I hesitated to write this post. As my hand hovers over publish, still I hesitate. Because I’m not sure the world really needs an attempt at a think piece on cultural appropriation from a white writer. To some extent I fear that this article might be seen as apologia, and it’s really not intended in that vein. But ultimately, I have some thoughts on some things I’ve seen, culminating with the Iron Fist casting thing and I don’t think I can express them in the brief space allowed on Facebook or Twitter.
So here goes.
I write martial arts stories. In general I’m a fantasist in my writing and I’m one who has a lot of the same influences as other fantasy writers: Dumas, Scott, Tolkien, LeGuin, Zelazny. But being a martial arts author specifically I’m also influenced by a few authors that might not be so well known: Luo Guanzhong, Shi Nai’an, Wu Cheng’en, Jin Yong. And what’s more, I wear the influence of their books on my sleeve just as openly as the influence of LeGuin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, Scott’s IVANHOE or Dumas’ COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. (Jin Yong is himself a fan of Dumas and so that influence ends up impacting me twice.)
Now that means that my stories play with Chinese tropes as often as they do British and French ones. But I’m also somebody who recognizes the problems posed by cultural appropriation and colonialism. I’m well versed in the damage of yellow peril narratives and orientalism in genre fiction. A bit of cognitive dissonance there. I’m aware of that.
The thing that makes appropriation and influence extra complex is that, unlike the orientalist view of monolithic cultures, people within a culture may have vastly different opinions on things surrounding their culture. When you add diasporas and cultural interaction within migrant populations into the mix that becomes even less clear which is how you get situations of kimono manufacturers in Japan targeting external markets at the same time that people of Japanese descent in the USA ask people to please stop using their ancestral dress as a costume. Because, you know, people are people shaped by personal experience everywhere, and how much comfort you have in living aspects of your inherited culture without fear of censure probably impact your desire to export elements of culture.
I suspect Canadians are more sensitive to the idea of cultural export than average, living as we do next to the biggest cultural exporter in the world. But the United States is far from the only cultural exporter. Britain, France and the other old colonial powers play that game, of course. Meanwhile the film industries in India and China and the music industry in South Korea have all begun targeting export markets aggressively.
A lot of this can be viewed through a Conflict Theory lens as a consequence of relative power; a film studio executive in Mumbai has a lot of it while the child of Indian immigrants getting bullied because her lunch smells different from bologna on white bread does not. It’s likely within that lens that they’ll develop differing views on how outsiders interact with their shared material culture.
Tropes are part of material culture. In fact they’re a huge part of material culture. Tropes present a shared vocabulary for understanding how to decode literature. Literature often becomes how cultures come to understand themselves. So in a way tropes are the basic building blocks of shared cultural understanding.
So using tropes from another culture is a big fucking deal, and can be a minefield. Some things to consider:
- When you use the trope do you understand what it stands in for and how it connects to other tropes?
- Are you perpetuating a harmful stereotype with your deployment of those tropes?
- Are you showing respect to the culture that owns those tropes?
- Is there a vast power differential between your culture and the parent culture for the tropes you intend to use? (EX: It’s not ever going to be appropriate for white people to mine First Nations tropes you know, since we were actively engaging in genocide against First Nations people within living memory and since they still represent the most repressed population in North America.)
- Have you done your research? Seriously, do your bloody research.
- Do you understand why you want to use these tropes? Is it a good reason?
So let’s look at Iron Fist.
Bill Everett got in on the martial arts movie craze in the US early – he says before Bruce Lee put out his first film (and he probably means before the theatrical release of the Big Boss in 1971 which means he was probably watching one of the late 1960s era Shaw Brothers / King Hu films, which included some true masterpieces like COME DRINK WITH ME, so right on for him being a fan.
In the 1971, Nixon and Mao hadn’t yet normalized relations between the USA and China, so what media there was came out of Hong Kong or Taiwan. But by the time Iron Fist hit comic stands in 1974 that had changed, and China was huge in American consciousness. Writing accessible stories that deployed tropes from China could be seen as reasonable. But it’s unfortunate that, along with those Chinese tropes, the author inserted the Orientalist trope of the white guy who goes to an exotic locale and becomes better at exotic stuff than the locals.
Marvel did some interesting stuff previously with Shang-Chi, who could be seen as a critique of Yellow Peril narratives, if somewhat accidentally, so Iron Fist was a bit of a step backward.
