Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Today AngryAsianMan posted An Open Letter to the Creators of Disney’s Live-Action Feature Film ‘The Legend of Mulan’ from an anonymous reader concerned about the direction the of the live action Mulan movie currently being produced by Disney. The writer of the letter had read through The Legend of Mulan spec script by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin and was “deeply disturbed” by the proposed white male lead, a “30-something European trader…who develops a mutual attraction with Mulan and fights to protect her in the ensuing battles. To top it all off, this man gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan.” According to the anonymous writer, Disney is also not considering using an Asian American actress for Mulan–instead preferring to work with a 16 or 17 year old actor from China. Hynek and Martin’s spec script seems to have “Disney’s Pocahontized” the original Mulan story as much as possible.
Since the open letter was posted, multiple sources, including actor Joel de la Fuente and journalist Jeff Yang, have corroborated that this is indeed the content of the spec script. Yang summarized the early plot of the script:
“Seriously, the script first introduces the white male hero (a Roman legionnaire) cavorting in a brothel with voluptuous Chinese prostitutes, until he’s caught by a ‘mountainous Chinese thug’ that he’s scammed — who disrupts the party by violently beating the prostitutes, because Asian men, as we do.”
Mulan is one of many animation-to-live-action Disney movies in the works, but perhaps the most unfaithful–in sharp contrast to 2017’s live action Beauty and the Beast which will even include the original movie’s songs. Disney apparently felt it wouldn’t be possible to do a Mulan adaptation without centering it around the experiences of a white guy–even if Hua Mulan is an actual historical legend.
The Mulan spec script is now being rewritten by the scriptwriters of Jurassic World, Amanda Silver and Jick Jaffa. Their script for Jurassic World was notable for originally intending for main characters to be Chinese. Even so, Mulan is being adapted with no significant input from writers of Chinese descent, and it’s unclear if the next draft will continue to emphasize this odious white guy character.
It’s possible Disney is simply going back to the roots of their 1998 animated Mulan. In 1993, Disney was working on a short feature called “China Doll.” According to the Los Angeles Daily News, the heroine of “China Doll” was “a waifish Chinese girl who fought a losing war against tyranny until a British soldier came and swept her away. Nobody liked the character, so the writers went back to a Chinese poem [Mulan] for inspiration.”
At the time, director Barry Cook said that they were careful to not use romance to drive Mulan’s plot. “There was another story line that had her running off to war to escape a bad situation at home, either bad parents or a forced marriage. That didn’t work. Then she was driven by a romance she had with the captain of the soldiers. And that just ruined everything.”
The Decade of White Male Centality might have started with the 2009 film Avatar, an extremely popular genre film that Mighty Whitied as hard as possible in it’s scifi setting. In the film, white dude Jake Sully dons the physical appearance of the alien Na’vi, romances the Chief’s Daughter, and eventually becomes their leader. Or perhaps it’s true start was in 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom, a film set in Ancient China and based on the Journey to the West, featuring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, where the main character was somehow still a white guy named “Jason Tripitikas.” Since then, even as the incidence of conventional yellowface and whitewashing have somewhat decreased, the number of films set in non-white settings but centering the experiences, feelings, and heroism of white men continues to explode onto big and small screens. It’s how we ended up with 2015’s Stonewall, a film about the New York riots that kicked off the modern LGBTQ rights movement–historically lead by bisexual trans women of color–that inexplicably told the story of a white man from the midwest.
Many times, these films tend to follow a predictable pattern:
A) A white dude main character becomes immersed in a culture that is not his own
B) The people of this culture (frequently an Asian culture) are skeptical of this man because he is an outsider.
C) The white dude proves his mettle and teaches the Asians (or Other culture) that they were wrong to discriminate against him. He is allowed to fight alongside them. In more extreme iterations of the trope, he even leads them to victory or saves them.
D) Along the way, the white guy scores with the Asian female lead/appropriate love interest who is quite impressed with him.
E) The white dude actor playing the white dude character gets the top billing (even the title of the movie/show), the most lines, and the most story. Maybe an Asian actress gets some screen time, but not as the lead. The most prominent Asian men in the story are antagonists or supporting characters.
What results is a surefire recipe of Othering, dehumanization, orientalism, or otherwise. When your viewer surrogate does not come from the culture you are featuring, it’s easy to frame the “frequently less represented in media” folks and their culture as something beautiful, exotic, weird, strange, or misunderstood.
This plot arc plays out in the spec script of The Legend of Mulan and it played out in Netflix’s Marco Polo (2014). The Netflix series focuses heavily on Kublai Khan’s imperial court, but is still named after and focuses on the adventures of Polo. Although historians are not even sure Marco Polo ever made it to China, the series depicts Marco Polo earning the trust of the Khan and winning the heart of a Mongol princess. It even again immortalized the original Marco Polo’s lie that he taught the Mongols how to build trebuchets. By Season Two, the series had shrunken the size of Lorenzo Richelmy’s head on the posters, but he was still there–lurking randomly out of place–and the show was still named after his character.
As I wrote in 2013 in my article about the forgettable film 47 Ronin:
Hollywood doesn’t just whitewash Asian characters…it depicts how the white characters face discrimination from Asians. It’s bitter irony. It’s a complete lack of self-awareness. What they do to Asian American actors in real life they depict happening to white(washed) characters on screen. In the story, being part white is depicted as a liability. The people of color in the film are exclusionary. Yet, these films inadvertently demonstrate that in Hollywood, it’s the opposite–characters of color are whitewashed. People of color in the film industry are excluded, even when the main characters were originally people of color.
In the chute already are three properties that threaten to continue this belabored trope. Next up is Birth of the Dragon, a film about Bruce Lee that maintains the apocryphal myth that Lee fought against “reverse racism” and the right for white people to learn martial arts. A completely made up character, white dude Steve McKee (played by Billy Magnussen), is the viewer surrogate for the exotic land of…1960’s Oakland.
As pitched to the Toronto Film Festival, Birth of the Dragon is about how “the Bay Area Chinese community frowns on his sharing of ancient ways with non-Chinese, but [Bruce]Lee is a rebel.” Lee will challenge Chinese martial arts master Wong Jack Man to defend McKee’s right to learn kung fu. McKee will teach Bruce Lee about how to get into movies and birth the dragon. And McKee will of course, get to kiss a Chinese girl. (See: awkward trailer) Bruce Lee’s family has spoken out against the film:
A great number of you have written to me with your concerns about Birth of the Dragon. I share your concerns and want to make it clear that Birth of the Dragon was made without my family’s consent or involvement. I have seen the film (out of necessity alone) and, in my opinion and the opinions of many (search articles and reviews), this film is a travesty on many levels. I think this film is a step backward for Asians in film not to mention that the portrayal of Bruce Lee is inaccurate and insulting. I am disappointed that such a project would be funded and produced. Image contains highlights from an article published by ASAM News.
The upcoming Netflix/Marvel show Iron Fist (2017) also threatens to play out this trope. Based on the comic property of the same name, Iron Fist tells the story of an American orphan adopted by a mystical Asian community. Despite being an outsider, he becomes their most gifted student and is bestowed with the superpower of the Iron Fist. In the original story, set to be reimagined in the upcoming Netflix series, he will return to New York to reclaim his inheritance and seek justice for his family. In 2014, years before the show went into production, fans attempted to advocate for an Asian American Iron Fist arguing that it didn’t matter if Danny Rand was Asian American or white American as long as the character was some sort of American orphan stranded in Asia. Fans argued that making Danny Rand Asian American would improve Marvel’s poor diversity track record and was actually a good workaround to avoid repeating the trope being discussed in this article.
— Lewis Tan (@TheLewisTan) October 8, 2016
Fan efforts to racebend Iron Fist were unsuccessful, although it appears that some Asian actors were given at least some consideration. Actor Lewis Tan, who was ultimately cast as the villain Zhou Cheng, had 15 years of martial arts training under his belt. When the series finally premieres, the white actor who was cast as Iron Fist, Finn Jones, will probably be credited for undergoing a grueling martial arts regimen. Leaked casting sides from the show depicted a white Danny Rand telling mixed race Asian American character Colleen Wing that he understands what it is like to be different. The trailer shows him fighting Asian villains kidnapping a white woman and showing off his muscles to Colleen.
The Great Wall, also set to premiere in 2017, is a Chinese co-production starring Matt Damon battling monsters on The Great Wall. It’s a fantasy story and Damon plays an original character, so he argued at New York Comic Con that the film is not “whitewashing.” Even so, the trailer is intent on centering Damon and following this trope to a tee– Matt is a white dude who arrives in fantasy Ancient China, an outsider who is initially distrusted. Matt impresses them with his archery and proves the Chinese wrong. Matt is invited to fight with them. Matt impresses a Chinese lady. Matt Matt Matt Matt Matt Damon does all the things. Even if the movie radically demonstrates otherwise, more people will see the problematic tropes reinforced in this trailer than the actual film itself.
The Great Wall is no different from any other Hollywood production centering white men, except this time white male centrality will be working in tandem with Chinese investors to showcase Chinese filmmaking and Han supremacy to an international film audience. I have no doubt that the producers of this movie feel that having seasoned Chinese action stars fighting alongside a white Hollywood A-lister is a form of validation and legitimacy. But functionally, it provides no opportunities for Asian American actors and continues to reinforce a racist phenomena that Taiwanese American actress Constance Wu describes as “hero bias”–the preference for white male characters to be audience surrogates and heroes. Matt Damon convinces the Chinese characters that they cannot fight the monsters without him. Whether the monsters are Great Wall climbing dragons or Hollywood production companies, his character is reinforcing a myth that isn’t true.
If you go by the definition that whitewashing is changing a pre-existing character of color into a white character, none of these properties–Legend of Mulan, Marco Polo, Birth of the Dragon, Iron Fist, The Great Wall–are whitewashing. Unlike the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie, no original character is being “washed”–instead, a white guy is being added as a viewer surrogate so the story can be centered around his experience. Unfortunately, this reliance on a white audience surrogate reinforces the dangers of a single story–that all stories worth telling about people of color in Hollywood are only worth telling through the lens of a white male protagonist.
What about adding “a white man really into Chinese prostitutes” helped make the spec script for Legend of Mulan so appealing to Disney? Isn’t it kind of sad that nearly a decade after the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, Disney’s decision to cast a Chinese actress to play the Chinese character based on the Chinese Ballad of Hua Mulan made headlines? It’s disconcerting enough that this casting announcement was spurred by an anti-whitewashing petition signed by over 106,000 people hopeful that Disney would do the right thing.
A Chinese actress will play Mulan. It’s just not guaranteed that she’ll be the center of her own story.
We are excited to announce that Racebending.com has a new live talk show called Token Talk!
Hosted by Racebending.com’s Dariane Nabor, Token Talk is a way to continue the discussion we have at comic convention panels around the nation about underrepresented communities in pop culture. The show itself is broadcasted from Meltdown Comics in Hollywood, CA and produced by XSN, an online shopping network that dubs itself as “QVC 2.0.”
At its core, we want this to be a show that promotes work or products by, for, or about underrepresented groups. We want to do more than boycott whitewashed works. Show the industries you want to see more representation by voting with your dollar and supporting diverse properties. We hope to encourage viewers to use their consumer power to support work done by diverse communities and show representation isn’t just about having a “token” [insert marginalized descriptor here] person. We want to entertain viewers but also enrich, inform, and get them to discover and buy cool, diverse stuff, too!
You can watch the show live on Tuesdays at 9pm PT on ShopXSN.com.
Racebending.com returned to WonderCon this year with a panel featuring Asian American creators, artists, performers, and influencers. Here are the highlights!
THE ASIAN AMERICAN SUPERHERO
Join Jim Lee (DC Entertainment), writer/producer Maurissa Tancharoen (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), actor Yoshi Sudarso (Power Rangers Dino Charge), and graphic novelists Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex), Amy Chu (Poison Ivy), and Christine Dinh (brand manager, BOOM! Studios) as they discuss the origin stories of iconic Asian American superheroes on screen, on the page, and behind the scenes. Moderated by Racebending.com’s Dariane Nabor.
Saturday, March 26 at 5pm in Room 502B
Link to event on MySched: http://sched.co/6Q16
Unfortunately due to a death in the family, Maurissa Tancharoen was unable to attend WonderCon and participate in the panel. Our condolences go out to her and her family.
DARIANE NABOR [MODERATOR for RACEBENDING.COM]: Hi everyone. It’s good to see all of you here today at our WonderCon panel: The Asian American Superhero brought to you by Racebending.com. We have a great panel today for you. I think we’re going to get started here and just hope that Jim kind of comes in and moseys in when he so desires.
AMY CHU: He knows… Yeah. I just did a signing with him. He’s on his way. On his way, yes.
DARIANE: Let’s get everyone seated here. My name is Dariane Nabor, by the way. I’m one of the volunteers at Racebending.com. And one of the things that started Racebending.com was the anger against The Last Airbender casting. Yeah. So we care very deeply about diversity in pop culture and representation and things. And that’s why we’re here. So let’s start off with some introductions here.
This is Amy Chu, she’s the writer of Poison Ivy and she’s just an all-around awesome person.
We have Christine Dinh who’s a brand manager and BOOM! Studios.
We have Sarah Kuhn who is the creator of forthcoming novel Heroine Complex featuring Asian American superheroines.
And we have Yoshi Sudarso who is the current Blue Power Rangers Dino Charge Ranger.
And last but not least, we have Jim Lee.
JIM LEE: Sorry. I was like, where is this place?
DARIANE: Alright, let’s get right into it. I’m excited to have a really good discussion. Let’s get everyone settled. Are we good?
YOSHI SUDARSO: I probably should have worn black.
SARAH KUHN: Didn’t get the memo.
YOSHI SUDARSO: No, I didn’t.
