The news just broke that Scott Buck has been tapped to spearhead Iron Fist for Netflix and Marvel. This has led people to speculate that the show will cast a white lead despite the fact that the momentum for an Asian American Iron Fist is growing. Keith Chow begun the discussion over a year ago with his powerful op-ed on why having an Asian American play Danny Rand is so important. It was a piece that had a large impact on me, and many others such as Lexi Alexander and Gail Simone have taken up the call. Nerds of Color and MCU Exchange have teamed up to produce a series of articles providing suggestions not only how to adapt Iron Fist’s complex mythology but also arguing that an Asian American Iron Fist makes more sense not only for reasons of diversity, but for thematic and narrative reasons as well, and a few weeks ago Charles Pulliam-Moore of Fusion wrote forcefully that Iron Fist “better be Asian,” joining the chorus of voices who feel this is important. It’s a proper movement now.
Predictably, this suggestion has met with some backlash, as any racebending does — one need only recall the outrage over Idris Elba playing Heimdall and Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm. Some of this by pure bigotry, revealing the ugly and vicious strains of racism that continue to exist, and which the internet’s anonymity allows people to voice (and, more frighteningly still, we are seeing rise up in mainstream American politics). But I would argue that the vast majority of resistance to racebending does not from this explicitly hateful racism, but rather from a deep attachment to these characters and a resistance to change. I was lucky enough to have a long back and forth in the comments of some of the previous articles on this topic, and the topic recently emerging again on twitter made me feel it was worth addressing some of people’s concerns about an Asian American Iron Fist directly.
This article won’t specifically address the myriad of reasons why having an Asian American Iron Fist is a good thing – from the value of increased representation on screen, to mitigating issues of appropriation of Asian culture, to doing away with the tired trope of the “mighty whitey.” Keith addresses all of those issues, both in his initial op-ed and in his follow up interview with Comics Alliance. Rather, it will respond to the most common arguments I’ve seen about why an Asian American Iron Fist won’t work or is a bad idea. Keith does refute a number of these points in his articles, so I’m largely building off his existing work, but I think it’s useful to draw them out and articulate exactly why the core of the character of Iron Fist is not changed at all by having be Asian American.
If Danny Is Asian, Then He Wouldn’t Be An Outsider
This is by far the most popular argument I’ve seen against an Asian American Danny Rand. The argument goes that Danny could be white, Black, Latino, Middle-Eastern, Native American, or an alien (sometimes people don’t choose the best analogies for arguments) — anything but Asian, as this would diminish the essential outsiderness of his experience in K’un-Lun. While I certainly agree that Danny being an outsider in K’un-Lun is essential to the character, the idea that this wouldn’t be true if he were an Asian American rests on a number of problematic assumptions.
First off, Asia, and even East Asia more specifically, is not homogeneous. Korea, China, and Japan — the principal countries of East Asia — not only have massive cultural differences, they have a long history of conflict with one another, that has often resulted in high levels of xenophobia and hostility between the countries even in peacetime. There is in far greater ethnic, historical, and cultural differences between these countries than there is between France, Italy, and Spain, and yet we rarely hear people suggest that all Europeans are the same.
This connect to another issue, that of conflating Asian American identity with continental Asian identity, a point Keith makes in his interview with Comics Alliance and neither of which, as I’ve just said, is a singular thing. (As a slight aside, I highly recommend this hilarious piece addressing some of the most common stereotypes Asian Americans face). I’m a tall, blue eyed, fair skinned man of Russian heritage, but if I moved to Moscow I would feel an intense level of culture shock beyond merely not speaking the language. This is wonderfully articulated in a thread on the Superhero Hype forum (shockingly for the internet, the whole discussion is actually really reasonable and worth reading):
[Just] because you have the same skin color, that doesn’t mean you still don’t feel a sense of isolation when your taken out of familiar surroundings.
You don’t even need a comparative thought experiment to illustrate this point: there are 3.8 million Chinese-Americans living in China right now, and many of them report feeling alienated in China — that they aren’t “Chinese enough.” The article quotes one Chinese American as saying: “In many ways, being in China has caused me to have a strong appreciation for just how American I am.” (Hell, they even made a romantic comedy on this very premise! Ironically starring Daniel Henney, not only a common fancast for Iron Fist, but actually of Korean descent, not Chinese).
More to the point, K’un-Lun isn’t China, or any other Asian country — it’s not real! So any “outworlder” will be treated as an outsider (something I addressed some of them briefly in my piece on how to adapt Danny Rand for a new audience). Even if we were to pretend that a Chinese American would seamlessly adapt to the culture in mainland China, any person from earth, no matter their ethnicity, will feel like an outsider in K’un-Lun, because it is literally an alien civilization (that’s actually canon, you damn fanboy purists!)
I’m mostly trying to avoid snark in this article, previous sentence excepted. However, I’m not above quoting other people’s snark, and in that same thread cited earlier, a user named Mr. Question sums up the issue quite nicely:
As we all know, an isolated Asian community will immediately accept any Asian American kid who shows up in town, and said kid will magically understand all of the customs and traditions of that isolated community instantly, making it entirely impossible for an Asian American to feel like an outsider in such a community, because that’s how Asian people work.
K’un Lun Doesn’t Represent Any Real Asian Culture
I confess, I don’t really understand this argument, but it’s one I’ve seen a number of times, so I felt it’s worth addressing (if you’re someone who has suggested this point, and feel I’ve misrepresented the point, please do chime in with the comments). The point isn’t that K’un-Lun should be a real Asian culture, but that Danny himself is Asian American. They are completely separate issues.
