Persuasion (2022) : Why Isn't Henry Golding the Love Interest?
When a new adaptation of Persuasion was announced, the Jane Austen lover in me couldn't be happier. It often feels like it is the least popular of her novels and doesn't get as much love as the iconic Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility. It follows Anne Elliot, a young woman, who broke up with Frederik because of his wealth. Eight years later, their paths cross again. He is now wealthy and admired. Will Anne put her pride aside to try and get him back?
When Henry Golding was announced in the new Persuasion, it was one of the best news for diversity on screen. After playing the lead role in Crazy Rich Asians and then in Last Christmas, he was the only Asian man to have played the leading love interest in a mainstream romcom ever! It opened the door to more films with diverse male romantic interests. Just look at the amount of romantic comedies released after Crazy Rich Asians featuring Asian actors. So, who else could be better than Henry Golding to give period films a revamp? It was quite disappointing to see he was playing a very small part compared to the amount of publicity made around him taking part. The main lead characters are both white. Despite a secondary ensemble of characters of colours, at this point it is not acceptable. It gives the sense that men of colour or women of colour are not the end point, not the character you end up living happily ever after but only a stop on the journey and this is wrong.
If you do not believe me, here is an extract from 'The Race Dynamics of Online Dating: Why are Asian Men Less 'Eligible'?' in PS Mag, "an analysis of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2014 found that Asians constituted only 5.3 percent of speaking characters. More than 40 of these films had no Asian characters, while Asian men were by far the least sexualized of all race types. In magazines, Asian men were almost non-existent." You should also read this article about how Asian men are stereotyped and rejected from online dating if you need further proof. Although the first article is from 2015 and you can argue it predates Crazy Rich Asians, the other is from 2020. We can see not much has changed in the dating world. We can not pretend that some of it is because diversity on screen is relegated too often to secondary characters especially when it comes to period films when it is not completely ignored because of covert racism hidden behind the 'will to be truthful to the time'. If films and TV shows do not represent more ethnic minorities as main characters, how are we going to change the minds of people? Representation on screen is extremely important to fight against racism since it normalizes seeing diverse actors in main roles and not have everything revolve around white people. If people of colour have been able to watch films and relate to white characters, white people can relate to a Black or an Asian character.
To change the trends in dating and our inability to sometimes see Asian men as objects of desire and as romantic interests, we need more representation on screen. It starts with mainstream films like Persuasion. When you have hired Henry Golding as one of the actors, why not reinforce the fact that Asian men are desirable?
Because in this film, all the Black and Asian actors end up with either another Black or Asian character like Louisa Musgrove (Nia Towle) with Captain Benwick (Afolabi Alli), someone they didn't really want to be with like Charles Musgrove (Ben Bailey) who was rejected by Anne so he settled for her sister or are revealed to be manipulative like William Elliot ( Henry Golding). Think what you will but the message, even if unconscious, is not pretty.
This is even before we get on to Anne's pining after Frederick. She spent eight years pining after him and then she meets William Elliot and flirts with him as if she moved on from Frederick. To be fair, Dakota Johnson and Henry Golding have amazing chemistry.
It is a great thing to make period films more modern and offer the representation all ethnic minorities have been denied in them. That's why Henry Golding should have been given a more important role. But also, Anne didn't need to be white. There are plenty of actors and actresses of colour who are also extremely talented and could have done a great job.
The way Anne breaks the fourth wall, talks to us and comments on her life is funny and engaging. There is an obvious attempt to make a more modern Jane Austen adaptation but it struggles to stand out by not being bold enough. We do not need another Elizabeth Bennet. We already have the 2005 Pride & Prejudice.
This is why Bridgerton works so well. They have diverse characters in main leads, love interests and secondary characters. After Bridgerton, Persuasion feels outdated.
As much as I love Jane Austen, I think her work should represent the diversity of talents out there. She was a feminist of her time and her work deserves to stay relevant but it will not be if production companies do not do the right thing and reflect the society around us.