Monday, March 7, 2016

I’m Actually Pretty Okay with Iron Fist Being White

Before we get started, I need to clear up a few things, because I imagine most people read the title and either thought that Im some comic book purist who thinks that just because a character in the books is white, the character on the screen must be as well, or that Im the type of person who is sick of all this SJW bullshit and wishes for liberals to stop taking my toys away. Neither is the case.

I should also mention that the title of this piece was very, very carefully chosen. Im okay with Iron Fist being white in the same way that I would also be okay if he were Asian or black or whatever. I think that in each case, the ethnicity of Iron Fist has the potential to tell a different kind of story, and the strength of the casting is going to depend on their ability to tell that particularly story. Judging by the casting, I can guess what direction Marvel wants to go in, but whether it works or not remains to be seen. We could end up with another shitty Dances With Wolves rehash if it fails.

1.       Lets Talk about Diversity Real Quick

So, in my view, diversity in films and TV is when we have a role that can be covered by a person of any background being given to someone of a background we dont see often enough on screen, or, when a role for someone of a background we dont see often enough on screen is created and filled by the appropriate ethnicity. For example, there is no reason that Glenn from The Walking Dead needed to be Asian in either his screen or comic book form, but since theres no reason he cant be, we get an actor of Asian descent filling the role. For the latter, Dev Patels character in Slumdog Millionaire can be nothing but Indian, and we dont typically see Indian actors in Western media.

I would argue that there are three reasons that diversity on the screen is a good thing. Number one, Art. Seeing the same old thing in our heroes and protagonists is boring as shit. We have a glut of straight, white male protagonists, and seeing something different is exciting. When I was a kid, I loved the characters of Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon and Prince Akeem from Coming to America precisely because they were so different from the same Bruce Lee / Jet Li / Jackie Chan / Sammo Hung martial arts stars that I grew up with. Number two, Exposure. The opening up of roles to those of different backgrounds not only allows us as audience members to be introduced to performers we may not have seen before, but allows those same performers more opportunities for more roles. This also goes a long way in terms of leveling the playing field in terms of monetary compensation. Number three, Stereotype-Breaking. Seeing a character from a background youre not used to seeing is great for introducing audiences to the wider world. Seeing a minority character in a role you wouldnt normally see them helps make progress in terms of breaking down negative stereotypes you may have about that ethnicity, and helps normalize the idea of people from different backgrounds being, you know, actual well-rounded people. You may laugh at me or call me a racist or whatever, but Prince Akeem and Bruce Leroy really did go a long way towards helping me understand that black people were actual people with talents and positive qualities. I cant recall all the times I would see a black gangster on TV or the news or something, but I remember being in awe of how fucking cool those two were. They were tough while remaining gentle, polite and patient even when they had no reason to be, smart and dedicated, and most important to me at that young age, they knew kung-fu.

What are the downsides to diversity? Well, fucking nothing. 

To summarize, there are three good reasons to have more diverse screen roles, and no real downside. If you dont agree with all three of my reasons why diversity is good, I think you can probably agree on at least one of them.

2.       Canon Doesnt Matter One Bit

A common argument that I have heard, especially from comic book / fantasy / sci-fi types, is that such-and-such is white in the books/comics/game/what-the-fuck-ever so he/she/they/it should be white in the movie/TV show/what-the-fuck-ever. This is dumb.

This is dumb firstly because its lazy thinking and secondly because it lacks creativity. This is the equivalent of a teacher telling a kindergartener to draw whatever she wants, and then when she draws a flying toaster, shes told that toasters dont fly.

By the way, the teacher in that story? Half-Inuit, Half-Lebanese gay man. BUT YOU ONLY THOUGHT OF A WHITE WOMAN DIDNT YOU, YOU RACIST BASTARD.

To repeat the point I made earlier, the race of a character only matters on rare occasions, and when it doesnt, we can fill that with any color of the rainbow we feel like. Us nerdy types love to cling to our canon as though its some sort of sacred, immutable text, when in reality, canon is the etch-a-sketch of the literal world.

