News broke last week that Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones has been officially cast as Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, in the upcoming Netflix series of the same name. In a completely unsurprising move that keeps the status quo of most Marvel live action adapted franchises, Iron Fist is going to be portrayed by a white man. Why does this matter? After all, a quick Google search will show you that Danny Rand is, in fact, a white man in the comics. So, what’s the big deal?
Well, for starters the concept of Iron Fist is heavily steeped in Orientalism with a side order of the mighty whitey trope. Iron Fist has similar problems that Dr. Strange has: both are white men who travel to a mystical Asian-inspired land where they learn the mystical arts of said Asian-inspired land and become the best of the best of their earned mantles. Stephen Strange becomes Dr. Strange, the magical sorcerer supreme, and Danny Rand becomes Iron Fist, the magical kung fu master.
Both characters have unfortunate, dated origins. Both were created in the ’70s when kung fu movies were gaining substantial popularity and stereotypes about mystical Asians began to really permeate mainstream American minds. Creators, Gil Kane (artist) and Roy Thomas (writer), said in Alter Ego magazine that the inspiration behind Iron Fist they had seen a kung fu movie that included a “ceremony of the Iron Fist.” Thomas also stated in the same interview,
“We already had Master of Kung Fu going, but I thought, ‘Maybe a superhero called Iron Fist, even though we had Iron Man, would be a good idea.’ [Publisher] Stan [Lee] liked the name, so I got hold of Gil and he brought in his Amazing Man influences, and we designed the character together.”
From his inception, Iron Fist was inspired directly by a specific subset of Asian culture. The entire idea behind Iron Fist was that two white men thought kung fu movies were cool and used that in their own work. However, instead of creating an Asian man to portray the character design, they used themselves—a white man.
In the forty years since Iron Fist’s inception, we still uphold the character’s racist origins above a modernization of the character that could better highlight and improve representation for Asian people in media.
In the forty years since Iron Fist’s creation, there’s only been a handful of shows that have featured Asians characters in a leading capacity: All American Girl (Margaret Cho), Fresh off the Boat (Constance Wu, Randall Park, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, and Ian Chen), The Mindy Project (Mindy Kaling), Elementary (Lucy Liu), Hawaii Five-O (Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park), Stalker (Maggie Q), Red Band Society (Griffin Gluck), The Walking Dead (Steven Yuen), Beauty and the Beast (Kristin Kruek), Selfie (John Cho), Quantico (Priyanka Chopra), Agents of SHIELD (Chloe Bennet, Ming-Na Wen), and Master of None (Aziz Ansari).
Unfortunately, many of these actors are either supporting or co-leads in their respective shows. For example, Kristin Kruek shares co-lead status with Jay Ryan and other Asian actors on the show—Sendhil Rammamurthy and Brian Tee—fall even further down the ladder as supporting. Chloe Bennet shares leading status with Clark Gregg (Phil Coulson), while Ming-Na Wen is supporting. John Cho shared co-lead with co-star Karen Gillan before the show was canceled. Similarly, The Mindy Project was also canceled before being picked up by Hulu. Hawaii Five-O’s Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are part of an ensemble cast where leads are muddled. Steven Yuen’s popular character Glenn Rhenn is also part of an ensemble cast, and while in the main cast, he remains solidly both supporting and the only Asian character in the show. Lucy Liu, who shares co-lead with Jonny Lee Miller, has spent most of her career playing the dragon lady for lack of opportunity given to her by Hollywood.
“It [becomes], ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.” —Lucy Liu in Net-A-Porter
In the forty years since Iron Fist’s creation, only one Asian man has ever won a Best Actor Oscar; Ben Kingsley for Gandhi in 1982. Yul Brynner is the only other Asian man to have ever won an Oscar in 1956 for his role in The King and I. In 1984, Haing S. Ngor won Best Supporting Actor for The Killings Fields, and Ang Lee won for Best Director in 2005 (Brokeback Mountain) and 2012 (Life of Pi).
No Asian woman has ever won for Best Actress, and only one Asian woman has ever won Best Supporting Actress—Miyoshi Umeki in 1957 for Sayonara. This isn’t really about awards, but rather, to showcase how few leading roles are available to Asian actors in Hollywood. There’s hardly anything wrong with being co-lead: John Cho was breaking barriers in Selfie as a race-bent modern day version of Henry Higgs and the romantic lead of the show. Similarly, Lucy Liu may be co-lead, but her character Joan Watson is no stereotype and exists outside of the orbit of Sherlock Holmes. Both characters are also specific examples of what should be a growing trend: Modernization of outdated characters in adapted material.
