To Be Or Not, Diversity in Question

Alex Abad-Santos over at Vox penned a great article summing up a lot of the controversy and background regarding Marvel and Netflix’s next superhero venture — Iron Fist. Go ahead and read that first if you need a primer because Abad-Santos makes some really fantastic points that I’m going to use as background for this piece about a very complicated subject.

Every week on Geekology, I take a closer look at what’s happening in the geek world. The opinions expressed in Geekology articles are mine and mine alone. Blame me, everyone. Blame me.

As a Korean-American, my opinion on the topic at hand of changing a character’s race often surprises those who expect me to be perfectly fine with, say, a character like Batman being played by someone who’s Asian. I actually believe a character should remain as close to the source material as much as possible, an opinion and preference based on keeping things consistent and honoring created work. Blame my OCD or my old-fashioned ways — racism has nothing to do with it. For me, it’s about seeing something I cherish in another form and not having it “fixed” or manipulated to attract a fanbase that didn’t buy into the original property.

Now, if you’ve listened to me talking on the Oh My Geek! podcast, you might be screaming, “Hypocrite!” I’ve expressed several times that I’d love to see Idris Elba as James Bond, which means I’m starting to accept the notion that change can be a good thing. I’m realizing that my feelings concerning faithfulness to source material aren’t as concrete as they once were — the more it gets discussed, the more I begin to see other perspectives.

So what’s the hangup about Iron Fist — a character that could become either part-Asian or full in Netflix’s new series?

When it comes to perhaps seeing a Marvel property onscreen with an Asian lead, I’m mixed with parts enthusiasm and hesitance. While I’d love to see someone who looks like me on television, I know what it’s like to see something get re-appropriated, redrawn, redone. Take a look at Iron Fist’s origin which is a lesson in the creation of pseudo-culture and building a world out of stereotypes.

So when it comes it down to deciding whether Danny Rand should exist on our screens as a green-eyed, blonde-haired Caucasian who out-Asians everyone, or perhaps change him to fit his world by making him a kung-fu fighting Asian — the Tiger Lily conundrum, which is explained perfectly in Abad-Santos’ article, comes into play. It seems like Marvel and Netflix are stuck between two difficult positions. Sticking with the source material could potentially offend an Asian audience because of the perceived racial slights and cultural appropriation, while changing his race would only feel like the series runners are cementing the martial arts stereotype that Asian-Americans like myself have been so keen to toss away. The farthest I got in tae-kwon-do was a yellow stripe, and there’s no way I’m relying on these tiny legs of mine to do anything but run in a street fight.

In an age when we’re all asking for more realistic versions of ourselves onscreen, can Marvel and Netflix come up with a solution that makes everyone happy?

I think we have to take a deeper look into this and see what the basic conflict is. Thinking about Braveheart, any Robin Hood, or even a Knight’s Tale, no one feels that white guys in armor, waving swords while riding horseback is stereotypical, right? That’s because when it comes to casting, white people get roles as everything — spies, magicians, astronauts, and even martial artists. So when it comes down to crux of the issue, what Iron Fist needs to be is something more than just a martial arts tale — it has to be grander because it just can’t settle for anything less as a Marvel property and as a Netflix series.

We expect more as geeks. We expect more as discerning fans.

So my proposition to Marvel and Netflix is to make Danny Rand an Asian character. But don’t make him an Asian character. He may look like me and fight like Bruce Lee, but I want him to be a person with struggles, ideals, and thoughts that are his own. Don’t make him good at math, and don’t make him talk like Master Splinter. Give him inexperience and foibles. Surround him with a cast of Asian characters who can’t fight — who would be just as effective in battle as any serf in the field of a medieval film. Bring him to New York to meet Daredevil, and point out that DD is basically a ninja. Then, show us how — how does Iron Fist become a hero and not just for Asians looking for a role model.

How does he become the hero we all need to see on television?

Because the why is simple enough. The reasons why show that that people want and need the same things. The why proves we are similar.

Diversity shouldn’t just be superficial or a marketing plot to attract a bigger audience for dollars. Diversity should be found in the how because that’s where we as humans show how unique we are.

It’s how we live, how we fight, and how we’re portrayed.


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