I grew up feeling like an alien. I don’t think that’s a particularly unique way to feel, especially when we achieve teenagedom: there’s a reason so many connect to stories of adolescent outsiders who don’t know where they fit, from Holden Caulfield to Angela Chase to Tris Prior. But of course we all have specificities that shade in the corners of our experiences, whether we feel like we’re trapped in the wrong clique or the wrong town or just really wish Jordan Catalano would stop staring vacantly into space and notice our obvious awesomeness.
Some of my key shadings were:
*Growing up as one of the only non–white faces in a very small, very white town.
*Being really into comic books, fantasy novels, Star Wars, Star Trek, and other related geekania—which, at the time, was not cool.
*Being a girl who was into all of this stuff, which was most definitely, certainly, absolutely not cool.
I felt my alien–ness every day: from the kids who pulled their eyes into tight little lines to demonstrate what they thought mine looked like; from the hulking drunk who menaced me and my mom over “the Japanese taking all our lumber” at the homey local donut shop; from everyone who complimented my English, asked me where I was from (“like, originally”), or opened the conversation with “what are you?” as if I was actually a different species from another planet.
Maybe that’s why escaping into the worlds of science fiction and fantasy felt so natural: everyone was an alien in some way. Outsiders, rebels, and rogue starship captains were often protagonists. Mutants were heroes, but also hated and feared simply for being different.
Even as I connected to these stirring tales of heroic outsiders, I never saw much in the way of exact mirrors. That is to say: the heroic outsiders were pretty much always white. Occasionally there would be a Keiko O’Brien or a Jubilee in a supporting role. Sometimes if I squinted hard enough, I could project myself onto lady main characters with dark hair, like Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, retconning their back stories so they were mixed–race Asians, like me. I wanted the Catra action figure—not She–Ra—because her long black hair looked sort of like mine. (Even though the packaging described her as a “jealous beauty,” because who wouldn’t be jealous of She–Ra’s blonde perfection? I still remember thinking this was total bullshit since Catra had superior hair billow and a way better cape.)
At the time, an occasional supporting character or retcon–ready protagonist was as good as it was going to get. A true mirror didn’t seem like something that was possible or could ever be real. Heroes were white: that’s just the way it was. The idea of a lead Asian or Asian American or Pacific Islander character in SF/F stories seemed as fantastical and faraway as the superpowers and alien worlds these stories presented.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of being on a panel at WonderCon called “The Asian American Superhero,” organized by the good folks at Racebending.com. During the panel, my friend and fellow panelist Christine Dinh noted that she had always asked her mom why she wasn’t born blonde and blue–eyed (since that is presented so often as the ideal all–American beauty) and that her first introduction to an Asian American character was Trini (Thuy Trang) in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
“On the playground, you can’t be Kimberly,” she said. “You can only be Trini, and that’s all you can ever be because that’s what you look like.”
“I was Trini all the time too,” interjected Yoshi Sudarso, who is actually a for–reals Power Ranger on Power Rangers Dino Charge.
“We were all Trini,” I said.
I should note that we all love Trini—who doesn’t love Trini?!—but among our kid peer groups, parts were usually assigned based on what you looked like, not whatever essential personality traits you thought you shared with a character. During the few years of my childhood when it was actually cool for everyone to love Star Wars (everyone else grew out of it after those couple years, I did not), I “played Star Wars” with a couple different groups of girls. There was always a fight over who got to be Princess Leia, because…well. She was the only girl. Usually this meant grudging bargaining and meticulously negotiated deals involving rotating the part over the course of the day, possibly with prized Barbies offered up as collateral. But every so often, there was a real fight and people’s arguments always ended up centering around who looked the most like Princess Leia.
I was automatically disqualified. Because, you know. I was a Trini! A Jubilee! Not a Leia, not a Jean Grey, not a She–Ra.
Initially, I tried to fight back. The key points in my argument were:
*My long–ass hair that was often pulled into some kind of thick braid formation, which bore a passing resemblance to at least one of Leia’s elaborate ’dos. (I still think this is a very valid argument if you’d only taken the time to listen and given it a fair shot, Jennifer S.)
But it was no use. My brunette–ness did not override my alien–ness.
So I found myself pushed to the side. I could be Chewie. I could be R2. I could be Gamorrean Guard #3. I could be a sidekick, a helper, or an extra who gets eaten by the Rancor.
I internalized this so much that when I started writing stories, I didn’t think centering them on an Asian woman was possible. I always cast myself as the sidekick. If the main character was me in any way, she was never fully allowed to be herself. She had to wear a disguise.
She was Trini in a She–Ra skin.
