Navigating the Harmful Landscape of ‘Iron Fist’

Netflix released a trailer and a sneak peek for its upcoming “Iron Fist” series last week, sending Marvel fans into a frenzy. While the trailer introduced viewers to the show’s plot and characters, the sneak peek focused on Colleen Wing.

Wing, played by Jessica Henwick, is a gifted martial artist who appears to work with Danny Rand, played by Finn Jones.

Of the three notable Asian characters in the show, Wing is the only one so far who seems to not be evil. Lewis Tan’s Zhou Cheng and Wai Ching Ho’s Gao seem to be villains. In a show that uses Asian cultures as its starting point, this is especially frustrating. Marvel has not only ignored calls for Danny Rand to be Asian American but also purposefully placed Asian actors in villainous roles – in November, Tan revealed that he “almost” played the main hero, but was instead made into one of the bad guys.

“Iron Fist” perpetuates a narrative that Asian peoples do not own our own cultures; rather, our cultures are backdrops to make white characters more interesting, relatable, or “exotic.” This narrative is not only Orientalist but also racist and harmful, even if it seems harmless.

Journalist Hoai-Tran Bui explained the harm in an article for USA Today last year: “Insert a white male protagonist in a foreign story to make his journey more relatable, while appropriating the more attractive parts of their culture … it’s also a way of taking away Asians’ place in pop culture, by emasculating them and replacing them with a whiter, more capable face.”

The suggestion that white people are more “capable” or “better” than people of color is a facet of white supremacy. In this way, one could argue that “Iron Fist” perpetuates racism.

At the same time, “Iron Fist” has given jobs to Asian actors – so how do we move forward? Should we boycott the series, as activists pushed for regarding “Dr. Strange”? Or do we support three Asian actors and try to ignore the harmful and Orientalist narrative that “Iron Fist” perpetuates?

One potential middle ground between boycotting the series and ignoring its negative impact is media literacy. Media literacy emphasizes thinking analytically about and evaluating the media that we consume. Through media literacy, we can also examine shows like “Iron Fist” with a critical lens that takes into account race, class, gender, ability, and other markers of marginalization.

But while we watch and think analytically about shows like “Iron Fist,” we still contribute to the coffers of people who refused to change the show’s Orientalist origin story. Does the economic impact of deciding to watch the show negate our critical thinking?

Even while we cheer on the three Asian actors in “Iron Fist,” we can look at the need for representation as a marker of racism: that even having three Asian actors is seen as an impressive feat and that there is a need to support these actors. Until Asian and Asian American representation is commonplace, this demand for support will continue. Until Asians and Asian Americans are seen as universally human, we will feel like we have to support one another.

This is not to say that all our decisions reinforce white supremacy. However, it is important to consider the limitations of consumer activism. Putting our money where our mouth is only goes so far.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive “right” or “wrong” answer to how to move forward with “Iron Fist.” Oppression is complex and multifaceted, and our responses to oppression might be, too. If anything, the way “Iron Fist” places Asians and Asian Americans between a rock and a hard place has demonstrated just how complex our responses can be.

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  1. Ryo 11 months ago

    There are many problems with Iron Fist, obviously, but I think casting a Caucasian actor as the lead is not necessarily the biggest problem. I’m a huge fan of the Iron Fist comics, and something I always appreciated was that while the main character may be Caucasian, he demonstrates an immeasurable respect for the culture in which he was raised and his supporting cast has always been incredibly diverse, with plenty of Asian heroes to boot. Where my concern lies is that the vast majority of Asian characters in these Marvel Netflix shows have been evil. The only exceptions are the old lady from Luke Cage and Elektra and Colleen Wing – both seemingly set up to be exotic love interests/friends with benefits for the titular Caucasian heroes. It was especially depressing to see Asians portrayed in such a negative light in Daredevil Season 2, with the only real redeeming quality being that they were a credible threat near the end. Iron Fist appears like it will continue the tradition of using Asians, particularly Asian males, only as fodder for the hero to beat up. If they could somehow subvert this – by introducing Shang-Chi as a co-protagonist, Lei Kung, or other Immortal Weapons/past Iron Fists to balance the scales, I would be pleasantly surprised. However, it does not appear this series is poised to go such a direction.

    The other thing that I find disturbing is the fortune cookie vibe I get from watching the trailers. Iron Fist looks like a vehicle for Asian stereotypes that is working hard to reduce the presence of actual Asian actors. Danny Rand just comes off as too much of a Sinophile while maintaining a douchey, college frat boy demeanor. It’s a far cry from how he’s portrayed in the comics. Not to mention Finn Jones just does not have the physique to pull off a believable Danny Rand. Lewis Tan is twice as fit, and seeing Finn beat him in a fight is going to be as ridiculous as seeing Jessica Henwick beat up MMA heavyweights.

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