Birth of the Dragon Review

Disappointing as a Bruce Lee biopic, but still leaves audiences with rare insights on kungfu, personal growth, and the benefits of defeat | DVD release: November 21



Historical Premise

Characters and Story: Steve McKeeBruce LeeWong Jack ManMinor characters

Thematic Development: Ethnicity and interethnic loveBruce Lee’s growthThe nature of kungfuVictory and defeat

Thematic Analysis


I went to watch Birth of the Dragon mainly to be completionist, since I’ve been doing a lot of research on Bruce Lee for my dissertation. Appraisals were lukewarm or negative all across the spectrum, from activists concerned about a message of cultural appropriation to general audiences who realized that half the film wasn’t even about Bruce Lee.

Still, Birth of the Dragon does try to innovate upon what we know of the period in Bruce Lee’s life and introduce different stances on the definition of kungfu. Partly because it deals with kungfu, themes such winning and losing, and finding oneself, are handled in a refreshingly different way than straight-up Hollywood films about sports; at the same time, because the setting is the modern US and Lee is a pop culture icon, it also differentiates itself from wuxia films that are ancient, arthouse-y, and enigmatic.

The first few sections are more like a conventional film review about how well the elements of the film come together; the last Thematic Analysis section is where I will give more of a social critique regarding how the messages in the film may impact society.

Historical Premise

In the early 1960s Bruce Lee was teaching kungfu in Seattle and the Bay area, before developing Jeet Kune Do and before his television and film career. In 1964, Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee had a private match with only a few witnesses; because it was private, there are different accounts of what motivated the match and what happened. Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, claims that Wong Jack Man and other kungfu masters in San Francisco’s Chinatown didn’t approve of Lee’s decision to take students of all ethnicities (her account is in I Am Bruce Lee). Wong’s account states that Lee claimed in public he could defeat any kungfu master in the region, so Wong took him up on the challenge. In addition, while some witnesses claim that the match took 3 minutes and that Lee won decisively, others claim that it lasted for over 20 minutes, and the fight was broken up bystanders who didn’t want a death on their hands.

Motivations are unclear and historical details are vague, but its impact on Lee’s later career seemed important – which makes it a good juncture of Lee’s life to elaborate on. While his death was sensational and might make a good film in 50 years, precisely because it is sensational and scandalous, it does less justice to his legacy and also disrespects members of his family who are still alive. What seems to be true regarding the Lee vs Wong match is that Lee was unsatisfied with his own performance, as he believed that an effective fighter would have ended the fight sooner (discussed by Caldwell in the clip); it also seems to be the case that this idea lead to the development of Jeet Kune Do.

Characters and Plot

Steve McKee

Birth of the Dragon added the entirely the fictional kungfu student, Steve McKee. In an early sparring scene, Lee consistently exploits his weaknesses, causing him to be more and more frustrated until he forgets his technique. Lee observe that he has anger / father issues. Steve sees from a newspaper that Wong is arriving and goes to meet him, hoping to learn from him also, but Wong observes that kungfu requires inner cultivation and a spiritual necessity, but Steve is directionless.

Steve finds something to fight for in Xiulan, an indentured waitress in Chinatown, working to pay back the Tong (Chinese mafia) who trafficked her to the US. The Tong forbids her and other indentured girls from learning English, as a means of ensuring their dependence. McKee thinks this is unfair and smuggles her an English textbook. Because the Tong catches her meeting with Steve and teaching English to other girls, they threaten to send her to the brothel and to punish the other girls. The Tong agree to free her on the condition that Steve can arrange a match between Lee and Wong; by running bets on the match, they could earn the money they would lose with freeing Xiulan.

Steve’s story is how the filmmakers elaborate on the murky motivations for the Lee vs Wong match. His function is to bring Lee and Wong together, and to provide an audience-insert character who is in awe of two martial arts masters, and to whom the masters can explain themselves. Another function is that it provides some romance to a plot that is otherwise about fighting (more in the next section about how well this worked). Unfortunately, Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee’s part in a way that combines hammy and wooden. I’ve only seen him briefly in The People v. OJ Simpson and Into the Woods, and it seems that he does better as characters who are kind of hammy or full of themselves, as opposed to an impulsive but genuine kid that I think Steve McKee was supposed to be.

Bruce Lee

Unlike Steve, Bruce Lee was performed better, and I could tell (as someone who has tried to watch as much Bruce Lee interview footage as I could find) that Philip Ng studied up on the role. Birth of the Dragon included a segment where Lee attends a regional competition / demonstration where he demonstrates to the public his famous one-inch punch. This actual demonstration didn’t take place til a few years later and was in Long Beach, but footage of it exists; in addition, there is Lee’s audition footage for The Green Hornet, where he demonstrates the efficiency of kungfu. Philip Ng’s performance clearly draws from Lee’s showmanship in these kinds of footage.

