Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
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.
More Articles on the whitewashed casting of Ghost in the Shell
Special thanks to Jonelle D., Sade A. and Michael Le for assistance with this article
Jen Wang is the artist on the new graphic novel, In Real Life, a book that delves into gamer culture. She is also bringing a very real showcase of the diversity in the comics industry with this weekend’s Comic Arts Los Angeles Festival. Jen was kind enough to give contributor Gabrial Canada some of her time via email to talk about comics and gaming culture and the importance of acknowledging diversity as a conrunner.
RACEBENDING: The book explores a question as to why female gamers might not feel comfortable gaming with a female avatar or announcing their gender online. What do you choose when you play and can you address how this issue comes up as part of the story of IRL?
JEN WANG: I tend to choose female avatars but I’ve actually not played a lot of online games. I don’t know if other players knowing what sex I am would have an effect or not. I definitely feel more intimidated with the idea of talking into a headset because the connection is more intimate and the potential to be harassed is more direct. But that’s definitely what the character Liza is talking about, the hesitancy a female gamer might feel about revealing herself.
RACEBENDING: An artistic challenge of this book is that it takes place both in real life–as its title suggests– and in the game world. How much of a challenge was it to balance the fantasy world with the real one?
JEN WANG: Both worlds are definitely distinct, so the differences were pretty inherent both visually and in context. What I wanted though was show how they were similar and connected. I tried to incorporate lots of little moments that blended the two together like when Anda dyes her hair to match her avatar, or when Lucy names her in-game companion after her own cat. The online world is just as vivid for Anda as her real one so it was important to show that.
RACEBENDING:Women are gaining parity with men as consumers of both video games and comics and there is a nasty corner of both communities that has reacted to this change in a very negative fashion. Have you ever experienced this as a female comic artist at cons or in comics shops, the accusation of being a “fake geek” or feeling unwelcome in either fandom?
JEN WANG: I’m lucky to say I haven’t personally experienced any negativity in comics due to being a woman. Again, I want to stress that is my personal experience. The indie comics community is made up of a lot of people who aren’t being served by the more mainstream straight white male-centric industry so it tends to be a little more supportive of diverse voices. That said, no community is immune and I definitely know other female cartoonists who have faced harassment, particularly those who publish work on the web. At best, we’re just looking at communities that reflect the average societal non-nerd mentality toward women which is that we say everyone’s equal, without addressing the fact that we’re not.
RACEBENDING: How did you begin your collaboration with the Kibushi’s and the other great artists and storytellers in Flight?
JEN WANG: Flight! I met Kazu Kibuishi along with a bunch of other webcartoonists back in 2003 when we were all just getting started and a lot of us were still in school. Kazu wanted to put together an anthology and invited a bunch of us to join. As the project grew it became more and more ambitious and eventually Kazu decided to try looking for a publisher. Image Comics picked us up, and the following year at San Diego Comic Con 2004, Volume One came out. That was the first time any of us had been published and it was a pretty magical weekend. Many of the artists in Volume One are fantastic solo comic artists now and 10 years on we’re all still good friends.
RACEBENDING: Where can people learn more about the comics festival you are organizing? How does your experience organizing your own event make you feel about comics events you’ve attended?
JEN WANG: Comic Arts LA (or CALA) is happening December 6th at Think Tank Gallery in Downtown LA, and you can learn more at our website: www.comicartsla.com. I’m definitely more sympathetic to the limitations of a con than I was before. The vast majority of cons are run by volunteers and there is very little money. If you’re in a big city like New York, or San Francisco, there are only so many venues to work with and most of them are going to cost more than you can afford. You’re also working with the city so there’s a lot of technical bureaucratic stuff you have to keep track of everytime you bring a new idea to the table. On the other hand, the most impressive cons I’ve been to have definitely dedicated themselves to improving their events year after year. Because of the volunteer-based nature of cons it’s easy to stagnate, so it’s extra impressive to me when they continue to grow.
There are plenty of new cons every year that we can support. Some cons are only interested in serving a specific audience, and that’s their prerogative. But I think a smart con knows the future of the convention is to bring in outsiders and open it to a community more reflective of the general public. And that public is going to be diverse.
JEN WANG: It’s something the con organizers have to prioritize, and if it’s not something they care about we as attendees don’t need to go. There are plenty of new cons every year that we can support. Some cons are only interested in serving a specific audience, and that’s their prerogative. But I think a smart con knows the future of the convention is to bring in outsiders and open it to a community more reflective of the general public. And that public is going to be diverse. I was very happy that almost half our exhibitor applicants to CALA were women and a great many are people of color, and that was through no coercion on our part at all. This is what comics look like now.
