Tag Archives: diversity

Mixed Results

I really liked the movie Balto as a kid. And for a kid, it makes sense. It’s about a talking dog, and there’s a goose and a couple polar bears in it too. Plus it’s a story about the outsider getting a chance to prove they belong by doing an Epic Heroic Thing and earning their place.’

Also, it’s a story about being mixed.

Like me.

I’m mixed, biracial, half-Asian; whatever the term du jour is. Which is something I mention every now and then on this blog, because it’s part of who I am and thus how I interpret the world around me and, with it, the narratives that the world creates. In other worlds: I tell you this because it directly impact the way I see stories.

And this is important, because Balto is half-dog, half-wolf, which is a major part of his identity in the story. He doesn’t fit in with the dogs because of his wolfness, but he can’t exactly run out and join a pack of wolves. He doesn’t belong to either group. Over the course of the movie he (spoiler) proves himself to his peers and, more importantly, realizes that his being half-wolf is a good thing, not a drawback. The plot progresses and he gets to save the day.

We don’t see a lot of mixed-race narratives, period. TV Tropes has precious few examples, and many of them are either informed traits or their entire story.. Sure, we’ll see interracial relationships play out (Hello, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), but anytime the product of one of those shows up, if the question of identity is addressed, chances are it becomes their whole thing. Growing up, Balto was the only story I knew that had a character who was explicitly mixed and dealt with that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t the only thing he had going on; he still got to do the hero thing.

It’s quite unfortunate, then, that I didn’t see much of Star Trek until I was eighteen, but even then just the Abrams film. But that’s a movie about Spock’s journey as a character, one that’s inherently related to his own status as being half-Vulcan, half-Human. Again, the importance here is that though the story deals with Spock’s identity, it is not the extent of his arc. He still has a story of learning humility and teamwork and saving the day and all that, one aspect of which is, of course, struggling with his identity.

I wanna stress just how rare this is. When stories come up with biracial characters that touch on their identity, that’s usually the be all and end all of their story. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has Sarah Jane, a half-white, half-black girl who passes white and so uses that to her advantage. Her story is one of someone rejecting one identity in favor of another and thus all but abandoning her mother in pursuit of hedonism. Yes, it’s a story about someone who’s mixed, but it’s about being mixed. Most of the time, when someone who’s mixed shows up in fiction and has a role, that’s their story. It’s about coming to terms with their identity, or realizing that they should embrace both halves and what have you. There’s no conjunction; they don’t come to terms with their identity and save the world, they don’t get to embrace both halves and make the big jump to fund their step-dad’s conveniently priced surgery.

This is why Balto mattered to me so damn much as a kid. I got to see someone in a movie dealing with some of the crap I dealt with. I got to see someone do all that and still save the day. It’s about being different, but still getting the normal treatment. Differently normal, if you will. I do think stories about mixed people being mixed are important, but equally important are stories where  they – we – get to deal with the stuff and still be the hero. I want stories about mixed people that aren’t just about being mixed; I’m more than just someone who’s half-white, half-Asian.

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Star Wars’ Newfound Dearth of White Guys

The Star Wars video game Battlefront 2, the follow-up to 2015’s Battlefront, was revealed a couple weeks ago, and the sequel seems to be righting a lot of the mistakes of the first game. It boasts more interesting combat, the return of classes, multiple eras in which you can play, and Jedi Rey as a playable character (which, right there makes me wanna preorder it). Unlike the first, which was basically online multiplayer only, there’s also going to be a proper narrative single-player mode, that follows an Imperial special forces commander from the destruction of the Second Death Star through the rise of the First Order – which sounds cool!

What’s interesting both as a shooter game and as part of the Star Wars franchise is that the protagonist is a woman named Iden Versio, as was revealed in the trailer when the commander removes her helmet, thus continuing Lucasfilm’s new trend of creating a character who isn’t a white guy every time they need a new protagonist.

