Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cultural appropriation: Should the 'Iron Fist' superhero have been Asian American?

From left: Jessica Henwick, Finn Jones and Rosario Dawson star in Marvel's upcoming 'Iron Fist' on Netflix.
YOU ALMOST have to have to feel a little sorry for actor Finn Jones. When he accepted the role of Danny Rand in Netflix and Marvel’s upcoming superhero production Iron Fist, he had no idea he was inserting himself in a cultural quagmire. 

For Jones, the role was the biggest acting gig of his young career that might lead him to fame and fortune. Jones, a British actor, didn't know he was stepping into the middle of America's heated debate about inclusion and cultural appropriation.

Last weekend, he got into a Twitter-bate with Asyiqin Haron, the creative director of the Australia-based Geeks of Color, resulting in the actor temporarily quitting his Twitter account, which in the Twitter-verse is akin to saying "I have had enough" of the discussion and criticism. Jones later reactivated his account and explained that he just wanted to focus on the filming of The Defenders series, the follow-up to the first season of Iron Fist.

Looking at his Twitter feed, Jones seems to view the world from a progressive point of view, expressing sympathy for the DAPL protestors, reTweeting Bernie Sander's comments on the new Trump Muslim ban "Let’s call Trump's travel ban what it is: A racist and anti-Islamic attempt to divide us up."

Then, Jones - still expressing his progressive leanings - tweeted out Riz Ahmed’s speech to the Parliament about representation with the intriguing headline: “Representation is important. and here’s why.”

RELATED: Listen to Riz Ahmed's speech about inclusion
Jones' tweet raised some eyebrows because Jones didn’t seem to recognize the irony that his upcoming role is yet another prime example of white exceptionalism: White guy goes to Asia, learns an Asian martial art, and is better than his Asian mentors. Hi-ya!

The back-and-forth between Jones and Haron was civil enough, with Jones trying his best to give what seems to be a sincere defense of his selection as Danny Rand but completely overlooked the basic critique that the white character would have worked just as well - even better say his critics - as an Asian character.

When Jones wrote that the show was “the most diverse” one out of the Marvel-Netflix bunch, Haron replied, “That’s great and all but you do see why Danny Rand being white is problematic right?”




For readers who are new to this topic, the debate goes back a few years when Marvel and Netflix first announced their partnership. Fanboys and fangirls got all excited about the prospect of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil and Iron Fist coming off the comic book pages of Marvel and into their living rooms.

As the first three series debuted to critical acclaim, the debate about Iron Fist's cultural appropriation began to appear. Keith Chow of Nerds of Color began a campaign to turn Danny Rand into an Asian character since everything about his life's philosophy and his fighting techniques were Asian in origin. It made perfect sense.

The conversation became even more meaningful with the rising debate over the lack of diversity on television and the movies, particularly the absence of Asians in the media. The casting switch began to gain momentum among other bloggers and online sites, including a petition drive by 18MillionRising.

The loss of one white superhero by turning him into an Asian seemed like a logical, reasonably modest proposal since the vast majority of television characters are white. Who would miss one superhero among the pantheon of white superheroes: Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Wolverine, Daredevil and the list goes on and on and on.

The argument gained steam among AAPI circles and it would have been a marvelous example of thinking out-of-the-box in order to address the lack of diversity among superheroes.). Unfortunately, Marvel insisted in keeping Iron Fist close to the source material. (Sticking to the tired rope of a rich, white man who has the money, time and inclination to become a hero, ala Green Arrow, Iron Man, Batman).

Jones tried to divert the conversation by pointing out the strong women characters of Colleen Wing (Jessica Lu Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). The two women of color who play important roles in the Iron Fist world of dark, dangerous New York, but still - they are secondary characters.

Talking about cartoon characters may seem much ado abut nothing and would be easy to pooh-pooh. But I can tell you - as an Asian/American growing up seeing all that is good emanating from being white; where the only people who looked like me on television were maids or chauffeurs; where stories centered only on white characters (saying the stories of people of color are of no importance); it is vitally important to developing a positive self-image and aspiring to dream and hope beyond what's expected.

For her views, Heron got a lot of blowback from trolls so we'll give her the last word:

“But this conversation was about a white lead who is centered around Asian culture. We see this for the live action version of Ghost in the Shell. There was The Great Wall starring Matt Damon, as well as Tilda Swinton cast as The Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange. Danny Rand was created in a time where the white savior trope was getting popular. People didn’t see the racist connotations back then. Times are changing, and these comic books have to adapt as well.”


SIDENOTE:



One of the good things coming from Iron Fist will be the introduction of Rand's ally, Colleen Wing, who will be played by Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), an early contender for the Anna Award for "Badass of the Year." In an interview on Collider.com, Henwick was asked about her Iron Fist role. She said: 
"For me, when they approached me about Colleen, I was a little bit like, huh, do I want to play an Asian woman who does martial arts who’s a love interest? Do I want to do those three things? Because I’ve always shied away from it. In fact, I’ve shied away from playing Asian characters, if you look back I’m playing characters that have no relevance to my ethnicity. But I reached a stage last year where I said, I want to start telling Asian stories, I want a young Asian girl to go, oh my god, that reminds me of my relationship with my mom. So I had some concerns, and Jeph Loeb rang me and he said, 'We’re going to take the stereotype, and we’re going to – we’re not going to avoid it, we’re going to inspect it.' For example, she is, I don’t know how many episodes you’ve seen, she’s a martial artist, she fights in fight cages, we’ve seen that before. What happens when you become addicted to that? What happens when you can only talk with your fists and you struggle to communicate on any other level and you’ve become addicted to fighting? So we’ve taken this stereotype and we’ve said, OK, what is the actual realism in it? You know? Which was interesting to me." 
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