An Open Letter to The New York Times’ Critic Manohla Dargis about Big Hero 6

It’s too bad that in making its first movie based on a Marvel comic Disney didn’t decide to take a real leap into the future, say, by making Hiro a girl…

Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Dear Ms. Dargis,

I was born in Vietnam shortly before the tanks rolled into Saigon and my family was forced to flee. Raised in South Minneapolis’ largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood, my father taught me to walk to the library and got me hooked on free books. Later, I would learn to run there, mostly to avoid the myriad groups of bullies wanting to beat me for whatever reason they could conjure that day, and I would read books and comics to take me far away from who I was and where I was. It is safe to say that the majority of my boyhood was spent imagining that I was anything but who I was.

Perseus, Launcelot, Spider-Man, Superman, Wolverine, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Captain Kirk, Aragorn, Flash Gordon, Bilbo Baggins — yes, they are all men. But what else do they have in common? In my dreams I was always a white hero, because that was what I was taught to believe heroes looked like. Even the weird cartoon I loved from Japan — an animated space soap opera called Robotech — featured a main character, Rick Hunter, that I thought was white. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out his name in Japan was Hikaru Ichijyo.

Remember also that the 80s was a special time: “Buy American” was all the rage, most of that patriotic fervor directed against Asians, even Asian Americans, as if all of us were getting checks from the Japanese auto industry (we weren’t — and the American auto industry was really the one screwing over workers by building plants in other countries ). My people in particular were the target of a very special xenophobic hatred: people on the street would shout at us and other Asians on the street, blaming us for the Vietnam War and the deaths of their relatives, not knowing that people like my father fought alongside Americans in the war.

Like any kid, I wanted toys, I wanted to be a part of pop culture, I wanted movies. Because my family was poor, going to the movies was seen as a waste of money. But being the youngest, and going through a tumultuous time that saw my dad trying to spend quality time with me, occasionally he would cave and take me to a movie, usually at the Skyway Theater downtown. When I was about nine, he took me to a movie that he had heard had Vietnamese people in it. He took me to see Rambo: First Blood Part II.

If you haven’t seen it, let me give you a synopsis: Rambo, a white Vietnam war veteran, is sent back to Vietnam to photograph what is believed to be American POWs still being held in bamboo cages. A Vietnamese woman is his local guide. Things quickly go badly. About five seconds after the Vietnamese woman asks Rambo to take her to America with him, she is killed by a bunch of Vietnamese soldiers (played, I am pretty sure, by Japanese actors). Later, Rambo kills these Vietnamese men, taking his time with them, notching an arrow with an explosive head as the last one panics and runs away, and as Rambo’s arrow hits him, he literally explodes. The audience cheered when that happened.

Don’t blame my dad. He was doing his best. Even if he read movie reviews, white reviewers don’t have a good record of noticing racism against Asians in Hollywood films anyway. My dad, a working class war veteran, thought he was taking me to an action movie that had some Vietnamese characters in it. How could he know that, as usual, anyone who looked like us was going to be the bad guy?

Fast forward to now. I’m almost 40. I still see white men held up as the norm — no matter what the niche. Sexy lumberjack, sexy avant garde artist, hard working blue collar man, quirky fixie bicycle enthusiast — all white. I’m playing a video game made by one of the most prominent creators in the world — a Japanese man — and yet again the main protagonist for his creation is white. I’m not mad at him, exactly. Over the years I’ve come to understand — in the Western world, the more I am read as Asian, the more I will be hated and outcast. The more I embrace the erasing of my identity, my invisibility, the more successful and accepted I will become.

Then along comes this movie, Big Hero 6. I’ve heard that the movie features Asian American mixed race male characters as the leads, and I can scarcely believe it. I have a five year old daughter, who loves almost everything that kids her age love: Frozen, Dora, Doc McStuffins, Hello Kitty, Minnie Mouse, and the list goes on and on. She consumes voraciously anything that she can find on Netflix that is intended for kids (yes, I am working on getting her away from so much television). Of all the many, many different shows she enjoys, I can only think of three that have any Asian American males: a Vietnamese American male in the excellent mid-90s African American show Gullah Gullah Island; the grandfather on Ni Hao Kai Lan, and some secondary characters on Diego who are a part of his International Rescue Squad. Of the hundreds of characters she sees on the screens, there have been three.