I was very happy that almost half our exhibitor applicants to CALA were women and a great many are people of color, and that was through no coercion on our part at all. This is what comics look like now.
RACEBENDING: If you had to adapt one video game franchise into a comic, what would it be?
JEN WANG: If it were me I’d have to say Oregon Trail. I also know a couple artists who’d do an amazing Sonic The Hedgehog comic.
RACEBENDING: What can fans expect to see from you next and where can they find your previous original graphic novels?
JEN WANG: Comic Arts LA is the biggest thing coming up for me soon, but other than that, I’m going to be serializing a new webcomic, and I’m working on a secret project with fellow cartoonist Hope Larson. You can find my previous short comic works online at my website www.jenwang.net and my first graphic novel KOKO BE GOOD (also published by First Second) is also available.
Racebending.com thanks Jen Wang for her time and for this interview! Check out her website at www.jenwang.net
Television series Sleepy Hollow was Fall 2013’s breakout hit for Fox Television. The second season of the quirky, time-traveling, fantasy-horror series premieres on Monday, September 22nd 2014. Racebending.com interviewed the producers and cast of Sleepy Hollow as part of a promotional press line at San Diego ComicCon.
Sleepy Hollow features an exceptionally diverse cast for a network television series. When the show exceeded expectations, Fox Broadcasting execs touted the diversity in the series as part of their overall business strategy. The series even cast lead actress Nicole Beharie first, basing the subsequent casting of the Ichabod Crane character on chemistry reads with her. The show also boasts a diverse writing staff, including three women who all have sisters and bring their experiences to the story arc between Abbie and her sister.
In an interview with Buzzfeed last fall, executive producer Heather Kadin addressed the diversity seen in the cast and how the show has inverted the trope where characters of color are killed off first in horror. “It was a conscious effort to have a diverse cast just to represent our world,” Kadin said. “I don’t think it’s realistic for the whole cast to be white. I also think when you are developing a show and casting it mostly Caucasian and you get down to the bad guy and the network is like, ‘You have to have some diversity,’ then all of the sudden…that’s why the person of color is always killed [first in horror shows]. And because we have so much diversity in our cast and we’ve had the freedom to cast our villains and victims however we want, so we can kill as many white people as we want.”
Actors in the series have also shut down audience members complaining about the “politically correct” diversity in the series (even though the show has always had an established white male presence with the co-lead, Ichabod Crane, and additional white supporting characters and antagonists.) Orlando Jones took to twitter when some viewers complained that it was “unrealistic” for there to be a black woman police officer as the lead since the show is set in a suburban New England town. [The show is also about a time traveling dead guy and a demon dude with no head.] Jones pointed out that real-life Sleepy Hollow, New York boasts one Officer Wendy Yancey, a black woman and police officer. Jones has also been outspoken when media critics downplay the diversity on the series, such as when a feature story in the Los Angeles Times omitted lead actress Nicole Beharie outright.
“The show is clearly multicultural, and that is groundbreaking,” Jones said at the press line at ComicCon. “So, it’s not lost on me that that’s happening, I’m sort of very proud of it. But I’m mostly proud because it’s not about that. It’s just a fun ride with really cool characters and those other things are cool extra things but not what it’s about. For me, that’s really special.”
The show does not always handle diversity gracefully. Episodes with Romani and Native American characters fell back on cliched stereotypes. The Founding Fathers are lionized and their faults downplayed. A joke about Sally Hemmings falls flat when you remember that Hemmings was a child. Ichabod Crane is the convenient kind of time traveler–a cheerful abolitionist and a feminist. Still, Sleepy Hollow boasts more representation than other horror genre shows of it’s kind, in the show’s present and flashback settings. “We’re far from perfect (as many [fans] have pointed out) but I’m glad we’re doing our part to elevate the game,” Jones wrote in a letter to fans on social media.
The show is uniquely positioned to address diversity and representation issues and that isn’t lost on Marguerite Bennett, the author of the show’s tie-in comic book series for Boom Studios. “You can laugh if you want, when talking about a show that features demons, golems, conspiracies, George Washington, and the apocalypse, but Sleepy Hollow’s address of our own ugly history and hypocrisy is so important to me,” Bennett said in an interview with The Mary Sue. “From Ichabod’s era, when our nation was created under ideals of freedom and equality while simultaneously treating human beings as absolute chattel, to our present era, where we live in the safety of certain rights and liberties, yet still grapple with virulent racism, sexism, homophobia, the mistreatment of the mentally ill, and the erasure of indigenous peoples—Sleepy Hollow doesn;t shy away from our misdeeds, but encourages bravery and compassion the likes of which Abbie and Ichabod display.”