JIM LEE: Didn’t get the memo?
YOSHI SUDARSO: Whoopsies!
DARIANE: Alright, so this is the Asian American Superhero panel. So let’s talk about Asian American identity. Now, there are multiple ways to experience this, right? The way that you portray that identity and the way that others perceive that identity for you. Let’s talk about how your experience as an Asian American informs the work that you do. Informs or affects the work that you do. So, let’s start on that end: Yoshi?
YOSHI SUDARSO: Aw man, I’m going first? You mean, through what I do? That’s interesting. Well, I have been blessed to be able to play not a stereotypical role for Power Rangers Dino Charge. I know most of you probably don’t watch Power Rangers Dino Charge, but the Blue one isn’t the nerdy one this time around. He’s actually like the big, burly one, which is weird because I’m not that big. They’re just smaller than me, that’s all it was. The rest of the cast was just shorter, so I look like the big, burly one. And it’s been good.
At first I was kind of upset because they gave me the character that was– He didn’t speak English all that well. ‘Cause at first I was like, “Yeah! I get to be the big, burly guy!” And then they’re like, “Oh, you also have an accent. Just so you know.” I mean it was like, “You don’t speak English that well.” I was like, kind of upset? And then I played it without an accent, just like a stilted language. Because, for those who don’t know, my character is a caveman from 100,000 years ago. So yeah, I know. He was frozen in time, didn’t know English, and then they taught him English and all this stuff. So it wasn’t like he was an Asian guy who doesn’t speak English.
I was upset for like a month into it, and then somebody tweeted me and was like, “You know, I actually don’t speak much English and it’s cool to see somebody on TV who doesn’t speak English and is a superhero, you know. And it helps a lot.” And I had that problem. When I was a kid, when I first came to America, I didn’t speak English. I was bullied a lot. You know, me and my brother, we were bullied for not knowing the English language which I get sometimes, you know, kids are kids. But he was saying that that wasn’t happening anymore too much to him because he was able to say, “You know what, Yoshi’s a power ranger. And the character on there, Koda, he doesn’t speak English. That means I can be a hero just like he can be.” So it was really cool. I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna own this.” So yeah it was really good. And… next.
SARAH KUHN: I’m a big geek. I’ve always been a big geek. I grew up loving superheroes and superhero stories. And, you know, when I was younger, there weren’t a lot of Asians, especially Asian women really centered in the story. I think the closest thing we had was Jubilee. And I love Jubilee, but.. There’s Jubilee in the back! But, you know she really didn’t get to do a lot, except wear the awesome yellow trenchcoat and kind of be funny in the background. And it took me — So when I sort of started thinking about writing, it took me a long time to realize that those characters could be centered.
The thing that sort of blew my mind wide open was in college, I saw a movie called The Heroic Trio, which is an old Hong Kong movie. Well, it’s not that old, it’s like ‘90’s. And it’s about these three Asian women who were superheroes. And they just are. There’s no real explanation, there’s no real excuse for it. It just kind of is. The husband of one of them, when he finds out, he’s like, “My wife is a superhero? That’s awesome!” Like it kind of just was a fact of life. And that sort of made me realize that these characters can be centered. So that’s something that I’ve tried to do in my own work, is always protagonists, always Asian American, female superhero protagonists and get to do all the awesome things that lead characters get to do like kick ass and shoot fire out of their hands and have, like, really hot love interests.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yeah-uh.
CHRISTINE DINH: So growing up for me as well, we didn’t really have a lot of Asian Americans. And, you know like when we were kids, and both my parents worked, I watched a lot of TV. And I didn’t, until the third grade, get an Asian American character, which was Trini from Power Rangers. That was my first introduction.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Shout out.
CHRISTINE DINH: That was really amazing. But I think one time I told my mom, I was like, “Why wasn’t I born blonde or blue-eyed?” Because on the playground, you can’t be Kimberly. You can only be Trini, and that’s all you can ever be because that’s what you look like.
SARAH KUHN: Yeah.
CHRISTINE DINH: And I think just growing up… You know I grew up in LA but in a very small town of LA, so we didn’t see a lot of people. But it was until I got like to college and I signed up for every single Asian American website like Asianavenue. I don’t know if it’s still around. But you know, I was like I gotta find people who are just like me. I was going through an identity crisis in college, where I hung out with Armenian groups and then I went with Korean groups, but I’m Vietnamese. So I wasn’t really accepted.
But I think for now, I work at BOOM! Studios and we do a lot of really cool books for young women. One of our special stories is Lumberjanes, and you know, I think it really makes me happy that Mal is Korean if anyone did not know. Mal is Korean, and I think it’s just really cool to support that. I work really hard at BOOM! to show that we are not only working with just really diverse characters but the people behind the pages, you know like people like us, they want to push and share the stories. And I think that’s really important for me. I’m really lucky that BOOM! allows me to start initiatives like diversity panels, and I get to work with amazing people like Sarah and Amy, like everyone here. So I’m just really excited.
YOSHI SUDARSO: And don’t worry, I was Trini all the time too so–
SARAH KUHN: We were all Trini!
JIM LEE: Okay. So this is the first type of panel I’ve ever done like this so I don’t want to say anything to offend anyone. Let me just share that I might have an atypical– maybe it’s very typical, I don’t know. I was born in South Korea. I’m Korean. My parents immigrated to the US. We lived mostly in the Midwest, so it was rare to see another Asian person. So I never really identified myself by my race, more so that I was short, right? Because you can’t really see yourself everyday, but when you’re short, you’re looking up at everyone’s nostrils. And so, yeah, I guess I am. And so it was more– But even then, I didn’t really want to focus on that much, that part of me that much either. It was always, to me, what you did and not necessarily what you looked like, or– So I was always– I would always kind of measure people based on what they said or what they did. And it was very kind of focused on what you created or what you wrote or whatever.
So, with that said, I had like one really close Asian friend. My parents, you know we went to a Korean American church. But they were very domineering, which is very typical of Korean, or actually Asian families. And so, you know, they came to America with this American dream that I would follow in their footsteps, but little did they know I got infected by the American bug and I just wanted to do my own thing. And I think I really just, in my own way, resisted everything they wanted me to do. So they wanted me to be a doctor, and I kind of played along. And then in the end I switched gears and went into comics. And you know, they wanted me to marry an Asian girl, that didn’t happen either. So, I was a big disappointment to the family. There were other things too. They wanted me to learn Korean, I didn’t. I learned German. I spent eight years learning that language, and then learned Italian. So Korean is actually my worst language at this point.
With that said, as I got older, I did start– Certainly my kids, they’re half-Korean.. I started thinking about race a lot more. But they’re very cool. I mean, they fit into both cultures very easily. In fact, they’re probably more into Korean culture than I am. I’ve got a 17-year-old daughter who goes to La Crescenta and she went there because she wanted to learn Korean. Her Korean is much better than mine. She actually– Yeah. So, she’s gonna go to Korea next year after graduating from high school for a year.
The thing that really impacts me is, like when I — Right around Halloween, that’s when I’m most aware of it. That there are not many cool Asian characters. Because I want to dress up as a cool Asian superhero. I don’t want to be like Captain Kirk, the Asian version of Captain Kirk. You know, as much as I love Captain Kirk… So I’ve been Oddjob. I’ve been Sulu. So I feel like there’s a dearth of cool Asian characters to dress up for Halloween. So that’s kind of been my mission lately, because I feel like that’s something that’s actually changeable and can have real impact and would be kind of a fun side project to do. So rather than kind of think of it in this loftier, philosophical, revolutionary kind of spirit, I realize that there are real tangible ways that we can shape and offer options to people that, you know, right now doesn’t exist.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Thank you for that, by the way.
AMY CHU: Like Jim, I actually– My formative years, I grew up in Iowa. I grew up in the Midwest and there weren’t a lot of Asians there.
JIM LEE: Nice.
AMY CHU: Iowa, well there just wasn’t a lot. It was a very– Yeah, you’re kind of growing up as an “other,” for the most part. There were some Asians. There were some other Koreans. There were some– Really, again just a handful. And it was– Oh my God, prom time was excruciating. I couldn’t get a date. And then like, the only guy who had asked me was this Korean American guy who was just like– Again it was just like a last resort. It was awful. Yeah. It’s like therapy now, right? You know, you grow up in that kind of environment and then I went to the East coast and I went to a college that was very heavily Asian American. And that was just a revelation because I’m coming from like almost nothing to 15-20% Asian American, I’m like, “Wow, that is a revelation.” Because again, I didn’t really have this identity thing until I suddenly was like “Wow, there are people like me!” And so I became really really active in Asian American student activities in college. And that was like a really– At that time, I didn’t know I was going to go into comics actually. My parents are happy now because I’m writing for DC. Now it’s okay, it’s all branding right?
JIM LEE: That’s where Jim Lee works, right? That’s what they’re saying? That legitimizes it.
AMY CHU: Yeah, totally legitimizes it.
JIM LEE: Right. Right. That the good Asian company, right?
AMY CHU: Everything is okay, as long as it’s the best. It’s the top, right? Yeah. And now I’m writing Poison Ivy. And I guess the question is how does my Asian American identity– And actually it does really influence the way I write Poison Ivy because she is kind of an “other.” She is kind of a hybrid. Literally she’s a hybrid, you know? Does she belong in the plant world or the human world? And that’s kind of like a theme throughout– I don’t even know if you knew that or have read it.
JIM LEE: Sure, yeah no I’ve read the interviews.
AMY CHU: And that’s the theme. And I felt that very much growing up, and even through college and into my career–my pre-comics career, when I was doing business and everything that I was supposed to do. But yeah, so Poison Ivy seriously was– it is very much a part of my identity that’s coming out in her character and I think in some of the other characters as well. I was on the Racebending panel at San Diego Comic-Con, which was an awesome panel. But it was also the question is there are just not that many Asian American characters and I’m given an opportunity here to do six issues for DC. And they’re not gonna tell me– I mean basically I just put all these Asian American characters in it. Ivy has a kind of– I don’t know. How many people here are reading Poison Ivy?
DARIANE: It’s great. You all need to get it, but it’s gonna be hard because they’re sold out everywhere I went to try and pick it up.
AMY CHU: Yeah, it’s sold out but I have–
JIM LEE: We’re going into a second printing.
AMY CHU: Yeah. Okay, thank you. Because you have to read it. Because Poison Ivy kind of needs a– she has a kind of, pseudo- love interest and he’s an Asian American male.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yes!
AMY CHU: And the last panel was kind of like there’s no– there’s almost no Filipino representation. So I’m like, “Alright I’m gonna put in her mentor as a Filipina American.” You can do that because it’s not the movies. I don’t have to cast. I just tell them to–
DARIANE: No, but that’s interesting because, I know– You know comics are so important because, I know you mentioned this at the Rebirth press conference earlier, it’s the source for all of these big movies nowadays. And so it’s so important to have this representation there. I’m curious. Everyone here– We have such a diverse panel here from different fields. We have television, we have an actor, we have someone working in the behind-the-scenes marketing. I want to know as an Asian American, what responsibility do you have to representation both as characters, as employees at your company. You know, what– Is there a responsibility that you should have as this lone representative in this big field or–? What do you guys think about that?
YOSHI SUDARSO: Are we just going anywhere here?
DARIANE: Yes, anyone.
CHRISTINE DINH: Well I guess like for us– One of the comics that we publish is Big Trouble in Little China. So a lot of the context and the jokes for that is very dated back to the ‘80’s. Those jokes were acceptable back then. And I think now, especially bringing it to a modern setting where we tow the line– and especially because for me, I’m really clear with BOOM! that if it’s not something I’m comfortable with, I’m not gonna lead with it. And luckily they’re cool with that. But some other companies would not be okay with that. You know, they’re saying, “We’re putting out Big Trouble in Little China. We’re going to put every single racist, stereotypical things in there.”
And I think it’s like something where they need you as a filter because that might be something that they have never had. Like a perspective. Especially when we’re doing other books about female protagonists and we have men writing it. They don’t know how to like– they don’t know the things that we’ve endured or the things that we’ve come up as. Like, we’ve all felt micro-aggressions when we were younger and it carries out. We don’t want to impart that for future generations. We don’t want them to feel like there’s not someone that they can– that they’re still the butt of a joke. You know, we saw that with the Oscars. We’re still constantly just marked as just some Asian kids who know how to do math and count money. So I think it’s something that we want to show that, “Hey, there are people who are–” I think the most important thing is showing that Asians can be any character.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yes.
CHRISTINE DINH: And I think what I’m really most excited about is Riverdale with Archie. That Reggie gets to be an Asian American guy. Because Asians can be assholes too. We don’t have to be the sidekick all the time, you know we can be everything.
SARAH KUHN: I like that motto, Christine. “Asians can be assholes too.” I’m gonna internalize that.
DARIANE: Is that our hashtag for the panel?
SARAH KUHN: That should be our hashtag. Though I do actually feel a lot of pressure as a writer. The genre that my books are in is urban fantasy, which has a lot of female leads but does not have a lot of non-white female leads. And so whenever I’ve sort of talked about this book to Asian people, there’s a lot of excitement and like, “I’m so excited that this exists, that it’s coming out.” And that makes me excited, and then I immediately get this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, which I talked about a little bit on the panel last night: something called “rep sweats.” It’s a term my friend Jenny Yang I think came up with some other people when Fresh Off the Boat came out. She was like, “I’m so excited, but you also get this kind of feeling of, ‘is this going to be good representation? Is it going to be like long-lasting representation? Is it going to be something where it gets cancelled and Asians aren’t allowed on TV for another 15 years?’” There’s a lot of pressure on that.
