The first time Cassandra Wong appears in the 1992 film Wayne’s World, she’s shredding her cherry-red guitar, while wearing an all-white outfit of cropped vest, short-shorts and thigh-high stockings that scream hair-metal video vixen. Cassandra’s beauty (“schwing!”), deft bass-plucking, and raw, wailing vocals instantly captivate our hero Wayne Campbell, whose jaw drops as she performs on stage to a packed bar with her band Crucial Taunt. “She will be mine. Oh yes, she will be mine,” Wayne declares, as twinkling stars surround her.
I was 6 when I first watched Mike Myers’s classic comedy. Even as a kid, I could tell Cassandra (played by Tia Carrere) was the kind of woman who commanded your attention, who took up space and didn’t apologize for it. Growing up in Scarborough, a diverse Toronto suburb, I was surrounded by strong Asian women, including my mom and many aunts, but onscreen women who looked like me were usually relegated to bit parts and background extras. With Cassandra, I saw someone I could finally relate to.
Onscreen representation of Asians was abysmal in the early ‘90s — and not much has changed. Of the 100 top-grossing domestic films of 2015, none featured an Asian person in a leading role, according to one USC Annenberg study. The sad state of diversity in Hollywood is a familiar story by now, but it’s especially bad for Asian Americans, given that they’re the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. and saw more movies per capita last year than anyone else. Cassandra is all the more groundbreaking because Wayne’s World came out 25 years ago; an Asian lead in a studio film is rare now, but even rarer back then.
Cassandra is Hollywood’s original Asian-American cool girl, but her race is only part of her identity. To this day, she still stands as one of the more multidimensional Asian female characters in mainstream American comedy. Cassandra isn’t special because she’s cool — she’s special because she can’t be pigeonholed. She’s beautiful, talented, strong, smart, and funny, bucking the reductive stereotypes of Asian women that dominate pop culture. Throughout Hollywood history, we’ve mostly either been portrayed as deceitful and domineering “dragon ladies” (see Ziyi Zhang in the Rush Hour movies) or submissive and obedient “china dolls” (see Sylvia Sidney wearing yellowface in Madame Butterfly). There’s also the persistent whitewashing of Asian characters, such as Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.
Cassandra is presented as Wayne’s dream girl, all-around “mega babe” and an “adolescent fantasy,” but she also kicks ass in more ways than one. Literally speaking, Cassandra beats up two guys who accidentally splash her with a drink while getting into a bar fight. Figuratively, she counsels Wayne on how to handle his needy ex-girlfriend Stacy (“You’re allowing yourself to be victimized. Perhaps you haven’t been effectively assertive.”). Cassandra doesn’t take shit from Wayne, either, dismissing his racially insensitive pickup line, “Rough night, huh? Everybody’s kung-fu fighting.” (To his credit, Wayne immediately regrets his choice of words — a scene that shows remarkable awareness of racial stereotypes, especially for the early ‘90s.)
I’ve lost count of the number of times I watched Wayne’s World as a kid, but only recently realized that Cassandra is what always drew me to the film. Given how much she meant to me, I asked Myers how he decided on Cassandra’s race. “I had noticed that there hadn’t been many Asian women in comedy movies, and certainly, there hadn’t been Asian women who were strong and independent and willful,” the 53-year-old told me over the phone. “I figured it was time to see it. And that is literally all of the thought that went into it.” At the time, he expected pushback from Paramount Pictures, but was “pleasantly surprised” when the studio fully supported his choice. Myers also credits growing up in the same suburb that I did for inspiring him to make Cassandra Asian. “I’d grown up in such a wonderfully multicultural and diverse city such as Toronto — it wasn’t radical to me,” he said.
The Wayne’s World movies made strides in representation and diversity, but their depiction of race isn’t exactly flawless. In the first film, Wayne jokingly requests the “cream of some young guy” when ordering Chinese food, and speaks Cantonese with a hokey accent. Still, it never feels like Myers is making fun of the language for cheap laughs because the dialogue itself is genuinely funny. Wayne’s World 2, the 1993 sequel, is weaker than its predecessor and plays on several Asian stereotypes. There’s a memorable fight scene between Wayne and Cassandra’s dad, Jeff, which I see as a sendup of old kung-fu movies with bad dubbing and close-up reaction shots. More problematic, though, is Jeff’s reason for choosing Wayne’s romantic rival Bobby to be Cassandra’s husband: “He has offered security, a career, and a green card.”
But these flaws are overshadowed by Carrere’s enigmatic onscreen presence, which brings Cassandra to life. “She sang beautifully, and she’s stunningly beautiful,” Myers told me. “On top of it, there is — who she is in life — a wonderful, whimsical, mischievous silliness to her, and playfulness and a strength that popped up for everybody.”
Carrere’s portrayal of Cassandra fits my childhood — and hometown — definition of cool: Like the strong Asian women I grew up with, she’s sassy, aggressively herself, and doesn’t let anyone push her around. The character of Wayne actually originated in Scarborough (not Aurora, Illinois, where Wayne’s World is set), and I can feel the suburb’s spirit permeate the entire film, including Cassandra. Characters like hers also gave me permission to be myself, rather than fit a mold. Today, I see that I’ve become my own version of Cassandra, or maybe Cassandra was just a version of many girls like me who finally got the onscreen recognition they deserved.
It’s easy to dismiss Wayne’s World as a feel-good film about a regular guy getting the girl of his dreams. But for someone who rarely sees herself reflected on screen, this movie is much more than just that.