Fans have also stood up for the show, sparking conversations about the portrayal of Abigail Mills and other characters of color on the series. Bloggers of color have encouraged other fans to drop the word “sassy” from their lexicon when describing the show’s black women characters and noted how the character confounds tropes and stereotypes.
“Both Abbie and Jenny are normal, intelligent, flawed human beings, not cardboard stock characters,” writes Daniel Jose at The Nerds of Color. “It seems so simple yet we’ve seen it so rarely in television’s long, racist history.”
When a highly criticized, racist, New York Times feature article about television showrunner Shonda Rhimes mentioned Nicole Beharie’s character in passing and marked her a mere “sidekick,” Sleepy Hollow black twitter and fans pressured the paper into issuing a correction.
In an roundtable interview with Essence magazine, actresses Laverne Cox and Nicole Beharie discussed the reception Beharie has received for Sleepy Hollow and how it has challenged assumptions about women of color and their ability to draw an audience. Sleepy Hollow was initially advertised in the United Kingdom with advertisements solely featuring white English lead Tom Mison. “I was invited without the white male counterpart in my cast and it was packed, ” Beharie said. “They knew it was just going to be me. So that shook me.
“I ‘ve always been told and I believed that this doesn’t work without him,” Beharie said. “And there was also this notion that we [black women] don’t ‘work’ overseas. But [the event] was advertised just to be me. And they showed up…. I think what happens is it turns into less a conversation about my blackness and more about relating to humanity; because that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re just realizing that people are capable of doing it. We’re underestimating people because people said [black women] weren’t viable.”
RACEBENDING.COM: Sleepy Hollow is one of the most diverse shows on television. Do you think that has contributed to the success of the show, and if so, how?
MARK GOFFMAN: I think it has, definitely. We’re super proud of that, you know, and I think what it reflects is a real change in how it works. Movie studios are really looking at who is going to see movies and hopefully it reflects a more accurate portrayal of who we all are.
ALEXANDER KURTZMAN: It becomes organic to the storytelling. We’re able to tell a lot of different stories about different cultures and different mythologies. And it all just works really well and blends into what we are trying to do with the show.
RACEBENDING.COM: Jenny [Mills] is a unique representation of people on television who are identified as having mental illness, and so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that portrayal and how that plays into your read of the character.
LYNDIE GREENWOOD: That’s a very good question. It’s interesting because Jenny has–well, she’s misrepresented. There was a seen that was cut, unfortunately, from [Season One, episode six] where Jenny has a really good friend in the asylum. And I really wish we had shown a bit more of that world, because I think that it is important– I volunteered at mental health facilities in Toronto–to realize that these are problems that anyone can face and they’re not so–there shouldn’t be things that we don’t talk about. There should be things that are accessible. And I think the more that we have a dialogue, the better we’ll be able to understand these issues. So yeah, I mean–it doesn’t really play that much into the character, but I like the conversation in general. Get rid of the stigma, definitely, and talk about it.
RACEBENDING.COM: What’s it like to be on a show with such a big fandom? What’s your reaction to the fan fiction, the fan art, all those things.
TOM MISON: I mean, it can’t be anything other than a massive compliment. It shows that people are engaged in the show and we’ve said lots of times before, when you see people writing fan fiction and they’re drawing and they’re painting….To know that we’re doing work that inspires people to create their own stuff–there is not really much you could ask for.
NICOLE BEHARIE: Yeah, and Tom was born for this. Look at him. He was like, ready for it.
TOM MISON: I’m in heaven here.
Racebending.com is proud to announce that we will be hosting a panel discussion: Racebending.com Presents: Diversity in Comics at this years Awesomecon Indianapolis held from October 3rd through the 5th at the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Panelists include Jeremy Whitley (@jrome58), the Eisner nominated creator of Princeless, as well as local Indy webcomic artists and authors G Pike (@Gpike_) and Ginger Dee (@lawofgar) creators of Title Unrelated and The Brothers Grant. We hope to add more diverse artist and authors to our roster of panelists as Awesomecon draws near.
To get you excited, Here is a Thing…
Mitali Perkins is an author and educator. Her books are primarily focused on young readers. Her works include Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People, and Secret Keeper. Mitali Perkins is the editor and one of the ten contributors to Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices. The ten authors She brought together for open mic were herself Gene Yang, David Yoo, Cherry Cheva,G. Neri,Varain Johnson, Naomi Shibab Nye, Francisco X Stork, Debbie Rigaud, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Bboth Gene and Mitali were kind enough to step up to the mic for us as well giving us some of their time to talk about race and humor. Racebending.com contributor Gabrial Canada spoke to Mitali in October before the release of Open Mic as part of his podcast and spoke with her and Gene Yang via email one the subject of Race and Humor after the Cancel Colbert controversey and BookCon’s conspicuous lack of diversity brought #hastagactivism into the fore of public discussion on the topic.
