Fear of an Asian Martial Artist: The Thing about Stereotypes & #AAIronFist

Lately, this site has been All Iron Fist Every Thing, so apologies if you don’t give two shits about that particular character. Also, you might want to click elsewhere because we’re going to drill a little deeper into the reasons why we’ve been on the #AAIronFist train — that would be Asian American Iron Fist and not Alcoholics Anonymous, btw — for the last 20 months. Two things came up in the last week or so that have led to this resurgence in interest in an Asian American Iron Fist. First, Marvel and Netflix finally announced a showrunner for the series. Secondly, Comic Book Resources published this essay by Albert Ching on why Danny Rand shouldn’t be Asian American.

It’s actually a well-reasoned and well-written argument, and I appreciate Albert’s honesty and perspective. I just happen to disagree with it on a fundamental level. It’s also disappointing that a site as large as Comic Book Resources would come out on the other side of the debate, especially since their reach dwarfs ours, thus artificially amplifying the counterpoint and providing cover to those who have a less nuanced approach as Albert. Also, Marvel and Netflix might see that article and surmise, “See, we shouldn’t consider non-white casting because look at what the comic book community is saying.”

That last point is important because, believe it or not, Marvel and Netflix execs are listening to the chatter out there! I have it on good authority that, for a time, the studio heads were seriously considering looking at Asian American actors to audition for the role of Danny Rand and the impetus to do so was from the noise made by our site (and other sites as well — p.s., it’s not too late to sign this petition!).  It also helped that high profile people — like director Lexi Alexander, writer Gail Simone, and journalist Marc Bernardin, to name three — have been vocal about their support for an Asian American Iron Fist.

Now that the show has found its creator, the window for casting suggestions is shrinking. In fact, my sources tell me that the show will likely find a Caucasian lead, satiating many fanboys’ wishes, but also preventing another actor of color a chance to attain superhero stardom. Remember what Viola Davis said? It’s the opportunity that matters. I mean, there’s a reason why there are no Asian American movie stars.

Of course, a lot of pundits claim that casting Iron Fist is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The thinking goes like this: If we cast a(nother) white guy in the lead, Iron Fist will continue to perpetuate the “mighty whitey” trope where the white man goes off to some ancient, mystical land to become their champion. Think Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai.

Whereas, if you cast an Asian American in the lead, it means that Marvel’s only male superhero of import will be, to quote Birth.Movie.Death’s Devin Faraci, the “karate guy.” Thus perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians know karate kung fu, and that’s bad too. This is most (not all) of the crux of the CBR piece.

The thing is, though, that it really isn’t the case. “Mighty Whitey” vs. “Asians know Kung Fu” stereotypes is a false choice, mainly because, prior to AMC’s Into the Badlands, there has never — I repeat, never — been a martial arts show or movie where an Asian American character got to play the lead hero1. Sure Bruce Lee was Kato, but besides being known as “The Kato Show” overseas, ultimately, he was still the sidekick.

Meanwhile, I can name at least a dozen movies and programs in which a white protagonist goes to Asia to be the best Asian: the aforementioned Last Samurai, but also David Carradine, every Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal movie of the ’80s and ’90s, Karate Kid Part II, Kill Bill, Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, Forbidden Kingdom, Batman Begins, The Wolverine, Arrow, even Netflix’s own Marco Polo.

Not to mention the fact that Hollywood will take a role that was originally Asian and cast it white with a quickness, but the second you try to go the other way…

If it’s a battle between stereotypes, I would rather err on the side of more representation and the chance to add nuance and depth to the martial artist archetype (as it is portrayed in the West, that is) than fall back on an even more tired trope of the all-knowing, all-powerful white guy who finds himself while surrounded by the “Other.”

Because rest assured, whomever is cast as Danny Rand, the Iron Fist series will still feature a shit ton of nameless, faceless Asian martial artists who will serve as cannon fodder for the hero to dispose of. And isn’t that the reason we think “Asian martial artist” is a negative stereotype?

