Around the Margin – Iron Fist & Whitewashing

by: Douglas Grant, Chris Thompson, and Michael Shields

The editorial staff of Across the Margin weighs in on yet another nerd controversy, the whitewashing of comic book adaptations by Hollywood…

Iron Fist

The following discussion is a response to an article in the Washington Post titled: “‘Iron Fist’ Actor, at Center of Whitewashing Debate, Asks Fans to Wait and See.”

MCS: Doug, I wanted to ask you what you thought about this article, and about this controversy in general, and I turn your way specifically as you wrote an article for us two years ago titled “It’s 2015 and Hollywood Shamelessly Continues its Whitewashing,” so I know that you are truly informed and passionate about the issue at hand. Can you weigh in on this for us?

DG: This issue has gotten so convoluted lately, and I really believe you have to take each one case by case.

First, there’s the return of controversy surrounding the “white savior” narrative in Yimou Zhang’s latest film, The Great Wall. The white savior has always been tricky for me, because when I think about it the protagonists from Dances With Wolves, Avatar, Great Wall, etc., all come from corrupt, amoral societies, learn the wickedness of their ways through exposure to a foreign culture, turn their backs on their own people and fight back against them alongside their new allies, and are basically adopted by their new, more benevolent families. I’ve never really seen much evidence to suggest that the foreign cultures in these movies would have failed without the white man as their savior; if anything, all the white savior ever really brings to the table is precious intelligence on how his people think and operate–he’s the inside man who helps develop the plan of attack, one who fights side-by-side with his new comrades as an equal, no better or worse. I understand why some people may find it offensive, but it’s not something that I’ve ever taken away from watching movies with this formula.

Then there’s Iron Fist. By casting a caucasian to play Danny Rand, Marvel is technically staying true to the source material, but that source material is from an era that relied heavily on tropes. Back then Marvel was trying to cash in on the explosion of the martial arts genre in America, and that wasn’t exactly an enlightened time period. The result was Iron Fist, a vapid comic that offered plenty of stereotypes but nothing of real substance from Asian culture.

I also heard someone the other day pointing out something that not many others seem to considering: If you cast an Asian actor to play Iron Fist’s Danny Rand, there will most certainly be an outcry accusing Marvel Studios of perpetuating the negative stereotype of Asians as the go-to practitioners of martial arts. I think that’s a very legitimate point. Marvel is going to face internet backlash in either case.

The greater issue here is not so cut and dry however. It’s annoyingly nuanced.

MCS: That is extremely well said and I couldn’t agree more, in that these situations need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. And in this case, with Iron Fist – I am actually a touch surprised (although I shouldn’t be in today’s political and sociological climate though) that there is any hubbub at all. Nerds, fanboys and fangirls often have ridiculous demands, but those demands are usually centered on sticking to the script. Canon means everything to true fans – and in this case those who are upset are implying that the creators of the show should deviate from what has been written. Iron Fist, in its most recent incarnation with Netflix, is merely – from what I can tell – sticking to the script, even if as you point out, that script is rife with outdated tropes. I guess if we are to point a finger here, it could be directed at the original author of Iron Fist, Roy Thomas, and artist Gil Kane, who appropriated Asian culture and were capitalizing on the fame of Bruce Lee and kung-fu films at the time. But even then, I don’t blame the intent in aggregate, and I applaud the result.

But in terms of those tropes and stereotypes showing up in the upcoming Iron Fist series, I am beginning to truly trust Netflix and Marvel’s television unit, and what Finn Jones (who plays Danny Rand) is saying in the interviews leading up to the March 17th release of Season One is that he believes the material was handled and manipulated with care in regards to cultural sensitivity and celebrating diversity. And all he is asking is that fans take a wait-and-see approach to what the showrunners did before claiming that the choice to cast a white man as Danny Rand was incorrect in some manner.

While I do state some surprise with the current outcry of discontent surrounding Iron Fist, part of me surely gets it. There are so few Asian roles of worth (or at all!) in the film and television landscape currently, and I see how people can look at this as a missed opportunity of sorts. But aren’t they all missed opportunities when it comes to casting minorities, in general, and more specifically in superhero films? There is no reason at all, regardless of the source material, why Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Iron Man and others (not Thor though – he must be a hunky white Norse God;)!) couldn’t be played by someone who wasn’t white. In fact, I’d love to see that happen just as much as I want Idris Elba to play James Bond. I assure you, 20th Century Fox’s reboot of The Fantastic Four didn’t fail because Michael B. Jordan played Johnny Storm, it failed because it was flat-out terrible movie from top to bottom.

