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Background Diversity

I really liked The Last Jedi, more that I did The Rise of Skywalker, and there are many reasons for that, and really it’s a lot of personal preference. One of my very favorite things in Last Jedi — and, admittedly, this is a very small thing — is the diversity of the Resistance members. Pay attention to the background of the movie, and you’ll notice that many of the Resistance offers and fighters are played by women and people of color.

Like I said, it’s a small detail. But there’s something profoundly affecting at seeing so much of the Resistance being ran by woman, there’s something super cool to me to see a random officer on the bridge walking around being portrayed by an Asian actor. It’s a detail in the movie that’s not only prevalent, it’s consistent: they’re everywhere. The random pilot we cutaway to is as likely to be a woman as it is a white guy, the person giving an update on the fleet too. It’s a thing that once you notice it, it’s delightfully consistent, and, really, quite wonderful.

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Why, then, you ask?

Because in no small way this Resistance feels like one that I could be a part of — without feeling like a token character. Not unlike the Rebellion in Rogue One, this is a group of people composed of all stripes. The Resistance of The Last Jedi demonstrably has space for everyone in their ranks, anyone can be a part of it.

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There’s another aspect to this too. By nature of it being a movie, the camera and the plot follows important people (Rose, for example, a no-name engineer, is deemed important by virtue of being a main character). It’s the principle of showing and not just telling, we’re not being told that there are brave men and women from all over the galaxy fighting the good fight; we get to see them Doing Things. Sure, the books and comics have retroactively added a lot more diversity and representation to the ranks of the Rebellion and Jedi Order in recent years, getting to actually see such on a big screen is profoundly affecting. These people are the heroes of the story, and a few of them look like me.

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Not only that, but many of them are in positions of power or responsibility. They’re members of the bridge crew, cooks; they’re pilots, not ground crew. They do stuff and so are implied to be important members of the team. By the end of the film, with the Resistance reduced to a small core, they aren’t all white guys. And these are the Important Survivors — again, film is a visual medium, what we see is as important, perhaps more so, than what we’re told; so seeing these people alive and as the proverbial spark that will bring about the First Order’s defeat.

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This is something the Prequels did really well too, throwing roles at women and people-of-color because, why not? The Phantom Menace had Captain Panaka and Mace Windu, Attack of The Clones had Queen Jamillia, and Revenge of The Sith revealed that Senator Bail Organa looked a lot like Jimmy Smits. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that tells viewers that, hey, there’s space at this table for people who don’t look like Luke and Han, that Leia isn’t the only woman in the Rebellion.

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The Rise of Skywalker makes a gallant effort at capturing a similar ethos. There is still diversity in the ranks of the Resistance, but it just feels far less prominent than how it was presented in Last Jedi. Don’t get me wrong, I love a cameo from an actor from LOST, but I can’t help but to mourn the loss of something The Last Jedi did so well. Embracing casual, background diversity is a small thing, especially in conjunction with bigger, more prominent representation, (which is super important and done decently in these movies), but it’s still something that I like to see and means a lot to me. It’s a bummer to see it go.

Note: Also, while scrubbing through The Last Jedi for these screencaps, I’m reminded of how damn beautiful of a movie it is.

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Shoeless Superheroes

Today we’re going to talk about one panel from a comic:

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It’s from Agents of Atlas issue #3 by Greg Pak and Nico Leon with colors by Rachelle Rosenberg and lettering by Joe Sabino. At this moment, the titular agents are meeting in their secret headquarters to discuss some potentially nefarious shenanigans that are happening.

And, naturally, all these superheroes have taken their shoes off.

