IRON FIST, Cultural Appropriation in Media and Racism in Comics
As I sit down to write this the Netflix Iron Fist show is only days away from being released. For months Iron Fist, with little being known about it other than the casting and a few basic trailers, has been getting slammed for its alleged “white washing”, racism and exotification of Asian culture. These statements have some truth worth examining. Such hot button issues within the entertainment industry rarely sees a dialog that rises above the level of “how dare they” versus “changing things is politically correct pandering”. Despite being yet another middle class white male I hope to lay out for you a more nuanced interrogation of these challenging issues and as you’ll see I have a unique point of view to do so.
My first disclaimer here is that I am writing this not having seen any of the advanced screenings and remaining mostly spoiler free on Iron Fist. I know very little about who’s in the show or what it’s premise is going to be. So my opinion in these matters might change drastically after the release. If that does happen you might see a follow up review. Stay tuned to Outright Geekery for more.
I am going to start with two statements; 1, Asian culture, especially the martial arts, has rarely been accurately represented in mainstream American comic books. 2, No other group has had more racist stereotypes thrown at them in that medium than Asians. African Americans in the Golden Age of comics were often portrayed as barely educated but beloved sidekicks and comedic gags. Ebony White, Lothar and the like. Including a character appearing in early Timely Comics actually called “White Wash’. I am not excusing any of that at all nor denying that racism takes a myriad of forms. Some of which appear to be complementary. For comparison nearly every Asian in comics at the time was villainous. Claw handed, fanged and intent on murderous violence. A depiction that often left them barely recognizable as humans.
The dark skinned savage cannibal who kidnapped white women often lived in some far off exotic locale. The exact same personifications towards Asians was shown to be right under our noses. Those mysterious pulp era jungle natives could be from anywhere; Africa, the South Pacific, India, South America. It didn’t seem to matter. But Asian cultural tropes are always clearly recognizable within these devilish personifications. You didn’t have to get stranded on some unknown island to encounter a rampaging man-beast who could barely speak the pidgin English that even the Native American characters were afforded. Behind every antique shop in “Chinatown” was a den of these creatures. Ready to pounce on the innocent law abiding white folks. The Yellow Peril was alive and coming for Western civilization. And this was BEFORE the war years. It would only get worse.
If you doubt any of this Google “Detective Comics #1″ and keep in mind that what you see is, by comparison, not the worst representation. The early days of National Allied Publications and Timely Comics are filled with much worse on a fairly regular basis. You might think it was relegated to some lesser characters that no one remembers like Barry O’Neill or Sandra of the Secret Service. Even Captain America had run ins with the Fu-Manchu opium trolls of those days.
It would also continue for much longer. As late as 1960 we had the character of Thomas “Pieface” Kalmaku in Green Lantern. An Inuit named after a common racial slur of the times that was used towards all people even remotely Asian. Revisionists and apologists will later claim that the name is a reference to Eskimo Pies (as if Eskimo isn’t an offensive racial term either). This defense makes about as much sense as if you were to name an African American character with the most infamous racial slur of all time and claim that it’s about a river in West Africa and not about racism.
But something interesting was happening in American culture in the post-war years. Westerners were exposed to actual Asian martial arts and to a lesser degree the philosophies, history and cultures that informed those martial arts. No more “Judo chop!” It is not within the scope of this essay to give a detailed account of the assimilation of Asian martial arts culture into the mainstream of American life but I do want to skip ahead and talk about my own personal experience of this since I grew up reaping the rewards of that cultural appropriation and assimilation.
I was born in the mid seventies. My family owned comic store where I spent countless hours. At the same time, America was being invaded by Asian pop culture on an unprecedented level. Bruce Lee and Gojira were two towering cultural symbols of my childhood that eclipsed virtually everything Western, with the possible exception of Star Wars. Enterprising TV producers, like Sandy Frank, were bringing anime like Speed Racer, Yamato and Gatchaman to television
For me, something that become more important than comics and cartoons was the tidal wave of Kung Fu movies hitting television. I can still remember the first one I ever saw, the Shaw Brothers “Venom Mob” movie, The Kid with the Golden Arm. I couldn’t have been older than four or five years old as I sat spellbound in front of the TV and marveled at the incredible super human display of action. The violent dance of color. The dramas of honor and revenge. Immediately, I demanded my father start tapping the various movies broadcast locally under the “Black Belt Theater” and “Kung Fu Theater” monikers which were usually run on weekends after Saturday morning cartoons and a Godzilla flick or two.