Before Into the Badlands premiered, I had the opportunity to speak with its star and executive producer Daniel Wu. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Wu gained fame as a movie star in Hong Kong before making his American debut on the AMC martial arts series. Created by Smallville producers Al Gough and Miles Millar, the idea from jump was to find an Asian American to play the lead.

“I knew that putting an Asian in the martial arts genre show is very stereotypical,” said Wu. “But I wanted to see what the character was like and if it was the type of Asian character that we’ve seen before.”

He goes on to say, “what we’re seeing is a strong Asian male lead who, you know, has a girl, who resists and is not just part of the team and is leading this whole story. It’s something that we haven’t seen before.”

That’s an important point. Because to my knowledge, a complex, multi-dimensional Asian American hero who, yes, uses martial arts is actually something we’ve never seen before. The best way to combat negative stereotypes is through better writing and more nuanced characters. Not by erasure. That’s how we end up with Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. And while Danny Rand is one of the Marvel superheroes most associated with the martial arts, he too is so much more. Albert Ching, in his dissent on CBR, says (emphasis mine):

And while many comics characters use martial arts — Daredevil, Batman and so many more — there’s no denying that, outwardly, it is “the” main trait of Iron Fist. That’s not fair or accurate, as there’s plenty more to the character, who’s also a Hero for Hire, an Avenger, a lifelong friend and partner to Luke Cage and a soon-to-be Defender. But he’s defined by martial arts much more than other superheroes who just happen to use martial arts — and it’s problematic if that’s the first lead white comics character to be readily accepted on screen as played by an Asian-American.

By the by, make sure you pick up “Power Man and Iron Fist” by my man David Walker and Sanford Greene!

Here’s what shouldn’t be overlooked. Danny Rand is more than “just a kung fu guy.” In addition to the things Ching lists, I’d add that Danny is a lover, a businessman, a smartass, a confidant, plus he’s the hero of the story who has freakin’ superpowers! These are not qualities that are given to Asian American protagonists. If we let Danny be Asian American, aren’t we actually subverting the “negative” Asian stereotype? Sure, he knows kung fu, but he’s so much more than that. Keeping the status quo is actually perpetuating double the stereotypes. Not only will Danny continue being mighty whitey, but he’ll still be battling a whole fleet of Asian stereotypes. As if it’s okay for Asians to be anything but the hero.

But what about Shang-Chi?

Instead of racebending Danny Rand, why don’t you just advocate for Shang-Chi to get his own series? That’s one of the other questions that frequently comes up on twitter and message boards. The premise of this argument is centered around the idea that Marvel already has an Asian martial artist superhero and calls for racebending Iron Fist would preclude the necessity of Shang Chi.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, while they share martial arts abilities, they are two wholly different characters with completely different stories and motivations.

Besides, if we were to use that logic, then wouldn’t the presence of Daredevil already mean Iron Fist is unnecessary? Why the hell do we need two white martial artists in Hell’s Kitchen? Also, why can’t we have more than one Asian superhero? We have three major Avengers being played by blonde white dudes named Chris, but we can’t get one Asian guy?

And for what it’s worth, I’m all for Shang Chi either getting his own live action series or movie. It even makes sense to have him be part of the Netflix universe and be a future member of the Heroes for Hire, but his existence shouldn’t mean there can be no other Asian characters. Unless Aziz Ansari was right about the “one at a time” rule in Hollywood.

I also want to be clear that having Danny Rand be Asian American isn’t a quota compliance. Ching’s essay also lamented the fact that the only push for an Asian American hero in the MCU happens to be the martial arts guy:

What troubles me is that this is the only superhero character that has received a groundswell of support for casting an Asian-American actor. There’s a huge number of major Marvel characters who could have easily been cast as Asian-Americans, and as far as I can tell, no one considered it seriously. Why not an Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange? When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it’ll be cause for celebration. It’s happening right now in Marvel Comics, with Amadeus Cho as Greg Pak and Frank Cho’s thoroughly non-stereotypical “Totally Awesome Hulk.” While increased visibility for Asian-Americans is a good thing, the idea that Iron Fist is “the” character to make Asian-American feels like further locking a population into a single perception, where the primary utility of an Asian in action-driven entertainment is to be good at martial arts.