Okay, so, the Agents of Atlas are all ethnically Asian. You’ve characters like Amadeus Cho and Cindy Moon, Korean-Americans based out of New York and Pearl Pangan from the Philippines and Lei Ling of Shanghai. There’s even a handy map on the credits page to offer an easy rundown:

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Look at that multi-nationality! | Greg Pak, Nico Leon, Rachelle Rosenberg, Joe Sabino / Marvel Comics

 

 

Yes, there’s a gut reaction to dismissing this sort of team-up as being pandering; it’s just Marvel realizing they’ve got a dearth of Asians and are mashing them all into one comic to highlight them and hope that combined their combined appeal can move books. Consider it tokenism but on steroids. Yet Atlas is able to get past that by applying verisimilitude to its fiction. An early beat during their War of The Realms introduction has the diverse cast (and yes, they are diverse: there’s a world of difference between being Chinese and Korean) sitting down to eat and bonding over the myriad of ways to prepare spam. It’s a quick gag, but one that quickly conjured up memories of how I’ve been served it in the past.

So the third issue and the lack of shoes.

I wrote not too long ago about how much I loved a beat of Always Be My Maybe that involves running kids taking off their shoes indoors and that same sentiment is in play here. It’s an absolute darn delight to see that tiny bit of detail. I take my shoes off indoors! And so do Silk and Shang Chi! There’s even a genkan where the shoes are left and fuzzy slippers available for indoor use. This ain’t some half-assed representation. It’s a small detail that’s really big in that it very much establishes that a) these characters are Asian beyond being drawn/named such, and 2) when given the opportunity will embrace that part of their culture.

There’s a narrative component to it too!

What’s it mean that they took their shoes off when going into their headquarters? Understand that taking your shoes off somewhere belies a sense of respect and comfort/intimacy. You don’t take your shoes off at the office or the movie theatre, but you definitely do in someone’s home and, in some parts of Asia, restaurants too. When someone like me — who’s been taking his shoes off in houses his entire life — sees this, it instantly communicates a lot of information about the people and where they are.

The Agents of Atlas are comfortable in their headquarters. Not like “ah, I’m comfy here,” but they treat it like a home. Sure, they’re all still in costume, but it’s somewhere they can take their shoes off. For someone like me, that feeling of taking off my shoes when I get home is a little marker that “yep, I’m back.” Thus seeing this being acknowledged in the comic is a delightful nod that immediately establishes how these characters feel about where they are.

It also helps with the conflict! In the scene we find ourselves in, Amadeus Cho, leader of the Agents, is wary of newcomer Isaac Ikeda — a hero in the employ of the entrepreneur responsible for the aforementioned potentially nefarious shenanigans. Amadeus didn’t invite Isaac; he’s surprised to even see him in the headquarters. Maybe he’s paranoid (he’s not quite sure), but he doesn’t want Isaac in their secret base, and for Isaac to be there — in this place where they’re able to take their shoes off! — isn’t unlike a roommate bringing home that super sketchy dude from the bar. This is made clear in the dialogue, of course, but the complication of the shoes adds an additional subtextual layer to it all.

Oh, diversity and representation. How I do harp on them. But this is why! This panel brought me such joy! This detail means so much to me because it’s something that I understand and speaks to me from a frame of reference I’m familiar with. Look, I’m a biracial third-culture-kid who’s an immigrant on both sides of the Pacific; I take the wins where I can find them. And yes, that means a comic where the superhero team takes off their shoes indoors. It’s important!

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A Normal Teenager Named Lara Jean

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before really feels like a classic 80s teen romcom, except it was made much more recently. It’s delightfully sweet, and has that uncynical honesty that readily calls back to fare like Sixteen Candles or Can’t Buy Me Love. Honestly, this movie is almost an anachronism, but a delightfully refreshing one at that.

Now here’s the thing, unlike all those 80s teen romcoms, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s protagonist is Asian-American. Lara Jean Covey, played by Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress, is one of three sisters. Their Dad’s white, their passed-away mother Korean. This isn’t really relevant to the plot, it’s mentioned in passing here and there, and their dad makes a decided effort to blend some Korean culture (namely: cuisine) into everyday life. But beyond that, Lara Jean and her sisters are just typical Americans.

Point is, she’s really pretty normal.

Which is actually pretty unusual. Lara Jean’s narrative has nothing whatsoever to do with her identity. She just happens to find herself in the midst of some romantic comment shenanigans after some love letters that were never meant to be sent got sent.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on a book of the same name by author Jenny Han. Apparently, there was a few groups interested in adapting it to a movie, but they all wanted to make a change: make Lara Jean white. Han stuck to her guns and eventually a studio came along that was alright with keeping Lara Jean Asian (as, let me remind you, she is in the books) and so we got the movie.