Martial arts become one of my principle passions in life, along with comic books. Everyday, I would watch these movies on a loop and imitate what I saw. My poor parents became a bit worried about all this and enrolled me at a local Kung Fu school by age eight. Most of my childhood was spent immersed in training in traditional Chinese martial arts and reading comics. Which, when I did read I naturally gravitated towards books that depicted martial arts of some kind. Principally, the adventures of two Marvel bronze age characters; Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist the Living Weapon.
Both exploitation characters developed with virtually no understanding of the martial arts except in what was gleamed from the “Kung Fu craze” of the seventies. But they were good enough for me and together they seemed to mirror something I was seeing in this intersection of cultures that had a deep personal resonance for me.
Iron Fist was usually depicted as just an action character. Seldom any of his adventures had much depth and seemed to be based on pure action and entertainment. But for me there was still something powerful coded into this character. This white Westerner who had been saved by and granted superhuman abilities and a sense of honor by his exposure to Asian culture. Rand seemed to be on a quest of simplicity, authenticity and perfection. I found the character to be an almost perfect match of what I was subjectively experiencing immersed in martial arts training and an example of what I wanted to be.
Master of Kung Fu on the other hand, especially in the later issues, was an oddly and overtly philosophical book that seemed at odds with the action format itself. Shang-Chi the book seemed to want to escape the control of the Western comic book paradigm just as much as the eponymous character fought to get away from his own father. Both characters had parallel yet diametrically opposed trajectories. Danny Rand the Westerner was moving towards Asian martial arts virtues while Shang-Chi moved away from the traditional family and hierarchical roles that were expected of him towards a more individualized and Western sense of self. This is why I think it is important to discuss these two characters in relation to each other. A Westerner moving towards The East and an Easterner moving towards The West.
It is important to remember that prior to The Karate Kid in 1984 depictions of Westerners practicing and mastering Asian martial arts was fairly rare. Danny Rand was an anomaly and the only obvious role model to follow for a Kung Fu obsessed child like myself. In 1980 we have the film The Octagon starring Chuck Norris. A year later, Enter the Ninja the first in Canon Film’s long line of breakout ninja movies. Both featured a white Westerner mastering Asian martial arts and ultimately killing an Asian “brother in arms” gone bad character. In the case of The Octagon, it was legitimate martial arts legend Tadashi Yamashita. In Enter The Ninja, Sho Kosugi.
Canon’s ninja movies were also interesting in that while this first installment starring the hilariously badly dubbed Italian actor Franco Nero the following two were much more popular and would feature, front and center without any apology, a strong leading Asian actor in Sho Kosugi the villain of the first movie. Kosugi’s performances were so magnetic that he practically created the 80s ninja craze with his two starring roles in Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III The Domination.
There were other comic characters of course like Richard Dragon and The Legion of Superheroes’ Karate Kid. These were deep dive back issue characters that were not easily found among my father’s store stock. Which brings us to the elephant in the room, the 1972-1975 TV show Kung Fu starring David Carradine. A clear case of actually offensive white washing in both the casting and production as the show was hijacked from a Bruce Lee idea and had Carradine cast as the half-Asian Kwai Chang Caine. In Kung Fu the show attempts to be both Eastern and Western and ultimately fails at each and we have neither. As Carradine’s performance plays just as much at offensive Asian stereotypes as Jerry Lewis did just in a different way.
For awhile, Danny Rand was the only real game in town. As much as I idolized them and wanted to be them, I simply could not be Sho Kosugi or Gordon Liu or Bruce Lee or Philip Kwok. But I could be Danny Rand. On one level I knew that. But on another, as we’ll see, I was also rejecting that.
