by Takeo Rivera
So let’s get one thing out of the way: it’s probably safe to say that Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil is the finest piece of television ever made in the superhero genre. With its stellar cast and consistently tight writing and direction, the show can easily go toe-to-toe with any other major serialized TV drama in this golden age of Mad Mens and Breaking Bads, elevating superherodom to an unequivocal status of high art in much the way Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica elevated the space opera. And, as a cherry on top, Daredevil happens to be one of the most progressive shows of the genre; in particular, Matt Murdock battles not some alien Super-Wario intent on blowing up the planet with an ancient glowing Rubik’s cube, but a scion of urban “redevelopment” — read gentrification — in Wilson Fisk, and spends an unhealthy time fighting white collar crime and community displacement by punching the crap out of it.
But Daredevil also has one massive problem: Asians. That is, Asians are the problem, and Daredevil’s problem is that Asians are a problem.
It’s such a problem that every time I recommend this frickin show to fellow Asian Americans — usually emphatically, with liberal repetition of “omfg” — the response is pretty much a unanimous “Well, that was great, except for the RACISM.” And then I’m sheepishly like, “Uh yeah, that’s true, yup” and shrug it off and keep watching anyway, because yes, it is that good, but, BUT, at a certain point I came to realize that, in the words of prophetic white space man Jean-Luc Picard to Alfre Woodard, “The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!”
Right now, you’re either 1.) getting as defensive as an otaku blabbering on about the legitimacy of schoolgirl hentai and demanding that it is perfect in every possible way; 2.) shrugging like I’ve been and being like “yeah, but it’s still so good;” or 3.) asking “what is a Dare Devil? What is this internet thing? I live in the 1920s and I think eugenics are swell.” If you’re #3, I can’t help you, but guys, Daredevil is indeed pretty racist, and we probably shouldn’t excuse it.
Here’s how it goes down: The villainous conspirators of Daredevil consist of a cabal of capitalists and criminals; besides Wilson Fisk, there is Fisk’s lieutenant Wesley, corporate accountant Leland Owsley, the Ranskahov brothers of the Russian mob, and then the two Asians, the yakuza Nobu (played by Peter Shinkoda) and the triad queen Gao (Wai Ching Ho). In the first episode, we are introduced to this crew of malevolent plutocrats atop the roof of a skyscraper, and both Nobu and Gao are stoic, inscrutable, and do not speak English, communicating primarily through disapproving scowls.
Nobu and Gao each reappears at the end of the episode during a pulse-pounding montage of Murdock’s nemeses: Nobu overlooks a worksheet of the city plan for Hell’s Kitchen with a large kanji character menacingly drawn over several city blocks, while Gao regally hobbles through a dimly lit warehouse overseeing rows upon rows of blinded (and as we learn later, voluntarily blinded) Chinese workers packing heroin for distribution.
Obviously, both Nobu and Gao represent pretty long-standing Orientalist/Yellow Peril tropes and stereotypes. As my friend Miyoko Conley exclaimed to me over social media, Gao is “literally a Dragon Lady,” a ruthless science fictional Chinese lady with a propensity for vast threatening power. Gao’s Chinese drug workers, who voluntarily blinded themselves in service to her, reflect the longstanding orientalist notion that Asians, while competent, have no sense of independent thought and blindly (in this case, literally) follow authority, like a mindless horde!
They are even zombielike in their affectation; in Episode 12 “The Ones We Leave Behind,” Murdock attempts to liberate the blind workers, but instead they swarm around him, extending their arms mindlessly towards him and groaning in classic zombie fashion, pretty much providing proof of scholar Eric Hamako’s thesis that the contemporary zombie trend reflects post-9/11 orientalist anxieties.
And of course we have Nobu, the ninja-yakuza who you can pull straight out of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (more on him in a hot minute). All of these characters are portrayed as single-minded threats without any interiority, redeemability, or depth beyond their own menacing desire to spread their own form of evil.
I mean, damn, it’s an impressively comprehensive smorgasbord of Asian stereotypes, and they’re all things we’re fairly used to. But in some ways, despite its lack of originality in this category, I think Daredevil’s orientalism deserves some special attention for several reasons:
1. Daredevil is really good. Since the critical consensus is that Daredevil is the best thing since half-sheet paper towel perforations, it makes sense to ensure that said metaphorical paper towels aren’t pre-smeared with the viscous bacon grease of RACISM.
2. Daredevil owes Asia. Let’s face it: any rapid fire non-boxing martial arts flick owes something to Asia. Especially f’ing Daredevil, the blind super-martial artist hero who rights wrongs and fights for the disenfranchised, who comes straight from the blind swordsman Zatoichi in Japanese cinema (the first Zatoichi film even predates the first Daredevil appearance in Marvel comics by two years).