When there are so few, there’s a lot of pressure on that one show or that one piece of entertainment or that one character. And so I’ve definitely felt that from the creator side of, “Is what I’m putting out there, is it a good representation? Will it satisfy everyone? Will the people who are telling me they’re excited about it be excited when they actually read it? Or will they just be like, ‘Well, those Asians are assholes. What are you doing? Why are you putting bad stuff out there?’” So I do feel that pressure, and I’m trying to just sort of, I guess– Now this is my therapy, Amy. I’m trying to sort of work through it by thinking like, hopefully this is, all of everything that everyone is doing is the start of there being lots of representation and lots of variety so that we can have all different characters including assholes.
CHRISTINE DINH: I think when you’re– going back to Fresh Off the Boat, there was that one really meta episode where the husband goes on TV, and that one time he went into jokes. And he comes home and Constance Wu’s character is like, “You just made us look like we’re just jokesters who just don’t take ourselves seriously.” So then he goes back again and he becomes super serious and now she’s like, “Now everyone’s gonna think that we’re just uptight Chinese people.” And then the husband finally gets a breakthrough. He’s all like, “I just can’t be everything. I can only be myself, you know. Who I am.” But you can’t just make us be like this whole encompassing person.
SARAH KUHN: I think no one can be– no person I know or character can be all things to all people.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yeah, and as long as people realize that that’s not on us to be the everyman, then I think that’ll be where we reach the breakthrough in my opinion. And for me, it’s a little bit weird because as an actor and as a stunt performer I kind of just have to go out for the roles that are there for me. Sometimes we’ll get the “Any ethnicity” stuff, which I’ve actually– When I go in there, I’m like “Haha, I’m not gonna get this.” But lately actually, like in the past year, it’s gotten different and I’ve actually booked a couple of things where it’s “any ethnicity.” And it’s pretty amazing for me to see the change on that side of it. Either I got better or people are actually like, “Oh yeah.” Maybe I just was bad back then, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know. But it’s really like– Yes, for now I’ll play those roles. I’ll play whatever roles that are there for me to get to a certain point where I can then create my stuff, you know? Because there’s ideas I already have for male Asian superheroes. There aren’t very many Asian superheroes as it is, and for male superheroes it’s like itty bitty, you know what I mean? Like we have Shang-Chi who’s a martial artist. You know stuff like that. But I think when I get to a certain point I want to be able to create more things like somebody with lightning powers or something. I like lightning.
DARIANE: Or be casted as Iron Fist, maybe?
YOSHI SUDARSO: Ha. Yeah, right.
JIM LEE: Iron Fist is a blonde-haired guy though.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yeah, I kind of got the blonde going right now.
JIM LEE: Sure. Look I’ll tell you– So I have kind of two jobs. One, co-publisher at DC Comics. And I would say that it’s definitely something that you have in your mind but it’s not the sole criteria. It’s not the sole sort of mission that we have. I think you’re trying to balance, obviously, entertainment and having a line of books that reflect the diversity of the community that buys and reads comic books. So it’s not just about one particular race. It’s also about whether people are physically disabled, or you know– So there’s lots of different groups of people or people that aren’t necessarily– they don’t look like Adonis or whoever. So there’s a lot of different discussions that we have so it’s not just centered around race or certainly around Asian characters, although I think we’re probably a little underrepresented in that.
On the creative front, I think that’s actually, like what Amy was saying, the easiest way to make change. Because comics are a fairly low-budget business for the most part. If you just don’t mess with Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, you do whatever you want. So you can introduce a lot of Asian characters, and they have. Certainly when I had WildStorm, we created Gen 13. We had an Asian character called Grunge whose real name was Percival. And that’s–you know a lot of first generation Asians, the parents give them completely effed up names, American names. And so they would always pick something cooler. Anyway, he was a slacker. He’s a guy who’d basically slow down the team. Just was not the brightest cog. And you know, we did that on purpose just to kind of show that, “Hey, we can be stupid too.” I don’t know.
So I think it is the thing where, certainly with the first examples of any character you’re gonna have that filter of, well you’re only portraying this way or this way or this other way. And I’ve read articles– I read a lot of articles online about how this should be portrayed or that should be portrayed. It gets very dangerous when it gets very prescriptive and it says, “Well, you can’t have this type of person be portrayed as villains because we’re always portrayed as villains.” And if you start making those kind of hard, fast rules, then you really take a lot of the options out for the people who are creating these stories. Because you can’t just say, “If I have an Asian, he’s gonna be, or she’s always gonna be X, Y or Z.” So I think you’ll have true diversity when, in fact, there’s interchangeability.
And I will say something that you might judge me on, but there’s this movie called How to Be Single. So I saw that the other day. Anyone see it? That’s it? Just us two? Wow. Or maybe none of you are brave enough. So I saw it with my wife and it was really interesting because in that show it’s a white protagonist, but a lot of the love interests and supporting cast love interests were multi-ethnic, right? It was just very seamlessly done. And I kind of applauded them and it was just a thing where I didn’t even notice until about three-quarters of the way through and I thought, “Alright, this is–” We’re getting closer and closer to the point where you’re not gonna really even notice it or think about it. And I see that, certainly even at conventions, the people that turn out and are supportive of comic books, things are changing and they’re changing very quickly. So I think it’s gonna move quicker and quicker every year and hopefully to the point where it’ll be less of an issue and won’t have a panel like this. Although I love this panel, I wouldn’t want to kill it. So it’s awesome. Anyway.
AMY CHU: Yeah, I don’t really feel the pressure on the representation. I guess, it’s because, like Jim said, it’s kind of easy in comics. You just put them in. I mean somebody’s gonna have to tell me to change my Asian character to somebody else, I don’t think anyone’s going to do that. What the pressure I feel is getting it right, you know? Because it’s gotta feel real. This is a real cha– well as a real comic book character.
But you know like Ivy’s love interest, the guy– he’s a Jain. He’s Indian American and he’s Jain. He has a religion that she is very intrigued by because Jains are super pacifist. They’re like super Vegan. They really don’t even want to eat plants. So that’s why she’s like, “Whoa, this is really interesting.” And he’s a cool dude. He is a guy who really didn’t want to go into science, but he’s feeling a lot of pressure from his parents to work in the botanical sciences. And that’s what he’s doing. So it was really trying to make him more real instead of being like, “Okay, we’re just going to have representation that he’s a tokenized Indian American there,” you know? And that’s more important to me. That he’s fully fleshed out as a real character than, “how many Asian Americans can I get into this story?”
You know, it feels really weird to me sometimes when I look at other things in TV, movies, comics where there’s one. There’s always only one. It’s like, “why can’t there be two?” You know? It would be nice if there were two. Just like, push it a little further, you know? And that I think is more important to me than anything else.
DARIANE: Going off of that “pushing forward,” I mean I love this panel too but I think at this point in time it’s still important to have this kind of thing because we’re so starved for representation. So talking about moving forward, pushing things forward, what do you think is the current state of your respective industry? What do you think could be done to move things forward? And what do you think are some of the challenges in your industries to do that? That’s a loaded question, I’m sorry. Anyone.
AMY CHU: I will talk about a very practical problem in comics. It’s not like people don’t want to do representation. It’s that script is typically fairly ambiguous. Often times it will go to an artist, maybe that artist is from another country, and so they just make assumptions about what American audiences want to see. And sometimes that’s actually the problem more than anything else. I had scripts where it’s set in New York and they’ll draw it and it’s all white people. And I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s obviously not the case” right? And it’s not like they’re trying to do– this is their assumption coming from another country about what we might be seeing or what they perceive the city as. That’s kind of a problem, and sometimes you have to be hyper-specific to the point where… I did a Vertigo story set in Detroit. I learned my lesson. I went to Wikipedia and I copied down the demographics of Detroit. Then I sent it to the artist, “by the way, THIS is what Detroit looks like just in case. Because when you put in those background people, just so you know.” I’m not trying to be a real jerk. But just let people know, in case you didn’t know, this is what it should look like. So, you know, I don’t get that blowback. You read it and you feel like it’s a real city.
SARAH KUHN: Yeah, and I think a lot of it comes from something that Amy and Jim were kind of talking about earlier as far as just trying to incorporate it whenever you can. Whenever you have the opportunity. I’m writing a series of Barbie comics right now, and of course Barbie has to be the main character. But, when we’re coming up with sort of what the idea for the whole series was, I kind of kept saying like, “I think this character is Latina. I think this character is African American. And I think this super cool fashion designer Barbie looks up to is Asian.” And I think I was very specific about it, but also expected to get a lot more pushback. I actually didn’t. Everyone was all for it. So I think there’s that.
And I think it’s also about forming these sort of support group networks where we can kind of raise each other up. I’m lucky enough to be a part of some Asian Girl Gangs, Geek Girl Gangs which Christine is in too. And I feel like we all sort of bring different skills to the table. We’re like Voltron; we come together and we fight evil and do crafts. But the thing that comes out of that as far as work is, I think, when opportunities come up we know other talented Asian American creators or people who are good at other things that we can recommend. So like Christine recommended me for this panel. Or Jenny Yang, who I mentioned earlier who’s a really talented stand-up and producer, I feel like whenever she gets a good opportunity, her first thing is kind of like, “Who else can I bring in?” So I think it’s like putting it on the page in terms of getting in whenever you can and then behind the scenes, making sure you kind of advocate for diverse voices when you’re in the position to do that.
CHRISTINE DINH: So I only handle marketing. And a lot of ??? that stories of how they’re created really falls into editorial and the creators that they come to. And I think what’s really important for a publisher is to have their office really reflect what the world looks like. You know, we’re really lucky at BOOM! that we’re 50% women. We only have five managers but three of them are Asians which is really cool. I think getting that perspective is in there. So I know we’re working really hard. We’re actually doing a Mexican cartel story, but we’re not doing it in the way that like it’s sensationalized in the films. It’s actually from a Mexican artist who lives in Mexico and deals with it. And I think that’s really important because if you’re not getting authentic ones, it’s often hard because you end up getting really short-sighted persp– Like comics that aren’t really, really sending the message that you want it to be. It just seems like it’s a cash-grab. Because I see, you know, some guys will be like, “I’m gonna write an Asian American story about a girl. But I don’t know how to be either, but I’m just going to rely on what I think it is.” And I think it really hurts us because they’re taking up a seat at a table that should be really given the opportunity to someone who could do that, and tell it in an authentic way. And I think that’s why I go back to Fresh Off the Boat, is actually that their writing staff is really comprised of a lot of Asian Americans. And that’s why you see little things that you didn’t think really mattered but– There was that one episode where Eddie, the oldest son, wanted to go to an American market and get Lunchables because he didn’t want to get food with fish sauce in it. And I lived that. I totally get that. You know like, if that cast, if that writing group wasn’t Asian American they would have never known that.
SARAH KUHN: Right. Like there’s these little specific things that I think always make a story authentic. Like in my book, the main character is half-Japanese like me and her dad is from Hawaii. And there’s this running thread about spam musubi. Like how that’s like. And so, I just saw someone “raise the roof” for spam musubi. That’s awesome. So I did this little reading of it when I was still kind of developing it. And the audience was mostly white, which was kind of a bummer, and there was this one Asian woman. And so I read it, and you know, it was like whatever, people laughed or whatever. And she came up to me afterwards and she was like, “I never thought I would hear about spam musubi in a fantasy novel. Like, that’s amazing.” And so I feel like those little things that make a story specific do come from having creators behind the scenes.
CHRISTINE DINH: Yeah and I think what’s important for a marketing person– So I’ve been at other agencies where they’ll be like, “A Marvel movie’s coming out,” but there’s no black or Asian character on there. And they’ll be like, “Oh, you don’t need to market to them. They don’t really care because they’re not in the movie.” But if you have, like sometimes an Asian American story like Fresh Off the Boat, they’ll be like, “Oh, only Asians watch that. No one really cares if it’s outside of that.” I think it’s trying to get into the mindset that people watch everything and you can’t just limit it to that way. I think that’s a marketing person’s perspective. Or even like stuff where we were marketing a superhero movie like, “Girls don’t watch it. Don’t even care about those girl sites. Only market to sites that guys go to.” And I think it’s just trying to break that mentality that people only watch one thing that only represents them. You know, we just want to be in the same playing field.
JIM LEE: So, uh, the original question… I’m sorry, I..
DARIANE: It was, “the state of your respective industries.” I think we can all agree that things are a lot better now than they were before.
JIM LEE: For sure a lot better. I’m the oldest person here on this panel for sure, and I never thought I’d live in an age when marijuana would be legal to purchase. Thank God. No, I am completely kidding. I have my kids. And you see companies that you thought were tight in the industry evaporate. Polaroid, for example. So it’s just that things are moving at a very very quick pace both socially and business– in the world of business. And so when I– seems like a very big question that I don’t know I have a quick answer to, which is, you know, it’s more complicated than just saying, “Alright we’re going to hire more Asian writers. Or we’re going to create more Asian characters.” It runs deeper. I mean it’s a cultural thing.
If Asian parents are saying the only thing you can be is a doctor, lawyer or engineer, and maybe an engineer only if you can’t be a doctor or a lawyer, you know. Nothing wrong with engineers. I’m just telling you this is what I’ve heard. You just realize that it’s– You know what? You have to get to the point where it’s cool to want to be an artist or cool to want to do something in the performing arts. And a lot of the– It has changed. The more… certainly with the rise of K-pop and a lot of the Korean movies that come out like Oldboy. I mean that’s really awesome that that has made a difference, I think. And it’s just going to continue.
I’m pretty confident that within a generation it’s going to be in really really good shape in that there’s no resistance to it. No one’s saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s too many Asian characters” right? No one’s saying that, right? I haven’t heard it. Maybe they’re saying it but I don’t hear about it. But anyway, at the end of the day I think that, you know, I don’t– We don’t do a specific breakdown by race of all the characters but there’s definitely more. Like today we did the big presentation on Rebirth and we brought back older incarnations of the characters that you’re gonna see.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Blue Nightwing.
