Recently there was an article in the New York Times written by a Umpangan Ampikaipakan which, -as far as I could understand- argues from his Malaysian perspective that the values of American superheroism is universal such that non-Americans could relate to them too. This has caused some controversy because he (perhaps accidentally or not) implies that the push for diversity in comics is actually unnecessary. Of course, this runs counter to all the work and struggles that minorities are putting in to push for more diversity in popular media. Also he has misinterpreted white culture as the entire American culture, where the people in this excellent video explain in detail.
I’m here to say that as a Chinese-Malaysian, I too disagree with the article. Far from being oxymorons, we do need Asian superheroes. More generally, we need to see more diversity in the popular culture we consume. Much of which comes from the US.
I believe this is the argument presented by the article: (1) The main draws of superheroism are individualism, justice and self-confidence. (2) Asian values, as the article says, are “humility, self-effacement, respect for elders and communal harmony.” (3) These Asian values are not the same as those in superheroism. (4) Therefore, Asian superheroes are a contradiction by definition – hence, an oxymoron(?!)
The implication which follows from the above points was that non-American Asians consume and enjoy superhero media for the superhero values in point 1, and not the Asian values in point 2. Therefore the push for diversity by Asian-Americans in comic books is not necessary to us. That, I believe is the strong source of contention and criticisms on that article.
First, let me get the obvious out of the way: Heroes in Asian culture do exist and are celebrated. The article dismisses Japanese examples like Astro Boy and Devilman as rip-offs of American values. Even if I’d grant him this point, there are Asian heroes whose identities are rooted deep within their values and cultures. It’s just that they may have fallen out of the article’s narrow scope of comic books because most of them pre-date that medium. Hua Mulan’s tale gives us a positive story of familial piety and feminism, Chen Zhen and Wong Fei Hung represents Chinese nationalism and standing up for the oppressed. (The oppressor, respectively, being the Japanese and the British.)
Despite what the article claims, representation and diversity is important to non-Americans too. Especially in Malaysia, a country which I share with the author.
Representation matters. Many people have talked at length explaining why. No one can deny the resonant impact of seeing someone who looks like you being the hero rather than the villain or the sidekick. Especially if you are seven years old. Sure, the author can relate to, and be inspired by a white Peter Parker. But that’s because a white Peter Parker is all we’ve got. We are just getting by with what little we have.
Representation matters especially with regards to how Asians are portrayed in contrast with the white, male heroes. Asian men, especially in Hollywood, has been portrayed to be non-sexual creatures with inferior masculinity compared to their non-Asian couterparts. Whereas Asian women according to Hollywood, games, books and comic books, are hyper-sexualised and fetishised. On the other hand, white women are not fetishised sexually like Asian women and they rarely are the protagonists of the story, altogether being sidelined.
Since Asians and Europeans alike are constantly being bombarded with these portrayals, it’s not surprising that all of us have internalised these stereotypes, and these influences our behaviour in real life. Are Asian women more desirable partners than white women? Are Asian men less desirable partners than white men? Marriage statistics such as this one seem to consistent with those statements. (Though of course other socio-economic factors influence these statistics as well.)
For thisreason, I like the idea of having an Asian-American actor cast as the lead in the upcoming Iron Fist show in Netflix, and also why I absolutely love Ming-Na Wen’s cool, competent and non-fetishised portrayal as Melinda May in Agents of SHIELD.
While May is Chinese(-American, but Chinese nonetheless), her Chinese heritage was not stereotyped and feels genuine. More importantly, her heritage wasn’t played up for comedy or as a narrative shorthand like they did in Transformers.
It’s all fine and good, but the one moment that sparked great joy for me was a Season 3 episode where she goes undercover as a Chinese businesswoman with Mockingbird as her interpreter. They used this cover to their advantage by speaking Chinese which no one else in the room could understand. This is where the “representation matters” moment clicked for me. Not only Melinda’s Chinese heritage wasn’t played for laughs or stereotyped, her looks and language was actually valuable to the team! A Chinese-American person isn’t just tolerated, but welcomed, respected, and plays a unique tactical role for SHIELD! While May’s nationality was different from mine, we share the same ethnicity. When she spoke Chinese, I didn’t need the subtitles. I already understand everything she’s saying. And the bad guys do not!
Peter Parker, as inspiring to Ampikaipakan as he may be, could never give us what Melinda May does. Because Peter Parker is not Asian.
Speaking now in a larger context, each agent’s unique role (not just May) in SHIELD could teach us (young Malaysians, in particular) how different cultural identities shouldn’t merely be tolerated and respected, but strengthens a group when they are unified in a common cause.
Why does Ampikaipakan claim that the push for diversity doesn’t make sense to non-Americans? Like in the US, race and religion is an ongoing issue in Malaysia. And sometimes it gets ugly.
The difference between here and America is that these anxieties aren’t played out in popular media. Mostly because the anxieties and tensions might get too high, such media would be shut down or censored by the government for reasons such as “to avoid inciting racial tensions”.
This is why having diverse media from other countries might help. Instead of films and shows depicting how the different races in Malaysia cope their differences, we see how Asian-Americans cope with white Americans, or with African-Americans. Or how Muslims co-exist with Christians, etc.
It is not close to home, and thus any material regarding race and cultures isn’t as volatile. And with the right story, with the right message, we finally get to see shows and comics like SHIELD showing characters of different background and religions accepting each others qualities and understand that everyone has a role to play.
This, again, could only be done with a diverse cast of characters. A whitewashed, monochromatic group of characters, if just transposed to the viewer’s own race (like Ampikaipakan transposed Peter Parker to himself), will just absorb a mono-cultural ideal. How different cultures co-exist with each other isn’t addressed.
It is also hardly surprising that gender and feminism are ongoing issues here, just like in many other countries. Malaysia is still largely a conservative, patriarchal society. If increased representation of women helps gender equality in the “West”, then in the same way, we need it here too. It would be good to have positive female role models like Furiosa, Peggy Carter, Rey, Melinda May and Gemma Simmons; to show female characters who are equal, if not better than men who deserve to be respected and not objectified, and that girls to can be encouraged to participate in STEM jobs and industries.
Obviously, the American film and comics industry have no obligation to shape their media to the benefits of non-Americans. I have been hoping to show that what America puts out influences us here. Also the push for diversity benefits America as much as everyone else. Especially since so much of American pop-culture and media are consumed by the rest of the world.
Asian heroes (super or otherwise) have their own unique perspective, as do other cultures and genders. These stories get left out if we stick with the white-male-as-default heroes. To say that these default white-male stories are “universal” might possibly mean that their culture has been overwritten over our collective consciousness. Why can’t our stories be universal instead? Many stories are inherently universal regardless of where they came from. But for some reason we seem to dismiss our own stories in favour of others.
Representation matters because not all humans are white men. Different culture and genders have different stories to tell. It is nice to be acknowledged every once in a while.