who do we represent?

May 5, 2016

Last year Huffington Post dropped an article during NYCC, asking convention goers if they could name 7  Superheroes of Color.  The piece was from the MTV show Decoded.

I pitched the question to some of my co-workers, and only two out of the seven were not able to fully respond to the question. I have to admit, I expected this because I work for a celebrated black cable network, so it stands to reason, the majority of them know their stuff, but I decided to dig deeper.

In honor of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month, I posed the deeper question:

Can you name 7 superheroes of Asian and/or Pacific Islander decent?

No cheating!

If you’re like me, it may have taken you a long time to figure that one out. I ended up stalling at six within five minutes. Here’s my original list:

  • Jade Nguyen (Cheshire – DC)
  • Jubilation Lee (Jubilee – Marvel)
  • Psylocke (Kwannon version – Marvel)
  • Kenuichio Harada (Silver Samurai – Marvel)
  • Amadeus Cho (The Hulk – Marvel)
  • The Ancient One (DC)

In my frustration, I went online to look for Marvel and DC comic websites for those of Asian/Pacific Islander (API) heritage.  Although it was a fleshed out list, what interested me was the comparative number of heroes vs. villains, and greater heroes vs. background heroes.  Those of East Asian decent were relegated to three sub categories: martial artists, ninjas, or mystics (MA/N/M).  Those that broke the mold tend to have come later, like Amadeus Cho’s “Hulk” and Powergirl (who is technically a humanoid).

Since the casting of Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One” in the upcoming Doctor Strange film, the film’s writers have defended their position, stating in a recent New York Times article that they changed the character to save from losing the Chinese market, which is one of the most lucrative in the world.  They re-wrote the character as a Celt, yet dresses her up and shaved her head to look like an Asian Monk in a location that looked more East Asian than Central European.  This is one enormous example where the whitewashing of Hollywood had no reason to change a character’s ethnicity, since it would not have effected the green lighting of a film, as was proposed by YouTuber UpToMyKnees, explaining his belief why Scarlett Johansson was cast as Ksanagi for the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie.

As for character alignment, many are ambiguous, flip flopping between good and evil, depending upon personal agendas.  Examples of this would be Cheshire, Jade Claw, and Talia al Ghul, allowing love to alter their alignment.  Rarely are you able to find characters that are aligned as neutral good, or lawful good, most hanging in the neutral category.

cavalry-cover-melindamayAlthough influenced mostly during the political climate of the day, comic book characters, particularly those of color, have shed a lot of the false bias that was associated with their race over the decades, with characters such as Amadeus Cho, Melinda May, and Armor (Hisako Ichiki – Marvel) currently, neither of which fit the traditional models of MA/N/M.

With the new Marvel and DC television shows and movies about, it’s still a point of fact that APIs are still under represented, and when represented, are still within the MA/N/M boxes.  Understanding that we are still subject to the original source material, as with Miles Morales with Spider-Man, many believe it’s time for a change, however it’s still receiving resistance.

Case in point: when email leaked from Sony Entertainment last year, declaring that Spider-Man needed to stay white and straight, it was in the licensing agreement with Marvel that declared the version of Spider-Man they had was Peter Parker and all media pertaining to their Spider Man had to exist in the parameters of the Peter Parker Spider Man source material.  Although we know that Miles Morales has taken over the mantle, fact of the matter is, we are still a long way off before film studios green light a Hispanic Spider-Man on the big screen.

Kamala-KhanBut why the resistance? Currently comics are breaking gender roles with the exposure of LGBT characters like Grace Choi (DC) and Iceman (Marvel), and main characters breaking the color barrier like Kamala Khan becoming Ms. Marvel, Miles taking up the Spider-Man mantle, and Amadeus becoming The Hulk.  For the exception of Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which star two female Asian leads (Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet as Daisy/Skye/Quake), it seems publishing of said source material is still not enough to break through the small and large screens.

Since the comic book universe has, for the most part, followed the political climate of the times, could it be the current resistance is mirroring our political climate? Very likely.

continentIn a report released from UCLA and published in TIME magazine in 2014, minorities represented a little under 11% of leading roles in Hollywood and in that same study, more than 50% of the films had casts of 10% minority or less in them.  If you think it’s because of lack of available talent, you are sorely mistaken.  The hiring practices, generally catering to Nielsen’s family viewing demographic of 69.2% White and other, 13% Hispanic, 13.2% Black, and 4.6% Asian (from Nielsen’s 2015-2016 DMA Ranks Report) are customized for maximum financial benefit for marketers, which is where the big money comes from.  This breakdown isn’t unfounded either.  As reported by the US Census for 2014, 77.4% of the US population identified as White, 13.2% identified as Black, 17.4% identified as Hispanic, and 5.4% identified as Asian.  It’s less about diversity and all about catering to the largest demo group, which has propelled Donald Trump to surge through the polls in this year’s republican race.

If the previously mentioned New York Times article is to be taken to account, then based on global demographic, per continent, Asia’s population of 4.4 billion, which outranks the combined total of the rest of the world (Africa at 1.2 billion, Europe at 739 million, South America at 640 million, and North America at 360 million) should be strongly represented, however it’s the least.

Up until our need for inclusion and diversity is met by all parties, beyond the old status quo, beyond the desire to appease marketers, it will continue to be up to the small voices to make a loud enough impact to change the face of all media platforms and content creators to tell the stories of the under represented.  Diversity has proven benefits for all, and rather than do all of us a disservice by continuing to drive a rift between unfamiliar territories, take a leaf from the This American Life episode below on the Hartford, CT school system that integrated their students, to the benefit of everyone involved.