While I am the son of Filipino immigrants, growing up in a mostly white suburban area created a distance between myself and my racial identity. I wasn’t in touch with my roots, and for the longest time, my own perspective of identity politics was quite limited – a result of both apathy and even ignorance to the state of things.
But leaving that bubble helped to open up my mind and look at my identity from a different viewpoint. But what has driven me even more to embrace my Asian-American label is looking at the lack of representation of Asians in the media – I am motivated to not only promote this issue, but to help fill that void as an artist. With the recent release of Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist generating discussions on this topic, I’d like to share how my personal experiences have led me to where I am now.
A countless number of people before me have talked about why representation matters – media is a reflection of how we as a society see ourselves. Art in all mediums is inspired by some sort of personal experiences. So when certain people are not represented, their experiences lose an opportunity to be shared to the rest of the world – their voices go unheard. Even worse, they risk being misrepresented, creating dangerous stereotypes that will spread throughout public perception. When we talk specifically about the lack of Asian-Americans in front of the camera, much of the issue is due to the lack of talent behind the camera.
It is something that I admittedly did not think about, until I was lucky enough to attend the Sundance Film Festival. It was there where I met a variety of young, independent filmmakers, not just white men, but women, black men and women, Asian men and women. At the 2014 Festival, the most memorable film I saw was a coming-of-age teen comedy film called Seoul Searching.
Directed by Korean-American filmmaker Benson Lee, the film follows a group of teenagers of Korean descent who attend a summer camp in South Korea to get in touch with their roots; this premise is based on Lee’s own experience attending one of these camps in his youth. While it is far from my favorite movie of all time, I had never seen a movie that resonated with me so personally, a movie where I saw myself in it – the story of second generation children who were not well attuned with their culture. In fact, one of the characters, a Korean-Mexican, was actually based on a Korean-Filipino person in real life. I was happy to briefly speak to Lee and express my admiration for his film after this screening, even receiving his contact information. I left the theater with a waft of inspiration that I didn’t even know I needed. I “liked” the Facebook page and bookmarked the IMDb page, hoping to hear news of its distribution soon.
But I never got to see Seoul Searching get the wide release and success that I felt it deserved. The John Hughes vibe of the film and entertaining premise would have been enough for it to get picked up, I thought. As I further contemplated on this, I looked at the wider, mainstream depiction of Asians and Asian-Americans in Hollywood.
There is a long history of whitewashing in Hollywood, and while it may be less overt and ugly now compared to then (i.e. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), it is problematic all the same. Scarlett Johansson plays the lead in Ghost in the Shell, based on a Japanese manga in a Japanese setting, Emma Stone plays a half-Chinese character in Aloha, the list goes on. The white creators and actors go through mental gymnastics to justify their artistic decisions; Johansson feels as if they are not stepping on any boundaries and promotes diversity while citing feminism as her reason for taking the lead role (a similar excuse that Tilda Swinton used when explaining her role in Doctor Strange). Aloha writer/director Cameron Crowe states that Stone’s character is based on a real life person who is half-white, half-Chinese, and has anxiety about how she appears more white than Chinese. That specific case leads me the question: why not just cast a half Asian actress?
It is time to come out and state the base problem of all of this, why the American Ghost in the Shell doesn’t star an Asian actress, or perhaps why Seoul Searching didn’t break out: Asian-American leads are not acceptable to Hollywood.
I am sorry to report that I often get into online arguments about the subject matter on a frequent basis. But the rebuttal I always receive from the other end is that white stars are simply more bankable than Asian stars. It isn’t racism from Hollywood they say, it is just business. Hell, even eastern Asians love white stars, they say; look at Matt Damon’s starring role in the Chinese-produced and directed The Great Wall. It isn’t the studios or filmmakers being racist, it is the consumers for not being as accepting of Asian leads – so they say.
To me, this argument holds little ground. First of all, I invite the people who make this argument to say it out loud: “studios do not cast Asian leads because they don’t make as much money.” Does that not sound racist to them? Second of all, I think this argument underestimates the consumer. We’re seeing recently that these “trends” this argument cites are going the other way, with whitewashing movies like The Last Airbender, The Lone Ranger, Pan, Aloha, Exodus, Gods of Egypt, and The Great Wall (at least in the United States) not doing well in the box office, despite all having white “bankable” actors. Even with the low quality of these films, it would be naive to say that the public backlash regarding whitewashing didn’t play a role into those films’ financial failures.