JIM LEE: Yes, Blue Nightwing among others. You know the Hispanic Blue Beetle… There’s going to be some other… Cassandra Cain, so that’s a big one, right? So, yeah. I don’t know…
YOSHI SUDARSO: Isn’t there an Asian superman now?
DARIANE: The New Super-man?
JIM LEE: There is an Asian superman now, yeah.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yeah!
JIM LEE: He’s called “The Superman,” and then we found that there’s no Chinese word for “the,” right? Right? Anyone Chinese here? I don’t know. Anyone? So we changed it to “New” Superman. Right? So basically Gene Yang’s an amazing author. Yeah, so he’s going to write that book. It’s a very touching, very personal story. But his viewpoint is that, if I could just make a plug here for a second, is that Superman embodies this ideal of humanity even though he’s this alien. But that it’s very much filtered through American culture. And he wanted to really explore what would happen if you took that same idea and applied it to Chinese culture because that’s obviously a big thing, a part of his life, of his work. And so he’s taken that ideal and kind of put it through a different lens. At the end of the day, he’s come up with a really awesome take on the idea of being a superman in that culture.
So that’s where it works. I don’t think you just go and, “Hey, we have a German character. He’s called ‘Blitzkrieg’ and his power is electricity!” You know? Because there is a character called Blitzkrieg, you know what I’m saying? Or Red Dragon and he, you know, whatever. So I think you have– it has to run deeper than that to have– to get critical and creative traction. And that’s where it comes from. So it’s not just an editor saying, “We gotta create a Chinese villain.” You gotta have the whole, fully realized pitch of why it’s a cool character who happens to be Chinese or why the Chinese aspect really enhances the uniqueness of that character. I don’t know why I’m looking over here as I’m talking, but yeah. So that’s where it’s at.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Now we can cosplay Superman and not be “Asian” Superman.
JIM LEE: That’s right!
YOSHI SUDARSO: Now we’re the New Super-man.
JIM LEE: I will be Asian Superman.
[??: ???] on the convention floor.
YOSHI SUDARSO: I think there’s a few.
JIM LEE: No more Long Duk Dong.
AMY CHU: Oh my god, yeah.
DARIANE: You guys kind of went to my next question which was, “What we are going to look forward to,” and you already mentioned Superman, so there’s that. But no, here’s the thing is– what I want to see is I want to see Superman become a movie and actually cast an Asian guy to play him. But, you know, wishful thinking. It’s really early, you just announced it, whatever. Let’s see, what else did I want to ask you guys? Do you guys have anything else you want to add before we end the panel?
YOSHI SUDARSO: Well, I think sometimes… There’s a lot of people on Twitter and stuff who’s always upset– I don’t know if you guys watch The Last Ship? Everybody’s kind of upset with the season because it’s like the new season and it’s like an Asian season. They go to Asia and it’s always all these Asians. And they’re like, “oh, why are you making all the Asians the bad guys?” and you know all this stuff. I’m like, “Shhhh I’m working. Please.” So it’s the same sense of like, yes we’re being put in the bad guy role. Yes, we’re getting shot at and what not. But for one, on the other side of it, we’re all working. There’s so many more Asian American, in LA right now, stunt guys that are working. In fact, that’s so hard for them to find Asian guys out there for all the Last Ship stuff that they’re recycling us. We’re just like… You know what I mean? Trying to cover our faces. Make sure they don’t see us. But I mean, it’s great that that’s happening. And I know that there’s a lot of people who’s like, “Yes, you’re the villains again, of course.” But for now, let’s get ourselves seen, and then there’s probably a character in there, that’s like, oh, they join in with the good guys because they don’t want to be the bad guy. Which, I think that happens in The Last Ship. So it’s just like stuff like that, we get little bits of it, you know?
CHRISTINE DINH: I just finished Daredevil 2. And I was like, man, there’s…
YOSHI SUDARSO: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no! No spoilers!
CHRISTINE DINH: All I’m saying is there’s a lot of Asian people in there. But I think what’s really cool is because there’s a female character who’s not sexualized– There’s two actually, two female Asian characters in there. They’re not sexualized. They’re known for their prow– their skill-sets you know. One of them runs them out. She’s in the season one, so that’s not a spoiler. So she’s–
YOSHI SUDARSO: If you haven’t seen season one by now, come on. What are you doing here?
CHRISTINE DINH: It’s really cool because at first you think they’re all just bad guys who are actually really bad at martial arts. But–
YOSHI SUDARSO: I know them.
CHRISTINE DINH: You know I love someone like Elektra because she’s not good or bad. She tows the line. I just feel like she can be everything. She is just anything.
JIM LEE: Elektra’s in season two? What?
CHRISTINE DINH: What? Everyone knows that! Everyone knows that!
DARIANE: I didn’t know that.
YOSHI SUDARSO: You ruined it! Ruined it!
JIM LEE: Now they do.
CHRISTINE DINH: That was all over the trailers.
YOSHI SUDARSO: I was a little bit scared to come out to WonderCon without having seen Batman vs. Superman and finished Daredevil 2. I’m just like, “Please! Please, no! No spoilers!”
CHRISTINE DINH: I didn’t tell you anything that ruined it. I just said there’s Asian bodies in there.
YOSHI SUDARSO: No, no. Not you, you did good. I’m just worried.
SARAH KUHN: I think as far as moving forward, for me it’s really heartening just to see like, for example, there’s so much interest in this panel and there’s definitely a hunger to see Asian superheroes and Asian main characters and Asians in all different kinds of roles. Because sometimes on the creator side, when you’re getting feedback from, you know, maybe someone who’s in a position of power to help you make your project, you sort of get these questions like, “Well, isn’t this a little niche? Why does this character have to be X? Are you sure you’re appealing to the broadest possible audience?” It’s very coded. It’s basically saying make this lead character white please. And so I think things like this.. Because sometimes then you’re like, “oh, are they right? Is this a thing?” But seeing something like this, I’m like, “No, that’s not right. There is a hunger for it. There is an audience for it. There are people who want to see those stories and you just have to keep trying to make them.
YOSHI SUDARSO: Yeah. Never give up ya’ll.
DARIANE: I think the important take-home message is to, for you guys, please create and portray more characters that are Asian so we can have something to look to. And also for you guys to consume these things and–
AMY CHU: You guys can create too. I mean, I didn’t think I could write.
DARIANE: Well I mean, you know. I mean create, consume. Let’s just, you know, get it out there and–
YOSHI SUDARSO: Don’t torrent.
DARIANE: Support. Vote with your dollar. Things are changing. We’re in the middle of it. It’s great that all of you are here today. Thank you all so much for coming and being on the panel, we really appreciate it. I think we’re going to stop now and– oh gosh it’s so quiet. We’ll go ahead and stop now and we’re going to take a group photo and yeah. That’ll be it.
YOSHI SUDARSO: So Jim, Asian Nightwing next?
JIM LEE: Sure!
YOSHI SUDARSO: With the blue. With the blue.
JIM LEE: Make it happen.
DARIANE: Thank you all so much for coming. Thank you WonderCon.
A few years ago, Ken Liu published The Paper Menagerie, a short story that explored issues of Asian American identity and the immigrant experience. Its mix of magical realism and the Asian American experience resonated very strongly with me – and with a wider audience. The story won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
So I was overjoyed to learn that Liu was publishing a new collection of stories, including The Paper Menagerie. There are fifteen stories in total, covering (and freely mixing) a wide range of genres.
There’s a piece of historical fiction set in 1800s Idaho, following the plight of Chinese railroad workers. Another work begins with elements of Chinese mythology and somehow morphs into a steampunk take on Hong Kong (a genre Liu himself terms “silkpunk”). And one story, The Literomancer, follows a young American girl living in Taiwan during the White Terror – a period of martial law that lasted decades, but was rarely publicly acknowledged until recent years.
The narrative style sometimes changes drastically from one story to another. For example, The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species reads like an excerpt from an encyclopedia, a sort of whimsical and meandering look at imagined worlds and species. In contrast, Simulacrum is structured as a pair of interwoven interviews with two “historical” subjects. The word “story” is loose in this sense, as some pieces – even those with a more traditional narrative structure – seem more like explorations of ideas rather than characters or people. Personally, I enjoyed the variety.
Although none of the other stories hit me with the same intense emotional catharsis as The Paper Menagerie, I took something away from each one. In particular, State Change and Good Hunting told stories that perfectly utilized elements of magical realism to explore deeply human experiences. And The Perfect Match told a story of a near-future dystopia that felt very real, with issues that are pressing and urgent, and just so happened to feature Asian American protagonists.
I can’t recommend this collection enough, for people who enjoy the side-by-side exploration of characters and ideas. Even more important, this book offers something for people seeking stories that reflect the Asian American and immigrant experience. Not every story touches on Asian themes or characters, but the ones that do offer something unique – and, in our often monochromatic pop culture landscape, something refreshing.
AMC’s Into the Badlands premieres this Sunday, November 15th. It’s been described repeatedly as genre-bending, a dieselpunk martial arts drama that hopes to elevate kung fu action in the way that Walking Dead revolutionized the zombie thriller.
Racebending was invited to two press events with star Daniel Wu. He spoke extensively about his initial role as producer, developing the show behind the scenes, and stepping up to headline a major television show as an Asian American.
From the beginning, the show was envisioned with an Asian lead.
“I really respect AMC for being adamant that the role was an Asian American role,” Wu said. “An Asian American actor to play that role, because if it wasn’t for that support we wouldn’t have had that.”
But it wasn’t until they had finished production and started doing press before it sunk in how groundbreaking the casting would be.
“I think we’re doing the first round of promotion and people […] start to say, ‘Hey this is kind of groundbreaking.’ And I say, yes, right that is true. And I think I mentioned at Comic-Con in July, that it was a great feeling to be able to do this show, knowing the history of Kung Fu, the TV series that Bruce Lee tried to get going but then was stolen from him because studios were not ready to put a Chinese in the lead. And that felt really great 40 years on to be able to right that wrong.”
Wu has always been conscious of the roles he’s accepted and, as an Asian American who grew up in the Bay Area, is keenly aware of Asian stereotypes in media.
“I knew that putting an Asian in the martial arts genre show is very stereotypical, but I wanted to see what the character was like. [Y]es, the martial arts and stuff is very stereotyped, but what we’re seeing is a strong Asian male lead who has a girl, who resists and is not just part of a team, and leading this whole story, it’s something that we haven’t seen before. […] It’s because it didn’t have all the kind of stereotypes that you normally see. It started with a stereotype and kind of blossomed into something else and that’s what really attracted me to want to do this role.”
When asked if the show was conceived with the intention of tackling stereotypes, Wu offered a nuanced response.
“I think [we were] unconsciously trying to do that. We weren’t consciously trying to change the face of Hollywood by creating more diverse roles for Asians, but it just happened to be that way because the team I work with are people who are less close-minded than the executives in Hollywood.”
On July 12th, 2015, Racebending.com hosted our 5th annual panel at San Diego Comic-Con. This year’s panel was a huge hit, featuring some of today’s most talented creators and performers in popular culture! Check out our sizzle reel, full panel video, transcript, and highlights below!
SUPER ASIAN AMERICA!
Whether on screen, on the page, behind the scenes, or on the web, this panel moderated by Racebending.com will explore iconic Asian American superheroes, from Kato to Kamala Khan. Panelists discuss diversity and representation, the making of some of your favorite superheroes, and fan advocacy efforts for an Asian American Iron Fist. Prepare to geek out with actors Chloe Bennet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), Dante Basco (Avatar: The Last Airbender) and Sumalee Montano (Beware the Batman), stunt double Ilram Choi (The Amazing Spider-Man) and graphic novelists Amy Chu (Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman), Greg Pak (co-creator of Amadeus Cho), and Keith Chow (Secret Identities).
Sunday July 12, 2015 3:00pm – 4:00pm Room 29AB
Watch the full video of the panel below!
Transcript typed by Michael Le. Photos by Sunpech Photography.
DARIANE NABOR [MODERATOR FOR RACEBENDING.COM]: All right. Welcome again I’m Dariane and I’m going to introduce our panelists today. This is Super Asian America and it’s Racebending.com’s [fifth] panel here [at San Diego Comic-Con.]
How many of you guys know or have heard of Racebending.com? Thanks. For those of you who don’t know, we’re all about advocating for more diverse representation in media. So be sure to check that out. So let’s get started introducing our panelists.
Our first panelist has written for DC’s Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman, co-founded Alpha Girl Comics, and penned stories for Valiant, Image, and Vertigo. She’s contributed educational comics for institutions such as the New York Historical Society and the Museum of Chinese in Americas. She’ll be writing the first-ever solo series for supervillain Poison Ivy. Say hello to Amy Chu!
Our next panelist is an award-winning film producer, comic book writer, and Rhodes Scholar. He’s written for some of the biggest superheroes in the industry, including Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men – and co-creating Korean American supergenius Amadeus Cho along the way. Please welcome Greg Pak!
He’s the head editor of the pop culture analysis blog The Nerds of Color and host of the podcast Hard NOC Life. He’s been interviewed on outlets such as Comics Alliance and MSNBC, discussing Iron Fist and the Aloha casting controversy. Please welcome the co-editor of the Asian American superhero anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered, Keith Chow!
Our next panelist is an actor, poet, dancer, and film producer. He’s battled the mutant monsters of Doctor Stankfoot, fought Spider-Man as the sinister Scorpion, and defended New York City as the American Dragon. You know him as Rufio, leader of the Lost Boys, and as Prince Zuko, banished prince of the Fire Nation. We have Dante Basco!
She’s a Fulbright scholar and Harvard grad who stunned her parents by changing course and becoming an actress. Since then she’s guest starred on NCIS: LA, Bones, and ER. She’s voiced Arcee in Transformers: Prime, Katana in Beware the Batman, the Queen of Atlantis, and a Mandalorian bounty hunter. Give it up for Sumalee Montano!