As NOC’s Bao Phi has already pointed out, there’s a frustrating and racist irony of white men appropriating Asian martial arts while not providing any depth to its Asian characters.
3. The Anti-Asianism is Very Specific and Targeted. Among the villains, Wilson Fisk is provided the most complexity and depth, seducing the viewer into sympathizing with him. The other white American villains Wesley and Leland are not specifically racialized in their roles and could be easily color-blindly swapped. The Russian mobsters are certainly ethnicized quite strongly throughout the show, but are given thorough background, and one of them even exhibits a change of heart and sacrifices himself to help Daredevil in his final moments. Nobu and Gao come only in one flavor: inscrutable mysterious menace. They aren’t villains who happen to be Asian; their Asianness is central to their villainousness. Yo Daredevil, Executive Order 9066 called — it wants its Asian treachery stereotypes back!
4. Daredevil problematically racializes urban displacement as Asian. I’m not going to argue that East Asian investment is indeed contributing to displacement of the urban oppressed, as is portrayed in Daredevil. In fact, the show’s confrontation of the issue in general is extremely commendable. But the biggest problem is that Asian Americans — many of whom are older Chinese ladies who don’t look unlike Gao — are quite often also the victims of such corporate displacement and gentrification. The visibility of these Asian corporate fiends, paired with the utter lack of Asian American characters — much less Asian American poor — reinforces a monolithic image of Asians as synonymous with “foreign oppressor.” It’s the kind of logic that motivated anti-Asian events from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act all the way to the hate crime murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit a hundred years later in 1982.
5. Asian Lives Don’t Count as Lives. And this is the one that’s really heavy.
To explain what I mean by point #5, what was most stomach-wrenchingly disturbing was the treatment of Nobu in Episodes 9 and 11. By Episode 9, Murdock has become so incensed with Wilson Fisk that he contemplates literally killing him, a line that he has not crossed throughout the whole series due to his moral code. Episode 9 temporally cuts back and forth between the central narrative and the climactic battle scene Murdock has with Nobu, who is dressed in a red ninja outfit and wielding a swinging blade on a chain.
Much of Episode 9, entitled “Speak of the Devil,” consists of a beautifully rendered discussion Murdock has with his priest, discussing the ethical and theological implications of taking one life for the greater good. As one would probably imagine, the overall message from the conversation is that killing corrupts the righteous person who does so. Nevertheless, Murdock is pushed over the edge when his client, elderly resident Elena Cardenas, is assassinated, and sets out to kill Fisk, anyway.
So what does Murdock do? He ends up killing Nobu.
Nobu has laid a trap in a moon-lit abandoned building, and he and Murdock engage in a rather epic, brutal combat sequence through which Nobu has an upper hand most of the time. At the end, Murdock manages to bash Nobu into a barrel of gasoline, the fluid covering him thoroughly (foreshadowing!). Nobu gets up, flings his chain-blade thing at Murdock once more, Murdock deflects it, hitting the lamp above, causing sparks to rain down on Nobu, which of course proceed to set him on fire. As Nobu is incinerating, Fisk arrives on the scene, thanks Murdock for taking out his rival, and Murdock futilely attempts to fight Fisk before escaping with his life.
Now, I don’t have too much of a complaint with Murdock killing Nobu per se; it was even, in effect, accidental. But the biggest problem is that on the tortured ethical scale that Murdock struggles with, it does not even register. Two episodes later, Murdock is debriefing with his priest once more, and the priest asks him if he killed his target, and Murdock says, “No, I didn’t kill him. But I tried to.” There is literally no mention of the death of Nobu in this scene, which is so preoccupied with the ethical choice of taking lives. Thus, for Murdock, Nobu’s life doesn’t even register as a life. Even the life of Murdock’s greatest nemesis, white man Wilson Fisk, deserves consideration.
During the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland infamously stated, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Such a statement, of course, served to justify the Westerner’s devaluing of the Oriental’s life; why value their lives when they themselves don’t value them? The world of Daredevil is a world in which Asians are willing to gouge out their eyes, and suicide bomb, to better serve their masters; these are not lives worth a second thought.
Depending on your stomach for epistemic violence, this is a pretty hard pill to swallow. And yet, I’m still out there recommending Daredevil to all my friends due to its immense aesthetic rigor. It’s just important for people to know what they’re getting into, or, even better, for Marvel to dramatically improve the race politics within what currently stands as its most impressive franchise.
Takeo Rivera is a playwright, poet, and PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at University of California, Berkeley. His interests include techno-orientalism, queer theory, Asian American stuff, and an embarrassing number of playthroughs of Bioware RPGs.