My husband jokes that he got the better end of the deal when we got married: I expanded his palette to enjoy different types of food, whereas he expanded my love for science fiction and fantasy. But given the awesomeness of Black Panther, the latest incarnation of Spider-Man, and of course, Wonder Woman (I freely admit I run around our apartment humming the opening bars of the movie’s theme song every now and then), let’s call it a win-win.
Needless to say, when the latest season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones—a complex female character who happens to be a superhero full of angst and general “badassery”—came out, we were both excited to watch it. I loved the first season, and couldn’t wait to see Jessica’s latest adventures. We plowed through the 13 episodes over the course of about a week, and when we finished, I was quite pleased with the overall storyline, characters, and themes. However, there was one issue that bothered me, and that was the portrayal of the Asian American characters in the series.
When Asian American characters Pryce Cheng and Linda Chao were introduced in the first few episodes, I was immediately wary. Granted, I was happy to see Asian actors with featured roles on the show, given that there is a dearth of any Asian characters on film or television in general. However, I was concerned about how they were going to be portrayed. Asian characters, even minor ones, tend to be non-existent in the live action superhero world, and when they do appear, particularly in a major part, they are usually part of some sort of ancient, mystical society steeped in exotic orientalism. Unfortunately, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is no exception.
Jessica Jones is one of a number of Marvel superhero shows on Netflix, and two of the others, Daredevil and Iron Fist, feature major Asian and Asian American characters. Unfortunately, the majority of them are part of an “ancient order of evil ninjas” called The Hand, first introduced as the “big bad” in the second season of Daredevil and a major part of Iron Fist’s origin story. In fact, the Iron Fist series generated its own controversy before it aired, and once it did air, critics described it as “a big bag of Orientalist clichés” (see the villainous Madame Gao and the virtuous Colleen Wing, or the dragon lady-ish Elektra, who appears in Daredevil).
This is why I was concerned about both Cheng and Chao’s story arcs; would either or worse, both, turn out to be kung fu martial arts masters, steeped in ancient Chinese wisdom? Or rogue “Hand” ninjas, plunging the show back into that problematic storyline? Thankfully, they turned out to be neither. And although they weren’t very likeable characters, at least they were there, albeit in limited roles. Unfortunately, Linda Chao’s role was even smaller than Cheng’s, and she was arguably even less likeable. There’s also a decent chance that the Pryce Cheng character will return next season; not so much for Linda Chao.
While it was a relief that these characters weren’t steeped in stereotypes and just underwritten and unlikeable, I’m tired of resigning myself to “I’ll take what I can get.” Let’s hope the entertainment industry recognizes the power in showing complex, multi-faceted characters from all races/ethnicities, and I can truly fangirl out to my heart’s content.