So right off the bat, I want to say that Arthur Chu of Jeopardy-winning fame has already done much of the groundwork for me with his [spoiler-filled] article “Not Your Asian Ninja: How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Keeps Failing Asian-Americans“. In it he recounts his primary disappointment with the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil, namely that the Asians presented in that show are generally villains across the board.
Not only are they of an evil persuasion, they’re also, as the title of his piece implies, mostly ninjas. In terms of sheer volume the vast majority of Asians seen on screen during the season’s 13 episodes are that particular brand of martial artist. The rest are, in terms of representation, gangsters, white collar criminals, and crime lords. It is, as Chu says, “Not a good look.”
He picks the Kitchen Irish, a gang of an obvious ethnic background, as his primary example of the show using nuance with a people group. Matthew Murdock, the titular crimefighter himself, is of Irish descent, and another character nicknamed “Grotto” is a former member of the mob who elicits sympathy from both the show’s cast and its audience. While I understand that Irish heritage is unique and distinct from many others, and that people of Irish descent suffered extreme racism in early American history, what shouldn’t be ignored is the fact that on the surface they are White. As are the members of fellow gang the Dogs of Hell. As are Murdock’s friends Karen Page and Foggy Nelson. As is Frank Castle, the Punisher, as well as newspaper editor Mitchell Ellison. Television is full of White people, and with Daredevil being no exception simply stating that there are varied roles within even one subgroup feels like a given.
Unfortunately, Asians fail even when stacked up against other racial minorities.
Seen above, from left to right, are Claire Temple, nurse, police officer Brett Mahoney, smuggler-who-cannot-catch-a-break Turk Barrett, and Assistant District Attorney Blake Tower. While most of the characters do appear to be upstanding citizens on the straight and narrow, the point is that there’s variation among them. These are also Black New Yorkers who have differing opinions when it comes to their neighbourhood and the vigilante justice that protects it; as the Key & Peele sketch on Black Republicans repeats, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, they’re “not a monolith!”
If the Black characters were split 50/50 “good guys” and “bad guys”, or even if the ratio were reversed, it would still be better than how Asians were portrayed. Almost every one that appears in Season 2 of Daredevil is a stereotype. There’s no additional depth to them beyond simply being antagonists to our hero, and even the higher-ups among them have their motivations shrouded in mystery and are, to refer back to Chu’s article once again, “dare I say it, inscrutable”.
While stereotypes of any kind don’t do anyone any favours, regardless of how many there are, the problem with token characters is how they so often end up falling into stereotype. Take many of the cartoons that I grew up with, where one of the primary attributes of the Black friend was that he was good at sports [I do need to mention that I liked, and still like, all of these shows]-
Yes, there are Black people who are good at sports, but so are people from many races. There’s nothing wrong with a sporty Black character, but there should be room for others as well. That’s the problem with being a token, or the only member of a certain group, you end up representing every member of that group.
It’s an issue that the upcoming Riverdale, an show on the CW adapting Archie Comics’ beloved characters, very narrowly avoids. See, the role of diminutive all-around super genius Dilton Doiley was given to Daniel Yang . . .
. . . which at first glance seems like a pretty questionable creative choice. In the same way that Black males have been portrayed as being athletic so Asians in general have been depicted as being a bunch of brainy nerds. The only reason this isn’t a complete disaster is that Reggie, Archie’s romantic rival, is being played by Ross Butler.
While it’s undoubtedly good news that an Asian man is being portrayed as being desirable, an issue I’ve covered in-depth before, this also serves to offset Yang’s Doiley as being the only example on the show. This communicates to viewers that yes, Asians can be mild-mannered intellectuals, but also that they can be play the game of love [and not always fairly].
Ultimately the more representation you have the more chances you have to get it right. Imagine if somewhere among the criminals and mystic warriors on Daredevil there was also a lawyer who butted heads against Nelson and Murdock, or maybe even a bartender at the dive the main characters frequent? Even a single Asian on the show who didn’t practice martial arts would have been a step in the right direction, a declaration that just as there is a Darcy Lewis [Kat Dennings’ character] to every Thor there is also a Philip Yao [yeah, I just made that up] in contrast to the villainous Nobu.
Given enough chances to be seen and eventually some of those depictions will be positive and, just as importantly, authentic. Doing away with tokens helps us all get one step closer to eradicating stereotypes, but even then we need to be careful not to paint every character from a certain group with a single stroke.