Here is where I am going to lose some of you and generate eye rolls from many more of you. Yes, Danny Rand was a unique (at that time) cultural symbol that mirrored my own experiences and I loved him for that. Truthfully, however I was much more into the Shang-Chi book. And that’s because deep down I did not see myself as a white Westerner. Maybe it was being exposed to all those Hong Kong and Kurosawa movies and the comics and anime. I saw myself as one of the people in those stories. Spiritually speaking. As I fantasized about these stories I would imagine myself being reborn in 17th century China. Being a hero who fought the ubiquitous villains in all those movies, the evil Manchu Dynasty.
I know how that sounds and the truth is that while I was seeing this culture as superior to the one I was born into, admittedly it was still based on my own Western notions of the “exotic Orient” and what I was seeing was through the exaggerated lens of movies and comics. I am self aware at this point to realize that I was indeed exotifying “the Other”. My entry point into this was not based necessarily on Western superiority as much as it was to escape Western culture. In the historical, mystical and martial cultures of Asia I saw some kind of transcendent archetypal way to experience that. I related to Danny Rand but I wanted to be Shang-Chi. And yeah I was eight years old.
Rand’s unique cultural niche would be destroyed in the wake of 1984’s Karate Kid. What was once an oddity would become the norm. Dozens of movies made in America tried to capitalize on the Karate Kid phenomena. Rarities such as Iron Fist, The Octagon and Enter the Ninja would turn out to be prophetic as the white savior become the template. No Retreat No Surrender, Gymkata, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, American Kickboxer. The list goes on and on. Canon which once proudly attempted to make Sho Kosugi a legitimate Hollywood action star (way before the break out success of Jackie Chan) now rebranded their profitable Ninja franchise as American Ninja starring Michael Dudikoff. Posters and VHS boxes would show Dudikoff in front of an American flag dominating a faceless ninja.
The perfect visual symbol of the emerging archetype of the All American master of mystical martial arts. Ironically, Hong Kong at this time would begin to move away from straight martial arts films. Moving into the arguably more American genre era of police and criminal action films with the likes of John Woo and the “gun-fu” craze. It is this later period from the mid 80s on that most people talk about when they discuss cultural appropriation in regards to Asian martial arts and cinema. But it is important to remember that in the 70s and early 80s this was not entirely the case.
Asian culture and martial arts has had a complex and mixed relationship with and within Western media. Danny Rand was at one time an example of a unique point of view. One that existed before the outright Western assimilation of Asian media. Is it fair to lump him in with all that came after? Even if he is an early example and herald of what was to come? I am inclined to say no but I am biased on my own childhood resonance with the character. We can’t get away from the truth that Rand is a white character made by white creators to appeal to white readers.
Iron Fist’s place in the cultural landscape in this regard does warrant a deeper discussion on Cultural Appropriation in general. I don’t feel that I can do that sufficiently and fairly enough in this piece. I am trying to hit as many ideas as I can. Perhaps I can throw some questions out there to ponder. Again, my cultural upbringing might not have given me enough sensitivity in these things. Yes, it would be fair to be skeptical of what I have to say. However, I am often alarmed at the extreme dualism and tribalism inherent in this discussion. A discussion that for the most part lacks any real context or gradients.
I, like most fairly liberal people, cringe when I see some middle class DudeBro at a frat party wearing a traditional Native American head dress or when I see a suburban soccer mom painting her kids up in Dia de Muertos makeup for Halloween. But I also have to ask, where do we draw the line? And who draws that line? Online cultural and morality police have not held back on informing us that virtually every type of cultural appropriation is by definition “bad”. Implying that all appropriation is in fact exploitation. I reject this sweeping notion that denies the importance of context and usage. So I have to ask. Should white people not play blues music? Or jazz, rock n’ roll, ska, reggae or hip hop? Should no one other than male Indian men of certain castes practice yoga? How many people are suddenly Irish on St Patrick’s Day?
Was it cultural appropriation and exploitation when Santeria incorporated the Catholic Saints? Should the Brazilians not have come up with their own take on the Japanese art of Jujitsu? Should we not learn how to make burritos? Or become sushi chefs? Should I never have learned martial arts? Are all these examples universally negative and exploitation? No, like all things involving humans it is a mixed bag. Hard to judge with sweeping generalizations and dualistic terms.