We know this from the two new films that relaunched the series, with Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens and Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. But this new emphasis on diversity extends to a lot of the other Star Wars stories in the new canon. The first comic with a protagonist created for the new comics is this year’s Doctor Aphra, where the titular woman Indiana Jones-es around the galaxy. The tv show Rebels, which has been around since 2014, might star the vaguely-caucasian Ezra, but the other humans in the crew are the decidedly Asian-looking Mandalorian Sabine, and Kanan, whose ethnicity is open to interpretation but is played by part-hispanic actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. Point is, over the past couple years, Star Wars has been getting a lot less exclusively white and male.

So now we have Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squadron, the protagonist of the New Big Star Wars Game and a character voiced by – and resembling – an Indian woman. Iden marks the extension of the trend towards diversity from other areas of the franchise into video games. Throughout the dozens of Star Wars video games released throughout the years, the protagonist has, with a handful of exceptions, always been a white guy. Even games like KoToR and Jedi Academy where you can customize character’s gender and skin tone; later books would canonize the protagonist as being a white guy (KOTOR II’s Jedi Exile is the exception to this). So we see Iden as a shift away from this precedent. Furthermore, it’s not only her appearance which sets her apart, but also her role as a military commander, not a Jedi – Star Wars is taking what’s usually seen as a male role (commando) and giving it to a woman. It’s a subversion of expectations, one that also says “Hey, women can be military leaders too!”

Like I said, Lucasfilm has clearly taken a really strong line on diversity, promoting women and people of color in just about everything they’ve put out over the past couple years. The trade off is that white guys are being put on the back burner.

But if we want more representation in the Star Wars galaxy, that’s the way it has to be. Look, there are forty years of Star Wars stories, especially if you include the old Expanded Universe (I do), and for the vast majority of them, the central main character’s a white guy. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, the list goes on. The spotlight is now being shifted in another direction in what appears to be an attempt on the part of Lucasfilm to even the tally by mandating that all new protagonists not have to be white guys and insisting that other people get featured It means that Rey gets to be the chosen one now. It means that the badass Imperial commander’s an Indian woman. It means, that the people making Star Wars are looking at characters, asking why not, and putting minorities in the lead. It’s a drastic departure from most of the franchise’s history to be sure, but it’s a strong step forward to bridging the gap — and has clearly not hurt the quality of the stories.

‘cuz look, making room at the table sometimes means having to give up a chair. If we want to see a more diverse world in media, it means having to actively curate that world, it means having to have stories that aren’t about white guys for a bit. And at the end of the day those forty years of stories are still there. Making Iden Versio the protagonist of Battlefront II doesn’t undo all those Kyle Katarn stories, Rey doesn’t invalidate Luke. It’s a big, big galaxy a long time ago far far away; there’s room for stories about all sorts of people. Just means that white guys might not be the main characters for a while.

Now, there is that Han Solo movie coming out next year. After that, though, I’m game for Star Wars not having a white guy in the lead for another thirty-six years.

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On Visibility and Character Creators

I spent well over an hour creating my character in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not stats and stuff, no, just the aesthetics of his/my face.

I love character creators. Maybe it’s an early exposure to The Sims, maybe it’s the simple joy of getting to play god and make people who look like whatever you want. In a game like Mass Effect where half the fun is making choices and carving your own narrative through the galaxy, I find that character customization adds another level of immersion. That Shepard or Ryder isn’t just someone off the box, it’s someone you made. And also, if you want, the character’s you. You get to see yourself as the protagonist.

As for making me?

I’m mixed. I don’t fit into ‘presets,’ and if I have to, I have to check one box. Pick the head that looks the most like me. Maybe in Knights of The Old Republic I’ll be white, but I’ll be Asian in Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Now, character creators as in Mass Effect, with sliders for adjusting eye height and nose size, allow you a lot more latitude for how your person looks (and games like The Sims is notorious for being able to create eerie doppelgängers).

