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‘Newsflash: we’re not all meek’: how brash, funny Asian women took over our screens

In the 2012 female-led American comedy Pitch Perfect, an Asian-American character named Lilly is introduced as a shy, softly spoken aspiring singer. Lilly isn’t just quiet – her voice barely rises above a whisper. And as her bandmates throw their energy around, she is mostly in the background, with her reserved presence played for laughs.

It was a small role, but it spoke volumes. On screen and in the wider Western culture, women of Asian descent have long been tagged with the tropes of meekness and obedience – the good student (Mona in Pretty Little Liars), the compliant daughter (Jade Wu in Sweet Valley High) and the hard-working employee (Ingrid in Partner Track). Unfailingly polite, considerate and deferential, the model-est of the model minority.

But that’s changing in a loud, significant way – and Joy Ride, out July, is the latest film to trash those old stereotypes.

Starring Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Stephanie Hsu, Ashley Park from Emily in Paris and comedians Sherry Cola and Sabrina Wu (who uses they/them pronouns), Joy Ride doesn’t just centre the stories of four Asian-American women and non-binary people; it does so in a bawdy, raucous and unapologetically crass comedy.

Directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Adele Lim from a story she conceived with Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, the chaotic roadtrip movie crosses so many “lines” it’s hard to know which setup will offend the most. Could it be the provocative tattoo emblazoned on one character’s genitals? The casual chatter about anal sex? The copious and creative sex scenes?

Perhaps it will be the banger cocaine binge scene, which features all four leads getting cartoonishly high after trying to hide an enormous amount of drugs in their bodies – and not being punished for it.

It’s shockingly funny, with rapid-fire jokes and crude humour. It’s no coincidence Joy Ride was executive produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who ushered in goofy bro comedies including Pineapple Express and Sausage Party. But to have these four Asian actors starring in a film that shares that DNA, while also threading in an emotionally driven and smart story about identity and belonging, speaks to how much has recently changed for Asian representation on screen.

You can see it in the rise and rise of American comedians and actors Ali Wong and Awkwafina. Wong’s breakout standup specials on Netflix (2016’s Baby Cobra) was bracingly honest and hugely successful. She called herself a “gross, filthy animal”, and talked about her sexual appetite and her bowel movements.

Wong parlayed that success into lauded acting roles, including in 2019’s Always Be My Maybe, a movie she co-wrote and produced; and 2023 miniseries Beef, in which she played a perpetually angry Los Angeleno with serious boundary issues, who is as flawed and unlikeable as she is relatable for being a hot mess.

Similarly, Awkwafina, real name Nora Lum, developed her brash personality to overcome the “quiet and passive” girl she felt she had become trapped in at university, she told Into the Gloss. When she hit it big on YouTube with the song My Vag in 2012, she was sacked from her office job.

Awkwafina’s cheeky brand is exactly why she’s become such a household name, having starred in high profile projects including Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Australian comedian Lizzy Hoo, who recently released the Amazon Prime Video standup special Hoo Cares?!, believes Wong and Awkwafina helped forge a path for her. And in the six or seven years since Hoo started performing standup, she’s seen a significant increase in Asian woman comedians on the local circuit.

“Things have really changed,” Hoo tells the Guardian. “[Promoters] have wanted more female voices, they’ve realised there are other markets and audiences out there, and that it’s a business opportunity.

“The comic in me is like, ‘Asian stocks are high at the moment’. If you had commissioned a movie about Asian women in 2020 and it’s coming to life now, then you made a good investment,” she says. “And then the cynic in me says, ‘Oh, great, there are too many now, I haven’t got my selling point!’

“The more we see it on screen, the more people will get used to different types of Asian people. Newsflash: we’re not all submissive and meek. We’re not that character you saw 40 years ago in Miss Saigon – we’ve moved on from that.”

  • Joy Ride hits cinemas in the US and Australia this week. It will be released in the UK on 4 August