Danny Rand is by no means the only character we’ve pushed for Asian American representation. You may recall we were pretty serious about Marvel and Sony looking at Asian American actors — specifically Ryan Potter, natch — to be the new Peter Park(er). And I’m actually with Albert on the lost opportunity to cast an Asian American lead in the forthcoming Doctor Strange which, like Iron Fist, is similarly wrought with problematic “white guy goes to Asia” tropes. Again, because of those issues, the powers that be decided the best way to address those stereotypes was to completely erase Asians from the movie.

Except for Wong, probably. Because we love subservient Asian sidekicks.

For all the shit we give DC and Warner Brothers for the handling of their cinematic universe, this is the one area where I have to give them credit. Without any outside pressure from groups like us, the heads at WB decided that casting Jason Momoa was the best way to approach their live action take on Aquaman.

More than that, they also decided to incorporate Momoa’s own Pacific Islander heritage to better inform and add nuance to the character. On top of that, they hired a director of Asian descent to helm the whole thing. It shouldn’t be in 2015 (and beyond) but that’s an amazing feat, and Warner deserves all the props.

This is an area where I am in total agreement with Albert’s CBR piece. There should be more Asian American characters in these superhero universes. I mean, why isn’t Jimmy Woo on Agent Carter yet?! And while I understand the hesitance around seeing an Asian American martial arts character, I’ll say again that it’s an undue concern.

Here’s Daniel Wu again:

“It’s a genre that Asians have been doing for many, many years in Asia, and I think Asian American groups that recoil [at the idea, do so] because they feel like ‘that has nothing to do with me,’ but honestly, your culture did create karate. Your culture did create kung fu, so is that a stereotype? No it’s part of your history, its part of your culture. So why not embrace it?”

Also, in a post-Fresh Off the Boat, post-Master of None, post-Into the Badlands world, the actor playing Iron Fist won’t have to carry all the weight alone. Instead, that actor — whoever he is — will be given the role of a lifetime and will be a seen as a hero and a sex symbol and a nuanced character for a whole new generation of fans.

What Asian American actor wouldn’t kill for an opportunity like that? And what’s so wrong with wanting that?

  1. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, (shout out to Russell Wong!) but the point still stands that opportunities for Asian American heroic leads (especially males) is extremely rare in Hollywood. Moreover, when compared to the number of “white men in Asia” fantasy roles, it’s no contest. 

53 thoughts on “Fear of an Asian Martial Artist: The Thing about Stereotypes & #AAIronFist

  1. Does Martial Law with Sammo Hung count, as an American TV show with an Asian lead character, or not because Sammo is from Mainland China?

    You guys have been making some great arguments for this. Well done!

    1. I’d argue that that series was more of an ensemble cast. Arsenio Hall was so…loud. It’s like they tacked him on to be the personality and charm that they they felt Sammo didn’t have, much in the same way that Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker were tacked onto Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour. It’s like Hollywood didn’t trust them to be real leading men.

  2. I thought the “white saviour” vs “Asian guy = karate guy” was an equal fight, but it isn’t, since casting an Asian American lead has (some) negative connotations but has positives too. Going “White Saviour” doesn’t really have any benefits beyond “it’s canon bro”. You convinced me. #AAIronFist 4lyfe

    1. Besides “it’s canon bro,” casting a clueless white guy as Danny allows them to address the White Saviour trope through his and Wendell’s relationship with Davos.

      Further, it’s a pretty core part of his friendship with Luke Cage (the experience and privilege of being a white man in the United States is fundamentally different from that of a person of color, regardless of how much money they have).

      I’d be down to “race-bend” Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel or any number of Inhumans (seriously, a secret sect living in the Himalayas should NOT be all-white), but Danny’s ethnicity actually plays an important part in his best stories (which are not about “finding himself while surrounded by the other,” but rather recognizing and rejecting his privilege, and understanding what it means that an outsider became the inheritor of a legacy so central to the identity of K’un Lun).

