Tag Archives: representation

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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Reframing a Narrative

So it’s been some time (a week-ish) since Black Panther came out and the mental nerding out has sufficiently subsided that I can have some actual Rational Thoughts about the movie beyond “wow it’s so cool and Okoye is everything.” And, go figure, it’s coming down to a lotta thoughts about representation.

And how representation is happening.

But first, a detour to Star Wars. My favorite movie series seems to have enacted a moratorium on white guys as new protagonists. Which is dope, and means that we now have folks like Daisy Ridley and Diego Luna being main characters in Star Wars. And John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Donny Yen, Riz Amed, and, look, I could go on. But you get the point.

Now, Star Wars is fundamentally a fantasy (a space fantasy) that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and so its world is decidedly removed from reality, albeit one inspired by a mishmash of Western and Japanese myths with a healthy helping of 1970s haircuts. You’ve got samurai-monk Jedi Knights running around alongside fighter pilots fresh outta World War II. Part of the fun of seeing women and people of color get the spotlight in Star Wars is seeing them in these archetypes; a woman gets to be the Jedi Knight and a Latino’s the hotshot pilot! Star Wars is the story of the everyman, and opening the series up to diversity means that we get to change the image of said everyman. Also, it means there’s room for folk who look like me in the world, and that’s really cool.

Black Panther is also a fantasy, but it’s one set on Earth (this Earth). Wakanda may be a fictional nation, but its culture is one that draws on real-life African countries. Which makes sense: if you’re gonna have a high-tech futuristic nation set in Africa, you darn well oughta get inspiration from real-life African countries.

And the movie is so much better for it.

By thrusting African aesthetics into the forefront, Black Panther is making a statement about what’s cool. Ndebele Neck Rings aren’t just something you’ll see inside the pages of National Geographic, within the context of the film they’re a fashion accessory that’s part of the Dora Milaje’s uniform. Basotho Blankets look great in general, but in the movie they’re warrior gear that can generate a forcefield. These bits of tradition can be infused with a helping of sci-fi, these looks can be cool and not just as seen on the Discovery Channel.

Narratives are important; they inform how we see the world and help us process things. For centuries now, the narrative surrounding Africa has been one of a poor and primitive continent, one on the receiving end of a “white man’s burden” whether through colonial subjugation or questioning if they know it’s Christmas. It’s a woefully outdated, untrue narrative (and a harmful one that I feel dirty just typing out), but it’s hard to undo a story so firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness.

Black Panther doesn’t just show black characters as kickass heroes, it presents a sci-fi image of an Africa untouched by colonialism that’s flourishing, replete with its tribal trappings. Zulu headdresses and Mursi Lip Plates  aren’t seen as primitive or savage, they’re regal, majestic, and epic.

I’ve written about Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk before, where she stresses the importance of different narratives, about how stories in fiction can be validating. When the only stories we get about Africa (be they through fiction, news, or leaked presidential minutes) focus on it as a war-torn and underdeveloped continent, we start to form certain assumptions about the people who live there and their culture. Black Panther tells us, no matter how subliminally, that these people are as sophisticated as folks anywhere else, that their traditional clothes are rich beyond serving as something for you to gawk at.

Look, one story alone can’t wholly change a centuries-old narrative. But the representation in Black Panther is certainly a step in the right direction. I want to see more colorful science fiction (and stories in general), ones that don’t just pay lip service to non-western cultures but dig into them for both inspiration and representation. I hope there’s more. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Wakanda Forever

So. Black Panther.

Right now, I want nothing more than to geek the crap out about this movie. It’s, wow. Ryan Coogler’s quickly become one of my favorite directors (courtesy of Creed and Fruitvale Station), and this movie is the icing on the cake.

There’s so much to love about it. The plot moves along at a clip pace, so much so that I found myself wanting more when it ended. Its supporting cast is as interesting as its leads, with everyone getting their due and characters like Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri stealing the show (and seriously, Okoye is the coolest). The conflict between T’challa and Killmonger is surprisingly nuanced, one where there is no real easy answer. Does a super advanced African nation have an obligation to other Africans, both those within the continent and part of the diaspora? Or should Wakanda remain isolationist, able to remain free of colonialist influence?

