I’ve always been in love with superheroes.
As a kid, one of the very first movies I ever saw was the classic “Superman,” featuring the peerless Christopher Reeve as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, who moonlights as the larger-than-life Superman to safeguard truth, justice, and the American way. I was captivated by everything about it—dressing up in a silly costume, soaring through the air, and doing whatever it took to save lives and protect people.
But most of all, I loved that I saw a skinny guy with black hair and glasses save the world over and over again.
As I stared up at that television, wearing my thick-as-hell plastic glasses and sporting a bowl cut to end all bowl cuts, it felt like I had found a sense of kinship and hope every time I saw Christopher Reeve. I was too young to have the words to articulate my own racial identity, too young to know that I wouldn’t have been able to easily find Asian American stars in the television and movies I watched, and too young to understand how myopically racialized our society was and remains. But even at that age, tiny John knew that that hero on the screen looked a little bit like me, and tiny John knew that mattered.
As I grew up, I became increasingly frustrated with a broader American culture that doesn’t even see or even acknowledge Asian Americans as part of society. Depending on the situation, we’re perceived as perpetual foreigners (people love to compliment me on how “I don’t have an accent.” I grew up in Virginia. English is my first language), fetishized and sexualized, or—the most common situation—completely ignored as an invisible, harmless “model minority.” This constant struggle to even be seen is why the controversy over Marvel’s “Iron Fist” is particularly challenging for me.
If you’re not familiar, Marvel’s new television show, “Iron Fist,” tells the story of Danny Rand, a superhero who’s a master of martial arts and has a variety of wondrous powers. Danny acquires his power and skill when his family is stranded in the Himalayas, as he studies and grows up in a mystical Asian sanctuary. As you might imagine from the description, Danny’s story is rife with cultural appropriation, in addition to being another example of the all-too-common “white savior” trope, where a white protagonist swooping turns out to be the key to solving all of the problems of people of color. In the 1970s (when Iron Fist first appeared), this kind of appropriation-as-homage was much more common; now, we’re more accustomed to challenging our art to be more representative and more whole.
When comics fans like me learned that “Iron Fist” would be the next television series from Marvel, we were ecstatic. Asian-American and POC activists felt like this was our chance, given how progressive media and filmmaking had become, to reshape the character from a white savior into one that explored the complexities of Asian-American identity. Who better than Iron Fist to broach the issues of belonging, multiple identities, and race in America? On the heels of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage,” we were excited that “Iron Fist” would be a gritty street drama crafted from the same mold, but also hopeful that it would expand that world to include stories that encompass the Asian American experience. We knew that there were so many cases of whitewashing, white savior complexes, and erasure of Asian American characters and stories, from “Ghost in the Shell” to “The Great Wall” to “Aloha,” but we somehow still had hope.
That’s why so many of us felt betrayed after learning that Danny would remain a white character and the story would thus retain the problematic and deeply uncomfortable cultural appropriation of the original character from the 1970s. AAPI and POC activists and groups were outraged, organizing around the #AAIronFist campaign. The only response we were given was that Marvel had chosen to keep Danny as a white character because they wanted to tell an “outsider” story, presumably because Danny felt like an outsider surrounded by Asian folks?
Let me tell you: As an Asian-American, I feel like an outsider in my own country, every day.
As an Asian American (and as a hetero Asian man), I face stereotypes daily that don’t begin to describe the totality of my life. As an adoptee with white parents, I don’t speak the language or know the traditions of my ethnicity, but in our racialized society, I’m lumped in with a monolithic group of people. Ever since I was a kid watching “Superman” on VHS, I’ve sought home and belonging from a country that I love, but have never been able to find it.
And I’m not alone. Asian Americans are encouraged to assimilate and “be white” from a very early age, or risk being a foreign “other.” But that artificial, racist binary shouldn’t define us, and shouldn’t preclude our stories from being shared. Despite the unfortunate casting of “Iron Fist” and countless other movies and television shows, Asian American voices need to be heard. We’re not just plucky sidekicks, submissive geishas, or nerdy hackers in the background. The Asian American experience is so much more rich and complex than the tired storylines and tropes of a hyper-racialized society.
Asian Americans are a large group with lots of different kinds of people; we’re 18 million strong and are the fastest growing racial group in America. We represent a vast diversity of ethnicities and languages, income levels, faith traditions, and beliefs. As long as our real, human stories remain untold, we’re still completely invisible. That’s why I made a movie with a complex, human, Asian American superhero.
Until “Iron Fist” becomes the exception, and not the rule, Asian Americans will remain an absent, erased, and forgotten part of our country.