For some of the time, changes to the ethnicity of a character are, at worst, inconsequential. You may have heard something a couple years ago about Spider-Man is now black or whatever. (In actuality, the alternative reality version of Spider-Man is a half-black, half-Puerto Rican teenager, but whatever.) The comics that have been telling his story have been great, but only because hes a teenager dealing with teenage things, he has a strained relationship with his father over the death of his mother which he inadvertedly caused, and he has to deal with living in the shadow of this older, better, dead Spider-Man that hes now replacing. Not one bit of the story is enhance or changed in any way because of his ethnicity, and this the worst case scenario.

For the rest of the time, this diversity shit has been fucking awesome. I mean, have you fucking seen Idris Elba? Put him in every fucking movie, I dont even care. Michael B. Jordan is super fucking cool, super fucking funny and Im glad as shit he was the Human Torch. Sam Wilson as Captain America? Fucking, yes please. Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel is a phenomenon. Thats not even mentioning Glenn and Bruce Leroy.
Seeing movies, TV shows and comic books with the lens of potential diversity shows how silly some of this dedication to canon really is. There was a bit of a kerfuffle over making Elsa and Anna white, and the setting Northern Europe in Frozen. The pro-Europe side claimed that this is the real story because the original tale came from a guy who lived in Denmark, so?

The thing is, being bound by canon is a huge limitation on creativity. We get stuck in one place with a certain type of character and were not allowed to change that. In the case of Frozen, this works out pretty well, but I cant help but imagine what the story would have been like if it was set in a place like Belize, or Iraq, or Indonesia, where they have hardly (or maybe never) see snow. Elsas ice powers would seem even more fantastic and magical, while the havoc she wrecks on the village even more devastating. I mean, I always had a problem with the crisis in the movie anyway. The fjord froze. So what? Have you ever met someone who lived in a place where it snowed a lot? They dont even notice it anymore. Drop 10 feet of snow in Alaska and theyll drive the same speed to work. But if you drop an inch of snow in Texas, everything shuts down.
Now, after all I said about how diversity is great, how can I possibly be fine with Iron Fist being played by a white actor?

3.       A Little History

I think a big problem of why this character has suddenly become a hot-button issue (for those of us with too much time in the day and who care way too much about juvenile entertainment) is due to a lack of foreknowledge about the character, and what hes about. Personally, Im a huge fan of comics and a huge fan of kung-fu movies, so I feel uniquely capable to talk about this on a blog that nobody reads. A lot of people, I imagine, heard they made the kung-fu guy white and thats about it. Thats.well, yeah, ok, thats pretty much true, but theres some nuance to the story.

So theres this kid, alright. His name is Danny Rand, and he is the worst little shit. Hes this entitled, spoiled little shit son of these millionaire parents. One day, the millionaire parents notice that their son is indeed a little shit of a brat, and decides that he needs military school, only instead of military school, it is kung-fu camp at this mystical village in the mountains. So the parents, the little shit kid, and the fathers business partner all pack up and head for this mystical village, but disaster! I shit you not, the little kid Lion Kings the whole thing up; Danny being Simba, his dad being Mufasa, the business partner being Scar, the gravity being the wildebeest and the circle of life pretty much staying the way it is. After this, little shit Danny wanders into the mystical village, where they take him in and he learns kung-fu. Oh, and his mom gets eaten by wolves or something. I dunno.

Now alright, one of the things that I like to harp on when discussing comic books is the difference between what a character is and what a character is about. For example, Captain America is a guy with a shield. When you describe him to your grandmother, you say, Hes the own with the shield, Nana. The Hulk is a big green monster. Hes the big green monster, Nana. Hawkeye is the guy with the bow. Bow, Nana. Bow.

So, Danny Rand is a guy who does kung-fu and fights the bad guys.

What a character is about is something different though. This is the thing that makes a character last in someones memory. In that sense, Captain America is a guy about liberal ideals, freedom and justice for all, even in the face of extreme hardship. The Hulk is about controlling your emotions and learning to balance two halves of yourself. Hawkeye is about dedication and perseverance, even when all you have is a fucking bow.