The part of the argument citing the fame of white actors like Matt Damon also holds little ground when you look at films like The Last Airbender, a film based on an animated show heavily inspired by various eastern Asian cultures. Despite having people of color as extras and as the main villains of the movie, the three leads are played by white actors. And in this case, the three leads are not even name actors, certainly not even close to the level of Damon. Another example can be found in the movie 21, a film based on the true experiences of Asian-Americans – yet few of the characters is Asian, and in supporting roles too, while the leads are played by white actors, not even A-list for the most part.
Even without famous names, there is a stigma that white leads are simply more appealing. Chloe Bennet of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD fame demonstrates this in an interview:
Four years ago, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD star Chloe Bennet was known professionally as Chloe Wang, aspiring actress and teenage dabbler in Shanghai pop stardom. In the states, however, Hollywood casting agents were less than welcoming.
At least until she changed her last name.
“Oh, the first audition I went on after I changed my name, I got booked,” Bennet tells The Daily Beast, in an interview timed to Marvel’s Women of Power month. “So that’s a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works.”
In a comedic take on this scenario, think of Aziz Ansari’s character in Parks and Recreation, who changes his name from “Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani” to “Tom Haverford” to appear more appealing the political world. It is a shame that people of color would have to take efforts to pass as white in order to progress in their careers.
Speaking of Aziz Ansari, there is an excellent episode from his Netflix show Master of None that focuses on the roles that Indian actors get – generally, taxi drivers, terrorists or something of the like. When Aziz’s character Dev finally gets the chance to star in a new sitcom, he finds that the other person up for the role is another Indian actor, and the studio has to choose between the two Indian actors; they can’t pick both, otherwise it would be an “Indian” show all of a sudden. The fictional producer in the episode gives the same explanation, that “it wouldn’t be relatable to a mainstream audience,” saying “it’s not me, it’s the public.” Dev argues back: “what if we try?”
Master of None is fiction based on reality, but Harold and Kumar and Star Trek actor John Cho reminds us of the reality in an interview:
Is race a reason why you haven’t booked jobs?
I always feel like it’s amazing how frank people are. Even this past pilot season, I was sent a script and I was talking with my agents, and they said, “We pitched you for such and such a role, but they can’t go Asian obviously because of blah blah blah,” because it involved an era where cinematically we didn’t see Asians. And I was like, Oh, okay. But that’s a fiction created by cinema. There are people of different colors, but it was copying a film history that excluded people of color, not reality.
They’ll say, “We can’t cast an Asian because this other person is Asian,” or “We’ve got another Asian.” The fact that people are very open about it is very surprising to me, because you assume it, based upon the product. It would be weird to be in human resources and say, “Oh, we can’t hire another Asian in accounting, because there’s a black dude in accounting, so, thank you very much.”
It may be true that Americans and Asians embrace white leads, but how will we know that Asian and Asian-American leads won’t work until we try? Why can’t an Asian actor rise up to the same stature as Matt Damon?
Returning to the topic that inspired this article, I will say that yes, I do understand that Danny Rand is white in the comics. Because of this, there are several comic book fans who disregard any argument that Danny Rand should have been played by an Asian or Asian-American actor. While it was unfortunate to see Finn Jones temporarily driven from Twitter after he engaged in the rhetoric surrounding the race of Danny Rand, it was disheartening to see people on the internet angrily come to his defense, condemning everyone else as “dumb SJWs” who make a living on being offended. Unfortunately this leads these people to ignore the larger problem of Asian representation in the media.
Would casting an Asian man as Iron Fist instantly fix this problem? No. But it would have bee a helpful step to help alleviate it, especially from a mainstream company like Marvel for a show on a mainstream platform like Netflix. Seeing an Asian-American as a superhero would help support the idea that Asians can be acceptable as leads in Hollywood, because right now we aren’t seeing too many. It is possible that Iron Fist is the wrong battle for this issue of Asian representation, but despite all of its mysticism and whatnot, it is a property that is heavily inspired by Asian culture, and not having an Asian lead is certainly a missed opportunity.
I lament even more when the missed opportunity is personified by actor and stuntman Lewis Tan, who auditioned for the role of Danny Rand and was ultimately not selected. Tan still however won a minor role, playing character Zhou Cheng, who in the show plays on the “drunken master” archetype often seen in kung fu movies. Despite his sometimes inconsistent accent in his big scene, his playfulness and physicality made his brief role very memorable. Not to mention he showed of his real-life martial arts chops, in a show that is being criticized for the low quality of its fight scenes.