The first Sherlock Holmes story was published in 1887. Similarly, My Fair Lady, which is based off a book Pygmalion published in 1956, was released in 1964. The characters, and themes of those stories are reflections of their time. They are dated in their narratives and enforce a strict status quo of what was deemed acceptable within society at the time—white, straight, cis people taking lead and priority—much like Iron Fist, who was also a product of his time period and the closed off mindset of two ignorant white creators.
Was Iron Fist created with intentional racist connotations? I doubt that. However, that doesn’t mean Iron Fist doesn’t embody harmful stereotypes that have proven to contribute to oppression against Asian peoples. That’s where the creator’s ignorance comes in. They didn’t care that their character was hurtful towards Asian people. They just wanted to enjoy their culture without respecting or properly representing it. And make no mistake, Asian fans made it known that Iron Fist was offensive and harmful early on.
Being as we now live in a supposedly more socially aware time, why not also update the concept of Iron Fist to better represent the culture of which he is based within? Danny Rand as a white character hardly has any major connection to Asian culture. He grew up surrounded by it, but still felt like an outside within it. Sounds more like a story of a second or third generation immigrant struggling with their duel identity as an American and their culture and ethnic roots. Iron Fist’s story could better reflect the struggles of current, modern Asian American’s who can’t speak their parents language or fully understand their culture, but wish to. The feeling of growing up surrounded by your cultural roots and yet somehow on the outside of it in the same breath. You don’t have to be white to be an outsider. If anything, the narrative of “outsider” is more relatable to people of color, especially second or third generation people.
People of color are constantly the outsider within media. We have a long history of being marginalized, vilified, and stereotyped within mainstream media and much of those practices still continue today. Iron Fist is now another example of how Asian people aren’t able to play leads even when the story is about their own culture. There’s no real reason Danny Rand had to be a white Iron Fist. His whiteness made him an outsider in the comics, yes, but originally, Arthur Curry’s whiteness made him an outsider in the Aquaman comics, as well for a short period of time. Yet, do we have a white Arthur Curry? No, instead we have a Polynesian Aquaman that modernizes the concept of Aquaman by embracing the Hawaiian culture of his origin.
“A lot of things are very black and white. Aquaman is especially cool because being a Kanaka Maoli—being Hawaiian—our Gods are Kanaloa and Maui, and the Earth is 71 percent water, so I get to represent that. And I’m someone who gets to represent all the islanders, not some blond-haired superhero. It’s cool that there’s a brown-skinned superhero.” —Jason Momoa in The Daily Beast
In an ironic twist, both DC and Marvel have snagged two Game of Thrones actors to portray two characters that have racist or problematic origins. Yet, in one case, viewers are given an updated version of a dated character for the big screen, and in the other, the status quo—whiteness above diversity—is kept. The truly frustrating thing here is the opportunity that has been wasted. Iron Fist could have been a modern day retelling of a classic character. Iron Fist could have subverted the mighty whitey stereotype and showcased a story of an Asian American man reconnecting and inheriting his culture. Instead, we will watch a white man go to an Asian land, learn kung fu from Asian mystics, and become a hero through appropriation Asian culture.
Asian people are severely underrepresented in terms of good media representation. According to a report done by Fusion in 2015, only about 6.6% of shows on Network TV include an Asian actor. On CW, the percentage jumps to 8.4%, CBS 8.2%, ABC 6.2%, NBC 5.6%, and FOX 5.1%. Fusion went on to report that “of the nearly 800 actors considered main cast members across more than 100 network TV shows, just 52 (6.6 percent) are of Asian descent.” With numbers like these, it baffles me when others comment that representation doesn’t matter or is overrated. Or that Iron Fist had to be white because comics canon trumps the importance of including people of color—in this case Asian people—in positive leading roles. Iron Fist being white matters more than Asian people seeing themselves represented in media. Iron Fist being white matters more than the feelings of Asian people and fans. Because comics canon trumps all else—even though The Ancient One is Asian man in the comics and as is The Mandarin, who were both played by white actors in their respective movies—even if it means upholding a racist origin of a lower tier comic character.
This was a fantastic opportunity for Marvel and Netflix to seek out an Asian actor to play this role and to expand the diversity within the MCU and give a racist character a much needed modern day update. Instead, we have a white Iron Fist and one more addition to the Mighty Whitey tropes page.