But Mass Effect: Andromeda bases its customization on presets. So you can’t change eye shape, eyebrows, ears, and the general shape of the face, but can adjust skin tone, hair, and cheekbone placement. Naturally, a lot of those presets are based on races, here’s white guy a, white guy b, Asian dude a, Asian dude b, and so on. Which makes sense. But for me, it means playing around with either one trying to make them look more like the other. Y’know, trying to find that sweet spot on the sliding scale between Asian and white where I exist.

See, for most of my life I’ve been pegged for one or the other, in part because the idea of someone existing in the middle is, in some places, somewhat unheard of. Being a mixed-race, biracial kid isn’t something that comes up much at all if you’re not one, so you kinda ignore it and I’m left figuring out which box to check on a survey.

Which is why representation is so important. People like me don’t show up a lot in fiction. Well, white dudes do a lot, Asian guys much less often, and mixed actors playing mixed characters are basically non-existent. I wanna see myself in the media I consume, I wanna see a movie where someone who looks like me gets to be a hero.

Because it’d be nice to be told I exist by the stuff I watch and games I play. ‘cuz maybe then I wouldn’t be lumped in with one side or the other and now be allowed to exist in that middle space. This, I suppose, is the feeling of every under-represented group. We want to see ourselves in the stories we consume, and we want to see ourselves doing a buncha different things. This means not being pigeonholed into one accepted narrative or stereotype, this means letting different people be normal.

And yes, letting different people explore the Andromeda galaxy.

Whether or not my long-labored Ryder bears a resemblance to me is a matter up for debate, one that probably depends on what race you think I look more like. The preset I chose, however, was the one whose eyebrows looked most like mine.

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Who Is The Everyman

I talk a lot about the concept of the everyman on this blog, though mostly about how they don’t have to be white guys. And there’s a reason it’s such an important thing. Spider-Man shows you don’t have to be rich and smart like Iron Man or an alien like Superman to be a superhero, you can just be a nebbish kid from Queens. It’s the whole point of the everyman: anyone can be a hero. Especially you, because, after all, the everyman is meant to be you.

Star Wars, with Luke and Rey, takes full advantage of the everyman. The totally mundane farmboy and scavenger turn out to really be special heroes who help save the galaxy. The characters’ motivations are built to be universal, certainly more so than the other characters around them. Han’s a smuggler who wants to get a bounty off his head and Leia wants to save her planet and the galaxy – Luke just wants to get off of Tatooine. Finn wants to escape from the First Order he used to be a part of, Poe is on an important mission for the Resistance – Rey just wants to belong. They’re universal wants, ones more translatable to ordinary life than paying off a crime lord. Again, Luke and Rey could be anyone, including you. And anyone, including you, could be the chosen one.

This is why it’s so darn important for there to be diversity in the everyman. Rey is important because she shows that you don’t have to be a dude to be a chosen one, to be special. Same with Ms. Marvel, where the superhero of New Jersey is Kamala Khan, saying that, hey, a Muslim girl can be an all-American superhero.

And that’s what makes the cast make up of Rogue One so important. Unlike Luke and Rey, these folks aren’t particularly special. No one’s a Jedi or super skilled smuggler. Jyn, Cassian, Chîrrut, and the others are, in the vein of Peter Parker and Kamala Khan, fairly ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the right place at the right time and step up. They’re meant to be normal people, like you and me. So they look like normal people, like you or me.

There’s the rub. What do normal people look like? What do we look like? For me, that’s half-Asian/half-White, and based on the majority of (western) media out there, one of those halves is what heroes look like. The other half is usually a villain or, if not a token, then usually a stoic wise, old master. Not a swashbuckling hero or a badass mercenary. That’s the other half.

(In case you haven’t realized, it’s the white half that’s portrayed heroically and the Asian less so).

The diversity in Rogue One, however, flips that on its head – and in frickin’ Star Wars, one of my favorite stories! The heroes of the film come from all sorts of (real world) backgrounds, with a white woman as the lead and a Latino guy as deuteragonist. The others on the core team are a couple Chinese guys, a Pakistani-British guy, and Alan Tudyk as a droid. None of these characters are meant to be particularly special, not even the sense of being super well-trained or anything.