Looking at his backstory then, what Danny Rand is actually about has very little to do with Asia or Asian culture. Its much more about him coming to terms with his own privilege, realizing that hes been spoiled his entire life, and learning to work hard. In fact, this is the exact same story that happens to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. He grows up rich and entitled, he finally realizes that hes rich and entitled and decides to change, he travels to Asia, learns kung-fu, and then comes back to the US to fight crime. Its literally the exact same thing and yet because what Batman is is a guy who dresses like a bat and fights bad guys, and not kung-fu guy, people didnt even think to get outraged when a non-Asian actor was cast for this role.
I mean, seriously. There are people out there who heard kung-fu guy and thought Oh, he should be Asian, right? And these are the liberals. This is not Nana. Thats something Nana would say.

Iron Fist is the kung-fu guy, Nana.

Oh, do you mean the nice slant-eyed fellow?

“…”

4.       Dannys Whiteness Adds to the Story

I want to be clear about what I said before. If Marvel decided to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, then they should hopefully try and tell a different story. If they decided to cast a white actor, which they did, they should write their story accordingly, and if they do it well, should be an interesting story to hear. Judging by their casting choice, I can take a guess as to what kind of story.

Remember that Danny Rand starts off as an arrogant, whiny little rich kid asshole? Well, take a look at Finn Jones, the actor chosen for the role, and tell me if you find him believable in this role.

I mean, christ, I absolutely believe that this little asshole would be a rich snob. Look at that fucking arrogant half smile and his pretty boy curly locks of blond hair. He is a popped-collar with a face. If Axe cologne sprouted legs and did less date-raping, it would look like this.

Ugh. Jesus christ. I mean, I know hes a good actor, and Im sure hes a good guy in real life, but he just looks so fuckingpunchable. Really. He looks like such a rich, spoiled brat that the only thing I want to do is push his fucking teeth in with my fist.

Alright, so lets play a game. I think weve well-established that Finn Jones is well-cast as a rich, snobby, arrogant, whiny rich boy. But what would it be like if we cast an Asian actor instead?
Ugh. Jesus christ. I mean, Im sure hes a good guy in real life, but his face just looks sopunchable? Really? He looks like such arich? Spoiled? Brat? I want to knock his teeth inBUT NOT BECAUSE IM RACIST. Its just, hes much better off than me? Or something.

Now try this one on for size:

How about this:

The point that Im trying to make is that it is safe to hate on rich white dudes. Its not completely unpalatable to look at an entitled white boy and think, Man, I really hate him. Thinking back to Danny Rands backstory, it seems that casting anything other than a white guy would beuncomfortable.

Remember Elsa? The race of the character doesnt really matter at least, not in the same way that the race of the protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire does. But there are a few ethnicities that add certain elements to the story that can change (and, I would argue, improve) it. I think Danny Rands race is something like this. Does it matter what race he is? Not really, but depending on his background, the story will change. In this case, they are hopefully playing up the "personal growth" aspect to the story, by starting Danny Rand off as a completely hateable jerk. 

Now, again, they didnt have to cast a white guy or keep his backstory entirely the same. This is one of many stories that they could have told, and if told well, could be an interesting one. But, still, I mean, cmon. Isnt a white guy doing kung-fu kinda silly?

5.       Kung-Fu Fun for Everyone!

Look, the idea that another Asian actor has to be hired for another role as a martial artist is so fucking silly and backwards, its hard for me to even take it seriously. All youre doing by placing an Asian actor in that role is reinforcing the same old tired All Asians Know Kung-Fu stereotype. I think we need to remember that any representation is not the same as positive representation, and to be honest, another Asian kung-fu fighter doesnt strike me as moving in the right direction. So instead of talking about that, I want to talk about kung-fu movies instead.