The drawback, however, is that Lee in Birth of the Dragon always came across like a celebrity who knew he was being filmed, and his lines were declarative, like someone giving an interview, rather than conversational. Granted, Lee was larger than life and was attentive to his image, but in rare fictional portrayal of him early in his career as a local instructor, I would expect that there would be some more vulnerability and intimacy to his character.

That said, why don’t we see him as anything other than a kungfu instructor? Especially since Steve’s subplot has to do with interethnic romance, it would be nice to see Linda Lee in the film (more on this later). It would make his character more three-dimensional if audiences could see how he behaved in a wider range of contexts – though there is a segment where Chinatown filmmakers help Lee shoot a demo reel, and he expresses his aspirations to make films.

Finally, the general problem with using Steve and his romance subplot to motivate the match is that  Lee is reduced to reactive character who gets pulled into the situation that Steve and the Tong set up. The one time that Lee is active – challenging Wong to a match when Wong wanders into the regional competition – Wong declines and walks away. This makes sense for the kind of character that Wong is, but deflates Lee. Even before delving into how the film fails to represent his philosophical journey to Jeet Kune Do, relegating him to a passive role fails to do justice to the enormously active and proactive life that Lee actually lead.

Wong Jack Man

Historically, Wong Jack Man seemed to have arrived in the US shortly before the match, but stayed in the US and taught kungfu in the Bay area until his death (source), making him an American national. In the film, Wong was portrayed as a Chinese national who returned to China soon after the match. In addition, while historically Wong was Cantonese / Southern Chinese who practiced the Northern Shaolin style, the film made him actually a monk of Shaolin. The point of this seems to have been to accentuate the character as a guardian of traditional practice, associated with the old country, whereas Lee is forging the future of kungfu in America.

The film actually starts with Wong; we see him in Shaolin beginning a demonstration match with a visiting taichi master and his pupils. The taichi master gains the upper hand, but Wong retaliates with a lethal kick that was disallowed. The film cuts away to Bruce Lee and Steve at this point. Next we see Wong having exchanged monks’ robes for a fedora and a suit, alighting alone and unrecognized at the pier in San Francisco. Steve only read a snippet about his arrival in a Chinese newspaper and had goes to greet him, but is surprised that a kungfu master arrived with so little fanfare. Since no one else has come to pick Wong up, Steve offers him a lift to Chinatown. Steve later finds out that he came to San Francisco to work as a restaurant dishwasher, which mystifies him.

When Steve tells Lee about his arrival, Lee is convinced that the dishwashing job is a cover and that Wong really came to shut down his school. Wong keeps explaining that this isn’t true, and that his objective is to humble himself after his error. Even when Lee preemptively challenges him after his public demonstration / competition, he just repeats the same explanation and leaves the arena.

Personally, I find Wong the best-acted character in the film. Yu Xia, the actor, is a Chinese national. I had seen him a few years ago in Mandarin-language television and film where his roles tended to be optimistic, pure, and righteous young men. He brings a serenity and restraint to Wong that works well for the character, and also provides a foil for the flashiness and of Ng’s Bruce Lee.

Minor character threads

Other than Steve, the film also focuses on another student of Lee’s, Vinnie Wei, whose family runs a laundromat. It is through his family business that we see the brutality of the Tong, as they trash the place and beat him up, since he has gambling debts and can’t pay their protection fee. He also provides some comic relief. The blandness of Steve McKee, though, makes me wonder if the film would have worked better with Vinnie and Steve’s characters combined.

Xiulan is represented with warmth and purity, which fulfils the character’s function. She is a fairly bland character as well, but still more multi-faceted than Steve and even Lee – we see her as a restaurant worker, as a partner to Steve, and as a ringleader for the rest of the indentured girls who genuinely cares about their well-beingwhen Steve asks her to run away she refuses to leave them behind, the implication being that they might be punished on her behalf. She also seems to be observant and cool-headed, which comes through when the Tong mistress, Auntie Blossom, threatens to send her to the brothel. Xiulan coolly reminds Auntie Blossom that she was likewise trafficked and is now in a guilded cage and doesn’t have true freedom either.

From the look on Auntie Blossom’s face, you can tell that Xiulan is right. Speaking of Auntie Blossom – I haven’t seen the actress before but she put on a formidable yet nuanced performance. She combines the standard brothel madam type with a keeness and commanding presence that strongly suggests a back story of have toughened up while climbing to the top of a man’s world (or underworld). Although their characters are slightly different, I was reminded of Cheng Peipei’s performance of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: clip here, with spoilers.

Thematic Development

Ethnicity and interethnic love

I have heard some complaints that Steve’s character is unnecessary, either because he distracts from Bruce Lee, who is supposed to be the main character, or because he repeats the White saviour trope. I suppose that he needed to be non-Asian to further the theme that cross-cultural exchange is a good thing – if there’s a debate around whether cultural practices need gatekeepers, there’s no debate that the human traffickers are even more wrong for denying indentured servants access to cultural knowledge that would help them survive in the US.