And these are all well and good facets of the movie (Okoye is so stinking cool), but there is, of course, the obvious one: Black Panther is the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature not only a black protagonist, but a predominately black cast as well. On top of that, these characters are from Wakanda, a fictional, utopian country in Africa. They’re cool and they’re badass; they get to do the superhero schtick.

That’s a big part of what makes the movie so interesting (on top of that it’s an excellently crafted film): its representation. This is a movie where a bunch of people who don’t usually get to be these sorts of heroes gets to be these sorts of heroes. Not only that, but Wakanda is a science-fiction style setting that doesn’t draw on Western influences, but rather celebrates Africa. Wakanda is Afrofuturism put up on the big screen, and believe you me, it’s refreshing. Characters wear traditional African outfits that, guess what, generate force fields and also look really cool.

That Black Panther is succeeding is excellent news for genre fiction. It proves that blockbuster science fiction and action don’t have to be about white people with decidedly western influences. If we can get this Afrofuturistic fantasy, maybe now an East Asian inspired science fiction story is viable, and one outside of anime at that. Or an anime that’s been adapted and now stars a white actor in the lead. Now there’s room for a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world where Spanish conquistadors don’t even enter into the equation.

For better or worse, media (that is, movies, television, books, games, etc) is predominately dominated by the West (and, in particular, the US). As such, most of the stories that Big Movies and blockbusters draw on are Americentric; we’re used to stories with characters who look like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers ‘cuz those are the stories that get told. Black Panther is a shift, it’s a movie that says “Hey, you don’t have to look like Ryan Gosling to be the superhero.” You can look like Chadwick Boseman.

So does this mean there’s gonna be a scifi epic coming out soon starting a Chinese dude in a Changshan kicking ass but not in an orientalized kung fu way? God, I hope so. It’s hard for me to find words to describe exactly what it was like watching Black Panther, getting to see this dope futuristic world that celebrated a culture that wasn’t, well, white. It was different, it was cool; in Wakanda it showed a country that’s as much an ideal as it is a fantasy.

And throughout it all, I couldn’t help but to ask when was my turn. When am I gonna get to see people who look like me in a big blockbuster, when am I gonna get to see the culture I’ve spent so much of my life a part of celebrated in a science fiction film featuring the people who actually live it? Sure, I’m only half-Asian, but that’s a half that doesn’t usually get seen.

In the meantime, Black Panther’s freaking awesome, go watch it, and celebrate what it does.

There’s gotta be more to come. 

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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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Diversity: It’s That Easy!

Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, shows up in the last episode of Jessica Jones, providing a quiet link between that show and Daredevil. She tends to a wounded Luke Cage, because it takes a special kind of doctor to treat an (incredibly hot) man with unbreakable skin. Malcolm, Jessica’s neighbor, shows up too and the three share a scene.

And suddenly there are more (important) people of color interacting on screen than in any other Marvel property. If anything, Jessica Jones shows how simple it is to diversify a cast. Why not make the cutthroat lawyer a woman? Why not make the police officer they interact with black? This intentional mindset of ‘why not’ really affects the overall look of Jones. New York in the Netflix series is diverse, far from the overwhelming whiteness of How I Met Your Mother and Girls. The prominence of women in the story also allows for different narratives, avoiding the problem of Age of Ultron. It gets to the point that it’s hard to find a prominent white male character in Jessica Jones who could be classified as a hero ‘cuz those spots are all taken.

Diversity in media oftentimes comes down to being willing to make a big deal about little decisions. It means not defaulting to “white dude” when creating or casting a character and realizing that archetypes and narratives can belong to anyone because everyone has a story to tell. Or even just because everyone wants to see themselves in a story. Especially as a hero.