In a recent interview for Vulture, Tan stated something that resonated with me personally:
Did you have conversations with them about the significance of casting an Asian-American?
I personally think it would have been a really interesting dynamic to see this Asian-American guy who’s not in touch with his Asian roots go and get in touch with them and discover this power. I think that’s super interesting and we’ve never seen that. We’ve seen this narrative already; we’ve seen it many times. … I think it would be really interesting to have that feeling of an outsider. There’s no more of an outsider than an Asian-American: We feel like outsiders in Asia and we feel like outsiders at home. That’s been really difficult — especially for me. It’s been hard for me, because in the casting world, it’s very specific. So when they see me and I’m six-two, I’m a 180 pounds, I’m a muscular half-Asian dude. They’re like, “Well, I don’t know what to do with this guy.” They’re like, “He’s not Asian, he’s not white … no.” That’s what I’ve been dealing with my whole life. So I understand those frustrations of being an outsider. Like Danny’s character. I understand him very well.
His words invoked similar feelings that the film Seoul Searching did for me – he speaks of the experience of being away from your roots and getting back in touch with them. While he may look Asian, he is still treated as a foreigner in his family’s country of origin. It is an experience that is not often depicted in mainstream media, and when it is, it is mishandled in something like Aloha. This to me was the greatest justification for casting an Asian-American lead for Iron Fist. Perhaps the writing would still be the same, but the race of the lead would add new elements and undertones that would make it stand out from other Batman and Arrow-like stories.
It may go against the source material in a way, but eventually we should be asking ourselves the question, “should Iron Fist have been white in the first place?” An excellent review of the show’s first six episodes by Geek Culture points out:
In the rich history of the Marvel Universe, kung-fu hero Danny Rand, or the Iron Fist, is not a new creation. The latest Marvel Comics character to get his own TV series on Netflix has been around since the 1970s, and in many ways was a result of the fascination with all things not Western borne, and brought about by the hippie culture at that time. …
Danny Rand was influenced by the TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine, which was itself influenced by the chop-socky dalliance of western interest in the Chinese martial arts movie scene. Set to that background, the character of Danny Rand was, either intended or not, seen another “white saviour” gifted in all the ways of the East, from thinking like one to speaking like one, but he somehow still managed to be white.
Maybe something like that was acceptable in the 1970s, but obviously, not as much now, even though with Danny staying white, it does adhere to source material.
Instead of blindly putting the source material on a pedestal and fighting tooth-and-nail to defend its integrity, perhaps it is worth for comic book fans to reexamine its integrity, and discuss if the source material is the result of an appropriation of Asian culture. Out of all of the major Marvel properties, Iron Fist has the biggest potential to be reinvented into something more relevant and modern, something that could resonate with people who feel that their voice is not heard and their image is unseen in the media.
By far the dumbest counterargument to this is that it opens up the possibility of Michael Cera playing Shaft; but when looking at characters like John Shaft, Luke Cage, and Black Panther, being black is a major component that informs their character. With Iron Fist, there is no specific reason in the story Danny Rand has to be white; an Asian-American can still be a billionaire who gets in a plane crash as a child and learns martial arts in a mystical city.
As I mentioned, there is no instant solution to all of this. It is an uphill struggle, but what Asian-American artists can do for now is to continue to make their art. Things are not so bleak – significant characters like Glenn from The Walking Dead graced our television screens. Asian directors like James Wan and Jon M. Chu continue to make blockbuster Hollywood films, auteurs like Cary Fukunaga are getting their name out, and mainstream filmmakers like Fast & Furious director Justin Lin give birth to Asian characters like Han. It’s wonderful that we get television shows like Fresh Off the Boat and the aforementioned Master of None, though I hear the former show has received some interference behind the scenes. But for now, I want to see more Lewis Tans, more John Chos, and more Seoul Searchings.
As for me personally, I will do what I can to contribute to the hopefully growing wave of Asian-American artists. People do not exaggerate when they talk about the importance of seeing themselves in media. Examining this problem of representation has both led me to embrace my own identity, while also mobilizing me to discuss the issue, no matter how ugly and unrewarding internet arguments may be. But I’m happy to say that I have learned to stop being apathetic, and to love the hyphen in front of “American”.