A martial artist who’s been training since childhood, he first entered the industry as a visual effects artist. But soon enough, he found his true calling as a Hollywood stuntman. He’s taken the bumps, bruises, and broken bones for zombie survivors, Asgardian warriors, and CIA assassins. You’ve seen him handling the action for Hikaru Sulu and the Amazing Spider-Man, now welcome the man behind the mask, Ilram Choi!
She spent her early years with the Second City Youth ensemble in Chicago, honing her acting and improv skills. She’s been a pop star in China, a fashion model featured in Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and a TV host on TeenNick’s The Nightlife. She currently stars as Agent Daisy “Skye” Johnson on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Please welcome Chloe Bennet!
So for our first question I wanted to address Amy, Greg, and Keith. What inspires you to make the kind of characters and stories you create?
GREG PAK: Well, I grew up in Dallas, Texas. A Korean American kid, biracial Korean American kid growing up in Dallas, Texas. And I remember watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and thinking, “Why the hell do people like this stupid movie?” Because, you know, when I grew up, I very strongly identified with Asian.
I’ve grown a beard since then and confuse people sometimes, like at a Jewish wedding people assume I’m Jewish. But I always identified as Asian American and had a lot of anger about representation of Asian people in American media. You know, it’s the Margaret Cho thing, “That guy’s not Chinese.”
And I also grew up, my mom was the kind of mom who gave us crayons instead of coloring books, you know what I mean? She gave us blank paper. So I kind of grew up committed to storytelling. I drew and I wrote stories, that kind of thing, and I think part of the reason I was a storyteller was as a survival technique I had to learn people’s stories and learn how to tell my story.
When you’re the only person like you in your neighborhood, you learn to communicate – or that’s one way you can survive, I guess. So storytelling to me is about identity, in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s integral to who I am. And also the stories I tell tend to reflect the world in which I live.
So I’ve always tried to tell stories with diverse casts, I made a movie called Robot Stories, which is about love, death, family and robots. But the cast is largely Asian American, just because. And I strongly feel that just because is a totally viable reason for writing the stories you want to tell, you know what I’m saying? So: do it.
Also because the stories… how many people here want to be writers? Specifically want to be writers? So, you guys, stick with it, and write, you know what I mean? And write the stories with the faces and the characters and the people with the backgrounds that you feel in your heart belong in those stories. Because the world, fifteen years ago, I was writing… I’d made all these films, wrote all these comics, created Amadeus Cho 11 years ago for Marvel, and…
The day’s going to come, there are times in life when people tell you, “There’s no market for that.” There IS a market for it. There are millions of people who are hungry for these kinds of stories. And you’ve just gotta do it. And if we don’t write them, they’re not gonna get written, or they’re gonna get written badly. So it’s up to us to tell those stories, and to build that over the years. So stick with it, keep doing it!
AMY CHU: I’m gonna talk about Greg here, because he’s been writing a lot longer than me. Greg’s stories, his real life inspires me. And honestly my own personal background, I guess, would sort of fuel my characters. If you read any of my stories, I will – like Greg said – I feel responsible, I will stack the entire issue full of people of color. I go for 70%, because I’m reactionary. Okay, this is the world we live in, this is realism to me.
My very first pro story was for Vertigo. And it was a story set in Detroit. And so the protagonist is a middle-aged African American woman, and you don’t see that in comics very often. And, what, is an editor going to tell me “no, change her ethnicity, change her gender”? It’s a very real character for me, so this is very important in the kind of stuff I write.
So even though I’m writing Poison Ivy, which is a fictional character, this character represents a lot of people I know, facets of women that I know, people that I know, scientists. She’s a plant scientist, she’s not just some femme fatale who kisses people and kills them, right? I’m really not supposed to talk too much about Poison Ivy right now. Shoot, anyway.
So scratch that… but the other characters, they really actually come out of my real life. For example, there’s a very popular story that I wrote in a series called Girls Night Out. And don’t get too excited, Girls Night Out is a nursing home and it’s one of the patients, and she has Alzheimer’s. And she’s actually based on a visit to a nursing home, one of my relatives, she has Alzheimer’s. So yeah that’s kind of where I get a lot of ideas, they just kind of come from everywhere.
DARIANE: Keith, can you kind of talk about what inspired Secret Identities and Shattered?
KEITH CHOW: Sure, I love superheroes. And so when we first started on the journey toward Secret Identities… like, ten years ago? [turns to look at Greg]
GREG PAK: Yeah, that was it, yeah. Geez.
KEITH CHOW: The landscape for mainstream superhero comics was a lot different, actually. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last decade. Because when I used to do talks like this I would ask the crowd, “Name your favorite Asian American superhero.” Ten years ago… because now you can name Ms. Marvel, you can name Silk, you can name Big Hero 6, and you can name all these characters now.
But ten years ago, there was like… Iron Fist? And they’re like, “Uh, sorry, he’s white.” So, my partners and I – Jeff Yang (better known as the dad of Hudson Yang from Fresh Off the Boat), Parry Shen (better known as Brad Cooper from General Hospital, and a little movie called Better Luck Tomorrow), and Jerry Ma (who is an artist and art director), we came together and said, “Let’s make 100% of our characters Asian American. And let’s make them all superheroes and let’s make them all have authentic Asian American stories.”
So that… and I’m not saying it’s a direct correlation between Secret Identities and the fact that there are more Asian American superheroes now. But we wanted to have something out there for future generations to look back and say, so when I say what’s my favorite superhero, that character can actually be Asian American, and not “pretend” Asian American.
Because my favorite superhero growing up – I mean, other than Batman, of course, everybody loves Batman – but my favorite superhero was Snake Eyes. And for the longest time, Snake Eyes was Asian… right? And why couldn’t he be, right? Never saw his face. What’s his real name? Classified. Where’s he from? Classified. He doesn’t talk, he has no voice, so anyone can be under that mask. And I was still traumatized, to this day, when the comic panel – you still don’t see his face, but you see him from behind, and he’s got blond hair, and I was like…
GREG PAK: Bleached! It’s bleached!
KEITH CHOW: So that’s what inspires me, to make sure there were rosters and a universe full of Asian American superheroes that other people could go to and say, and hopefully that inspires them. And nowadays, we actually have in the mainstream comics, real characters who really reflect that Asian American spirit. I take credit for that is what I’m saying.
DARIANE: This next question is for Dante, Sumalee, Ilram, and Chloe. So everyone has different experiences with their Asian American identity, both in how you portray that identity and in how others perceive it. And how they treat you. So how does your experience as an Asian American inform the way that you approach your characters?
DANTE BASCO: Ladies first.
SUMALEE MONTANO: Well, I think, bouncing off of what Amy said, as an actor, you’re really drawing from your own experiences, and I think as an Asian American, I feel really lucky. I’m half-Thai-Chinese and I’m half-Filipino. So you create these characters based on things that are in you, whether they’re experiences or characteristics. And I feel lucky, I get to draw from a whole range of cultural experiences.
And something that Greg reminded me of, I didn’t realize this, but sometimes when I’m in a session, for some reason, my go-to emotion is anger. And when I play angry, it’s like, “Ooh, wow, she can really get angry.” And I didn’t realize, I think this is the first time I realized, I think a lot of it comes from being “the Other” growing up, growing up in Ohio. And there was literally a high school of 700 kids and less than 10 minorities. And I didn’t realize that, but I think there is a little bit of that comes from, “No, my voice wants to be heard.” And it comes from like, “No, listen to me.”
So I think there is a lot bringing your own experience, and I feel lucky that I get to draw from a really rich experience.
CHLOE BENNET: Well to be honest, I play Skye, and she was an orphan, and she… she basically had, well.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Daisy, now. It’s Daisy now.
CHLOE BENNET: What? Yes, thank you…
GREG PAK: Nerds.
CHLOE BENNET: But I did refer to her as Skye for a reason. And Skye didn’t know her ethnicity. Daisy now knows her ethnicity. But I’m actually excited to move forward in season 3 playing someone who knows who she is and where she comes from. And knowing that she is Asian American. And she had no idea, I’m sure she’s like, “I’m Mexican.” So I’m really excited to explore that now, moving forward, being the first, I don’t know, the first on-screen Marvel Asian superhero?
KEITH CHOW: Melinda May, would have…
CHLOE BENNET: Right! And on that note, I’m so lucky that our showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen is Thai, and my co-star Ming-Na Wen is Chinese, and we three women are leading our show that are Asian American, and that’s never happened.
So I’m looking forward to get to kind of explore Daisy being Chinese. That’s really exciting to me.
ILRAM CHOI: I didn’t know you were mixed.
CHLOE BENNET: Oh yeah, I’m just here, I just love Asians, but I’m Italian.
ILRAM CHOI: So for me, I do stunts, so I just play to the stereotype. So.
DANTE BASCO: You get killed a lot. You kill people and get killed a lot.
ILRAM CHOI: Yeah, pretty much. And I know kung fu.
SUMALEE MONTANO: You’re Asian, you have to know kung fu.
DANTE BASCO: Asian. Can you show us some kung fu?
You know I’ve been around a long time, in Hollywood, and to be honest, growing up I didn’t really think much about being Asian American. I actually grew up in a black and Mexican neighborhoods. And I was just, whatever, like any actor, just pushing your rock up the hill in Hollywood. When I was a kid, I had been fortunate to work a lot, what happens is how the reaction comes back and how you really start understanding what it is to be Asian. Because things will start happening, like people will come up and be like, “You’re the first cool Asian guy I’ve ever seen in a movie trailer.” Which is crazy, right?
Or kids that come up to me, Asian dudes, like “Oh, everyone calls me Rufio.” Which is great, because you’re one of the first characters, the impact that’s having, or now… adult guys will come to me, like in mixed race relationships, and they’ll be like, “You know, growing up, my wife had such the biggest crush on you. So I know you’re one of the reasons why she married me.” And I’m like, “You’re welcome.”
But the thing about it is, it’s one of these things where we don’t have, we hadn’t had a lot of “us” in Hollywood, in a way. And the more and more, things are changing, and how it’s impacting, and how the arts impact culture at large, these are the little things that, for me personally, let alone all the others, just how all of these ripples… [turns to Keith] you are responsible for all that stuff. I’m gonna give it to you.
KEITH CHOW:Rufio validated me. So I’m gonna take that.
DARIANE: Ilram, tell us a little more about how you were talking earlier about growing up in Kentucky. Tell us a little more about how that ended up here, er, in Hollywood.
ILRAM CHOI: Actually, my parents were what I had to get past, to try to do what I wanted to do. Growing up, they wanted me to be an engineer…
SUMALEE MONTANO: Doctor.
ILRAM CHOI: Doctor. All the things that Asian people should be doing. And when I said, oh I want to do stunts or be an artist. I was actually a visual effects artist before I got into stunt work. And it’s funny, yeah, my parents actually didn’t want me to go that route. I had to actually fight against them, not my friends or society, it was actually my parents that were saying, “No, you shouldn’t do that. That’s not the right thing to do. How are you gonna make money?” It’s all about money, by the way.
Yeah, I grew up in rural Kentucky. There was probably three Asians in my high school and elementary. I wanted to be white. I would be hanging out all day and come home, try to scrub off my tan. It was crazy. Because you’re hanging out, all my friends were white, and you go home, you play all day with your friends and you see yourself in the mirror and you’re just, “Wow. I’m so different looking.”
And it’s amazing that, I’m surprised, I don’t know why… I still don’t know exactly why my parents moved to Kentucky. I think it was because my dad’s friend had some job, but they wanted to move out to LA, it’s a little more perse. But they ended up in Kentucky because I had two younger sisters, and financially they were stuck. But yeah, I just did martial arts since I was a kid, wanted to do stunts when I got older, got into artwork, went to art school. And eventually just came out to LA to pursue it, on my own.
CHLOE BENNET: Well to piggyback on that, when I was a kid, I felt the same way. I mean, I didn’t know a lot… I mean, I was in Chicago, so I can’t even imagine Kentucky.
ILRAM CHOI: Yeah.
CHLOE BENNET: But I thought that to be pretty I had to be blonde. I genuinely thought that, for almost my entire life, and it really wasn’t until I really, I got onto Agents of SHIELD and kind of had this self-empowerment through Skye and now Daisy, where I find strength in myself. I found myself pretty in my own skin and not as this blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl named Jessica. You know? And I really truly have my show to thank for that.
DARIANE: Let’s extend that question a little bit more. So talking about Asian American identities and portrayals, this is to everyone, how does your experience as an Asian American inform your work behind the scenes?
DANTE BASCO: Totally. I mean, in the last, I’d say… ten years, it’s totally informed my work. Because what you realize, the longer you’re around in the industry, the longer you see that it’s not… equal. It’s not an equal playing ground. And it’s not to blame, I’m not the kind of person that’s complaining how the industry is.
It’s just that we gotta keep on creating work that’s gonna be different. The great thing now is that you’re seeing a big Asian American boom happening. We’ve seen it happen before with Latino Americans in the 90s, African Americans in the 70s, and what I’ve urged people to do is to create our own genre for ourselves, for us telling our stories, and not… the crazy thing is, you come to Comic-Con and it’s like, how do you perceive things?
So Comic-Con is the biggest con in the world celebrating the modern arts, the popular arts. And what you realize is that every artist here, every single artist is inspired so much by Asian artists. Whether it be Japan, anime, all this kind of stuff. This is the only place that I’ve been to in America, as Asians we’ve always wanted to be more white or more black, right?