J.J. Abrams does this exceptionally well in The Force Awakens. There’s a decided effort in the film to diversify Star Wars and yet doesn’t feel forced. Yes, the main characters are very different (the woman, Rey, is the protagonist [and the best], the ex-Stormtrooper Finn is Nigerian-British, and the hotshot pilot is Guatemalan-American) but the movie’s attention to diversity really shows in the background.

Think about Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. With very few exceptions, all of the bit-part Rebel and Imperial officers were white guys. General Veers and Jan Dodonna have barely a couple lines each, but both were, of course, white men. But The Force Awakens does away with that tradition and switches it up. Imperial Officers are also women and minorities, besides being white. Ken Leung (of Lost fame) plays one of the Resistance’s admirals and a Trinidadian actor plays another. The small band of X-Wing pilots include, besides Poe and a couple aliens, a black guy and an Asian woman. Even the villainous First Order gets in on it: the random Stormtrooper that alerts Kylo Ren to the escaped Rey is a woman. That’s right, in The Force Awakens Stormtroopers can be not only black, but women too. And that’s in addition to the random officers who also just so happen to be diverse.

This is what I mean by making a big deal about little decisions. It means being willing to not just phone it in but decide “hey, maybe this person can look different?” We’re seeing steps being taken in this direction — and not just in Jessica Jones and The Force Awakens. Marvel’s recent slate of comics has been pushing a more diverse range of superheroes as does work like, say, Pacific Rim. It’s small details, yes, but do you know how cool it is to see someone like you on screen? It’s really not as hard to do as it seems, which is one reason why I’m a huge proponent of it. And if it’s not something you’ve thought about, well, you’re in luck.

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Another Boyband Saving The World

So Final Fantasy XV is finally coming out ‘soon,’ with the demo dropping recently. The game’s been on my radar since the debut trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII (as it was called then) was released almost nine years ago and as a fan of the Final Fantasy series — mostly because I plain love a good JRPG (there’s something fun about Japanese melodrama and saving the world) — I’m quite eager to see how this game works and if it’s any good.

As we’ve slowly found out more about the game, however, I’m a little annoyed that the game essentially features what looks like a boyband as the main characters. It’s disappointing to see yet another male dominated video game, but certainly not a deal breaker, least at this stage. That said, I’m curious as to the reasoning behind them going in this direction. Fortunately, game director Hajime Tabata explained why:

“Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they’ll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way,”

This is where things start to really bother me: I don’t see how having a more diverse cast would be less approachable. These days around half of gamers are women and if we want video games as a genre to grow up we’ve gotta get away from this girls-have-cooties mentality that’s permeated the industry for far too long.

It’s especially frustrating that it comes a part of Final Fantasy of all things. The series has usually been quite good at representation, with the games featuring multiple female party members who often had an important role in the story beyond being damseled. The latest major installment, XIII had a woman as protagonist, something I talked about in my first post here three years ago. Not every game needs a female protagonist, but that doesn’t excuse making the game about a boyband.

Now Tabata does have some good intentions. He wants to get into the private life of men and stuff I’ve read about the game has said that the game does feature its male characters openly showing affection to each other. Which is actually really cool (suck it, patriarchy!). An unironic, actually honest look at a bromance is possibly as rare as strong female protagonists. There’s a reason one of my favorite moments in the finale of  Agent Carter was Howard Stark admitting that he loved Steve Rogers and missed him. I am so down for more honest bromances in fiction.

But I do not believe that this has to be an either-or scenario. I think we can have a single story or game that features both male intimacy and strong female characters — especially since Final Fantasy games usually take well over thirty hours to complete. Final Fantasy XIII had a mixed cast, but had some great scenes between sisters Lightning and Serah. If it’s vitally important for there to be chunks of time with the guys alone, then why not split the party? Final Fantasy VIII did it sixteen years ago, why not do it again?

I realize that in some ways I’m splitting hairs here, and we still have an indeterminate time before launch during which, unlikely as it is, things may change for Final Fantasy XV. I’m probably going to play the game at some point too; this isn’t a boycott. But I love video games and representation matters as much as defying gender norms about men. In an ideal world, we could do both at once and I don’t see why Tabata’s game couldn’t be that ideal world.

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