Let’s focus in on just how ridiculous this is. You’ve a bunch of movie studios game to adapt a book, on the condition that the protagonist be white. Only one of the ones that approached her agreed to keep Lara Jean as an Asian-American. Sure, the story’s got basically nothing to do with her race, but that’s all the more the reason why it’s important for her to be Asian.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you probably know that I am a really big proponent for representation in fiction. So of course I want a character who’s a minority in the source to remain such for the adaptation. Especially when it’s a story where her race doesn’t come into play.

Yes, there’s a time and a place for ‘Asian stories’ and all that, but there’s also a space for stories about people-of-color getting to be normal. Look at all those classic 80s teen romcoms we love so much, everyone’s white. Kevin Bacon in Footloose, Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, John Cusack in Say Anything. There’s the implicit suggestion that those stories are their stories; sure, they’re meant to be everyman, characters who the audience can see themselves in, but there’s still this undercurrent of the everyman usually being a white dude.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with any of its plotting. Yet it’s a delight of a movie, especially coming in an age when we really don’t have much in the way of romcoms anymore (Set It Up, also on Netflix, is wonderful too, by the way). Having an Asian-American woman as the main character, adds a small, cosmetic spin on things and makes these stories just a little more inclusive. So if we’re in the middle of a romcom renaissance, I’d like more of that too, thank you very much.

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A Dearth of Asians

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about Silk. The superhero, not the fabric. I’ve mentioned her on the blog before, and I do really like her, and am bummed her book ended. My friend quipped that I should be, she’s, like, the only Asian hero in Marvel. I protested, there was also Shang-Chi, and Amadeus Cho, and, and, well.

That’s about it.

We decided to include Kamala Khan, after all, Pakistan is in Asia and we have a bad tendency to think of ‘Asian’ as meaning only East-Asian. There’s also Jubilee of the X-Men, and that’s about where we ran out of steam, concluding that, dang, there really is a dearth of Asians in Marvel comics.

I did some googling while preparing for this post, and found a couple lists of Asian Marvel characters. There’s a small number of minor characters like Wendy Kawasaki who serve as support for the major heroes. There are definitely a good helping of Asian villains, with The Mandarin, Ezekiel Stane (he’s half-Asian!), and Silver Samurai being the most obvious. Then one list I found cited Mantis as an example which is weird because, well, she’s green and has antennas. But apparently she’s half-Vietnamese (and played by a half-Korean actress), so, I guess she kinda counts?

But the point stands; it’s really, really disappointing when you can count the major Asian heroes in Marvel Comics on your fingers. It’s not like I don’t have a horse in this race, what, my whole being half-Asian and all; but c’mon, it’s 2018. Surely there should’ve been an Asian Iron Fist by now or some such. In all of Marvel’s alternate realities, why don’t we get an Asian Tony Stark (you would literally have to change nothing about his story), why not have Shang-Chi a founding member of the Avenger on another Earth?

There’s pushback on these so-called ‘legacy’ characters: “Why make Iron Man or Jessica Drew Asian when you could just create A Whole New Character?” The problem with making A Whole New Character is that it takes a lot of work for them to become as wedged into the public consciousness as, say, Spider-Man. Sometimes, it works — take Kamala Khan who took up the Ms. Marvel mantle but has very little in common with the original Ms. Marvel — but then Silk remains woefully under-appreciated and even Amadeus Cho flew under the radar until he became a Hulk. Giving new characters — particularly minorities — the keys to a flagship means they get a huge PR boost: Look at Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel! I say this a lot, but oftentimes representation means giving up your seat at the table. It means in this universe Tony Stark is Chinese and ‘Stark’ is a lousy transliteration of a Chinese name. Or maybe when someone gives up the mantle they give it up for good (I’m looking at you, Thor).

