When I first started this blog a few years ago my initial goal was to give the pop culture community a new Asian American voice and perspective, I felt it sorely needed.
Pop Culture, and those who talk about it, is fairly dominated by white male, cis, straight voices and I felt I, as a half-Japanese man, could add some refreshing discourse for those AAPI nerds out there looking for a voice in the community. I wanted to bring attention to Asian influences in science fiction and fantasy, promote films and TV shows that I felt lent to the conversation, and of course, talk about those often-maligned words by the worst people in these fandoms; diversity and representation.
I wanted to see more AAPIs get their due and representation in genres I felt neglected them, misrepresented them, or just flat out ignored them entirely (ie: casting a white man or woman in a role I felt was supposed to be for an Asian person. Looking at you Scarlett.). But, as with a lot of views I’ve had about pop culture recently, my feelings have shifted on the subject. While I still think representation is important and that your precious Star War is not mired by the presence of a female, queer, and/or BIPOC person what does it really mean to be represented in pop culture? What does it really mean to have your culture seen by audiences?
And when is it justice for those same people consuming it?
I thought about this after seeing this tweet online regarding the MCU’s latest cape film “Shang Chi and The Legend of the Five Rings” and what lead actor Simu Liu had to say about starring in it.
Now, I’m not sure how serious Simu is with such a line about a superhero flick reflecting the “lived experiences” of Asian Americans. Afterall, “Shang Chi” is hardly the first martial arts starring role for an Asian lead, though you could maybe parse nuance that it is one of the first for a character that is distinctively Asian American. But what does it mean to be “represented” in a movie like this exactly?
I am but one Asian American among millions upon millions in this country, so I won’t pretend to know or identify our entire collective lived experience here (or how one feels about this subject) but I think it needs to be asked why is a movie like “Shang Chi” deemed as “important” to us? Why do we AAPI’s “need” a movie like “Shang Chi?” Some might say it’s about giving masculinity back to Asian men who have been largely punchlines in other movies for decades. Some might say it’s about “humanizing” Asian-ness at a time where we are victims of various hate crimes related to sinophobia and the pandemic. Or the one I see quite commonly, being seen as “American” instead of a “foreigner.”
Speaking for myself here, I can definitely relate to the last one through most of my life. I too, like many AAPI’s, got tired of the “No, where are you really from?” question growing up and wanted to be seen as just as much American as my full white counterparts. I wanted to belong to the country of my birth and not be seen as an outsider. After all, I was “proud,” relatively at least at the time, to be an American and felt I deserved to be treated as one.
But as I’ve said earlier in this article, my views on pop culture have changed and one recurring theme that has come up in a lot of these newer major cape movies is wanting to represent America as a non-white person. This subject is talked about quite a bit in one of Disney’s recent productions “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.” The show correctly calls out the crimes of the US and its treatment of black folk in this country historically and presently, but the conclusion still ultimately comes to our hero Sam Wilson wanting to be representative of America, ie: be Captain America, in fact.
This discussion is prevalent amongst AAPIs and BIPOC in this country because naturally of course we want to belong. We want to feel included. We want to be seen by the majority and be equal to them. To feel as powerful as them (hmmmm…). But no one stops to ask why we want to be seen in the same light as the country that has done incredible amounts of evil on us and our native countries abroad.
Now, obviously, I haven’t seen “Shang Chi.” It’s not out yet and it could go in a direction I might not see coming. But if I had to guess the premise and theme of the film, considering that one of the cast members is a famous Chinese actor in Tony Leung playing a Chinese villain, I would say it’s probably about Shang resisting conforming to his native culture and embracing his Americaness to become an American hero.
Now, I know talking about China with a lot of you is a loaded topic, but I’m just going to say regardless of what you feel about the country the blood on its hands is INCOMPARABLE to anything the US has done in its history. To believe that we are better or more virtuous than our foreign adversaries is at best debatable and at worst flat out false. I’ve talked plenty recently about the US and its long history of being a bastard nation abroad so please refer to my other blog entries for more in-depth discussion. But the point is here that the discussion of representation when grabbed by these major corporations and our actual military is not in fact representation. It is at best pandering and at worst manipulative propaganda.
I’ve mentioned numerous times in previous write-ups that propaganda is more nefarious than black and white good and evil. Sometimes it is imperialist, cop shit masquerading as “progressive” politics. At a time where a growing second Cold War is brewing between us and China, you should absolutely question the popular narrative and what we are being fed in the media. This isn’t representation, it is programming for the war machine so that it can build consent for war and/or Imperialism abroad. In this way what representation becomes for corporate Hollywood and the Pentagon is “Hey, AAPI/LQBTQ+/BIPOC, you can be a tool of war too!”
