Earlier this month, the hashtag #whitewashedOUT blew up on Twitter, exclaiming the lack of roles and representation of Asian people in mainstream Western media. This came after the release of an image of Scarlett Johansson in the Ghost in the Shell live action movie and Tilda Swinton as a white Ancient One in the Doctor Strange trailer. Many Asian American writers and creators talked about their personal dilemmas about writing Asian characters and the response they’ve received about casting. Actor and comedian Margaret Cho was one of the initiators of the hashtag and discussed the routine of whitewashing, stereotyping, and erasure of Asian people and Asian culture in Hollywood.
It's intense. It's that we have been invisible for so long we don't even know what we can do. https://t.co/uNvgShyFcM
— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) May 3, 2016
#whitewashedOUT when I actually struggle with: if I write myself, will I end my career? If I *don't* write myself, will I be a traitor?
— Marie Lu (@Marie_Lu) May 3, 2016
#whitewashedOUT means higher ups in academic circles are always white, & continue to tell us how we should feel about racism.
— Irene Koh 🐯🍠 (@kohquette) May 3, 2016
Within the same 24 hours that this discussion started, Josh Boone, director of the upcoming New Mutants movie, posted an image on his Instagram account. This started speculations that the team would consist of Magik, Wolfsbane, Sunspot, Mirage, and Cannonball…But no Karma. The lack of the original leader threw me off.
Although the X-Men films have a lot more gender diversity than their MCU counterpart, the movies are still dominated by white characters. It was only until X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) when the X-Men team had more than one person of colour on the roster. (I’m not counting X-Men: First Class because Darwin was killed immediately and Angel left for the Hellfire Club.) Coming up for the franchise is X-Men: Apocalypse, which has two female Asian American characters – Jubilee and Psylocke – but from what we’ve seen from the trailers, Psylocke is more of a physical force than a speaking character and Jubilee isn’t in the young X-Men line-up.
This year, after the just backlash against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nominating only white actors for the second year in a row, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California conducted a study on how Hollywood still is a straight, White man’s club. The report found that “at least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen.” The X-Men film franchise has gotten better over the years, but still relies on “tokenistic inclusion rather than integration” like all of the entertainment industry.
But let’s get back to the New Mutants! Xi’an Coy Manh, codename Karma, has an extremely torturous past that is connected to the Vietnam War (even with the sliding Marvel timeline keeping her in her mid-20s), a survivor of rape, and becoming the sole provider for her younger siblings — all of which happened before she was introduced to Xavier and joined the New Mutants. Karma’s mutant powers of psychic possession made her a formidable opponent. In the beginning, when Xi’an took possession of someone’s mind, she could only move their body awkwardly and often for a limited amount of time. But the writers and editors of Marvel saw the potential of Karma: what was stopping her from possessing the mind of all of her foes to defeat them? As her powers grew, so did her potential.
In New Mutants #6, Xi’an is thought to have died in an exploding building, but she came back in issue 31, possessed by the Shadow King and combating her former teammates. The New Mutants band together to save Karma from her forced villainy and succeed. But her rehabilitation and rejoining of the team didn’t last long either as she left the comic some time after to find her siblings. Her time in the first volume of New Mutants is comparatively shorter than most of the other team members, but Karma is so iconic that she’s still remembered as being a leading figure in the comic.
Karma was not well written or utilized in her early years in the comics – her powers made her unstoppable at times, and that’s boring for a hero. Xi’an became a better character when posed with a challenge, and that means facing adversaries mentally, whether it’s defeating the Shadow King or helping Legion patch up his mind. She was not a fighter so much as she was a mediator. That’s not to say that Karma couldn’t have her angry, physically forceful moments, but she was typically the first to start a discussion and understand a person’s motives.
The X-Men have always been about the outcasts of society, and to have a character that is a part of the LQBTQIA community is important for the New Mutants movie, as there is talk that the film will be set in the mid-to-late-80s/early-90s, an incredibly crucial time for LGBT individuals. In the same USC study, the prevalence of LGBT characters on screen shows as still leaning toward white men. It is extremely rare for there to be a female character that is not Caucasian to identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Xi’an is one of the first lesbian comic book characters to come out, and that’s extremely significant.
It’s even more significant when you remember Karma’s past combined with her sexual identity — it’s hard to remove the two, as it is very common for LGBT characters to often suffer, and sometimes die, for no real reason. A common trope in media is Bury Your Gays, where gay/lesbian/bi characters meet a gruesome end because hey, that’s just how it’s always been. Xi’an has had a lot of shit thrown at her throughout the comics merely because she’s a) a woman, b) lesbian, and c) not white – she has been another character used by the systematic treatment of underrepresentation and bigotry towards both Asian Americans and LGBT people.
Xi’an shouldn’t be included in the New Mutants line-up just because she is an Asian American lesbian woman; that would still be relying on tokenistic inclusion rather than integration. She is a well rounded character whose identity is connected to both her heritage and sexual orientation. The Vietnam War was talked about in Days of Future Past, as most of Xavier’s students and fellow teachers were drafted, and there was a special team composed of mutants like Havok and Toad. So why not have a Vietnamese character brought into the universe to oppose the pro-war angle these films have taken, even just as a devil’s advocate? Professor X doesn’t want to fight, but to have a character from a war-torn country would add to that level of seeking peace (this is again assuming the movie will take place after Apocalypse). And for all the hinted at homosexual romances, why not finally include a canon lesbian character and have her figuring out who she is, and seeking/in a relationship with another woman?
I love the New Mutants comics – any X-Men story that revolves around these kids I will devour. New X-Men: Academy X, the sorta-successor of New Mutants, is up there with as one of my favourite comic books and X-Men teams of all time. X-Men: Evolution is probably my prized pick of best X-Men cartoon because it focuses on the kids and their high school drama. It’s like X-Men meets DeGrassi (and as a Canadian, saying something is on the same level as DeGrassi is the highest compliment I can give). So to see someone like Josh Boone – who has successfully directed a YA movie with The Fault in Our Stars – do an X-Men makes me excited. But I’m not gonna waste my breathe on a film or franchise that continues to bate audiences with the concept of inclusion but never delivers.