Maybe its just me, but I think a lot of the misunderstanding about this issue is coming from people who think of Danny Rand as a kung-fu superhero and not a kung-fu superhero. Because really, we have a ton of superheroes who are white, and we have a ton of superheroes who fight, so this is the same thing, right? Well, no. Kung-fu is a complete genre, which means it has certain tropes and themes that regularly appear. One of those themes is egalitarianism, and another is The Outsider.

Very often in kung-fu movies the people will be in peril. Off the top of my head, Ip Man and The Chinese Connection focus specifically on being colonized. Iron Monkey, Come Drink With Me and Hero are all about oppressive governments. And yet, in these films, kung-fu is the great equalizer. If you can discipline yourself, train every day, and work hard, you can find the strength to protect the people. Frequently, a person or a group of persons is in possession of some kung-fu secret or a mystical weapon that they refuse to share. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does this with the sword. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is entirely about this trope. And finally, many times the hero or protagonist is someone that is either foreign to the land or culture -- like in Return of the Dragon or Rumble in the Bronx -- is an undesirable like in Legend of the Drunken Master, Drink With Me, King of Beggars, King of Comedy or is otherwise an outsider. San Ta in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is an orphan and enemy of the state, Bruce Leroy is a weirdo, and the One-armed Swordsman only got one fucking arm.

I want to talk about 36th Chamber for a bit, because I imagine that it might be a mirror for what Danny Rands story will be. In 36th Chamber, San Ta, a well-meaning young student decides he wants to join the rebellion against ghe gubmint. Whoopsie! Now your parents are dead and youre on the run from the army. He hides out in a Shaolin temple, trains hard, trains real hard, and eventually gets elevated to the highest level of kung-fu badass, which directly translated from Chinese is: Kung-Fu Badass. Around this time he begins to fight with the leadership of the temple, which says that kung-fu is for Shaolin monks and Shaolin monks only, whereas San Ta wants to take kung-fu out into the world, teach it to civilians and use it to fight the government. I suspect that Danny Rands story will probably follow a similar path of taking the knowledge that the elders have hidden away in a mystical mountain village and using it for the good of the people.

I don't need to spend much time explaining how Danny Rand may embody being an outsider in both the mystical village where he trains and the homeland he was separated from, do I? And, if Daredevil was any indication, the storyline in Iron Fist may follow a similar path involving corruption at the expense of "the people". Plus, if you really want to be egalitarian, you have to accept the people that you hate the most, and acknowledge their abilities, if they train hard enough, that is. The training is very important in the kung-fu genre. So important, that most movies have very little "fighting"and shit ton of training. If you need examples: The Legend of the Drunken Master has something like three fight scenes, Return of the Dragon has maaaaybe two, The Karate Kid pretty much has one if you don't count "just getting your ass kicked", and depending on your definition of "fighting", 36th Chamber has zero.

Like I said in the beginning, people are afraid that we're getting Avatar but with punching. They're afraid that Danny Rand, this white boy, comes into this Asian culture and is instantly way, way better at kung-fu than all these people practicing their entire lives. If they keep the original backstory, your fears should be assuaged because A) he grows up in the mystical village as well and B) he's not necessarily "better"or "the best" so much as he is the one willing to take the kung-fu out of this hermitage in the mountains. More importantly, just showing up and being better is completely antithetical to everything the kung-fu genre stands for. If they want to include these themes, Danny is going to have to training montage a lot.

Look, Ive argued that Dannys whiteness makes him more believable as a smug asshole. Ive argued that his whiteness and not his ancestry emphasis the anyone can learn kung-fu trope common to the genre. Ive argued that being an outsider is typically a good thing in these types of movies, but none of this means that Danny necessarily be white. A second or third-generation Asian-American character would have served just as well for a lot of these cases, and while I can easily hate a rich white guy, its not a huge stretch of the imagination to hate a rich anything. So, the question is, did Marvel make the right choice in casting a white actor for this role?

The answer, the objective answer, is that we wont know until we binge-watch all the episodes over a weekend.

And we both just spent a lot of time reading and writing this long-ass article for nothing.
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