Marvel’s Shang-Chi Fights Against Anti-Asian Hate in North America
For the past two years, people’s lives have been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are reasonably frustrated with how the virus impacts their day-to-day life. However, this frustration has also resulted in increased discrimination against Asian people. Anti-Asian racism has increased following the COVID-19 pandemic and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings combats the rise in anti-Asian hate by including more realistic representations of South East and East Asian people and how its production and release as a Walt Disney Company film helps showcase positive depictions of Asian people on a worldwide scale.
Problematic Association Between East Asians and COVID-19
The first cases of infection from the COVID-19 virus were reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019. This caused many to blame Chinese and Asian people for causing and spreading the COVID-19 virus, including then- U.S. President Donald Trump. The World Health Organization (WHO) has guidelines about naming diseases and used them to name the COVID-19 virus. These naming guidelines “advocate the avoidance of geographic locations or references to culture, population, or language that incites fear”.
Despite its official designated name, “President Donald Trump publicly used the terms “Chinese virus” or “China virus” for COVID-19 in various tweets between March 16–18, 2020”. Trump was president at the time and had a large Twitter following, making him one of the most influential people around the world. By disregarding the WHO’s given name for the virus and attaching a geographic location to it, Trump used his influence to perpetuate anti-Asian and xenophobic sentiments. Although Trump later said that COVID-19 is not any Asian person’s fault, it is unlikely that he truly changed his mind and likely made this statement to maintain peace. But the damage was done, “before Trump made these remarks in mid-March, racist acts and harassment targeting Asian Americans had already surged; they continued to increase through March and April following his statements”. The rise in anti-Asian hate sparked several social justice movements in person and on social media, using the hashtags #StopAsianHate, #StopAAPIHate (AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), #StopAsianHateCrimes, and #HateIsAVirus to raise awareness and dismantle racism against Asians.
Importance of Representations
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Marvel Studios film to be produced and released exclusively in theatres since the beginning of the pandemic. The film was released in September 2021 and “with its predominantly East Asian cast, story inspired by Chinese folklore, and martial arts action sequences, Shang-Chi is the latest sign that Hollywood is starting to listen to calls for more Asian representation on screen”. The film was well-received by critics and viewers, including Asian American people.
Prior to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, there were only a handful of Asian-led Hollywood films, including Always Be My Maybe (2019) and the widely successful Crazy Rich Asians (2018). However, there have been many harmful representations of Asian people throughout the history of Hollywood. For example, the role of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), in which a Japanese character was played by white actor Mickey Rooney and played heavily into racial and ethnic stereotypes. Another example is the role of Long Duk Dong in 16 Candles (1984), who is portrayed by Japanese-American actor Gette Watanabe, but also plays heavily into racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Perpetuating harmful stereotypes in media can alter how marginalized groups of people are perceived and treated in society. It is important to recognize the power that stereotypes and their depictions hold and how it is unethical and irresponsible to portray marginalized groups without research and a vision of authenticity. To create a film that accurately and positively represents cultures and races, it is essential to have people from those groups involved in the creative process, to ensure authenticity. Not only is the cast of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings largely East Asian, but the director of the film, Destin Daniel Cretton, is also Asian, specifically Asian American. The filmmakers, cast, and everyone else involved in the creative process uses the film to fight against the biased beliefs people hold against Asian people by incorporating positive and realistic Asian representation that does not perpetuate any preconceived notions.
Marvel Studios, owned by the Walt Disney Company, is one of the largest corporations in the world and one of the biggest companies in the entertainment industry. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which refers to film adaptations of Marvel comics as produced by Marvel Studios, is worldwide. Avengers: Endgame (2019) was the highest-grossing film of all time for almost two years, and is currently the second-highest-grossing film of all time. By positively representing Asian people in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, especially during the rise in anti-Asian hate, Marvel takes a stance and fights against the misrepresentation of Asian people on a global scale. Not only do they provide an entertaining movie filled with everything people love about MCU films, but it also supports and uplifts Asian people during an extremely discriminatory time.
In the original Marvel comics, Shang-Chi’s nemesis and father is Dr. Fu Manchu. He is a character in novels and films from the early to the mid-20th century and “he clearly perpetuated and embodied ‘Yellow Peril’, the racist idea that Asian cultures threatened Western society”. In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, he is replaced by Xu Wenwu, a character that combines the Mandarin and Fu Manchu without using harmful stereotypes like yellowface and yellow peril. Wenwu is given character development that gives emotional depth to him as a husband, father, warrior, and legend and is not meant to further the plot in relation to Western society, as occurs with other Asian characters in media. Wenwu is portrayed by Tony Leung, one of the most successful actors in Asia. The film forgoes the inclusion of a character that is known for its employment of racial stereotypes and depicts a nuanced character without antagonistic racial implications. The portrayal of common Asian norms, such as Shaun and Katy removing their shoes when entering the house, leads to awareness of other cultural norms, which is one step closer to respect and understanding.
It is important to note that Shang-Chi and several other Asian-led Hollywood films were well received in North America and other countries but were criticized in China for the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters that may not perpetuate harmful stereotypes but do originate from them, such as Fu Manchu. However, for the Asian diaspora, the representation is heralded as revolutionary and a step in the right direction.
Therefore, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fights against the surge in discrimination against Asian American people. It does so by actively removing harmful stories and characters that negatively impact the portrayal and depiction of Asian people and how they are perceived. It also attempts to make reparations for how Asian people have been misrepresented in Hollywood, including Marvel’s own Dr. Strange (2016), in which a white actor portrayed The Ancient One, a Tibetan character. While anti-Asian hate is on the rise due to false connections made between East Asians and COVID-19, Marvel released a film that attempts to bring Asian people together and combat the negative associations made about them.
Browne, Kesewaa. “Why Asian Superhero Shang-Chi Could Truly Change the World.” BBC Culture, BBC, 06 September 2021, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210906-why-asian-superhero-shang-chi-could-truly-change-the-world.
Grover, Angela R., et al. “Anti-Asian Hate Crime During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Exploring the Reproduction of Inequality.” American Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 45, no. 4, 2020, pp. 647-667. Springer Link, ttps://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-020-09545-1.
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