  3. I know it was technically a mini-series and I’m probably the only person in the world that watched it, but Vanishing Son with Russell Wong was still an American TV show with an Asian American lead!

    1. Vanishing Son was on the air briefly, but at 13 episodes running from January 16, 1995 to May 8, 1995, Vanishing Son was a full series. Described as “Kung Fu” meets “The Fugitive,” Russell Wong was a bona fide male lead who happened to be Asian and he was great! Wong, was hyper good looking, strong, masculine, tough, smart and heroic. More, please!

  4. This was my reaction to Albert’s essay:

    I was asked about my thoughts on this opinion piece. The over-under on this piece is, “Iron Fist shouldn’t be played by an Asian American because kung fu stereotypes are harmful.” While I can sorta see his point, I have some disputes.

    The author says, “Iron Fist’s main attribute is his martial arts” then goes on to say, “He’s all these other things too”. So, which is it? Is the character a one-dimensional chop-sockey nightmare, or is he a fully developed character with backstory, motivations, and a life?

    This show is going be produced by Netflix. I’m not worried about Netflix and their handling of a potential Asian American Iron Fist. They’ve proven that they can and will consistently deliver three dimensional characters. If this were any other channel yeah maybe there would be cause for concern.

    Also, let’s be realistic: in action movies and shows everyone basically knows martial arts. Even Fitz and Simmons from Agents of SHIELD have some hand to hand capability. So why shy away from the trope? Martial Arts came from Asia, it can and should be highlighted by Asians. We shouldn’t have to cede our powers because of an unfounded fear of bad characterization.

    Finally, I think his fears are rooted in a time past. I think we’ve moved on in the action genre at least. See: Agent May, Sunny from Into The Badlands.

  5. Karate actually originated from India. And the development happened mostly in Japan. You shouldn’t generalise Asians.

    Btw, I’d love to see them do something with Sunfire.

  6. A very well thought out and written article! No one bats an eye at yet another white male comic book lead, but there always seems to be an upper limit to minority leads. If we had a dark, brooding anti-hero who is asian and a martial artist, and a witty, sarcastic superhero who is also asian and a martial artist, is it a really a problem to have both?

    I hope more people read this, despite less traffic through this site than CBR.

  7. I agree with Stan Lee, if you want a comic book character of ethnic diversity, make one. why use the works of other creators who love their creation and the fans who have bonded with the character and story line? Where is Asian pride that they should want to play a white American super hero? Yeesh already.

    1. Dennis Sweatt, your comment just shows how much you don’t understand this is issue coming from a background of white privilege. For any real status quo that approaches diversity, there needs to be both original ethnic superhero characters and minorities who are portrayed as worthy enough to earn a mantle. Captain America is a mantle worn originally by Steve Rodgers and once upon a time Bucky Barnes, and now by Falcon.

      Iron Fist is a mantle. You can read that in the Fraction run. Asian Pride as you so poorly used, isn’t about aspiring to be Danny Rand specifically. It’s about being worthy enough to portray that Iron Fist mantle.

      1. Of course, by that dint, one could very well argue that those objecting to Danny (and Orson) being the inheritor of the Iron Fist mantle on the basis of their being white are like the pricks complaining about Cap being black now.

        Turning the Iron Fist into a mantle, and creating a racially diverse assortment of other Immortal Weapons, is honestly the best thing to come out of Brubaker and Fraction’s run, as it does a massive amount to address the more problematic aspects of the character.

  8. “there has never — I repeat, never — been a martial arts show or movie where an Asian American character got to play the lead hero.”

    Showdown in Little Tokyo 1991 Brandon Lee (Co-Lead) plays an American cop of Japanese descent.

    Rapid Fire 1992 Brandon Lee (Lead) played an American student of Chinese descent.

    O’Hara 1987 – Pat Morita (Lead) plays an American Cop of Japanese descent.

    Sidekicks 1986 Ernie Reyes Jr. (Lead) plays an American student of SEA descent.

