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Why an Asian American Iron Fist Matters

by MC Nedelsky in collaboration with MCU Exchange

Pop culture writers, whatever their chosen topic, write because they are passionate about the subject. First and foremost we’re fans, and we want to share our passion. But, like any writer, we also hope our words have an impact — that they will cause a reader to reflect, or think differently about something, or change their mind.

Keith Chow’s article on why we need an Asian American Iron Fist had that effect on me. Like many Marvel fans, I was very excited to see Iron Fist come to the screen. And like probably the majority of comics fans, I assumed the character would be a rich white guy. After all, that’s what he is the comics, right?

But Keith’s piece made me consider a whole series of things I hadn’t thought of — not just the general lack of Asian American characters on screen (which, as a white dude, is something I needed pointed out to me rather than noticed myself), but the tired trope of white savior martial artist, the way in which Danny being an Asian American wouldn’t require any substantial changes to the character (and indeed, might deepen him), and that the issue with Asian martial arts characters isn’t that Asian actors shouldn’t play martial arts characters, but rather that that is the only type of roles they are offered, and that those characters tend to be exceedingly one dimensional.

Reading the article, and then his follow up interview with Comics Alliance, I was persuaded that this was a change that makes sense. Of course, not all fans felt the same way. Many feel that the best adaptations are ones that stay true to the comic book, and because Danny is white in the comics he should be white in the Netflix series (some people argue that it’s because Danny’s whiteness is actually central to his character, which I’ll address in a follow up article that looks at some of the specific reasons people mention for why Danny should be white).

But do fans really believe that any change to a character you love from the comics is bad? Are you upset that Wolverine is played by a man over six feet tall, despite being quite short in the comics, or that Vision wasn’t actually created by the mind stone? If it’s only a change in race or gender that upsets you, it’s worth considering why that is. Do you really think that a Korean Peter Parker or African American Johnny Storm fundamentally alters the core of those characters? Would a queer Doctor Strange or female Wolverine really make a difference to how that superhero behaves? I’d argue that with some very few exceptions — such as Steve Rogers — a character’s race, gender, or sexual orientation has little to no impact on the essence of the character.

Or rather, little impact if that character is a straight, white man. After all, fans will often say “well why not a white Luke Cage or Black Panther?” Well, because in those cases, the race of the character actually is crucial to who the character is. It’s central to Luke Cage’s character that he be subject to the systemic racism and criminal justice system that disproportionately affects African Americas, and given that the vast majority of Africa is in fact black, Wakanda and its ruler should reflect that.

But even when a character’s race, gender, or sexuality isn’t central to the character, those identity markers matter simply because “minority” characters are so rare. In the MCU, Sam Wilson’s race is never remarked upon — he simply happens to be black, and there’s nothing that he says or does that wouldn’t work with a white character (that’s far less the case in the comics, particularly now that Sam Wilson has inherited the mantle of Captain America). But it’s important that Falcon is indeed African American precisely because there are so few characters of color represented. The same is true of Jeri Hogarth in Jessica Jones — Hogarth would work just as well if the character was male (as in the comics), but the character is exciting and fresh precisely because we see so few powerful women on screen, let alone ones who are gay.

The superheroes that are dominating our media today are a product of a specific time, for the most part drawn from comics created in the ’60s and ’70s. Iron Man, for instance, first appeared in 1963 — a time when homosexuality was illegal, segregation had not yet been outlawed in America, and women could be legally paid less than men for the same work. Of course, many issues of homophobia, racism, and sexism persist today (spoilers, sorry), but it’s also undeniable that we’ve made great strides towards greater equality. Media is only beginning to represent the diverse world it portrays, and it’s foolish to ask that our adaptations of comics adhere to the specifics of the time in which they were made. After all, if that were the case, then fans should be frustrated by the ubiquitous use of cellphones in superhero films!

I’m being glib of course. And in fact I think it’s worth not always adopting a sense of smug self-superiority. For those of us that push for greater representation in media, I think it behooves us not to dismiss push back out of hand. Most of who champion diversity have had a long time to grapple with these ideas, either formal academic settings or through lived experience. For us, greater diversity isn’t just a positive thing, it’s an obvious one.

But for the average white dude who hasn’t had the opportunity to explore these issues, the idea that things like race and gender are fundamentally social constructs, or that systemic prejudice is rampant in all elements of society, are radical and quite frankly terrifying ideas. God knows I’ve had my own sense of these issues evolve dramatically, and I’ve had the privilege not only to be raised in a family that more or less resembles a Fox News caricature of liberals, but to engage with ideas and people that challenge my perspective over many years and in many contexts. Of course it’s entirely understandable to lose patience when you’re dealing with your ten thousandth twitter random arguing about “reverse-racism” (note: not really a thing), but I think changes happen not by ridiculing the ignorant, but rather engaging them seriously whenever one has the personal energy.

Fans who are resistant to changes like race or gender bending should pause and reflect on exactly what’s prompting that reaction, particularly if you find yourself personally incensed. It’s understandable that you’re attached to these characters — we all are, and that’s what makes us fans! But it’s quite toxic to have one’s identity so closely tied to a fandom that any comment about or change to that fandom feels like a personal attack.

Moreover, it’s not just white people who are fans — there are other fans who are women, or people of color, or gay, or trans, and who do not see themselves represented in the heroes they love. As a white man, I have a huge array of characters that look like me, but that’s simply not the case for people of color. Indeed, I believe there are grand total of six Asian characters in the MCU with speaking parts: Helen Cho from Age of Ultron, Howling Commando Jim Morita in the first Captain America, the World Security Council member played by Chin Han in Winter Solider, Madame Gao and Nobu in Daredevil, with Elektra (as played by Elodie Young) soon to join that series. Add to that the Asian American characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — Daisy/Skye and Agent May — and that still doesn’t get us to double figures.

Superheroes speak to ideals that all of us can relate to, and as a result fandom is incredibly diverse. It’s not too much to ask that our characters should be too.

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