They’re normal people.

Who step up to be heroes.

And some of them happen to look like me.

Of course you don’t have to look like someone to emphasize with them. It’s why I see myself in the crew of Serenity in Firefly or wanna be Rey because she’s the best. It’s why I’m sure you can still wanna be Cassian Andor even though he’s Latino and you might not be. But who we see as heroes affect our perception of reality. If the only time we see Asian characters are as wise, old master, then that’s all we see them as. If the everyman is universal, then everyone should get to see themselves as the everyman.

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An Asian American Superhero

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Silk when she first showed up in the Spider-Man comics, but it was when she got her own series – and a narrative no longer intrinsically tied to Peter Parker – that she really came into her own.

But on the on the one hand, yeah, another webslinging spider-themed hero? We’ve already got a lot with Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and Miguel O’Hara in books of their own; do we need one more? The thing is, Silk brings with it – like each of the other spider books – a unique story and character.

Obviously, there’s Silk/Cindy Moon herself. One of the things that hooked me into the book is something somewhat shallow, but terribly important: Cindy is Korean-American. Yes, I know, I’m ranting about diversity again. But listen. There are precious few Asian superheroes, even less so with their own books. There will always be a thrill in getting to see someone who looks like you represented.

But Cindy’s Asian-ness isn’t just a lip service done through line art and surname, the story in Silk features distinctly Asian elements.

So quick recap, Cindy got bitten by the same spider that gave Peter Parker his powers, but due to some bad news involving spider-killing vampiric Inheritors (it makes sense in context), Cindy was locked alone in a bunker until the threat was over. Released early, Cindy is looking for her family who have disappeared during the years she was away.

Still with me? Now here’s the thing, the decision to lock Cindy away is not a malevolent one, in fact Silk does great work to ensure that while we know it’s a really sucky situation, it was one done out of love. As Cindy follows the trail of her parents, she finds that they never stopped trying to find a way to cure her and protect her from the Inheritors. When Cindy finally finds her parents – after traveling to the Negative Zone, teaming up with a dragon named David Wilcox, and discovering her mother is the badass, undead slaying Red Knight – it’s a happy, heartfelt reunion.

Never along the way does Cindy ever think that finding her parents isn’t worth it. She’s posed as a villain for Shield and takes a job at J. Jonah Jameson’s Fact Channel, all in an effort to discover what happened to her parents. The central theme of the arc, one espoused firmly by Cindy, is family first. It’s a story of unquestioning filial piety, one that is returned in kind by Cindy’s parents. Now, family loyalty is by no means a uniquely Asian thing, but Silk‘s emphasis on it allows the book to strike a wonderful narrative balance between an Eastern focus on community and the self-determinism more prevalent in Western narratives. Are you beginning to see why I keep harping on diversity being important?

That said, Cindy doesn’t live a merry angst-free life. Her time in the bunker did a number on her, and so Cindy seeks counseling. Her sessions often provide narration for her adventures as she confides in her therapist, which is a fun narrative tool in itself, but the portrayal of therapy as being something both normal and healthy stands out as special in comics. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a way for Cindy to work out anger issues and the newfound stress of getting used to a modern life (and being a superhero). It’s a profound addition that subtly destigmatizes getting help while allowing space in Cindy’s life to focus on her family without too much angst.

You know what’s coming next: This is why diversity in fiction is important. Sure, you could have had the looking-for-family narrative with anyone, but by attaching it to a Korean-American family you instill it with a little more weight and offer a representation of a different way of looking at the world. Silk is a wonderful book because it does all that and tells a plain good story while it’s at it.

Man, ain’t diversity grand?

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Wise Old Masters

I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.

Anyway.

Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”

This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?

I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.

And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.

Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to fit into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).

The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?

I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.

Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.

Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.

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Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

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