I take her to see Big Hero 6 and we talk about how the two leads are Asian boys like her daddy, that they might have a culture and language from another place like her mom and dad, and the boys are mixed like her and her momma. There’s also an Asian American woman in the crew, and I found it refreshing that an Asian American man and woman were on the same team and not mere tokens that were on opposite sides and at each other’s throats, which is pretty common in Western culture. There’s also an African American man and a Latina in the crew, making this hero group look more like my daughter’s classmates than any other representation of pop culture she’s seen.

The movie isn’t perfect. You can read my fellow Nerd of Color Shawn’s opinion on Wasabi (here). The movie’s female characters could be deeper or more interesting. And with all films like this, isn’t there always a crush or a love interest? I guess Asian American men still can’t be romantic leads in Western culture. (And no, I’m not asking for heteronormativity here — I’m asking what it is that is illuminated when we realize the Western mind cannot conceive of Asian men as romantic leads).

But I found it powerful that my daughter could see a film where people like her and her classmates are central to the world and are not sidekicks. They are not background — they are central, they are necessary, they are working together.

Which is why I found the comment in your review so perplexing. And I imagine many readers at this point may find it unfair that I would put so much emphasis on one half sentence in your review. This is my challenge — instead of accusing me of making a big deal out of nothing, ask yourself how a seemingly small comment to you can so easily trigger the feeling of total erasure of a group of marginalized people.

I agree with you — we need more women characters, especially women of color, in popular entertainment. I’d also add we need more queer people of color, people with disabilities, and any group of people marginalized by this country’s obsession with straight white alpha males. But I find it interesting that you would assert that Disney could have truly been progressive by making one of the only Asian American male characters in Western children’s entertainment into a girl. This is one of the few movies made from a (not very good) comic where the protagonist is actually an Asian male, and it’s a minor miracle that Disney didn’t just make the character white, as Hollywood often does. You don’t seem to realize the near complete invisibility of Asian and Asian American men in Western pop culture. Even when we exist, we feel like others want to erase us. And it’s not just you — I’ve read several reviews that single out two white male actors out of the large multiracial, multi-gendered cast for praise.

It’s disappointing that no mainstream outlet seems to realize how rare it is for a Western mainstream film to feature an Asian American male lead, nor how important that may be to a historically marginalized and silenced community.

(l to r): Scott Adsit (voice of Baymax), T.J. Miller (voice of Fred), and Ryan Potter (voice of Hiro)

But I, for one, am glad for Big Hero 6 and all its flaws. I’ll hope for a sequel or two that will feature — yes — more complex female characters, more men of color, and dare we hope queer people of color too? My daughter will sit in my lap, as she often demands for films that have any action in them, so she can turn her head into my chest if she feels like it’s too scary. I thank Big Hero 6, for the simple and necessary fact that in those moments, that the only person on the screen who looks like her daddy is not the villain.

32 thoughts on “An Open Letter to The New York Times’ Critic Manohla Dargis about Big Hero 6

  1. Bao,
    I wasn’t sure where this was going, but when it got there I was glad to see you take Manohla to task. I’m personally not a fan of the ‘make-everything-pc-perfect-in-every-movie’ approach. It usually results in a contrived film that isn’t believable. There isn’t enough time to make every character strong, and the film did such a wonderful job of building the relationship between these brothers and kept the film sensitive and touching even while blasting around with great action and detective work. (It is important to note that Disney animation studios are now under the direction of John Lasseter, formally of Pixar, I suspect we will see more thoughtful, richer, and truer to life characters that take into account the diversity that surrounds us today)
    Great letter!

  2. Also, is it only nerds who know that they ARE a fair number of Asian female hero characters in American pop culture? Way more than there are Asian-American male heros? I mean, Nikita, Psylocke, the SHIELD Agents, Mulan, add most every character that Lucy Liu has ever played and you need at least two hands to count them already.

    1. “Fair” is very subjective. I wouldn’t say that “two hands” in the grand spectrum of heroes is fair at all.

      1. I didn’t mean “fair” in the sense of “just.” I meant “fair” as in “a few,” whereas for Asian-American male heroes there are definitely fewer than a few.