Racebending: As a writer for Racebending.com I apprecaited your shoutout about our nifty t-shirts in Open Mic. It was fun seeing a reference to us in in print! The book is a collection about race and humor and there is certainly humor present in your work. Gene, you make use of and make fun of stereotypes in American born Chinese and that humor and embracing racial identity plays an important role in the growth of its characters. Do you have any advice or guidelines about writing this way, knowing when humor is making fun of racism or when a joke becomes racist itself. I’m thinking partly of the Cancel Colbert controversy recently.
Gene Yang: Advice? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out. Racism is funny, but it can be funny in two very different ways. We can laugh at racism because we recognize the absurdity of the racist ideas, or we can laugh because we think those ideas might be true. The dividing line is pretty fuzzy, and the same joke can be interpreted by intelligent, sincere people in very different ways.
My one regret with American Born Chinese is that I did not exaggerate Cousin Chin-Kee enough. I thought I’d gone pretty far, but every now and then I still get reader feedback telling me that Chin-Kee is “cute.” I definitely did not mean for him to be cute. I guess my advice, based on my own experience, is that if you’re in doubt, push it over-the-top absurd.
Racebending: One of the funnier things in your book is the opening in which essentially you have your ground rules there. You are trying to make sure that people can kind of exhale as it were and say, ok I do not have to worry this is not a book of racist jokes It is a book of jokes that may in fact involve race. Because it can be funny. There are funny and awkward situations that happen when anyone is growing up and that can be compounded if race is injected as something people have to contend with as a kid. Can you explain what those rules were? I think it is legitimately helpful to say this is one of the things that helps it be not offensive. To let out that deep breath and feel that this is something that is ok to laugh at.
Mitali Perkins: Right! Right! Humor is powerful and I think storytelling itself is powerful. It really becomes a question about power as I think about using humor as a way of talking about race. I feel it can be used to alienate instead of build affection.
So my first rule is good humor pokes fun of the powerful and not the weak. There is a nice video by Craig Ferguson from when Britney Spears was having her complete breakdown he had this eleven minute monologue on How the best kind of humor does not pummel someone who is down, who is weak who is broken. It really takes aim at the powerful.
My second rule is that it always builds affection for someone who is other. So it does not alienate as I said. When I teach it to my class, I teach a class on this issues of race and culture in storytelling, I show some different youtube clips to show what I mean. There are some comedians who really succeed in this. At the end of the comedy rift you feel very close to the person who is other than you. There are other (comedians) who are really funny but at the end of it you feel you have been made to laugh at someone who has been pushed away from you, its is a wider rift. I think that is another rule that it builds affection and not alienates.
The third rule is that the best humor is always self deprecatory. Usually I am very free about who can write for whom but when it comes to jokes and humor because I think the best humor in this category is about yourself, it almost seems as though it should be a little more restrictive. You can see this in jokes. When people tell jokes its like you can tell a joke about your own ethnic group but if you tell a joke about another ethnic group it just does not come off as well. So I guess it is just poking fun of your own culture that is the best way to stay out of trouble. Though there are lots of areas where it can get murky there. What if I am biracial what does that mean? How much of that race do I have to be to be an insider and to tell that joke?
It can get very complicated. It is a question of identity and self affiliation. If you are telling a joke as if it is one of us against me than it is different than if you are telling a joke about “them.”
Racebending: The Cancel Colbert Campaign recently highlighted the importance of understanding race and humor. I wonder if you had any opinion on the discussions it engendered and at the same time diversity in publishing has also come to the fore in recent weeks with the question, why do we need diverse books as the rallying cry. I would love to add your name to the chorus of authors answering that question. Why do we need diverse books?
Mitali Perkins: The Cancel Colbert Campaign underlined the need for a renewed combination of freedom, humor, and civility in discussions about race. It’s become such a fraught subject that an attempt at satire brings about a knee-jerk attempt to censor. People are increasingly worried about saying the wrong thing, resulting in a climate of suspicion, hostility, fear, and silence. To renew the conversation, smart, self-deprecatory humor is key. Funny, intelligent books and movies featuring this kind of humor can be the “water cooler” around which people gather to talk again. That’s yet another reason why #weneeddiversebooks.
You can listen to the entire interview with Mitali Perkins on Kind of Epic Show. Please note that the opinions expressed do not necesarilly represent the view of Racebending.com and the discussion itself is meant to be humorous and entertaining to fit the subject material of the book: Mitali Perkins Steps up to the Mic