Oct. 27, 2021
From Dragon Lady to Awkwafina, From Fu Manchu to Shang-Chi, Marvel’s First Asian Superhero Movie Challenges the Asian Stereotypes
My embodiment of a blend of Chinese cultural imprints has been serving me as either a curse or blessing, depending on the people I encounter. As an introvert, I often present myself as a gentle, laidback, and soft-spoken woman. For lots of rambunctious westerners, their first assumption of me is often that I am a woman who can be easily dismissed. I have been frustrated by this kind of treatment on many occasions. I kept wondering why initially. Until one day, appalled by my own ignorance, I discovered the archetype of the Dragon Lady. Thorough research leads me to believe that it is through the veil of a series portrait of the Dragon Lady representing Chinese women, we began to be viewed as submissive, quiet, demure, and nonessential. Unintentionally, my personality plays into that stereotype on the surface. My authentic self also includes strength, intelligence, compassion, and courage that can only be revealed by those who are willing to provide space for others and have the ability to listen.
For many Asian Americans, the much anticipated first Marvel Asian lead superhero movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings,” stirs up so much anxiety, apprehension, and hope. While I was excited to watch a movie with an Asian lead, my stomach kept tossing and turning with fear. Fear of what? Discovering something unpleasant about Asians in the film, of course!
However, I was wrong, and I was glad to be wrong this time. Shang-Chi authentically creates so many representations of Asian people and culture, it skillfully opens a door into an inner world of Asian being. My students, colleagues, and friends, regardless of their age and ethnicity, all have something positive to say about the film.
First, it symbolizes the dismantling of the negative stereotypes of Chinese women. From loud hilarious Katy; cold, ferocious Xiaoling; beautiful, loving, and self-sacrificing Mom to calm and authoritative Auntie, there is one thing in common among these women: they are capable and strong. They chose their own paths — regardless of how unfulfilling it might seem to be as a valet or being a powerful ferocious underground fight club owner. They use their own brain, skills, knowledge, and wisdom to build the world they live in. Every single one of them is an ass-kicking woman and nobody should mess with them. Even when they are mistreated like Xiaoling and expected to fulfill the female gender role, they employ determination and self-discipline to defeat the odds.
Secondly, it is the portrait of an Asian superhero as a strong, charming, and desirable man instead of the demonized, unattractive Fu Manchu. Simu Liu looks great when his shirt is off. More importantly, his relatable human struggles, shared internal conflicts, meager effort to stay away from his estranged father, and loyal friend by his side really speak to audiences. Let alone he is a superhero who possesses supernatural power.
Thirdly, less noticeably, the film accurately depicts the American-born Chinese (ABC) struggle. Katy is a great representation of an ABC: living in a multi-generational household. Her family is so hospitable and their door is always open to friends. Her mom has high expectations of her. She graduates as an honor student from a prestigious college. But her heritage is somewhat lost on her. She no longer speaks any Mandarin, she could barely pronounce Shang-Chi’s name correctly, nor would she give in to parental pressure to find a “decent job” to make her family proud. Instead, she drives like a madwoman. She laughs like a sailor. She hangs out with a guy who is not her boyfriend, which in her aging grandmother’s eye is scandalous if they are not going to be married. On the bus ride, she makes fun of a well-dressed Asian-looking woman who works on her computer, and says to Shang-Chi, “That’s the type of woman my mom would like me to be.” Katy is a typical immigrant child who is caught in between two drastically different worlds and she does not know how to reconcile the dilemma. Until she only has one last arrow to make the winning shot. When she is able to put her doubt aside and takes aim, does she then learn how to unleash the power from within.
Lastly, I would like to point out is that the film is not completely free of Asian stereotypes. Katy and Shang-Chi’s obsession for karaoke. The overuse of the color red, and the Dad’s dismissive treatment of the daughter…. These unfortunately reinforce people’s perception of China and what they think they know.
However, as my 12-year-old son feels proud of having Shang-Chi as a role model to look up to, my 18-year-old niece empowers herself to learn how to say “no” loudly as every woman in the film. A smile emerges on my lips. These little things matter as our day-to-day life is filled with little things and trivial moments, rarely do the grander heroic epics occur.
You may also be interested in reading other articles written by Haiyun Lu.