Marvel's Iron Fist has proved to be the most controversial superhero show to date - and that's just for the casting. Finn Jones wound up the target of a furious campaign arguing that he should never be cast as a hero, even briefly leading him to delete his Twitter account! With this kind of anger, it's worth focusing in and asking: What's going on?
What Was The Problem?
Here's the problem. In the comics, Iron Fist is a white industrialist by the name of Danny Rand who discovered the ancient city of K'un L'un and was trained in mystical martial arts. The character was created when Gil Kane saw a kung fu movie:
"I'd seen my first kung fu movie, even before a Bruce Lee one came out, and it had a thing called 'the ceremony of the Iron Fist' in it. I thought that was a good name, and we already had Master of Kung Fu going, but I thought, 'Maybe a superhero called Iron Fist, even though we had Iron Man, would be a good idea.'"
According to some, Iron Fist is an example of 'cultural appropriation' — the process by which a dominant culture absorbs aspects of another culture into itself. For the minority group affected, it feels like a theft, and a denigration of their culture. This, so it's argued, is what Asian-Americans experience with a character like Iron Fist. It's worth noting that the campaign for an Asian-American Iron Fist was launched by one Keith Chow literally three years ago — giving a sense of how deeply emotional an issue this really is. He explained:
"For me, the whole idea of an Asian-American Iron Fist has been less about the character specifically but the trope more broadly. Like you have a ton of these stories already. If you need that story told, go watch The Last Samurai! Go watch The Karate Kid 2! Instead of a white man appropriating the qualities of Asian mysticism, it could have been a story of an Asian-American going back to his parents’ homeland as a way of reconnecting with them — a feeling that many second-generation Asian-Americans can relate to."
In other words, as an Asian-American, Chow wants to see his culture represented in the Marvel Universe — not just the 'cool' parts ripped out and cut-and-pasted on to a white guy, as in so many other cases. Marvel writer Marjorie Liu also weighed in on Twitter:
She's gone on to even declare she's going to boycott the entire series.
Marvel's & Finn Jones's Defence
Perhaps unwisely, over on Twitter #FinnJones defended the series.
He went on to argue that simply changing the character wouldn't be the solution. Instead, in Jones's view a better approach is to actually make a show that carefully reveals and inspects the problems, while also highlighting the diversity of the cast. It's worth noting that one major fight scene in the final episodes seems designed as a response to the accusation of 'cultural appropriation'; the final episodes deliberately pit Jessica Henwick's Colleen Wing against her mentor in a pivotal moment.
That said, let's just say that Finn Jones's defence didn't go well; in the end, Jones left Twitter, briefly deleting his entire account! He explained to Deadline:
"I’m currently in the middle of filming and I need to stay focused on bringing to life this character without judgment, so I decided to remove myself from twitter for the time being."
Meanwhile, the people who were challenging Jones faced problems of their own; Asyiqin Haron, of Geeks of Color, was forced to protect her own tweets after suffering online harassment. One thing's for sure; this series is truly set to be controversial.
IS Iron Fist an Example of Cultural Appropriation?
Comic book fans protest in vain that Iron Fist isn't powered by Asian mysticism — he's tied to an alien city's sorcery! But the reality is that K'un L'un, and all the ideas behind it, were clearly patterned on Asian magic.
What's more, the 'insult' is best seen as part of a broader trend; the idea that aspects of Asian-American culture can just be ripped out of context and pasted on to the dominant Caucasian demographic. That's less to do with Iron Fist than it is to the broader trends of Hollywood, where that's pretty much the norm. In choosing to add Iron Fist into their Netflix mix, #Marvel essentially guaranteed themselves this social media nightmare.
So, yes, Iron Fist is an example of cultural appropriation. More to the point, though, it's also important to place this in the broader context of Hollywood; as one Asian-American observed on Reddit:
"The biggest problem at the core is that Asian American leads just aren't acceptable by Hollywood at the moment.... Remember Chloe Bennet from Agents of SHIELD? We love her, right? But she didn't get booked for any auditions until after she changed her name from "Chloe Wang." As she says, "that’s a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works."
Explaining his point, the Redditor continued:
Would casting an Asian man as Iron Fist instantly fix this problem? F*** no. But it would be a helpful step to help alleviate it, especially from a mainstream company like Marvel for a show on a mainstream platform like Netflix. Seeing an Asian American as a superhero would help support the idea that Asians can be acceptable as leads in Hollywood, because right now we aren't seeing any."
That said, it's worth being aware that there was no easy solution for this. Had Marvel cast an Asian-American for the role, they'd have fallen into another trap — they'd be reinforcing stereotypes. Albert Ching, Managing Editor of Comic Book Resources, made the point pretty effectively:
"While increased visibility for Asian-Americans is a good thing, the idea that Iron Fist is "the" character to make Asian-American feels like further locking a population into a single perception, where the primary utility of an Asian in action-driven entertainment is to be good at martial arts."
The sad truth is that Ching has a very valid point. The furious debate on Iron Fist has to be understood in a context, one where Hollywood need to develop more roles for Asian-Americans. Only once the stereotypes have been broken can this kind of casting decision be made without breaking the Internet.
And yet, I'm also reminded of the controversy over Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, which caused similar reactions. Covering Swinton's conversation with comedian Margaret Cho, I realized that it's very easy to argue that any film or TV show is somehow a 'special case', an exception to the rule. But unless we move past arguing 'exceptions', and instead strive to find a new balance, we'll never deal with the problem. What's more, as a white male I'm very wary of worsening the pain caused by cultural appropriation by dismissing it out of hand. The issue is clearly both very real and very painful, and it deserves to be handled with sensitivity and compassion.
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All in all, I have to say that this feels like a very thorny issue for Marvel. I can understand their decisions, but at the same time I'm also wary of accepting that Iron Fist is naturally a 'special case'. Now we've all had the chance to see the series, we can reach our own conclusions; was Finn Jones the right choice? Should Marvel have subtly changed the role? Marvel's definitely waded into controversy this time...