Asian-American actors are drastically underrepresented in television and film and are only now being seen by entertainment magazines and studios as sex-symbols or action heroes, due in large part to a long history of negative stereotypes in Hollywood. Glenn’s character development in The Walking Dead was worlds above the treatment that characters of color often receive in mainstream shows. When his race is mentioned it is often used to refute the stereotypes that the good ‘ol boys have assigned to him (in the early seasons). With his departure from the series and the love from the fandom, his inclusion on magazine covers seemed common place, when it was actually groundbreaking. This is where the controversy around Iron Fist enters the conversation.
While Iron Fist, Danny Rand, has always been a rich white-American man, the argument is made that: in bringing him to into the MNU (Marvel Netflix Universe) there was an opportunity to change the character’s origin and ethnicity in order to create greater diversity and increase representation in a predominantly white-male space. This argument is valid. As a Mexican-American woman, it is hard to find myself and my culture represented as heroic. On the woman front, I have Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and the phenomenal Jessica Jones, but there are rarely Latinx characters in these stories (unless you count Shades?). I understand this argument on a very personal level. That being said, Iron Fist shouldn’t be Asian-American.
Yesterday, Iron Fist actor, Finn Jones, exited the Twitter-verse after being critiqued for sharing Riz Ahmed’s call for representation. It was pointed out that, his call for representation was negated since he is the lead of a story that uses Asian culture as a plot piece without offering a place for Asian and Asian-American representation. I can see where this is coming from, that being said, Iron Fist’s entire origin story comes from him being a privileged white guy who learns that it will be his downfall if keeps his entitled worldview. The type of privilege that leads Danny Rand to become the Iron Fist and the type of self-reflection he has can only be done from the position of a rich white guy. This doesn’t mean that he is not problematic in the source material.
He does this through a mystical orientalist martial arts narrative which marginalizes the characters of color in his story. This has to do, in large part with the creation of the character as a way to latch onto the martial arts films of the 1970s — think Chuck Norris instead of Bruce Lee. These stories of using a foreign culture as an object to be mastered by the white protagonist are damaging. That being said, I have faith in Netflix’s adaptation because of the way they adapted the story of Luke Cage from damaging stereotypes to a story that utilized black voices to tell Luke’s story rather than falling into the same mistake of privileging white voices as an authority on a culture that isn’t their own. With a problematic and slightly racist origin of its time period, bringing Danny Rand’s story to long-form television can bring point these issues out while writing a story that isn’t about fetishizing the “orient” but instead about human stories while acknowledging its position in this discussion. Something that Netflix has done well in the past.
The problem of representation is deeper than just changing the character’s race/ethnicity in the attempts of the production company to fill a need. The reason Luke Cage worked, was because it was black character’s story that was told from those who live that experience. If we want to create representation in a space where people of color rarely make it on the screen, we should elevate the stories of Asian-American characters in the comic book universe that exist already, and we need to encourage studios to choose show-runners, writers, and directors of color to adapt these stories. Just changing a character’s race/ethnicity doesn’t allow this to happen. As a relatively obscure character, the choice of reviving Iron Fist seems to do more with his connection to Luke Cage rather than his appeal in popular culture. Choosing characters that don’t have as much notoriety as Iron Man or Captain America, means that the potential to bring heroes like Silk, Amadeus Cho, Kamala Khan, or X-Men like Jubilee and Surge to the MNU is more than doable, it’s necessary — excluding licencing issues.
If that argument doesn’t get you, think about the implications of making the first Asian-American hero in the MNU/MCCU a martial artist with a mystical background. Albert Ching, for Comic Book Resources said it best: “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.”
In many ways — and Ching notes this in his article as well — in the action genre and comics more broadly, Asian characters are only allowed to participate in martial arts. While martial arts is a part of various Asian cultures, it is not the only part. By only writing Asian characters as martial arts teachers, ‘clan’ leaders, or ancient mystics, we continue to marginalize their voices and experiences in comics. Chloe Bennett’s Quake/Daisy is one example of Marvel’s representation of an Asain-American characters has taken a positive step forward. That being said, people of color need more representation in comics and television. We need to see ourselves in heroes and feel the same pride in that others get to experience.
This discussion, as important as it is, also takes away from the potential power that Jessica Henwick’s character, Colleen Wing, can have in this story. As one of the other main characters of the series, Henwick has pointed out that her character works to “inspect” harmful Asian stereotypes. Which she explains led her to take the role rather than avoid it, as Colleen is an Asian martial artist love interest for the white male protagonist. I could be wrong. Maybe Iron Fist turns out to be a stereotyped-filled story with no investigation of Danny Rand’s white positionality. But that’s what I thought Luke Cage and Jessica Jones was going be. But Netflix hasn’t let me down yet.