    Vanishing Son 1994 Russell Wong (Lead) plays a Chinese musician who escapes to the U.S.

    Supah Ninjas 2011 Ryan Potter (Lead) plays a Japanese American student.

    Nikita 2010 Maggie Q [Lead} plays a Asian American assassin.

    The “writer’ of this article should really research his subjects more thoroughly before making ridiculous and patently false statements like the one above.

    1. No One is Listening, that’s rather pedantic. Seven roles spanning ’86 to ’11 out of how many movies and shows during that time? Tens of thousands? Those items you list there hardly garnered much attention, Your comment is weak-ass at best if your best counter-argument is was to ignore all the other points the author made and do a deep IMDB dive to disprove a statement that was pretty much hyperbole.

      1. But it does bring to point the lack of visibility for Asian American leads as action heroes. If the audience can’t remember those titles then something must be done about it.

    2. I guess Russ Wong and Maggie Q are chopped liver? They are mixed Asians but obviously of Asian descent.

    3. Anna May Wong was the first actor of Asian descent to be the leading star of an American television series when she hosted and starred in her own television series, “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” circa 1950s. Technically, it wasn’t “martial arts,” but I thought I would mention this because she was such a ground breaker in that Wong’s image and career have left a legacy Through her films, public appearances and prominent magazine features, she helped to “humanize” Asian Americans to white audiences during a period of overt racism and discrimination.

      1. I think the studios are more reticent to having an Asian male action lead because of the empowerment and righteousness it imbues him. Having smart Asian characters who are doctors, scientists, even supporting detective roles, might be less threatening to their status quo than an Asian man with the power to beat the crap out of any villain every week. It upsets the image of who delivers justice in America.

        Iron Fist is the same guy who can beat the fearsome Sabretooth, as well as the man who stopped Luke Cage from beating that villain to death with his bare hands.

        The representation is important. If we had an Asian American Iron Fist action figures in the stores, that could inspire a new group of fans, in ways a Psylocke action figure couldn’t.

  9. When it doubt–and I’m not–stick to the source material. Iron Fist is a blonde white guy. If you don’t like it, lobby for a Shang-Chi series. I’d love to see either one.

  10. Keanu Reeves in Matrix and John Wick seem to have been a start in the right direction as had casting Dean Cain in the Superman TV Series.

  11. Cool article. I, for one, feel that casting characters with actors of a different race really should not be an issue. The more important thing should be if the actor can play the character correctly and whether the race change would have any real implications on the story that would somehow make it worse. In this case in particular, i think we can agree that a change would really be almost inconsequential to the character. You can practically have the same exact story, regardless of the race. So why not cast an asian-american in the role. There are plenty of actors who could easily play the character. Hell, it doesn’t even need to be a Chinese-american actor, it could even be an Indian-American actor if they felt like it. Point being, this character is one who could easily be adapted in order to diversify the Marvel cinematic universe. (On one final note, I also think it would be nice to have a more realistic and multi-cultural representation of New York on the Defenders. Any hero who we could adapt to be played by a Hispanic actor? I would say Punisher, but that has already been cast.) (Actual final note. one of the best reasons to get a diverse group of heroes would be so that kids can actually have superheroes who look like them, share their experience, etc. Having an asian character be on a netflix show can complicate this, but I feel like this would actually be an opportunity to rebrand the character possibly and maybe even have cartoons, etc. with the new version.)

  12. As you pointed out, I think Tilda Swinton (who I think is a fantastic actress) as The Ancient One is far more of a white-washed casting choice, and is what should be more called out on. To be honest, I’m a little surprised I she hasn’t said something about it too.

    For whatever flaws Steven Seagal might have, I don’t think it’s fair to group him in the Hollywood negative classification of “white-man better Asian then Asians”. In many ways, he really is a better Asian then a lot of Asian Americans, since he actually lived in Japan for a long time, studied under a Japanese Akido master, and speaks Japanese fluently. I also feel culturally, he is more Asian from his experiences in Japan. So I give him credit for being the real deal.