Danny Rand the character and the casting of a white actor to play him (as the creators envisioned him) is hardly the same thing as the recent train wreck that is the alleged Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon. Something I think would be obvious but to some there is no difference at all. Just as they think all cultural appropriation is a sin and that DNA is essentially a copyright.
Which leads us to the sticky debate on race/gender/sexuality swapping in these characters. All of the discussions around that swapping is underpinned by one question; Is there some inherent quality about being A that prevents it from being B? In relation to just about all the changes people get irrate about and take to the internet for, it is a big fat “NO!”. Is there something inherent in being female that prevents one from being worthy of the power of Thor? Is there something inherent in being an African American actor that excludes playing Jimmy Olsen? From a female American Muslim being the new Ms Marvel?
If you think so then you are probably a racist or sexist. You are basing that on the idea that deep down there are fundamental differences between people that disqualify them from being characters who while they were traditionally only created as white males (because that’s who was writing and drawing them) but are meant to have wide general appeal and embody universal truths. Somehow that person believes that “blackness” is inherently incompatible with “whiteness”. Straightness with queerness. The feminine with the masculine. The only way you can think that is if you have a model of hierarchical value judgements at work in your map of reality that say some things are superior and others inferior.
We are dealing with the superhero which usually embodies broad qualities of morality, strength, and competency that should be universal to humanity. You begin to see why there is a problem when there is such vitriolic reaction against race/gender/sexuality swapping. It is judging people in the negative for the qualities of race, gender and sexuality. It upholds the idea that behind the superficial and culturally imposed differences we are not all equal in value. Also, that there is not shared human experience open to us all and able to be expressed through these characters. Let’s not even pretend that no matter what you think about Bat-fleck the most perfect choice for Bruce Wayne would have been Idris Elba. Don’t even pretend.
Usually this gets turned around by the counter claim, “What if we made Black Panther white?” Remember that fundamental question and let’s apply it here. Is there something inherent in being white that would prevent someone from playing Black Panther? Well yes of course there is. Black Panther is the sovereign King of an African nation. We can see that most cis white male characters are created in some kind of vague sense of general appeal. The race/gender/sexuality is basically meaningless in that context. Thus open to diverse interpretation. Characters who were created with a specific race or gender or sexuality in mind are resistant to this. Those traits are defining aspects of the character as intended.
I’ve also always been amused that so many comic fans who spend much of their time in fictional worlds that have alternate timelines, multiple earths, infinite possible futures. Elseworlds and What ifs that all contain countless variations on these characters. An adapted version is often demanded to meet some sort of traditional and conservative status quo. Usually based on whenever that person started reading comics. Even within standard continuities change is constant. If Golden Age Superman and the Superman of Mort Weisenger’s Silver Age didn’t share the same costume and name you’d never be able to see a similarity. One was a rampaging social crusader prone to violence and threats. The other an overpowered Dad with all sorts of neurotic domestic problems.
Danny Rand presents us with a problem in this regard. I’ve laid out Rand’s position of a white outsider to the world he ends up involved in is central. Both to the character and for me the thing that I, and I suspect others, really relate to. Would there have been something lost in regards to Rand’s characterization with the casting of an Asian actor? It’s possible. At the same time it’s worth pointing out that decades of immigration and globalization (perhaps even “Westernization” of the world) have led to a generation of young Asians who are just as “Western” as I am.
So it would have been possible to cast Danny with a young Asian actor and not only keep intact the aspects of that character involving immersion into a traditional martial arts culture as a means of salvation. It might have an added a level of relevancy and appeal to that audience.Those who lived in the West but who’s parents and grandparents were immigrants.
In the end, I don’t think arguing over whether Danny Rand in the comics or in this upcoming show is racist or white washing is a good use of our time in discussing race in media. Yes, Danny Rand is a white character, developed by white people, to capitalize on Asian culture fads for white people. And yes, they stayed true to the original character and cast a white actor.
The better question which I now lay at the feet of Marvel, Netflix and the producers of these shows is this…
Where is the Shang-Chi show?