The Con world is the only place you’ll see where black, white, Latino, other people are… wanna be Asian. And it’s the… craziest… when you really see it like that, as Asian Americans, you’re like, “Oh shit.” Oops, don’t say that. You’re like, “oh my god.” So we’ve gotta kind of start seeing where we do have leverage, where we are kind of leading the pack, and Comic-Con is one of the places where I would say, you could ask every artist on the floor, and you could say who their inspirations are, half of them are gonna be Asians. Which is amazing.
GREG PAK: How many of you have seen that movie, The Debut?
[points at Dante] This guy starred in this movie, it’s a Filipino American coming-of-age… what? [pointing at audience member] There you go, the “de-butt,” all right.
DANTE BASCO: Filipinos in the house, Filipinos in the house! [audience cheers]
GREG: So it’s this amazing, low-budget, independent movie that I saw, my friend Gene Cajayon made it, you know? And we’re coming up through the film festival circuit together, fresh out of film school, making these little scrappy movies. And Gene took that movie around the country, theater by theater, by himself with his team, and they found that they… they proved that there was an audience.
And [pointing at Dante] this guy is one of the reasons we’re all here. Again. Which is a roundabout way to answer the question, which is that being Asian American, one of the things, on a practical level, wanting to tell stories with perse casts has made me embrace being an independent media maker. And not just make the stuff, but do everything you can to get it out in the world.
Spike Lee has always been one of my heroes. When I was coming up, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend in 1986 – 1985, 86 – both came out with these independent movies. Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. And again, these were scrappy movies, and nobody at the time was funding black movies that were not blaxploitation movies. And these guys came out with these great, smart comedies. And they proved there was an audience.
And Spike Lee has done that again and again and again over the years, he’s changed the culture. And, well, I’ll stop, because there’s a huge conversation there, but just by refusing to accept that there’s not an audience – there is an audience, it’s just a question of reaching that audience. And in this day and age, when you’ve got social media, when you’ve got Kickstarter, there’s so many different ways to get stuff out there, you’ve got Comic-Con and film festivals and everything else. That constant hustle.
And I write for Marvel, I write for DC, and I love those gigs. But even there I’m hustling, know what I’m saying? I hustle every day to get that stuff out there. Because… [points at the audience] I hustle because I made all you guys pass my posters back for Kingsway Law, I mean Kingsway West.
AMY CHU: Now I’m feeling inadequate for not hustling enough.
GREG PAK: But that’s part of the job. You do the very best you can do and then you do as much as possible to get it out in the world. And never take “no” for an answer. Don’t try to join somebody else’s club, make your own club. If they don’t want you in the club, make your own club. And that’s part of the Asian American experience to me.
On a creative level, the experience of being Asian American, honestly, it’s like – look at every massive franchise, Harry Potter, the X-Men, all these things, they’re all about people who feel different. The central character always feels different. That’s a universal feeling. That’s not just Asian Americans, that’s everybody. That’s just a human experience, we all live in our own bodies, we’re separate from each other, our struggle as human beings is to find out where we belong. But exploring that to the very specificity of whatever character you’re dealing with, those become universal stories.
Everybody can fall in love with any character, if you write that character well. As an Asian, taking my own personal experiences and trying to understand them, and looking at those different characters I’m writing…
Clark Kent, to me, fits right into the Asian American experience. This is a dude who… I mean, I grew up in Dallas, I moved to New York. He grew up in Smallville, he moved to Metropolis. I was a half-Korean kid, he finds out he’s Kryptonian at a certain point in his life.
DANTE BASCO: Dean Cain is Asian.
GREG PAK: And Dean Cain is Superman, so there you go.
I remember that, I saw that bus go by with Dean Cain on the side, I was like, “He’s Asian. Superman is Asian.” I was standing next to a friend, he was like, “What? What’re you talking about?” I was like, “That dude’s Asian.”
KEITH CHOW: Black hair, glasses, mild-mannered when he’s at work.
GREG PAK: But those kinds of experiences can apply to whatever you’re writing. And as an Asian American, I’ve written everybody. But whatever you’re writing, your personal life becomes part of it.
KEITH CHOW: Just jumping off that, if that’s okay. Dante can’t criticize the system, but because I blog, I can criticize the system. So that’s my job.
So to jump off from what Greg was saying, that idea, that fallacy of “There isn’t an audience, for people of color”… well, it’s code for “white people aren’t going to accept people of color as the lead characters.” That’s the truth, right? Well, there is an audience here for Asian American characters, right?
But beyond that, the idea that white people can’t identify with people of color speaks ill of white people, right? Why can’t they identify with people of color? Everybody here talked about how growing up, how pop culture influenced their lives. And I’m betting that for most of us, our favorite character/superhero growing up was not Asian. They didn’t exist. It was probably a white person.
We talked about Harry Potter, we talked about the X-Men. They’re all white people and I identify with them very, very much, right? So it’s not that hard to identify with someone that’s not of your ethnicity, right? Because we’ve been doing it our whole lives.
What we need to do is have more characters of color out there, so that, to speak to that universal experience, to speak to that kid who picks up Ms. Marvel who may not be Muslim, but feels the same way being a teenage girl, and identifies with that character, right?
That’s what we’re trying to do as creators, actors, filmmakers. Put that content out there to show that there are so many different stories out there that everyone can identify with, and it isn’t one narrow slice of the audience that we’re trying to appeal to.
AMY CHU: And the great thing about comics, as opposed to TV, is that we can do this, I can do this. Now we’re talking about market and finding a market. Let’s do an experiment. I’m gonna put a Filipina character in Poison Ivy and we’ll see what happens, right? [audience cheers] Okay, then you’ve gotta buy it.
GREG PAK: That’s totally, really worth noting. When I introduced Amadeus Cho, we just did it. I was given the mandate to take an old Marvel name, a name that Marvel owned, the one I picked was Mastermind Excello, just because it sounded hilarious. And I had to make up a new character based on, using that old name. And I was like, okay, Mastermind Excello, let’s make this a Korean American kid, Amadeus Cho, make him a super genius but he also has zero impulse control. So he breaks the model minority myth in certain ways. Buys into it, but breaks it at the same time. Let’s just make it fun and have him talk too much.
And literally no one ever said, “Can we not make this guy Asian?” And I’ve had that experience time and time again, at Marvel and at DC. I’ve constantly introduced new characters who are of different backgrounds, different ethnicities. Never has anyone said, “Please don’t do that.” I mean, there is sometimes.. we have more power than we think.
DARIANE: I’m curious if any of you guys over there have any experiences where it’s been almost a barrier. Like earlier we were talking about, people asking if you knew kung fu when auditioning for a role or how you would change your name. Can you guys speak to those experiences?
SUMALEE MONTANO: I would love to share. When I was in college, I was the kid. And at Harvard, it was kind of different, because all I did was act in plays. And my academics were secondary, not to the happiness of my parents. But all I did was plays. And I think it was my sophomore year, I went out for Romeo and Juliet. And I got cast as Lady Capulet. And I was happy. Until two other students of color, who came up to me, just separately… I didn’t say anything. They were like, “Oh my god, I am so sorry, you didn’t get the role of Juliet.” And I was like, “Oh really, why?” “Well, they would never cast a non-white face against a white Romeo.” And I was like, “Really? Oh… OH.” And I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. And it really impacted me.
Because we were supposed to be a school of race-blind casting. And it never really dawned on me, but that experience is the reason that I got into voiceover. I thought to myself, okay, all I did throughout elementary school, middle school, high school was plays, acting on stage. And all of a sudden I made a switch because I thought, “Huh, well, maybe my ethnicity won’t be as much of a barrier in voiceover.” And, true enough, I mean I’m really lucky, I get to play Katana, who is basically under Glen Murakami, who created so many Batman shows and Teen Titans and Ben 10, he wrote Robin/Nightwing as an Asian woman. So I get to play that, but I also still get to play Mera, who’s a redheaded, fair-skinned woman, kind of like Emma Stone.
But yeah, you know, it really has affected me, my acting, my choice of kind of where to be, as an actor. And I love my on-camera work, but I found in voiceover I get to play so much more depth and persity. So going back to kind of like what a lot of people have said, it goes back to the writing, the creating of characters of color. Because if we don’t – I can’t, as an actor, I get the audition, I get to put my piece on it, but getting to play the Asian character comes from the writers and the creators, to have more in there. That’s my thing.
CHLOE BENNET: Yeah, I mean, when I first got to LA, I think some of you know that my name was Chloe Wang. Spelled “wang,” which is great. And I had a lot of trouble getting cast, because they’re like, “Um… this is not you, is it? Are you Chloe? Because an Asian girl was supposed to come.” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s me.” And they just… “But this is for, I thought the Asian girl was tomorrow’s audition.”
And you know, if I wasn’t the best friend, they would see my name and bring me in for the best friend role, and then I didn’t fit that for some reason. But I couldn’t be the lead, because Chloe Wang.
And so we made a big decision with my team and – not in any way to try to disassociate myself with being Chinese, because I am still 50% Chinese and no one can take that away from me, I’ve lived there – and we made the decision to change my name. Because I didn’t want to be known for being Asian, I wanted to be known for being Chloe, who is funny and cool. For myself and not for being Asian.
I’m really, really happy that they took Skye and… Daisy Johnson in the comic books is not Asian. And they made the conscious choice to make her an Asian American superhero. Which is amazing. I’m so proud, obviously that is Maurissa [Tancharoen]’s doing, which is amazing, and Megan. Is Megan here anywhere? Where is Megan? And so, it was really hard, I mean it was really hard, in Hollywood in the beginning.
Not looking particularly Chinese, it was definitely difficult. But my dad’s first name is Bennet, by the way, and I know how important in the Chinese culture to keep your father’s name. So I still kept some tradition there. So it’s not just random.
SUMALEE MONTANO: That’s the thing about Hollywood, we really have, especially as actors, we really have to adapt in a way that honors who we are, but in a way that’s acceptable. I…
DANTE BASCO: Word. So the 80s, I got to Hollywood, and I started working immediately. A lot. And this was even pre-Hook days. And then the conversation came about with my management and my agent at the time of me getting a nose job.
GREG PAK: Oh, geez.
DANTE: Crazy. So it sounds crazy now. But think about the 80s. Like Michael Jackson, a lot of people were getting nosejobs,. And then of course, people are like, “Oh, you’d be working more. Elvis had a nose job.” They’d just drop names. Like, Elvis had a nose job. Elvis?
And literally there was an appointment for me to meet the plastic surgeon. And he was like – I blocked it, by the way, it’s like this weird thing – and then I realized last minute… you know, this is the deal. I’m not a light-skinned black dude that can maybe pass for white. Or a Latino dude, if I just change my nose – which is all crazy, that you’re basically saying, “How can I look more white?” And that’s where… management and agents are telling you.
And I’m like, “There’s nothing that I can do that’s going to change me.” There’s nothing I can do that’s gonna make me white. That’s basically what it came down to. Like, oh, I’m not getting a nose job, because there’s absolutely nothing that I can do to look more white.
GREG PAK: What kind of breaks my heart about that – that reminds me of Fred Korematsu. He was one of the guys who challenged the internment camps back in the 40s. When the government was interning Japanese Americans, this guy was like, “This is WRONG!” And he actually, he was on the run, and he got an eye job. But you know what? They still got him. So… yeah.
SUMALEE MONTANO: One of the first comments that I got when I started working was, “You have to not spend too much time out in the sun.”
DANTE BASCO: Oh yeah, that’s always a conversation. To this day, they’re like, “You’re too dark… right now.”
SUMALEE MONTANO: When we go out, I was like Sumalee Montano when I go out for everything. But when I go out for commercials, so I still audition, I got a national commercial that’s about to start to air. I go out as “Suma Lee.” Because they don’t know what to do with me as “Sumalee Montano,” they think…
DANTE BASCO: We turn Mexican real fast.
SUMALEE MONTANO: I know, they’re like a Hispanic last name, with this first…?
DANTE BASCO: Filipinos turn Mexican real quick. “What kind of Asian are you? You’re like a Mexican Asian? What’s going on here?”
SUMALEE MONTANO: But it goes to what you were saying, Chloe, they don’t know what to do with you.
CHLOE BENNET: They just don’t know what to do.
SUMALEE MONTANO: Especially any kind of… mix. And so I’ve found I have to think about it when I go into audition, “Who am I, who am I? Oh, I’m Suma Lee in this role.” And it’s so weird to be on set, and everybody is calling you a different name. But… that’s what it takes. And at least our face, now you’ve got a Filipino family in the commercial, but maybe it’s because I just kind of switched my name a little bit.
CHLOE BENNET: You gotta kinda do that, I mean that’s what happened…
SUMALEE MONTANO: But at least we’re represented.
CHLOE BENNET: The first audition I had after I changed my name, 3 days later, was Nashville and I booked it. The first audition I had. So… but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not, like…
DANTE BASCO: You’re a secret, you’re a double agent. You’re a double agent. Chloe is our secret agent, you guys.
CHLOE BENNET: You know the song, “Secret Agent Man”?
DANTE BASCO: Yes.
CHLOE BENNET: My whole life, I thought it was “Secret Asian Man.”
DANTE BASCO: Me too!
CHLOE BENNET: Literally until like last year. I was singing it and my boyfriend was like, “What did you just say?” I was like, “Secret Asian Man” and he’s like, “That’s not what it is.” And I’m like, “My dad is such a liar.” Because my dad is the Chinese one, obviously, he just lied to me.
KEITH CHOW: So does your dad think you’re on a show called Asians of SHIELD?
CHLOE BENNET: Yeah, yeah.
DARIANE: You guys bring up an interesting thing, how do you guys deal with stereotypes in your work, through characters, portrayals, creating them? Ilram, how’s it been in your experience?
ILRAM CHOI: It’s funny because you guys are talking about the race kind of hinders you guys in your jobs. It’s helped me. I work the stereotype and, even in the stunt community, Asians are–
DANTE BASCO: Are badasses.
