We learn from watching. If dramas are developmental exercises in identification and empathy in our formative years, one can easily surmise why many white men — such as those who take part in the alt-right movement — believe the world should revolve around only them, and women and minorities should be relegated to supporting roles or disappear entirely.
In the latest round of Hollywood whitewashing of Asian or Asian American characters, British actor Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled, Deadpool) has been cast in an upcoming reboot of Dark Horse Comics’ Hellboy series. Skrein will play Major Ben Daimio, a Japanese American member of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense with the power to shapeshift into a were-jaguar when under physical or psychological duress.
Skrein is not Japanese.
Daimio’s Japanese American heritage has influenced the character’s history and storylines. According to Wikipedia, Daimio is the grandson of the Crimson Lotus (also known as, Yumiko Daimio), a Japanese spy active in New York City before and during World War II. When Ben Daimio’s relationship to the Crimson Lotus is revealed, his patriotism is questioned despite having been born in the United States, having been raised in a military family by his father, a war hero, and having served tours as a highly-decorated US Marine. Daimio’s body is possessed by a jaguar spirit when he is killed while on a mission in Bolivia, and he is brought back to life by it although his face still bears the scars of that mission.
Recently, Mark Tseng Putterman wrote “Against Antiblackness as Metaphor” as a discussion of actor and comedian Margaret Cho’s use of the phrase “House Asian” in an email exchange with fellow actor Tilda Swinton. Cho and Swinton had been emailing in relation to months of controversy over Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, wherein a traditionally male, Tibetan comic book character was rewritten as a Celtic woman to enable Swinton’s portrayal; many Asian Americans had criticized Swinton’s casting as the latest example of Hollywood white-washing of Asian American roles. Earlier this month, Cho weighed in on the controversy in a podcast by revealing a private email exchange between herself and Swinton, wherein Cho described feeling as if she had been put by Swinton into the politically dubious role of a “House Asian”. While many have since focused on Swinton’s methods and motives in approaching Cho in this exchange, Putterman offered a slightly different take: he wrote to criticize Cho’s choice to use the phrase “House Asian” in her emails with Swinton. Specifically, Putterman suggested that Cho, like many Asian Americans, should reconsider our use of metaphors of Blackness to legitimize racial justice issues associated with the Asian American community, and that our continued use of such tactics undermine solidarity efforts between the Black and Asian American community.
Based on his writing, I believe it was Malcolm X who coined the phrases “House Negro” vs. “Field Negro” to highlight the relative instability of the plight of all subjugated Black people. Along those lines, Ture and Hamilton’s work, Black Power, also assigned a commonality of experience of subjugation for populations of color across the globe, and coined the term “Third World.” This latter term has fallen out of favor since the 1990’s. Cho’s use of “House Asian” misses many of these nuances, and runs the danger of advancing an agenda where all experiences of discrimination, based on race or otherwise, can be viewed as equal.
Asian American Twitter has been abuzz this week with news that Tilda Swinton singled out Margaret Cho to explain to her the backlash surrounding her whitewashed casting as “The Ancient One” in Dr. Strange. On a recent episode of Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly podcast, Cho described the odd email exchange with Swinton, who she had never met, explaining that it left her feeling like a “house Asian, like I’m her servant.”
While many commentators have rightfully jumped on Swinton’s behavior as another example of white people expecting people (especially women) of color to perform uncompensated intellectual and emotional labor, few have discussed how Cho’s coopting of the term “house Asian” represents a parallel trend of non-Black Asian Americans repurposing Black movements, analyses, and terminology for our own purposes.
After seeing Hollywood green-light projects that actively erase Asian Americans from the silver screen (think Emma Stone playing Allison Ng or a whitewashed Doctor Strange) it’s understandable if pop culture watchers reflectively flinch when they hear news of upcoming mainstream film projects featuring characters of color.
That’s also why I did a little squeal of glee in the middle of Starbucks on Friday when I saw the news that Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek was just cast as Freddie Mercury in the upcoming Queen biopic, which is titled Bohemian Rhapsody. Malek’s casting is also hopefully a sign that this movie (which was first announced way back in 2007) is finally on the right track.