I’d be remised if I neglected to account for the improvements that have been made. Kamala Khan and Silk are both relatively recent additions, and the former is wildly popular. Shang-Chi and Amadeus used to be, well, less than ideal. Shang-Chi’s power was Being Really Good At Kung-Fu and Amadeus’ was Being Really Smart, two abilities which, well, for a Chinese and Korean-American character, are really kinda stereotypical. But! Recently that’s changed! Shang-Chi is still Really Good At Kung Fu, but Jonathan Hickman saw him join the Avengers and shine as a badass. More recently, Gail Simone has had Domino training with him who in turn sees him as a) aspirational, and 2) really hot. Meanwhile, Amadeus became the Hulk and has joined the Champions and goes on adventures where he’s not just known for his smarts. We may still have precious few Asian superheroes, but, hey, the ones that we have are getting better.

Folks, I talk a lot about diversity and representation on this blog — to the point where I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record. And while I do celebrate Marvel and all the forward motion they’ve made, I do still want, well, more. Silk will always have a special place in my heart, not only because she gets to do the Spider-Man thing, but because her comic had a distinctly Asian-American bent to it. Big Hero Six is a movie that makes me smile when I think of it, not just because of how heartwarming it is, but because Hiro is someone like me. Stories are personal, and I want to get to be a superhero.

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On Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is an odd beast for me. It’s a movie based on a book I didn’t really like, but oddly it’s one where I do like the movie over the book. More than that, though, it’s a book set in Singapore, a country I’m not used to seeing on screen. Also where, of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve racked up the most years of residence. And now I’m seeing streets I’ve driven on and places I’ve eaten on a movie screen in New York City.

It’s surreal, because a lotta folks don’t really know much about Singapore. When I moved to the States (South Carolina) at fourteen I got asked where in China it was. To this day folks tell me my English is really good for someone from Singapore, never mind that said language is the main language spoken there. The island I sorta come from is an unknown, save for a depiction in the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie so fantastical it makes the New York of How I Met Your Mother look like a documentary.

Now the place it seemed that no one this side of the Pacific had heard about is featured in what’s been the top movie in the US for three weeks in a row. Singapore has summarily gone from “where?” to that place in Crazy Rich Asians. That island is Known.

Herein lies the conflict at the root of the surreality. It’s absolutely thrilling to see Singapore in a movie — and a good movie at that. If this cultural osmosis takes hold, maybe the response to hearing I’m half-Singaporean won’t be thinking I hail from a backwards, destitute island. Maybe it’ll be the metropolis of Crazy Rich Asians. At last there’s an image in the cultural consciousness. And it’s that.

Most of the people I know here in the US will never go to Singapore. For many, this is the first — and maybe only — impression of Singapore they’ll have. As good as the movie is, I guess I wish it was more comprehensive; it held within it a fuller take on Singapore. I wish it showed more of the Singapore I know.

By virtue of its story, Crazy Rich Asians focuses on a very specific Singaporean experience: that of the ultra wealthy, the crazy rich, if you will. The cast, though entirely comprised of Asian actors, are primarily from the West, and so absent from the film is the Singaporean accent and its idiosyncratic turns of phrase — something the novel captured so well. It’s awesome to see Awkwafina and Gemma Chan have hefty roles in a major film, but there’s a part of me that wishes that accent was there — especially because your style of speaking in Singapore very much denotes which social class you’re part of. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Characters/actors’ accents are something so tiny for me to take issue with, but they’re indicative of more. Singapore is a complex place for me; it’s a place that’s taken me away from whatever I’ve had going on in the US a number of times. It’s got the best food on the planet. It’s a place I’ve hated and loved. I want the people in my life to see that country, the one with a pros and cons list each a kilometer long. I want people to see more of this place and get where I’m coming from.

I want to be understood.

Crazy Rich Asians — the film — deserves every accolade its gotten. I hope there are many, many more movies with all-Asian casts. It means so much to me, this mixed race guy who passed as Chinese in the US, to see Singapore and people who look like me in the spotlight. The movie isn’t gonna be the solution to my myriad questions of identity; I shouldn’t expect a delightful romcom to provide a sociological survey. It’s still a closer depiction of a part of my life than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve gotta take the advice I hold for so many stories: to let it tell the story it wants and to judge it based on that and not what I might want.