We live in a different world now. I marvel at the fact that I can turn on the TV and watch two Asian superheroines—Melinda May (Ming–Na Wen) and Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) on Agents of SHIELD—having a conversation. I thrill in the adventures of Kamala Khan—and the fact that others are thrilling in her adventures just as hard. I delight in the news that Kelly Marie Tran, a supremely talented young Asian American actor, has won a major part in Star Wars: Episode VIII, and that Disney’s upcoming South Pacific–set film Moana stars Native Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho in the title role.
And yet the world is not as different as it could be.
This year has brought a flurry of whitewashing, questionable casting, and downright fuckery toward Asians in SF/F entertainment. Casting Asian characters with white faces is nothing new (hello, obligatory Mickey Rooney and Emma Stone references), but there sure do seem to be way too many examples happening at this very moment, in 2016, when we’re supposedly making progress. Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Iron Fist casting a white guy in the lead, thereby reinforcing that old trope about white dudes always being better at Asian Stuff than Asian people.
And actually, let’s pause on that—the idea of Stuff over people—because isn’t that what this sort of thing tends to come down to? It’s cool to incorporate “Asian culture” (what is that?), but as set dressing, pasted onto white people. These costumes, sets, and random dragon iconography should evoke quintessential Asian–ness, but in a fun, exotic way—not in a way that gives you actual Asian characters. Yay for sushi and soup dumplings! Yes, that Kanji tattoo is badass, even though it doesn’t actually say anything! Sure, toss that badly–accented Mandarin around, it just sounds cool!
We want Trini, they say, but she can’t look like Trini. She still has to wear the She–Ra skin.
We like your Stuff, but not your face.
Among the many arguments that inevitably come out in favor of Casting White, two play into this idea especially hard:
1. But wouldn’t casting Asian actors in these roles be even more racist, even more stereotypical?
Dudes, if this is the case, perhaps your entire story needs to be re–thought—if Iron Fist, very much a product of the time he was created in, is the superhero reboot–shaped hill you want to die on, maybe think long and hard on some ways to make that character relevant now instead of giving us the billionth retread of a trope we never need to see again.
2. But why is “the face” so important? Why does this make you so angry? It’s just a story.
My answer to this one is harder to express, particularly if I’m talking to someone who doesn’t lack for representation in media. How do I explain that visceral, heart–in–the–throat feeling I got when Jess Pava (Jessica Henwick), awesome Asian lady X–wing pilot, popped up for a few minutes in The Force Awakens? How do I convey my disappointment when everybody else is jubilantly celebrating the wonderful DC Super Hero Girls line…but I feel like I can’t, because Katana is the only character who didn’t get a doll in the first wave and I can’t help but know how my younger self would feel—pushed to the side, told she was the least important person there, automatically disqualified from being the Leia yet again.
Maybe I could tell you this: I didn’t get that an Asian lady could be a main character, protagonist–type hero—like, did not conceive of a world where that was even possible—until I saw two things: the short–lived sitcom All–American Girl, starring Margaret Cho, and the ’90s Hong Kong action classic The Heroic Trio, starring Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung. And if you can’t imagine yourself as the hero of a fictional story, it bleeds in everywhere: in what you write, in what you do, in what you think you’re worth. You make yourself the sidekick of your own life.
I did not see either of these things until I was well past the age of “playing Star Wars.” And I did not believe I could be a hero until I saw it onscreen, in a concrete way.
The faces were important.
As I said before: we live in a different world now. I write my own stories with Asian American superheroines at the center: always driving the action, never anyone’s sidekick, no fucking Gamorrean Guards here.
And despite all the fuckery, I have hope.
Because whenever some whitewashing bullshit happens these days, the pushback is loud and clear. Because I can stalk a toy store in hopes of finding that Melinda May or Jess Pava or Katana (please let her be in the second wave!) action figure. Because it’s not just happening in my beloved SF/F and I wouldn’t mind action figures of some of my newer badass heroes—Fresh Off the Boat’s Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), Quantico’s Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) — as well.
Because I am part of multiple badass Asian Girl Gangs and when I look at their beautiful, fierce faces, I finally see mine reflected back at me.
The heroes I always wanted, the heroes I never knew I could be, exist. And in order to ensure that they continue to exist and we get more of them, we have to keep fighting, to keep pushing back, to keep saying that no, you can’t just take Asian Stuff without including Asian faces.
We were all Trini. We are all Trini. And we are ready to shed that She–Ra skin forever.
(Editors’ Note: Sarah Kuhn is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in Uncanny Magazine Issue Eleven.)
© 2016 by Sarah Kuhn