ILRAM CHOI: Are badasses. I go on and they see Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And I go on and they expect – all white guys, black guys – they look at me like, “Well, you’re gonna be the best one here.” Like–
DANTE BASCO: “Yes, I am.”
ILRAM CHOI: It’s helped me. And, look, I’m Spider-Man and I’m Asian.
DANTE BASCO: I love it.
ILRAM CHOI: Me too.
KEITH CHOW: And Spider-Man should be Asian. If Superman is Asian, Spider-Man is definitely Asian. Anyone here from Queens, NY? Anybody? 45% Asian. If you’re a nerd that’s into photography and science, taking care of your Aunt May – you’re gonna be Korean.
GREG PAK: Peter Park.
KEITH CHOW:[pointing at Ilram] Right there. Right there.
But to answer Dariane’s question, here’s the thing about stereotypes. In and of themselves, I don’t think they’re a bad thing. The whole idea, what makes a stereotype bad is when the audience or the other person that sees the stereotype doesn’t allow the person that’s being stereotyped to do something else. Right? That’s the danger of stereotypes. If someone looks at Dante and they’re like, “I bet he does martial arts.” And then when you show that you can’t — sorry, Dante. But then they go, “Well damn, you ain’t what I thought you was!” That’s the problem.
DANTE: We can create new stereotypes. Now they’re like, “you can breakdance.”
KEITH: You can breakdance, exactly. Asians can dance. I didn’t grow up knowing that. Asians couldn’t dance when I was a kid.
But so the idea about martial arts, a lot of people complained — so just background real quick, I wrote a blog saying Iron Fist should be Asian in the new Netflix show. Marvel TV, just saying. But I got a lot of pushback, “why you want the only martial arts superhero to be Asian?” And I’m like, “Well, because he’s cool.” Iron Fist is cool. And so I feel like the people who kind of dismissed the idea of an Asian American martial artist character is as guilty as perpetuating the stereotype as someone who wants to be a martial artist, because Ilram can maybe speak to this, martial arts is part of our culture. We can’t say… I grew up with martial arts, everybody on the panel probably at some point probably watched a kung fu movie. You know about Jackie Chan–
ILRAM: Bruce Lee.
KEITH: Bruce Lee is the first Asian American superhero. That is a very ingrained part of our culture. We should embrace that. The problem with martial arts and how they’ve been depicted in American media is that they’ve been one-dimensional. And I think that one of the takeaways for this whole panel is that we want to see Asian American characters with depth. Whether they’re a martial artist or a doctor or a lawyer or a stand-up comedian. We want to see characters who are Asian American who have multiple dimensions to their character. So that in the future, when other actors, the next generation of actors go out for roles, they don’t have to worry about being pigeon-holed Asian, or geek, that they can be Asian and be deep as a character.
DANTE: That’s probably partially why I think Asian Americans have been so amazing on YouTube. Right? Yes? Because there hasn’t been enough faces in mainstream media, now kids like KevJumba comes up, or Ryan Higa, and they’re just being people. They’re just being regular kids talking about regular things and laughing and joking.
GREG: He’s just a dude.
DANTE: He’s just a dude. But we haven’t seen, just the number of Asians on-stage right now, you’ve never seen this many Asians talking to each other ever, right? It’s so funny, like–
GREG: Except in Robot Stories.
DANTE: Right. It’s just the humanization of it. If you ask an Asian guy or an Asian friend, “Well, who is your friend that’s most like Brad Pitt?” “Well, this guy.” “Or who’s more like Tom Cruise out of your friends?” We’re gonna associate that, but you can’t… you could put like five Asian guys of different ethnicities and ask that of somebody, an average American. And they’d be like, “They’re all the same.” But that dude’s Cambodian, dude! So it’s just, more of… we just need more. That’s all it is.
GREG PAK: Exactly, exactly. It’s about variety. It’s about having more. Amadeus Cho is, yeah, a super genius. But just because there’s a stereotype about Asian Americans being smart, does that mean I should never write smart Asian Americans? No. I’m trying to– at the same time I created Amadeus Cho, I also created a character called Jake Oh. Who’s just a big, hot lunk. Who’s a SHIELD Agent. And I’d use him from time to time in different stories. But having that variety is, that’s the key. Also because any one of these actors could play a million different roles. And it just drives me crazy because— I worked with an actress named Wai Ching Ho who is amazing. She was in Robot Stories. Right now she’s actually Madame Gao in the Daredevil series.
KEITH CHOW: And she’s dope.
GREG PAK: She’s incredible! And I see her pop up in TV from time to time. And she’s behind the counter in a Korean deli, again and again. There’s this– it just drives me crazy, it’s just this insane waste of talent. But that wide variety, just having more, it’s exactly what you said, I’m just rambling. More! More, please. Keep writing.
DARIANE: So let’s look at the big picture here. What does the outlook look like for Asian Americans in your respective fields? And, going back to superheroes, with great power comes great responsibility. So do you, being an Asian American in your field, do you feel a sense of responsibility? Is there something there? What is it, and who are your responsible to? So let’s start with you, Amy.
AMY CHU: So now it’s like a shared responsibility. It’s so strange, I was setting up for an earlier panel, and a Chinese guys walks in with glasses. Like, “hey I left my power cord in here, did you see it?” It’s Gene Luen Yang. Hey, you know, I’ve never seen this, heard of this before, there’s like 7 Asian Americans creating comics for DC Comics all of a sudden. And I don’t think they did it on purpose, I think it just kind of happened, because if they did it on purpose, they would just have one or two.
Oh my god, I am going to get in so much trouble.
But you know what I mean? But they do recognize that things need to change, right? And I don’t put it on anybody else, you write what you wanna write. But I do personally feel, and I’m coming out of an Asian American nonprofit – they don’t know that either, by the way. I used to run an Asian American arts nonprofit in New York for Asian Americans. I met Greg before I even knew all the comics stuff. Don’t even ask me, that whole story, how I got into comics is another story. I knew Larry Hama, I didn’t even know Larry Hama was–
GREG PAK:Larry Hama, legendary Asian American comics creator.
KEITH CHOW: Creator of GI Joe.
AMY CHU: I knew him as an activist. This whole comics thing is totally by accident. So that is my background. And I do feel it is very important to do representation and to write characters that are beyond stereotypes, that are real people, and… yeah. That’s me.
GREG PAK: I think my responsibility is to tell good stories. First and foremost. It’s to be as good as I can possibly be. And telling stories that are honest and true. Because all this– I mean, I talk a lot and I apologize, and when I get excited, I get all “Head up!” and everything. But all of that political energy means nothing if the stories aren’t great. If you don’t care about those characters, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the most perse cast ever. And role models mean nothing, it’s all about just characters that are compelling.
AMY CHU: But if it’s a crappy story, at least it should be a perse story.
GREG PAK: That’s true enough, that’s true enough. Yes. But my number one job, and it’s a hard one, and I’m always trying to get better, is to always tell good stories, and to try to create characters that are compelling. That are struggling with things that we all struggle with. And that I care about and that hopefully everybody else can care about. So that’s my number one job.
In the wider world, I feel a responsibility towards all the characters that I write. I’ve been lucky enough to write characters like Storm and War Machine and Magneto. And I wrote Magneto’s origin story, Magneto Testament, which is a Jewish kid trying to save his family from the Holocaust. And in every one– Clark Kent and Batman, those guys come from specific places and I feel a responsibility to understand and get as deep… writing is a lot like acting. I did improv comedy and I did small acting over the years. But the same preparation goes into it. You have to put yourself into the shoes of that character and live and breathe it. So that’s also my responsibility, to live and breath all of these perse characters, and bring them to life.
DARIANE: Yeah. Keith?
KEITH CHOW: Well, I don’t have anything else to add on to that. But I will say, I do think– I’ll come at this as a consumer of the books that Amy and Greg write and the movies and TV shows that Dante, Sumalee, Ilram, and Chloe are part of. And it’s our job as consumers of these products to support it. To buy Greg’s books, to watch Agents of SHIELD, to watch all of the shows and movies and content that Asian American creators are putting out there is all for naught if no one out there is buying it. We’re proving that falsity right by not supporting it.
So go out there, one of the heartwarming things about this past television season– especially the network of ABC with shows like Agents of SHIELD and How to Get Away with Murder, Fresh Off the Boat, to have these perse casts and then to be clearly successful, so that all the other networks are like, “Oh, we’re going to fill our shows with perse casts, too.” We’re making the point with our wallets, right? That’s what we have to do. Support artists’ alley, find the Asian American artists, support them, support all the people up here. Buy Secret Identities. That’s what we should do.
DARIANE: We’re just about out of time.
SUMALEE MONTANO: I’d love to add one thing here.
DARIANE: Go ahead, yes.
SUMALEE MONTANO: Someone talked about earlier, I think Ilram just mentioned that one of his biggest obstacles was his own parents. Because all our parents believe in us and gave us tons of support. But as a parent, now, I have a 3-year-old. My job is to choose what I love — I’m working in an area that I love and that I’m passionate about. And it’s to show him that he can choose whatever he wants and we need more parents to encourage Asians to do what they love in the arts.
DARIANE: Thank you everyone for coming today. I wish we could keep going because this conversation is so good. But join us again next year at Comic-Con. Hopefully Comic-Con allows us back. We’re going to take a quick picture here with the panelists and then we’re gonna head out. So thank you all again for coming.
A mere week after I wrote a post swearing off of sharing fan news, the fandom insidiously pulled me back in.
This week, rumours began circulating that Tilda Swinton was in casting negotiations for Marvel’s upcoming Dr. Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. Swinton is being considered for the role of the Ancient One, a nearly-immortal Tibetan sorcerer who becomes the young Dr. Strange’s mystic tutor and personal mentor.
That’s right. Tilda Swinton — a British actor whose Wikipedia article notes that she can trace her Anglo-Scot heritage back to the Middle Ages and who is about as far from “Tibetan” as one might get — may be cast to play a racebent and genderbent version of one of the few Asian characters of prominence in the Mystic Marvel world.
Let me first make a confession: I don’t know much about Mystic Marvel in general or the Ancient One in particular. I have no particular love for Dr. Strange or his backstory.
But, already thinkpieces are being written declaring Swinton’s rumored casting a major feminist victory for the Marvel Universe for its willingness to recast a major male Marvel superhero’s mentor as a strong female character.
The Ancient One is one of many embodiments of the Orientalism pervasive in superhero comics, wherein the mystic arts are inextricably connected with a fantastic and exaggerated imagining of the Far East that exist primarily to imbue Western and White visitors with ancient magic or martial arts skills and elderly East Asian men with long white beards and yellow skin are only too eager to help facilitate that process. The examples abound: Iron Fist’s Yu-Ti of the Tibetan city of K’un-L’un, Iron Man’s Ho Yinsen, and even the world of Tian that has reappeared with distinctly fetishistic overtones in the most recent season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Popularized at a time when Fu Manchu stereotypes were recreated with frequency in comics, the Ancient One is no socially progressive character.
When Asians are not cast in these Orientalist overtones, we are frequently rendered entirely invisible. In Cameron Crowe’s latest film “Aloha”, the state of Hawaii — where more than 50% of residents identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander — is mysteriously White-washed into an Aryan paradise of palm trees, aviator sunglasses, and sandy beaches. The word “aloha” is appropriated without regard for the word’s weight and history. The actors drape themselves with leis complete devoid of cultural meaning. Emma Stone — another White actor — plays the hapa (a term meaning “half” in Native Hawaiian, used to refer to multiracial Native Hawaiians) and biracial Asian American character, Allison Ng. Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) issued a statement reading in part:
“Aloha” comes in a long line of films (The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor) that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. It’s like tourists making a film about their stay in the islands, which is why so many locals hate tourists. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii…
…Crowe hired at least 30 white actors, 5 actors to play Afghans, and the biggest roles for APIs were ‘Indian pedestrian,’ ‘upscale Japanese tourist,’ and ‘upscale restaurant guests.’ They didn’t even have names. How can you educate your audience to the ‘rich history’ of Hawaii by using mostly white people and excluding the majority of the people who live there and who helped build that history—AAPIs?””
Both Marvel and DC’s superhero universes are unbearably White, with few characters of colour playing more than secondary or tertiary roles. Where forced to present characters whose comic book counterparts are people of colour, the studios have invoked race-bending as a narrative sleight of hand to distract from the regressive origins of many of their more Orientalist characters. DC cast Ken Watanabe in a Japanese version of Ra’s al Ghul — who in the comics is a stereotype-riddled Middle Eastern caricature inexplicably heading a band of Japanese ninjas. The Batman films later revealed that the mantle of Ghul is adopted by each successive leader of the League of Shadows, and that Watanabe was only a public decoy. This origin story effectively erased any meaningful discussion of race with regard to the Ghul character (later, Talia — originally also of Middle Eastern descent in the comics — was also presented as French since in the mythos of the Nolanverse she is the daughter of the French Ducard/Ghul played by Liam Neesom). Marvel performed a similar bait-and-switch when they cast Ben Kinglsey to play an ambiguously Asian version of the Fu Manchu-knockoff character of the Mandarin, only to reveal in-plot that Kingsley was a penniless actor hired by the film’s main villain to play the caricatured role; the “real” Mandarin was Guy Pearce.
It seems as if Asian-ness can only occupy two poles in Hollywood: extreme fetishism or total invisibility. Yes, the Ancient One is horribly Orientalist: yet, historic racism’s solution can neither be faithful recreation of those offensive stereotypes nor the total erasure of people of colour.
The urge of feminists to celebrate a possible White-washing as some sort of socially progressive victory is disturbing, particularly to those of us who identify as feminists of colour who find ourselves being asked to tolerate the erasure of that which would represent our race in order to justify a representation of our gender.