  3. Sorry, contents was great, but i do not understand the reason why you are trying to point out the soldiers killed Vietnamese lady in Rambo II were played by Japanese. It sounds like you are trying to single out Japanese here. As Japanese, I am a bit offended by you specifically noting it. I hope there was strong reason you had to specify the nationality of the actors of villains. In yet, you have never mentioned that the hero of Big Hero 6 as ‘Japanese’. Instead you are using “Asian” to describer hero.

    1. I feel like he is not trying to single out Japanese in a negative way, more that he is noting Hollywood’s tendency to cast a Japanese actor in any Asian role.
      Personally I have noticed that it is more often the case with Chinese actors being cast for Asian parts. For example, when Memoirs of a Geisha came out, most of the actors, who were supposed to be portraying Japanese people, were actually Chinese. I remember that there was a lot of commotion about that.

    2. I can’t speak for the author, but to me, it sounds like a minor critique of Hollywood’s habit of casting actors from one Asian race to be another. Which is a critique against Hollywood, not the Japanese.

    3. Fair point, but I feel like you are getting picky and your post sounds like someone who’s not Asian just trying to look for holes in this letter. For one thing, it seems like you spell Hiro ‘hero’ at the end of the comment. As an Asian person myself, the very first thing that came to mind when making reference to Japanese actors is that Hollywood typically uses any ‘plug in Asian actor here’ for any Asian role vs. portraying a specific type of Asian as a villain, especially since that was one of the major points of this letter (the writer happy that Asians are not villains and that the writer goes so far as to defend the Japanese manufacturers by pointing out the hypocrisy of the American auto industry). I sorry I sound accusatory, but is your post just a troll?

  4. Do you realize that Mulan was released in 1998? Yes, there are very few Asian leads in Hollywood cinema but you make it sound like Disney’s never done it before. Taking out a single sentence from NYT’s review (that served as an example, not a mandate) and cross examining it to this degree is hardly fair for the author. The paragraph simply pondered why Big Hero 6 had to be such a cliched kid’s superhero movie towards the end.

    1. Yes, Mulan came out in 1998, but as another commenter pointed out, there are actually a great number of lead female Asian characters in the media. But there are not many lead male Asian characters. Which is the point of this open letter.

  5. Uh have you never heard of Milan? She isn’t American but she is part of the Disney princess collection. She’s not even a princess but still. I don’t know where you have been but you should of realized that asian males in American aren’t as popular because its unbalanced with the aspect that Asian females are more popular in American society. Basically it use to be America cared more for the Asian females where they wanted to get rid of Asian males. Your Rambo story proved that. Asian females had always have roles and especially leads. Only until recently have Asian males begin to have at least supporting roles. This movie has the first Asian male lead even if he’s mixed.
    The other problem was whenever there is a mixed Asian male or female, they would be made “white” in media instead of Asian.

  6. Damn Ms. Margis, way to reveal your Whiteness. Anyone with any familiarity with Asian American culture would’ve known that within that community, there is a big rift due to the perception that mainstream America accepts Asian women more than Asian men. From Amy Tan to Tiger Mom to Michelle Kwan to Connie Chung to Lucy Liu, Asian America tends to be represented by its women. And invariably, these women are all married to White men.

    Asian men have been marginalized for long enough, often by replacing them with more acceptable Asian women who are presented as being properly appreciative of and acquiescent to mainstream American culture. Unlike those dastardly Asian men, who are all ugly, geeky, and secretly loyal to Red China.

    Yes, there needs to be more female characters. But not at the expense of Asian male characters, which are a demographic that’s even more neglected and derided.

  7. Awesome 🙂 I loved the movie and so did my 4 year old son. I love geeks, whatever color or gender they are 😉
    Also, don’t take your kid away from the tv. TV is great!!! 😉 (I don’t care about being pc)

  8. Good stuff keeping it real. To many of these feminists Asian guys are the same thing as white dudes for who knows what reason.

  9. If Manohla wants more Asian female leads (there are plenty already, not sure why she doesn’t see this) she can have them, but not by taking away Asian male leads characters. You don’t try to get something that’s rare by taking away something that’s even rarer.

  10. I’ve been married to a Korean man for 5 years, and I always think he’s a little nutty when he talks about people being racist (I’m white). Reading this post just broke my heart. I can’t wait to go with him and our son to see this movie. I can’t wait to try and open my eyes a little more and be a little more caring toward him. Maybe life really isn’t as easy for him as I think it is.

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