Anyway. Crazy Rich Asians is great. Go watch it. Michelle Yeoh needs to be in everything.

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On Rose and Trolls

The internet is often a place as terrible as it is wonderful. This past week, Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in The Last Jedi, left Instagram (and social media in general) after months of sexist and racist harassment. Months.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. Daisy Ridley (aka: Rey) left Instagram for much the same reason. Back in 2016 I wrote about Chelsea Cain leaving Twitter after being bullied for writing Mockingbird. This outpouring of toxicity from so-called fans is nothing new. But I think, as in an incident like this, there’s a conflation of criticism and bullying that creates this awful trolling.

First, a word on trolls: these are folks who make other people feel terrible for sport. That being a racist, sexist dirtbag helps is secondary. There have been trolls about as long as there’s been an internet, but as women and people of color have developed more of a presence online, trolling targeted at race and/or gender has become far more pronounced. Trolls are the people who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off of Instagram. The question here isn’t why these people do what they do, it’s what gives the fuel for what they do.

The Last Jedi merrily deconstructs a lot of the Star Wars saga. Director Rian Johnson torches much of what we expect from a Star Wars film, like making Luke into a guilt-ridden recluse and questioning the need for Jedi. This is a movie that subverts a lot of expectations for the film and feels no need to appease whatever it is a fanboy might want. As Kylo Ren says, it’s time to let the past die, and that means letting go of a lotta ideas of what a Star Wars movie has.

Now, Rose has proven a pretty controversial character in an already controversial movie. She is Star Wars’ anti-establishment, anti-militarism bent at its most pronounced, a character disgusted by the military industrial complex present on Canto Bight. She’s an idealist, a character archetype that’s falling out of vogue in the tendency for stories to be cynical and gritty. Her arc culminates in stopping Finn’s suicide run, saying to save what they love instead of fighting what they hate. More than anything, she’s someone who genuinely believes in the Resistance making the galaxy a better place, and not in it for the vainglorious fight against the First Order (like Poe), or Finn’s need to save himself (as she’s foiled against). Depending on who you ask, she’s a welcome addition to the franchise or a cheesy character who adds nothing. Obviously, I’m of the former opinion (I am here for idealists!). There’s also the fact that she’s played by an Asian woman, and we need more non-sexualized Asian women in genre fiction.

But if people have an issue with The Last Jedi and what it does with Star Wars, Rose is an easy scapegoat. She’s another addition to the saga’s stable of heroic characters who aren’t white guys and she’s a source of romantic idealism in a movie that’s rather bleak. If you’re someone pissed off at a perceived “social justice agenda” that’s ruining the movies, here’s a sure sign of it all. And then this negativism feeds the trolls and then the lines between criticism and bullying get blurred. Trolls can claim they’re just criticizing Rose and The Last Jedi and any criticism of the film can be grouped in with the trolling.

And it’s awful, and that really goes without saying. Because, again, Kelly Marie Tran is absolutely wonderful as Rose, but even if she wasn’t, even if The Last Jedi sucked, that doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk on the internet. When it comes down to it, the vitriol she’s faced online stems from the sexism and racism still entrenched in much of nerd culture (see also: anytime comics attempt to diversify, Anita Sarkeesian and video games). It’s inexcusable, plain and simple. And I don’t know what the solution is, besides people not being terrible human beings. Maybe one day diversity will become so normal that people won’t have the need to pick on people for being different.

But really, shouldn’t it be like that already?

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Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don’t really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it’s hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That’s not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn’t make it any worse as a work, it’s just how it is. So if we’re telling new stories, let’s ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let’s make all the elves Asian!” because that way you’ll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don’t look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let’s make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let’s not do that.

Because if we’re diversifying Middle-earth, let’s let everyone be everyone. Let’s have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let’s have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner  of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it’s gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place.  But that’s done, and it doesn’t excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there’s nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you’d have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that’s not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we’ve already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who’ve kicked ass in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y’know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it’s outside what we’ve internalized as normal for the genre. We’re simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that’s s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It’s what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can’t I, someone who’s reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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