Imagine growing up as a child, watching characters that make you cheer, or smile, or cry on the small and silver screens. Imagine wanting to practice the same craft that the actors and actresses that embody these characters practice. Imagine that after years of hard work, of study, of hustling and grinding to make your dreams come true to realize that such roles that made you cheer, or smile, or laugh, or even cry are not really there, for you. That the leading role that you auditioned for will more than likely go to someone else and you’ll be asked to audition for the role of the stereotypical best friend, the neighbour, the acquaintance, or antagonist instead. In reality, this sequence of events holds more truth than fiction, and exceedingly more truth if you’re an actor or actress of Asian descent. In reality, it may mean moving to the home country that your parents left in order to have and give you a better life to have the opportunity to be a lead in a romantic comedy or action movie. In reality, the opportunities for actors and actresses of Asian descent in Hollywood is small and such dreams of starring as the romantic lead or action star are hard to realize.
When I first saw the campaign for an Asian American actor to take on the lead role of Danny Rand in Marvel’s Netflix series Iron Fist, I was pretty excited and happily joined in #AAIronFist. (Thank you, Keith Chow for kicking off and championing that entire campaign.) I was already fantasy casting the role in my mind. The number of Asian American actors who had the skills to take on such a role were plentiful and easily named off the top of my head. I was excited at the possibility to see an Asian male lead a series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when no other comic book franchise has made such a move before. I was excited to see a story that I had not seen before, one in which would bring a whole new perspective to how Asians, especially Asian American men, are seen in media and society. I was excited at the possibility of all the possibilities that lay before Marvel, and then Marvel announced it had cast a white guy in the role of Danny Rand. (No hate for Finn Jones, though I think some social media training and a few educational books might be of some great help for the dude.) As a woman of Chinese descent, as a Chinese-Canadian woman, I was disheartened and pissed. I also made the decision then and there to strike the series from my Netflix queue and it’s a decision that I haven’t and won’t regret.
Marvel had a chance to break ground by casting an Asian American actor in the lead role of Danny Rand. It had a chance to correct, or at least alleviate, the whole host of problematic issues plaguing the Iron Fist series from cultural appropriation to erasure to Orientalism and this insidious white saviour trope. Iron Fist was created in the 1970s at height kung-fu craze in the United States, a craze teemed full of erasure and cultural appropriation, and Marvel had a chance to correct all of that, but it chose not to. It chose to stick with comic canon, it chose to perpetuate these antiquated and racist ideas, and it chose to go down a well-worn road instead of forging new ground. It’s a choice I suspected would come to haunt them and if the now released reviews of the first six episodes are anything to go by then that prediction is definitely coming true.
The story that Marvel chose to tell in Iron Fist isn’t a new one; it’s actually one that we’ve seen many times over since the surge of comic book based movies and television series moved into the mainstream. Billionaires’ son, presumed dead but actually alive, rescued and trained by individuals of Asian descent to survive and thrive who eventually return home to reclaim their titles and avenge their murdered parents and/or their own tragic accidents is one that we’ve seen before, in Batman Begins, in Arrow, in Doctor Strange, and even a bit in Iron Man. It’s a tired tale and one that in comparison to the other Marvel Netflix series like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage would more than likely going to fall flat on its face. The fact that the behind the scenes team of Iron Fist had no prominent member of Asian descent on their staff, made me even more wary of the show in general.
The many reasons that individuals offered up against casting an Asian American actor in the role of Danny Rand came reigning in before, throughout, and even after Finn Jones was cast in the role and even today. Most of the reasons revolved around the perpetual and antiquated notion of comic canon. “In the comics Danny Rand is white. You’re changing the story if you cast an Asian American in the role of Danny Rand. This is what the Iron Fist comics are about. Stop playing the race card. Stop trying to push identity politics into everything. You’re going to continue the Asian stereotype that all Asian guys do is practice kung-fu, etc. etc. etc.” And all of that reasoning, in my opinion, is complete and utter bullshit. Bullshit, plain and simple. Changing the ethnicity of Danny Rand wouldn’t have changed the essence of the story Iron Fist, the story of an outsider trying to discover who he is in the world; it would’ve enhanced it in my opinion.
The story of being an outsider in North America is one shared by many first- and second-generation individuals of not only Asian descent but by most individuals who are children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves. It’s a story that generations of Indigenous peoples and African-Americans have carried. It’s a story I share. Being a child of immigrants has always meant that I’ve straddled the line between the society and culture that I was born into and grew up in and the one that my parents brought with them when they immigrated to Canada. I have very liberal Canadian values, I identify as an intersectional feminist, but I also hold the traditions of my Chinese culture close to my heart.
While English was not my first language, it’s the one that I most easily communicate in and express myself in today. While I look Chinese, the moment I stepped foot into China, most native Chinese people could immediately tell that I was not one of them. And I’m not one of them. I am different from them and they could see that and so can I. (There even exists a Cantonese slang word to identify people like me, people who straddle the lines of culture and traditions of the West and the one that their parents were born in, ‘jook-sing’.)
All of these different factors make up who I am today. Quite often, it’s these same factors that have separated me from the predominantly white society in the country that I’ve grown up in and the countries that my parents immigrated from. These types of differences, of experiences, would’ve added so much more depth and story to the character of Danny Rand if they Marvel had chosen to cast an Asian American in the role. But they didn’t.
That missed opportunity to tell such a story is predominately why I’ve chosen not to watch and subsequently support the series. It’s that missed opportunity that gutted me the most when Marvel announced it had cast a white male actor in the role of Danny Rand. It’s that missed opportunity to see an Asian male character lead a series, have a romantic interest, be a billionaire scion, a hero, a martial artist, a multifaceted character searching for their place in the world that stings. It’s that missed opportunity that is making me a little delightfully happy when so many critics are repeatedly saying that the storyline so far seen in the first six episodes is bland and dull. (If it all comes crashing down around them, which it looks like it might, I can’t promise I won’t raise a glass in celebration of that fact because #petty.)
Opportunities matter. Representation matters. Good storytelling matters. And all of that can intersect with one another to create something powerful, lasting, and entertaining. I think it would have been absolutely amazing to see an Asian American actor embody the role of Danny Rand. I think it would’ve been inspiring and opened up more opportunities for greater representation of Asians Americans in media. I think it would have helped to change the ways that many Americans, Canadians, Brits, etc. see Asians, really see who we are, where we come from and where were going beyond the stereotypical roles that Hollywood has cast Asians in before. Even more so because of the platform and scope that airing a show like this on Netflix would have. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and I’m not going to spend my time on something that holds zero interest for me. I do hope that Marvel learns from all of this and creates more opportunities for greater representation for all races and ethnicities in front and behind the screens. I do hope that one day a person of Asian descent can have the same and equal opportunities to the same type of roles that they saw actors and actresses embody from their favourite television shows or movies from when they were growing up.