsuit Sasha wears in the final red-carpet scene is no exception, the color represents a fresh start, and her vulnerability and innocence in that moment. The statement gold tooth necklace is a symbol for her strength and determination. The mahjong tile box clutch is the perfect nod to the Chinese part of her heritage. With every look, from casual to glamorous, the costume design on this film captured a authentic and beautiful spectrum of individualistic, expressive style.   

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Stereotype: Asians are cheap.

Takedown: Asian frugality is an easy punchline used all too often, and even in this film Sasha’s parents’ dogged dedication to avoid ever paying tip is a repeated source of laughs. The monumental olive branch offered to their daughter in hopes of reconciliation took the form of receipts as evidence that they paid full price at her restaurant — even ordering extra shrimp — instead of asking for a family discount. These frugal habits are in clear contrast with Mr. and Mrs. Tran's generosity and willingness to spend their hard-earned money on those they love. They do not hesitate to fly from San Francisco to New York to support Sasha in receiving her award. They host a lavish eighth birthday party for their godson. Sasha and Brandon’s glamorous, spare-no-expense, jet-setting lifestyle with immaculately decorated dream houses also counter the long held ideas around Asian frugality.

These 12 stereotypes could not have been taken down without a predominantly Asian cast, and creatives behind the scenes. Each character is part of the ensemble whose varied perspectives and stories are woven together to provide a more accurate representation of Asian American culture. It's one that can evolve beyond generalizations born of broad strokes, quick judgements, and outdated legacies — in the package of the most basic, palatable film format out there: a classic romantic comedy you can't help but love. 

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