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Casting Iron Fist


Comic books have taken over the entertainment world. It started with blockbuster hits like “Iron Man” and “Captain America.” Then Netflix teamed up with Marvel to create “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil.” New shows are being added to this world, but Suzie Xie says it’s not getting more diverse.

XIE : The action-packed world of Marvel can now be found on Netflix. Viewers can watch their favorite superheroes fight their way through each episode — like this one.

DAREDEVIL: Not everyone deserves a happy ending.

That cheerful guy is Daredevil. And he is about to be joined by another superhero next year. This week, Marvel announced its leading man for the forthcoming series, Iron Fist: actor Finn Jones. He’s 28, plays Loras Tyrell from HBO’s Game of Thrones, and — he’s white.

CHOW: When they announced the casting of Finn Jones, it was a disappointment, of course. But it wasn’t a surprise.

XIE: That’s Keith Chow. He’s the founder of the pop culture blog Nerds of Color. And he thought the show’s main character, known as Danny Rand when he isn’t the superhero Iron Fist, should’ve been played by an Asian-American actor. That’s because Danny Rand is a martial artist, and he learns the craft in the mystical Asian land of K’un Lun. Chow says by casting a white guy, Marvel is falling into the trap of cultural appropriation.

CHOW: There is this long history of taking what is foreign and exotic, and then putting it through the lens of white people.

XIE: To be fair, Iron Fist is white in the comics. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Danny Rand takes everything he learned in K’un Lun and goes back to Harlem to fight the bad guys. But Chow says it’s an overused storyline that can be boiled down to this:

CHOW: White guy goes to Asia, learns their secrets, comes back a superhero.

XIE: But he says it doesn’t have to be that way. By casting an Asian-American actor, Iron Fist would be about cultural reconnection, not appropriation. That’s something he, as a second-generation Asian-American, could relate to.

CHOW: The idea of a Danny Rand going back to K’un Lun and kind of rediscovering and reconnecting to his heritage would be a more interesting story than just another white guy goes to the mystic Orient and comes back better for it.

XIE: Cultural appropriation isn’t rare in comic books. Another Marvel character, Luke Cage, has also been controversial. Luke Cage is a black man with superhuman strength who teams up with Iron Fist. Thirty-one-year-old Andre Ford, who works at Midtown Comics near Times Square, is also black. As we stand among shelves of comic books, he says the problem with the Luke Cage series was “blackspoitation,” or the perpetuation of stereotypes of black people.

FORD: A lot of the writers at the time in the 70s were white people writing for black people. So there were a lot of lines like, you know, “Hey man, you jive turkey. You can’t be digging this” — that kind of stuff.

XIE: Ford says he doesn’t see an issue with Danny Rand being played by a white man. But he would think differently if Marvel cast a white man as an Asian superhero, such as Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu.

FORD: If they cast a white dude to play that, that’s messed up.

XIE: But this happens all the time in Hollywood. Think Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Or Jim Sturgess in “21.” Or, most recently, Emma Stone in “Aloha.” They’re all white actors playing Asian characters. That’s called “whitewashing.”

Filmmaker Jeff Adachi says this happens because there aren’t enough Asian-Americans represented in the media. A report by the University of South California says at least half of all movies or television shows last year failed to include a speaking character of Asian descent. But Adachi says it’s not only about who’s on the screen. Who’s behind it is just as important. He says change won’t happen…

ADACHI: …until we have the scripts to support it, until we have the roles. And, you know, that has to be funded by someone.

XIE:  But Vincent Pham, a media studies professor at California State University, says it’s a tough battle in an industry where whiteness is the standard.

PHAM: The default tends to be whiteness. And then when you’re making it non-white, then you have to make an argument about why it should not be white.

XIE: And that’s a fight even Iron Fist may not win. Suzie Xie, Columbia Radio News.


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