In fact, I think it’s actually quite fine that K’un-Lun in many resembles the orientalist images that many people picture when they imagine ancient Asia. After all, K’un-Lun is an ancient, immortal city that few living people have seen and is principally known through stories and legends. In fact, that K’un-Lun really is like these inaccurate, Western notions of Asia could work quite well — perhaps the odd traveler encountered K’un-Lun and relayed it back to his western countrymen, or even that a traveler heard the legends of K’un-Lun from locals and decided that these myths would make more interesting stories than the otherwise quite mundane Asian civilizations the traveler encountered. Thus, the mythic Asia that is built up in Western conception is itself a product of Asian legends of K’un-Lun, rather than the actual reality of ancient Asia.
You could actually make the interesting case that K’un Lun is in fact the ancient Xia Dynasty that ruled in China from 2100 BC to 1600 BC, and whose historical accuracy is disputed. But I think it’s easier to simply treat it just as Asgard was in the MCU, a place which clearly inspired Norse legend but is in fact it’s own ancient, alien civilization (literally — in the comics, K’un-Lun is actually built upon a crashed alien ship that landed on earth millions of years ago).
These legends can have shaped and inspired Chinese civilization, but K’un-Lun does not need to be “culturally accurate” anymore so than Asgard is. Not only would this allow for an ethnically diverse K’un-Lun (like Asgard, with it’s single black Asgardian), but would explain why everyone can speak and understand English in K’un-Lun — we’ll just assume that all mystical alien cities in the MCU have universal translator midichlorians in their atmospheres.
What, you didn’t know the MCU has midichlorians? Obviously you missed Patton Oswald’s 100% accurate to cannon explanation of the greater Disney-verse. Like the tagline says, it’s all connected.
Danny Rand’s Whiteness Is An Essential Part Of His Character
Almost as popular as the position that an Asian American Danny Rand wouldn’t be an outsider in K’un-Lun is the argument that asserts that him being specifically white is essential to the character. Rather than paraphrase the argument myself, I’ll quote from the aforementioned thread, where one strong proponent of a white Iron Fist articulates the position very well:
Iron Fist as it is is a story of a white boy of privilege losing said silver spoon, becoming something more, building himself from the ground up in a land that is not his, then adding to that a martial arts revenge story. In fact, I argue that is a BETTER racial story, as it places a white man in the shoes of hypothetical and stereotypical minorities in this country, and also shows more reason for Danny to identify with the ‘common man’ upon his return, hence arguably why most of his friends are of non-white ethnicity…Iron Fist is one of the FEW adaptations where the character’s race, gender, and sexuality is a part of the baseline themes and DNA of the intrinsic experience. You want something else? Great, more power to you, but that is not Iron Fist, sorry, and I genuinely believe that.
I have a number of issues with this, but luckily the commentators did the job of addressing this issue for me. A user named Da-Scribe addresses the broad question, writing:
Changing the race doesn’t detract from the story. It simply adds additional themes. You can still maintain the story of a privileged person being humbled and growing by entering another culture. The thing with having a white guy is that it’s just a tired, lazy cliche.
While another user adds additional insight into the specifics of race dynamics and privilege, saying “I personally think that the dynamic or a rich Asian guy and a poor black guy would be more interesting than the dynamic of a rich white guy and a poor black guy. I also think that it’s important to see more interracial relationships that don’t involve white people portrayed in the media” and adds “I think ‘rich white guy hangs out with poor black guy’ is just played out and kind of dull. ‘Rich person of color hangs out with poor person of color’ is a lot more interesting, and gets to the heart of issues surrounding privilege and cultural identity in a much more powerful way.”
Many of these points are ones Keith also raised in his initial piece, also pointing out that relationships between Asian men and African American women are far less common than ones between white men and black women (a point also raised on the thread). Indeed, as Aziz’s Ansari’s op-ed points out, Asian characters almost never get to be romantic interests.
But the ultimate, “holy shit I wish I’d written that” response comes from a user named DrCosmic, who lays down the ultimate response to the commentator excerpted above:
I’ve always been skeptical of claims that changes to race change the character’s core nature, because other changes like time and place are not given the same derision. I’m also skeptical because race doesn’t define who we are, it simply changes how society treats us. Even this discussion is a great example, where Asian Danny is so fundamentally different that he’s “Not. Full Stop. Danny. Full Stop. Rand. Full Stop. Full Stop.” It is not because he can’t be a privileged outsider wherever he goes, because he still would be, naturally. So the actual story points don’t need to change, but something about how we perceive his experience would because we are conditioned to believe there is something fundamentally different about White people and Asian people.
What’s really really interesting is that we acknowledged that the implications that come with keeping Danny white are both cliche and based in a history of racial appropriation. So when we suggest undoing that appropriation, the reaction is as though it was never appropriated in the first place and ‘belongs’ to whiteness or white culture or what have you. That’s incredible.
Oh shit! But Dr Cosmic ain’t even done!
The particular reasons you chose to express do not apply any less to an Asian-American. What’s more, you can explore, privilege, finding one’s place in the world, discovering how to affect change, and then on top of everything you can do with a white Danny, you can do it in a way which does not pay homage to an racially dubious trope, which is not cliche and done to death, and then on top of that, deepen the themes that white Danny explores such as interracial dating and being accepted in K’un L’un, and then on top of that explore additional themes that you can’t with a white Danny such as “weird racial stereotype competitions” or whatever it is you call it when white people aren’t at the center of the action when it comes to dealing with racial subtext.
Right now, these arguments may or may not be happening behind closed doors at Marvel and Netflix. Let’s hope Scott Buck is listening. Chances are, though, he isn’t.