CMT: For me, this issue represents a series of missed opportunities for the American entertainment industry as a whole to embrace the global nature of our current times. There are numerous talented international and domestic actors, and specifically Asian-heritage actors in reference to Ghost in the Shell, that would be more fitting to play these roles. Ghost in the Shell’s “whitewashing” is something that is of particular frustration for me and Doug did a fantastic job of calling attention to this in his previous article. For example, Ming-Na Wen is a talented Chinese-American actress who currently plays Melinda May on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and has had roles in Stargate Universe and the animated series Batman. Bae DooNa is a South Korean actress who has had numerous english-speaking roles and was terrific in Cloud Atlas, and starred in Jupiter Ascending and currently the new Netflix series Sense8. Rinko Kikuchi is the first Japanese actress nominated for an Oscar for her role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel who has also starred in Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastic robot fighter Pacific Rim. Chiaki Kuriyama, another talented Japanese actress, who starred as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill: Volume 1, has proven that she can bring the heat when it comes to sword fighting and fisticuffs. Any one of these women would be far superior to Paramount and Dreamworks decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi. Hollywood needs to learn to look beyond the obvious for its roles and start embracing the future, global pool of actors and actresses instead of appropriating (or in Ghost in the Shell’s case, misappropriating) the world’s culture and trying to make it “white.” This kind of wanton disregard for preserving cultural identities has real life consequences, more than you could ever imagine. And if you don’t believe that this is the case, then watch the Public Service Announcement below and understand that even though movies aren’t real, they affect real people. 

MCS: It is interesting that in my defense of Iron Fist’s decision to not change the race of the main character in order to preserve the integrity of the original story, this fails to take into account that changing a main character’s race is not that unusual at all. But – as we are so acutely pointing out – it is routinely done at the expense of Asian roles. Both Chris and I spoke of “missed opportunities,” and I’d like to expound on that some – and pardon me if I get a touch political – but fuck it. With this most recent election, and the rise to power of an administration that is helmed by white men (Trump, Bannon, Miller, Sessions) whose racist and anti-semitic viewpoints are well-documented, it is not the time to be missing opportunities to spread truth, understanding, and empathy. It is an apt time for artists (and yes, I consider showrunners, producers, and all who give rise to television series to be artists) to take bigger risks, and to present the world not only as it is, but as it should be. It is the ideal time to create art that represents the diversity that exists in the world and celebrates all that makes us unique, while highlighting the ties that bind us together. I know executives chase the almighty dollar, but if there was ever a moment in recent history where we need to re-prioritize and tell stories that reflect the power and beauty of our differences, and ones that bite back at a system so poised to tear us apart, it is now.

And in this light, I feel it necessary to consider another group of people who have been demonized all too often by how they are portrayed in films and television shows, and that is Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent. It is no wonder middle America is weary of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, when they fail to see them as people just like themselves, but rather as terrorists and people that mean them harm. Hollywood has failed to present Muslims as anything but a threat, exemplified in such popular films as American Sniper, True Lies, or even Back to the Future, and in television shows such as Homeland, Sleeper Cell, and 24. So it is in this new era of Muslim bans and increased nationalism worldwide, where it is more important than ever to tell stories that unite rather than divide us, and that help us to empathize and realize how we are all truly in this struggle to achieve unity together.

CMT: The very fact that we are having this conversation means that the work to remedy this continued transgression has already begun. Of course I want to support the talented creatives who are putting their heart and souls into the entertainment that we all so readily consume, but it is difficult to do so when I know that it comes at the expense of others. Be it taking away their heroes, assimilating their culture into our own or just plainly wiping out the fact that it ever existed. I feel like we are getting to that point as a society where those who want our entertainment to better reflect our global community, and our diverse cultures and ways of life, are beginning to gain a foothold and get a voice at the negotiation table. I applaud the power of social media and the eroding of the barriers to communication that our new digital way of life has allowed for allowing this topic of whitewashing to remain a current point of debate. Hopefully the backlash from those enlightened enough to see the effects of these choices by those who contribute to our entertainment will continue to multiply. And hopefully, in a time not to soon from now, Hollywood will wake up and realize that the old way of doing things no longer applies, and the films and television shows that they are putting out have a more wide-ranging, global audience, and affect real people.

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