Other MCU films like “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” weaponized representation in various ways to get this message across to its viewers. “Captain Marvel” turns literal “girl power” into a two-hour-long Air Force commercial that they weren’t ashamed to use for actual recruitment ads that same year. “Black Panther” a movie about an isolated African country from the west turns a CIA agent into a hero defending it from its radical revolutionary usurper. Hell, the CIA’s own Twitter account was promoting the film during Oscar night in 2020.
This is not an exaggeration, by the way. The CIA has weaponized the topic of feminism for instance to program people for war in the middle east.
“Don’t try to parse nuance out of Muslim women’s beliefs. Just see that they are oppressed for not showing skin and being commodified like their western counterparts so we can justify invading another Middle Eastern country for their oil.” That is basically what they used the media for these past 20 years.
In no way am I saying the Taliban are good guys here, but they are absolutely using this language right now to justify continuing the forever war in Afghanistan right now. And again, you are unbearably naive as well if you think we were there for humanitarian reasons, to begin with…
Representation then becomes less about our “lived experiences” and rather teaching marginalizing groups of people that they should want to be powerful weapons of the state like their white counterparts instead. It’s about Disney senpai noticing us enough to give us table scrap representation, under their direction, in order to continue buying more into these massive film franchises while we largely ignore actual BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and AAPI creators making movies, books, and comics that are far more representative of our lived experiences instead. It’s about getting marginalized audience members to identify with Imperialist causes by wanting to be a part of the same war machine that brutalizes people who look like them abroad.
You don’t need Disney and the Pentagon to “see” us in order to feel represented or to experience our culture onscreen or in print. In fact, you should largely reject it. While reactionaries are ridiculous for acting up about Daisey Ridley and John Boyega being the leads in the new Star Wars films, how does Disney actually portray them though? Both actors were treated as corporate-approved mascots for the new franchise with Boyega going as far as to say he doesn’t “fuck with” the franchise anymore because of the way he was sidelined by those same mechanisms. How can race, culture, gender, etc, be considered authentic in movies like this if directors and writers, regardless of their identity, are told they can only make their movies in a certain way to appease mass audiences? What color do you think the skin is largely of the people in those board rooms and producers’ chairs who are making those decisions?
These major movies end up becoming THE representative voice of marginalized people because of this. Because there is so much money and advertising behind it it becomes the only voice heard in a country with a lot of different views on the subject. Again, I do not profess to be THE voice of AAPI’s in this country on this particular topic but these major blockbusters definitely pretend to be and that’s a problem.
There are better films out there that represent AAPI voices in this country. “The Farewell,” which was my favorite movie of 2019, does a great job of not making its pointed discussion of Chinese morals and tradition about West vs East but rather West AND East. Up-and-comer director/actor Justin Chon did a great movie about the boiling tensions between the Korean American and African American community during the time of the Rodney King Riots in “Gook.” And hell, I would argue “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” is one of the most cathartic movies I have ever seen about AAPI’s and how they deal with being stereotyped.
We don’t need more movies about marginalized groups of people playing super cops to feel empowered and like we belong. It’s backward thinking and propaganda by largely white producers and Pentagon officials trying to get us to buy into white supremacist imperialism both domestically and abroad.
I think Simu Liu is a good actor and seems by all measure to be a good guy too. I think he’s talented, funny, and, from what I see on Twitter, has more good takes than bad ones. He more than likely is just towing the company line with a quote like this and understandably jazzed about starring in his first major movie. I don’t think he is a bad person necessarily for doing it either, but when he and the big Disney machine trot out takes like this I feel it misrepresents what AAPIs need more of in pop culture and media.
Our lived experiences are more complicated, nuanced, and varied than being a superhero in a mega corporately backed franchise. There are more interesting, more real stories to tell in the AAPI community than seeing one of us punch a bad guy really hard in a movie.
To be clear, I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing that this movie will be coming out. Who knows, a movie like this might inspire more AAPI’s to pursue the arts and become actors/directors themselves. But we should also demand better from Hollywood. We should want more than just seeing one of us play a superhero. AAPIs have a long history in this country and more than a few stories to tell.
We’re long past the point of needing big Hollywood’s approval to tell them anymore.