There have been only a handful of Asian American male actors to land a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What would be progressive for the filmmakers behind Dr. Strange would be to actually cast an Asian or Asian American (male) actor in the role, while updating the character away from his Orientalist stock origin story — which would be a novelty in the trope-laden world of superhero comics. Alternatively, there’s no need to race-bend the Ancient One in order to gender-bend the character: there are so many talented Asian and Asian American female actors one might choose from.
But, no. We’re looking at Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan sorcerer. Once again, #AStrangeWhitewashing from Hollywood, indeed.
Racebending.com is proud to host our second annual C2E2 panel discussion: Racebending.com Presents Creating Diverse Characters in Fiction. The panelists represent a wide array of writing and artistic disciplines including comics writing and illustration, acting and scriptwriting, novelization, editing, and criticism. Panelists will share their experiences crafting diverse characters in each medium and tackle the issues of diversity that are at the top of discussions across all media.
Our panelists are Mary Robinette Kowal the Hugo and Campbell award winning author, puppeteer and voice actress. Wesley Chu the Alex Award winning Hugo and Campbell nominated author of The Lives, Deaths, and Rebirths of Tao. Michi Trota editor of Uncanny magazine and contributor to the Jim C Hines Invisible Anthology on diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Danny Bernardo playwright for the Balliwick Chicago whose plays include Mahal, Professor Turtel Onli visual artist and the founder of the Black Age of Comics and Babs Tarr the acclaimed artist of Batgirl.
The panel will be held on Friday April 24th from 2:45-3:45 pm in panel room S403. C2E2 is held at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center and runs from April 24-26th. We look forward to seeing you there!
You can view last years panel Presentation: Diverse Means for Diverse Worlds on the youtube link below.
Who will play Newton Scamander? The most recent rumors suggest that Doctor Who star Matt Smith is Warner Bros’ top pick for the role. Plenty of Harry Potter fan sites—MuggleNet included—have speculated on the young actor who would end up taking the role of the wizard zoologist living in New York in the 1920s. One common thread? Nearly all of the proposed potential actors have been white.
As moviegoers, we’re so used to seeing the main character be a white guy that Newt Scamander’s race is treated as a given. In 2015, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA released it’s second diversity report that found that 74% of lead roles go to men and 83% of lead roles go to white actors. A USC study on race and ethnicity in popular films in 2013 found that 52.1% of all speaking roles went to white male actors.
But why not a Newt of color? Or at least an opportunity for talented young actors of color to be considered for the role?
Bring up the potential for a lead actor of color and one of the first arguments to shoot down the idea will inevitably be that “most British people are white.”
That’s certainly true, perhaps even more so during the time period the Newt Scamander story is set. But this defensive reaction is more a reflection of how ingrained the “white male protagonist” default is in fandom imagination, than a compelling reason for Newt to have to be white.
The argument that “most British people back then were white,” and therefore, Newt must be white, makes no sense. People of color have lived in Britain for hundreds of years; there is no reason why Newt could not be a Brit from a diverse place like Liverpool, which has been home to centuries-old black and Asian communities.
Would a brown Newt Scamander have grown up and gone to school around a lot of white British people? Almost certainly, being a Hogwarts alumnus—and he would have had a different experience than his peers. But a character like Newt is a single individual and an artistic invention—which means he does not have to be demographically “more probable.”
Protagonists are never statistically average—if anything, they own their stories because they are improbably unique! Harry Potter was the main character of his story because out of all wizards he was the sole survivor of an encounter with Voldemort. That OzCorp spider bit the one kid scientifically savvy enough to design web shooters. Of all the ordinary citizens who live in Gotham City, the movie is about the guy who runs around dressed like a bat. All American pro baseball players in 1947 were white except for one, but all baseball movies set in 1947 are about Jackie Robinson.
Newt Scamander, ostensibly, is the protagonist of this story because he was exceptional. We know that people of color have been in the United Kingdom for centuries and we know the wizarding community as depicted by JK Rowling was diverse. We know that 1920s New York City was flourishing with diversity—this was the era of the Harlem Renaissance. The time for whitewashed “historical plausibility” is probably not when the movie is about a wizard who finds fantastic beasts.
Harry Potter’s experiences with adversity made him a relatable Chosen One to fans of the books and movies. So many components of his identity helped define him—he was an orphan and foster kid, a survivor of abuse and neglect, an average student, and wore glasses for his poor eyesight. Kids who identified with these traits were able to see parts of themselves reflected in his hero’s journey. Kids who didn’t personally identify were able to empathize with characters whose experiences differed from them.
These facets of identity were important. They’re why black haired Asian and Latino kids with glasses felt represented by Harry Potter. They’re why so many young nerdy black girls related to Hermione’s love of learning, her curly hair, and passion for equal rights. Diverse media representation is crucial. Researchers are finding that media representation can impact self esteem. A study from 2012 found that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys who are well represented in television. We all construct ideas about the world based on the media we consume and being represented helps people from minority groups feel seen and accepted. Representation of minority characters also helps people in the majority learn empathy by experiencing adventures from the perspective of someone from a different culture or skin color. (Think about how many American fans learned to appreciate British boarding school culture through Harry Potter!)
While there are many supporting characters of color in the Wizarding World, fans of color have waited a long time to be fully represented in the Harry Potter movies.
In 2005, when Katie Leung was cast was Cho Chang, she was subject to withering criticism from fans insistent that Cho Chang was white. Although the original 2005 anti-Cho Chang/Katie Leung Facebook groups are no longer online, the racist vitriol from fandom generated enough attention to be covered by media outlets. Asian fans had to weather seeing these comments. Likewise, when Blaise Zambini was revealed to be black in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there was a noticeable hostile reaction to his race among fan fiction writers. These fandom experiences are hurtful and invalidating since characters of color are already underrepresented in the franchise.
Then there’s the case of Lavender Brown’s depiction in the movies. Originally depicted by black actresses, she was recast with a white actress when the character became a speaking role. This had the unfortunate impact of communicating to fans that background characters can be people of color until they interact with the white heroes. When fans voiced their concerns, other fans would quote a vague line about her skin color from the books, as if that negated years of visual depictions of the character as a woman of color.
Like many other characters in the films, Dean Thomas’s role was drastically reduced. Still, the production made sure to develop Seamus Finnigan’s character even further than he was developed in the books—in the movies he has a running gag where he creates explosions. Although Dean has more scenes and more plot in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than Seamus, Seamus gets more lines and scenes in the movies. Additional invented Seamus scenes are in the deleted footage, compared to Dean’s story which was never shot.
Throughout this time, we’ve weathered racist debates and experienced some stressful erasures. The casting of an actor of color as Newt Scamander will almost certainly draw racist comments from our fellow fans, but there are so many more fans who would accept or grow to accept a lead character of color.
While many characters of color made appearances in the Harry Potter movies, their depiction was not a priority. The setting of Fantastic Beasts—1920s New York City—and the existing popularity of the Harry Potter movies puts JK Rowling in an amazing position to change that.
As fans, we can open our imaginations to possibilities and support representation so more people can be seen and share in the stories we love. The only major barriers to Newt Scamander being portrayed by an actor of color are artistic intent and Hollywood’s systemic racial bias.
As far as artistic intent is concerned, if Rowling intends for the protagonist of her next movie blockbuster franchise to be another white man, then that is certainly her prerogative. All the fans who want diversity can do is respectfully advocate for something different.
As for the studio, Harry Potter is a worldwide, recognizable brand. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to make a lot of money at the Box Office. The usual Hollywood justifications for having to cast a white guy to draw an audience don’t have to apply. (The Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that more diverse casts lead to higher box office returns, so a non-white Newt Scamander may even draw interest—especially since the majority of moviegoers are not white men.)
While there will probably be friends, sidekicks, and love interests who are not white men in the story, it would be significant if the central character in these films was a character of color. Fantastic Beasts could be the biggest blockbuster franchise to ever feature an actor of color in the lead role.
Actors of color deserve a fair shot to play Newt Scamander. Nothing about the character is necessarily race-specific. JK Rowling even recently described Scamander’s descendent, Rolf Scamander, as his “swarthy grandson.”
While there is likely nothing fans can do to persuade Warner Bros to consider actors of color alongside the white actors they are already considering, JK Rowling is in a unique position to advocate. With her voice and influence, she can ensure that actors of color are given a fair shot to the role. I hope she does. It would only make the wizarding world a more interesting and magical place.
DreamWorks has cast Scarlett Johansson in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The franchise originates from Japan where the protagonist is Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg. This casting is significant because we’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian leads–all while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen, whether through deliberate exclusion of actors of color or hand-wringing about “marketing” and “box-office potential.” “Conventional wisdom” argues that DreamWorks needs to whitewash the film and cast a “big name” actor like Scarlett Johansson for the film to succeed. The assumption is that most films star white men because supposedly, most moviegoers are white men. An additional assumption is that these white male moviegoers are less likely to embrace actors of color. This “conventional wisdom” has been used to justify lack of diverse casting in Hollywood and whitewashing in films, but research appears to contradict these assumptions.
A 2011 study published in in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business noted that “many of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood had stars, and many successful movies starred people who were relative unknowns.” It found that despite all the talk, producers are more important to a successful movie deal than actors are. A 2006 study from Harvard Business School found that stars do positively affect the revenue of films but “failed to find evidence that would suggest that the participation of stars in movies affects the valuation of studios that produce or distribute those movies.” The study estimates that stars are worth on average “about $3 million in theatrical revenues.” In contrast, Johansson is being offered $10 million dollars to star in Ghost in the Shell (Forbes contributor Ollie Barder estimates that the original anime cost around $5 million to produce, total.) Older studies from Rutgers University and University of California, Irvine have also found “no statistical correlation between stars and success” and that “it is the movie that makes the star.”
Year after year, the Motion Picture Association of America has released statistics showing that the majority of movie goers are not white men. Women have comprised a larger share of moviegoers than men since 2009. In 2013, “Hispanic”, “African American”, and “Other” (including Asian American) moviegoers all had higher annual per-capita movie attendance than white moviegoers. The average “Hispanic” moviegoer went to the movies 6 times and the average African American and Other moviegoers went 4 times, versus “Caucasian” viewers who only went to the movies 3 times.
In 2014, UCLA ran a study that showed more diverse casts in both film and television lead to higher box office returns and ratings. But Hollywood tradition is remarkably entrenched in developing and promoting white leads at the exclusion of other performers, even if that may actually be hurting profits.
Actors of color are already underrepresented, even without whitewashing. When Hollywood studios like DreamWorks Pictures decide to cast white actors in existing properties that originate with characters of color, it only further reinforces the disparity in opportunity for performers of color.
To figure out just how many opportunities DreamWorks Pictures affords actors of color, Racebending.com counted up all of the first-billed actors in DreamWorks Pictures films (1997 to present.) These are the actors listed first in movie credits, posters, and on marketing materials. What we found was pretty consistent with other studies on Hollywood diversity–the studio overwhelmingly prefers to cast white men in lead roles.
Reliance Entertainment bought 50% stake in DreamWorks in 2008, forming DreamWorks Studios. Since then, DreamWorks Studios has made 14 movies and all of them starred white actors. This whitewashed Ghost in the Shell movie is a joint DreamWorks-Reliance project.
DreamWorks has never cast an Asian American lead, though it has made three movies with East Asian actors Jackie Chan, Ziyi Zhang, and Ken Watanabe. When DreamWorks does choose to adapt Asian properties, such as The Ring, The Ring 2, or The Uninvited, white actresses are always cast to “Americanize” the film–even if the actress is British or Australian. When stories with Asian heroes are “Americanized,” the whitewashing is an integral part of the process–reinforcing stereotypes of Asian Americans as inherently less American. The British Journal of Social Psychology published a study in 2008 that found that American media consumers implicitly regarded white European actress Kate Winslet as more American than Asian American actress Lucy Liu. Regardless if the setting or name of the protagonists are Americanized or anglicized, this is a missed opportunity for Dreamworks to diversify. Changing the setting or the name of the character does not preclude the production from casting an Asian or Asian American actor. It’s disingenuous to characterize this casting as Hollywood bravely deviating from source material when it is more a reflection of DreamWorks and Hollywood’s biased casting practices as a whole.
This isn’t the first time that DreamWorks has whitewashed an Asian woman lead. If DreamWorks wants to invest in a cult classic with Asian characters, but minus Asian lead actors, they are actually missing out on a chance to create an Asian American household name.
Studios are not forced to whitewash. If DreamWorks Pictures’s stable of “big name” actors only includes only white actors then that’s certainly a problem for them, but they could have chosen to offer Johansson a different project. Nothing is preventing DreamWorks from working with ScarJo on a different property, without casting that reinforces racial disparities in Hollywood. They could have created an original cyberpunk property and even cited Ghost in the Shell as a source of inspiration. Scarlett Johansson did not become a box office draw or a big name until studios took a chance on her and made her one. It’s unfortunate studios don’t do the same for actors of Asian descent.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen. While it’s important for media consumers to be aware of the overt and subtle ways Hollywood depicts race, ultimately the onus to stop this racist practice falls on the movie studios that choose to whitewash. At this point, movie studios are aware of the backlash that happens when films are whitewashed, the track record of whitewashed movies, and the overall legacy of whitewashed movies. They have to decide whether or not they want to change. We know Hollywood can change when it wants to; for example, blackface and other forms of raceface are far less common now.
Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell is a story about what makes us human. Having access to powerful media representation is key for minorities to be seen as human. As a successful white actress, Scarlett Johansson has been privileged to play powerful women characters in action films. Ghost in the Shell was a chance for an actress of Asian descent to have that same opportunity. Instead of innovating and reimagining Ghost of the Shell in creative and diverse ways, DreamWorks Studios, Reliance Entertainment, and producer Steven Spielberg are making a conscious and deliberate decision to reinforce racist casting practices in Hollywood.
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Special thanks to Jonelle D., Sade A. and Michael Le for assistance with this article