By the time the Power Rangers craze first swept through in the early ’90s, I was just starting college, paying $290 a month in rent for a studio apartment in the Whittier neighborhood of South Minneapolis with a bed that pulled down from a wall, going to see Hong Kong flicks like Swordsman II and The Bride with White Hair Fridays at midnight, organized by Asia Media Access. I was still into nerd shit, but honestly the Power Rangers seemed, to me, corny and commercial. I thought it was funny that the Black Ranger was Black, the Yellow was a Vietnamese woman, and the Pink Ranger was a white woman.
My love of all things nerd grew in Phillips: Minnesota’s largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood, not all that far from my college apartment. As refugees from war with not a lot of money to spare, I learned to walk to the Franklin Avenue library where reading and checking out books was free. Comic books were less than a dollar, and watching television shows like Robotech and Dungeons and Dragons just meant having the discipline to wake up in time. I had friends of all colors and genders and backgrounds, and bullies of all colors and backgrounds. Things were difficult for us since my family were among that first wave of refugees that became the first large visible concentration of Asian American people in Minnesota. But there was also joy, and love, and friendship to go along with all the pain and conflict.
Flash forward to 2017.
I’m a father to a seven year old who, despite her friends and their tastes, doesn’t like stuff like Power Rangers because she dislikes fighting. My parents are still in Phillips, and I live in Central, still not that far away. To my child, I have to figure out a way to explain everything: the loud sharp popping noises she sometimes hears outside, the police sirens and their flashlights sweeping the yards, why some people seem to have so much and some people don’t have homes to live in even when it’s freezing cold. I am exhausted and overwhelmed and slightly depressed so I want to go see some dumb action movie. So I decide to go see the new Power Rangers flick.
It’s not a great film. I mean, it’s not Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles terrible, but no one is mistaking it for anything other than the cash-in and nostalgia bait that it is.
That being said, in the face of the MCU’s overwhelming white maleness and the nonstop Ghost-in-the-Shell–style whitewashing, I was impressed with the film’s attempt to create a diverse core team. The crew includes two women — both of whom are women of color, one of whom is queer — an African American male on the Autism spectrum; and a Chinese American male from a working class family.
The latter was genuinely surprising, because I don’t recall seeing another example of a working class Asian American male (who isn’t a miscellaneous triad member or something) in a mainstream Western fictional film.
We’re all familiar with the model minority myth — the false notion that Asian Americans have somehow pulled themselves up from their bootstraps to be successful, a strategy used by conservatives and racists to dismiss racism, particularly against — but not limited to — Black people. When the statistics are broken down, one quickly sees that the higher amount of money per household hides the fact that the majority of Asian Americans are concentrated in more expensive cities with higher median wages but also higher living expenses; and how a small percentage of Asians who are successful and which often renders the more massive Asian American populations that are disadvantaged are usually in the top percentile from the country of which they are emigrating from, and due to racist immigration policies, are usually the ones most often allowed into this country at all.
And despite statistics that show that Asian American poverty and educational disparity is growing faster than ever, there is still a perception that all Asians have relative privilege, especially as it relates to class. In popular culture, Asian Americans are most often found as privileged villains, from Rick Yune’s malicious Vietnamese Chinese wannabe gangster at war with Vin Diesel’s working class and multiracial crew in the first Fast & Furious film, to the Asian man complicit in anti-Blackness in the surprise hit Get Out. While of course Asian Americans can and do participate in white supremacy and classism, it seems like that’s the only role Asian Americans occupy in the Western imagination.
Let me say that cross racial hostility is more than a theory to me — it’s trauma from my upbringing, from all sides. I’m not going to get into it because I don’t want this to be poverty porn, and why is it that Asian Americans are always forced to defend their experiences anyway? The point is, yes, there was conflict and misunderstanding. But it sure as hell wasn’t coming from just one direction. Yet it seems like, no matter how much we break down the model minority stereotype and insist we don’t believe in hierarchies of oppression, most people tacitly believe that Asian Americans are the most privileged people of color, and often our pop culture reflects that belief.
I wish I could say the Power Rangers movie is going to change all that, but it’s not. While it’s surprisingly decent, especially the parts concerning the teenagers bonding and conflicting, it’s still a flat and superficial experience. All of the characters need a lot more development and better writing. That being said, to see Ludi Lin’s Zack, a Chinese American speaking in English and Chinese, who lives in a trailer park, who cares for his mother and kicks ass as a part of a diverse crew, from a poor family — this is not a representation that should be rare, but it is.
Chinese Americans are the poorest single Ethnic group in New York City, yet receive less than 1% of state funding. Hmong have a poverty rate of 28% yet there is no unemployment or poverty data that systematically tracks the Hmong in Minnesota, my home state, which has the largest concentration of Hmong people outside of Laos.
Pop culture and mass media have a tremendous amount of influence — they touch our lives even if we resist them. I wanted nothing to do with Power Rangers when I was younger, but I knew who they were. Asians and Americans make convenient villains in Hollywood, an industry notorious for its dismissal of its racism towards us, so it’s hard to see any hope for change.
But there’s that working class Chinese American hero in this new movie, and we can hope he and the others get more character development in the inevitable sequels, and we can take comfort that the movie, with its diverse cast, is winning over the blatant whitewashed Hollywood tripe that continues to erase and demonize us.