But the Iron Fist / Power Man team-up was kind of ground breaking in its own way and I’ve generally been content to see the Iron Fist comics as effectively benign. The aren’t an ideal way for white audiences to interact with Chinese tropes (I’d rather we got more works in translation instead) but they’re not that harmful either.
So we’re getting an Iron Fist show in the MCU and there’s been something of a three way debate over the casting of Iron Fist. This debate breaks down approximately like this:
- Iron Fist should be played by an Asian actor because the MCU has been unwilling to give major roles to Asian characters. Considering the background of this character and the extent to which he’s built from Kung Fu movie tropes it’d be fitting to race-bend him.
- Iron Fist should be played by a white actor because the character is white in the comics.
- Iron Fist should not be played by an Asian actor because he’d be yet another Asian ninja character in a shared universe of film and TV that includes Asian characters, and actors of Asian descent portraying aliens only either as hand-to-hand combat specialists or doctors. Casting Iron Fist would act as a release valve for the MCU to improve the diversity of its lead casting.
I tend to support the first of these three positions. Arguably the biggest role in the MCU played by actors of Asian descent is in Agents of Shield in which Melinda May is a breakout character and in which we have Chloe Bennett (previously when discussing this issue on Facebook I forgot to mention her and felt a need to highlight her now) playing Daisy Johnson, a multi-talented hacker / spy / inhuman super-power. Still, arguably Phil Coulson is the actual lead on Agents of Shield. After Season One, Daisy was largely relegated to supporting lead status, a position that Melinda May has always been in. (Seriously can we just add May to the Agengers? Please?)
The same situation arises in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Dave Bautista (who is half-Filipino) plays a supporting lead as Drax the Destroyer. OTOH almost every MCU product includes a white lead. Certainly that’s the case for Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Ant Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Guardians of the Galaxy and Agent Carter. I’ll give you that you could look at Agents of Shield as an ensemble cast in which Daisy and May play very large roles.
About the only thing to say positively regarding the second position is that white / black partnerships were rare at the time that Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. Other than that, no, I don’t care. Race-bending is a thing that happens these days and just because the character was created as a blond guy doesn’t mean he has to stay blond. It’s not integral to the character of Danny Rand aside from as it relates to his relationship with Luke Cage.
The third position I have some sympathy for. The only thing I’d argue is that while it’s true that Daisy is basically the only named character played by an actor of Asian descent in the entirety of the MCU who is neither a martial artist first and foremost, nor a doctor, the population of the MCU is largely composed OF doctors and martial artists of one stripe or another, race notwithstanding. I’d say that it’s kind of sad that, for all its flaws, the MCU has done a better job of diverse casting than average for Hollywood. After all, we live in a world where this movie and this movie were both greenlit in close proximity to one another.
I certainly agree that the MCU could do a MUCH better job. And I’d much rather see either an Amadeus Cho fronted project or a Shang-Chi project come into the MCU than Iron Fist. That said, I understand why we’re getting Iron Fist instead.
I think casting Iron Fist as white is a missed opportunity. Iron Fist – the comic – is a harmless enough bit of trope stealing, especially considering both when it was inspired (at a time where the only contact the USA had with China was largely kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong) and the context of the creator writing the comic as a reaction to how much he loved Hong Kong film. But this isn’t 1974 and it certainly isn’t 1971 anymore and standards have changed. The MCU has overwhelmingly allowed their properties to be fronted by white actors – and will continue to do so until Black Panther comes out.
Iron Fist, drawing, as it does, from the vast well of wuxia tropes, a well which is much more accessible if you do your research today than it was in 1974 would have been an ideal place to put an actor of Asian descent front and center.
You know, like they did in Into the Badlands.
The best show on TV.
Go watch Into the Badlands right now.
Um… what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Iron Fist. I hope that Marvel uses the show to highlight race relations through the Rand / Cage connection. Frankly BLM has brought a lot of stuff to the forefront of public consciousness that it would be good to give space to in pop culture. Establishing a friendship between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, in 2016, in the city of Eric Garner, and doing it in a way that demonstrates just how vast the gulf is between the privilege Rand enjoys and what Cage must endure could make for interesting television. But that’s the only even half-way compelling reason I can see to release an Iron Fist show and to cast Danny Rand with the same guy who played Ser Loras.