    Just saying, even Duncan Idaho was more Atreides then many born to the name.

    1. So, if it’s okay for Steven Seagal, why isn’t it okay for Danny Rand to have a similar story?

  13. Also, continuing on your explanation of the “Mighty Whitey” trope VS. “Asian knows martial arts”, at the very least, if an Asian American were cast for Danny, it would open up some kind of dialogue about the stereotype, much in the same way that Jessica Jones opened up commentary on rape, abuse, and racism (see scenes involving Luke and Malcolm).

    In fact, it would be incredible if Danny actually confronted the fact that he himself is just carrying the torch of classic Asian guy who knows kung fu, and coming to terms with his culture, his history, and his heritage. The media is loath to discuss the Asian presence in Western society, and not much attention has been focused on it, besides the fact that Asians are seen as a “model minority”. So if we had an Asian Danny Rand, we would get a huge opportunity to discuss what it is to be Asian American, and get an Asian perspective on things; much more than Daredevil, which portrayed all of its Asian characters as drug-dealing, mysterious villains.

  14. I’ve been learning a lot by reading this and other #aaironfist stories. But I still have questions and learning to do.

    First: From it’s title, the AAironfist movement is saying that Danny Rand should be Asian American. Does the “Asian” part over-rule the “American” part when we are talking about cultural appropriation? Or does being Asian give someone a pre-disposition (or right) to becoming a master of Kung-Fu? The question could be taken snidely. That’s not my intention. I’m serious. What’s the dividing line between race and culture here?

    Second: There’s an argument that the problem with Danny Rand in canon is that he grew up and became the “Best Asian.” What if he’s not the best? He’s just a kid who made the most of a bad situation and when the time came, he went home. From my limited reading of the series it seems to me that he’s not the best practitioner of the art — he’s always challenged by others and sometimes defeated. He was a kid, an outsider who learned the art and brought it back to his home seeking not to be a savior, but seeking revenge. He’s never the savior of K’un L’un, they are his savior. Does that make a difference?

  15. Why not cast a guy who is half white and half Asian? Wouldn’t that satisfy both sides..? I don’t care either way as long as they don’t cast a Korean and try to pass him off as Chinese…

    1. Many of the actors mentioned as good for the role have mixed Asian/European ancestry, so *I* think that would be fine.

      And there’d need to be a reason for his name. Rand is not an Asian name. Dual heritage would cover that.

      Not that I care if Danny is Asian or Caucasian.

  16. I guess 1994 “The Crow” Starring Brandon Lee, doesn’t count for some reason. But I completely agree that the cultural depth an Asian American, or any Asian actor can bring to a character is too often overlooked by Hollywood in fear that it will not resonate with the majority of the population.However Look at the amazing job Lucy Liu does in every role she gets. ( co-starring in Elementary TV show ) SHe’s the best part of the show. But it is a fine line, are we casting a diverse actor because the actor is the best choice to tell the story of the character, or are we doing it because we want to be diverse for the sake of being diverse. I don’t think adding Michael Jordon as the human torch in fantastic4 last year added to the story or character, and was just done because they wanted a diverse actor to a widen the audience draw, however I do think that Michael Jordan did a great job as a budding super hero in the movie Chronicle, where the actor was perfect to play the part, not because of is diversity but because he was believable.

  17. So I’m guessing you guys are bummed out about the whole casting announcement yesterday?

  18. I think its time we cast a white man as Black Panther!. How come re-writing canon is ok when they change a white guy into a minority, but not the other way around? And why are you so upset that a white superhero is STILL white? If you want an asian superhero, CREATE ONE!

    1. No white man could ever play Black Panther as the mere notion is antithetical to the T-Challa character who hails from Wakanda. Besides, headed into White Oscars Weekend 2016, the White actors get all the choice action hero and superhero roles as it is (Ryan Reynolds FAILED as Greene Lantern, yet got a chance with Dead Pool and finally struck box office gold. Actors of Color never get such opportunities–especially to fail and then get a second crack at it). While pile on with the discrimination, JJ?

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