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Recently Keith Chow, notable comic book author in his own right, began a campaign to have Danny Rand (a.k.a. Iron Fist, a.k.a. basically Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” but with uppercuts) cast as an Asian-American in his spankin’ new Netflix series. While I don’t think that’s a terrible idea all by itself, Chow’s reasoning leaves much to be desired. And, in this case, it sinks his point.
By way of explanation, I’ve placed the relevant quotes from Chow’s interview with ComicsAlliance below along with my own counter-arguments.
- Keith Chow – “In my original post, I lay out how an Asian American Danny Rand can still be all the things from the comic: the son of a wealthy businessman on an expedition in China, student of Lei Kung, lover of Misty Knight, friend to Luke Cage… Danny being white is not essential to any of this… In fact, his whiteness is the most problematic thing about the character.”
So far, I’d agree on all points.
- Keith Chow – “The parts of the classic Iron Fist story I have the most problems with — its Orientalism and cultural appropriation — can be alleviated if an Asian American actor is Danny.”
But here’s where Chow really loses me. Iron Fist is the story of a guy who travels from his home nation to another nation, takes in the local culture, and then returns to his home as an avatar of that culture. Appropriation isn’t just part of his story. It’s literally the ENTIRETY of his story. And regardless of the tricky issues of ethnicity, there’s still nationality to consider. I’ll touch on that again below.
This doesn’t get any less offensive if he’s Japanese. Trust me.
- Keith Chow – “I don’t know why fans lose their minds whenever a traditionally white character is portrayed by a non-white actor.”
I also have no idea. It is pretty ridiculous.
- Keith Chow – “I think folks forget that being Asian and being Asian American are two different things… Danny can still be a fish out of water in K’un Lun, especially if he’s Asian American. It’s why the ‘but you already have Shang Chi’ excuse that doesn’t fly with me. I don’t want a foreign-born actor to play Danny Rand… I want an Asian American.”
This is kind of an odd comment because it seems to imply that Asian-Americans are a homogenous group who can represent each other. If you know your history then you know that casting, say, a Japanese-American actor as a character that travels to China and “borrows” their culture is a whole other can of equally offensive worms. I mean, if Marvel/Netflix really want to go there then, yeah, I’d watch it. But I feel like anything that touches on the still very politically sore subject of Japanese-Chinese relations is probably outside of their range.
- Keith Chow – “The white guy who goes to Asia and is better than the Asians is also a pretty tired cliché… never mind Danny Rand, you have Snake Eyes, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Daniel-san [in The Karate Kid], Wolverine, every Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movie ever, hell, even Batman for chrissakes!” When asked if an Asian-American Danny Rand would fall into a stereotype about all Asians knowing martial arts: “I don’t think so. Look, the problem with the Asian martial artist stereotype is not the art itself. The problem has always been how Asian martial artists have been portrayed in Western media. As someone who has practiced martial arts and admires and respects it, I don’t run away from that aspect of my heritage… As I said earlier, Danny Rand is a fighter, a lover, a hero, a friend, a son, etc. He is a multifaceted, three-dimensional person — who’s also a superhero with superpowers! Why can’t an Asian American actor get the chance to play all of that? But silent ninjas who are canon fodder and get no speaking lines? Yeah, that’s a problem. I’ll take a three-dimensional martial artist over a one-dimensional anything any time.”
How dare you besmirch the good name of Jaden Smith!
And this is my other really big issue with Chow’s argument and why I think it’s important to not only have this discussion but to keep having this discussion. Because EVERY SINGLE character that was listed above as an example of a “white guy who goes to Asia and is better than the Asians” has been justified by this exact same reasoning.
Every one of those characters is somebody’s favorite and when you ask them why then I assure you that they will provide the same justification: that they’re three-dimensional. That they have other stuff going on. That they’re not JUST a tired, old, potentially racist trope even if they’re assembled from tired, old, potentially racist tropes. And you can make this argument as long as you add at least one other attribute to any character. You could argue that Step’n Fetch It is three-dimensional as long as you give him an avid interest in collecting fancy hats.
I fully agree with Chow that there’s an issue when it comes to the representation not just of Asian-Americans but of all minorities. I just disagree with his proposed solution. So, okay, then what is a workable solution? Well…
There’s already an example out there of a solid (and arguably progressive) portrayal of an Asian character within a big, blockbuster franchise: Han from Fast and the Furious.
I feel this is an important contrast because Han can really only exist within a contemporary film series that’s NOT an adaptation of an older work. He gets to be free of the long history of marginalization in American media because he’s a character designed for a modern audience’s perceptions of race and identity and he’s not filling the shoes of an older, white character.
Marvel and its audience have to keep this in mind: as we continue to recycle characters we bring with them the baggage of previous generations. It’s clear that this is a company that wants to be doing better with this stuff — even if we’re being cynical and assuming that they just want to use diversity to widen their audience — but they still have an Avengers line-up that’s all white dudes except for one white lady because that’s how these characters were first designed. And change is difficult when it’s also tied to the public perception of a character that’s been reinforced down to its minutest details by years of canon and decades of huge marketing pushes in multiple mediums.
So maybe the solution isn’t to change Danny Rand’s race. Maybe the solution is to get Amadeus Cho his own series instead. Just sayin’.
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