At last, Asian America has an ambassador in the halls of divadom. I don’t use this word—diva—without some awareness of its baggage. Of all the insults devised to humiliate or dismiss women, this one, with its connotations of self-importance and imperiousness, too often casts judgment upon those who dare to flout expectations of feminine pliancy. Like bossy and difficult, diva imposes double standards we can’t seem to shake, while invoking a lingering discomfort with female power that many of us want to shed and yet can’t dislodge from its residence within our bones. But with its roots in opera, as a term used to exalt a singer for her divine talent, it’s also a barb flung with an eye-roll, not a backstab—and sometimes even a “yass!”
How did Constance Wu cement her place in this pantheon of—here comes yet another one of those words—prima donnas? In case you weren’t on social media last weekend, it all started when, on Friday, the Crazy Rich Asians star appeared to grouse on Twitter and Instagram about the renewal of Fresh Off the Boat, her history-making ABC sitcom. The following day, she issued a longer statement clarifying that her social media outbursts were a reaction to losing a creatively challenging role due to her schedule on Fresh Off the Boat, on which she found her role as Tiger Mom Jessica to be “easy and pleasant” but not exactly one that tested the limits of her potential.
For Wu to air all of this for mass consumption was unwise, if not disrespectful, for a couple of reasons. First, while I’ve argued that the show has served her character poorly for the past two seasons, it’s arguably inconsiderate to complain so publicly about an opportunity many would kill to enjoy. Wu’s longer statement showed that she was at least conscious of this, but the actress then also squandered any goodwill she had earned over the first few hundred words of her missive by ending it with the phrase “believe women”—a co-optation of a #MeToo rallying cry that seemed to imply anyone who doesn’t take her PR fix completely at her word is contributing to a violent patriarchal power structure.
Wu’s outcries drew immediate comparisons to Katherine Heigl’s post–Knocked Up campaign to get out of her Grey’s Anatomy contract. Despite Wu’s extensive apology, the backlash against her will likely persist, just as it has against Heigl, unless she defies the odds of Hollywood to star in a series of uniformly excellent films. Wu’s vocal activism on behalf of Asian American representation might also suffer given her seeming resentment of (or as her denouncers see it, her ingratitude toward) Fresh Off the Boat, a groundbreaking series that, whatever its faults, served as the actress’ launchpad into the mainstream eye.
So, from a PR standpoint, Wu definitely screwed up. But as someone who doesn’t just want to see laudable or relatable representations of Asian America, but the full, messy diversity of humanity within it, I can’t help appreciating Wu’s accidental self-exposure, as well as her subsequent reframing, as part of that larger goal. With her tweets, Wu reminded us that an Asian American actress has actually gathered enough clout for people to pay attention when she conveys discontent about the show she’s helped make a hit.
But most notably, Wu was able to cast herself as a kind of figure Hollywood still has trouble seeing Asian Americans as: an artist whose desire for creative expression and relentless innovation can lead them to great heights … and sometimes self-sabotage. It’s a common enough trope. Shows as different as Fosse/Verdon, Pose, and Bob’s Burgers are enamored by their maestros, not to mention the countless auteurs and biopic subjects whose bad behavior is “justified” by their work. In an industry that reveres the willful creative, it might even make sense for Wu to adopt its trappings to be taken more seriously as an artist. I have no interest in castigating or defending Wu for her comments, but I am grateful that she’s willing to claim for Asian America the mantle of the exacting artist—an archetype that, however undeserved the allowances it gets, is one that’s long been denied to a group of people often characterized as unoriginal robots and mean-for-meanness’ sake Dragon Ladies. Viva la diva!