Unfortunately, the love-at-first-sight trope is too worn be convincing, especially when it multitasks as a love-transcends-cultural-barriers trope. It’s not that this trope is inherently offensive, it’s that the film would need to focus on relationship development for audiences to see more evidence of love. Unfortunately, because the relationship is meant to provide the reason for the Lee vs. Wong match, the relationship subplot has no time to develop specifics and remains a trope.

It’s also not helped by Bruce Lee stating that his wife is a White American, but then we never see Linda Lee at all. Bruce and Linda Lee would have been a story of interethnic love that has  the details to be convincing. I remember reading that their personalities complemented each other (In The Tao of Bruce Lee, the author mentions that filmmaker George Tan joked that Bruce and Linda Lee were like Popeye and Olive Oyl), and Linda saying that they’d run home right after kungfu class to catch their favourite TV shows. They also faced opposition from Linda’s parents but managed to convince them. If it was a problem of representing Linda Lee, who is still alive (though I don’t see why it would), even some more reminiscence from Lee about her would have helped.

(Bruce Lee’s) personal and professional growth

Overall, I understand the arc that the film was trying to establish for Bruce Lee – someone who is rather self-centred and arrogant to begin with, but due to the match with Wong, is able to see flaws to his character and his practice. By some accounts, while Bruce Lee was charismatic, he was not necessarily nice; I remember reading an account by Danny Inosanto who said that once Lee surprised him with a punch as a way of saying “happy birthday.”  I understand that Bruce Lee’s daughter and manager of his legacy, Shannon Lee, criticized the film for not reflecting her father’s life and philosophies, and is making another film (source). Her appraisal is true, but I also don’t necessarily wish to see a film that sanitizes and deifies him either. His legacy and fandom already does that. A film would be an opportunity to show him from the point of view of those close to him, which would show him as human.

In addition to limited view of Lee as an instructor, the film didn’t even flesh this role out very well. It’s hard even to tell what he thinks about using his kungfu to help Steve and Xiulan. At first, Lee believes it is not his fight, and mentions that the Tong don’t collect a bogus protection fee from his establishment because he reached a deal where they steer clear of each other. However, the film seemed to be trying to get at some personal or philosophical reason, because the deal would still be in effect after fighting Wong, but Lee changed his mind anyways. Perhaps the film was trying to say that the match with Wong made him less self-absorbed, and he does make a statement to this effect, but it’s still not clear how the match with Wong taught him this lesson specifically, and how it could have come out of Wong’s philosophy.

Finally, it is true that the film’s events in no way logically lead to him developing Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee diverged from other kungfu masters in that he repudiated the mysticism that went into kungfu. Jeet Kune literally means “intercepting fist,” which describes the objective point of self-defense, not something abstract and philosophical like “eternal spring” (Wing Chun). In the match with Wong, there is a scene where Wong floats down from a 2-story height based on powers from cultivating his chi. This was meant to be a point where Bruce recognized the limitations of his own practice, but due to willpower (or something), he also floats down to join Wong. Instead of further pushing him to develop a new practical style, the scene seems to show that Lee was convinced that mysticism was right, which isn’t true to his later philosophies.

The nature of kungfu

Cultural appropriation of kungfu by non-Chinese ended up being a red herring. The film actually takes both Wong and Lee’s historical accounts into account, which is quite an achievement since they directly contradict each other. In the film, Wong is true to his word and does not challenge Lee’s right to teach non-Chinese, but he also doesn’t let the matter slide. Steve asks why anyone would want to guard the knowledge of kungfu, and Wong replies, “Would you give away your nuclear codes?” Steve is taken aback.

Wong has two main misgivings about Lee’s practice, the first of which is that Lee’s kungfu has little spirituality involved. From Wong’s perspective as a monk of Shaolin, kungfu has a deeply spiritual element that cannot be reduced to technique.  Steve is initially a kungfu practitioner who doesn’t seem to have any cause for learning kungfu in particular, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing with his life; Bruce Lee teaches people simply to deliver the maximum amount of pain in the minimum amount of time.

The second misgiving is that and Lee teaches whoever wants to pay for his instruction, as long as they are interested. This is very different than a master and disciple relationship, where in theory the master assesses the student’s need to learn, and after taking on a student, teaches the discipline comprehensively regardless of whether the student pays or not (Wong doesn’t actually say this, but since he’s from Shaolin, I’m speculating this is what he would have in mind). Wong specifically asks Lee if he’s aware of his similarity to the Tong, who do not see a sanctity in human beings and traffic them for profit. This comparison and the nuclear weapons one seem out of proportion, but we also need to keep in mind that in the contemporary moment, most martial arts practice is devoid of spirituality and instruction has become a service in the market economy.

When Lee challenges Wong at the regional competition / demonstration, one of his parting shots is “I am the future of kungfu.”  Later, Wong meditates that Lee is right, but also believes that he should make clear to Lee that Lee’s technique and perspective on kungfu has shortcomings. Yet how to convince Lee of this remains a problem – knowing Lee’s personality, beating him would humiliate and anger him, which may actually prevent him from seeing his limits. And so onto the final theme.


Victory and defeat

In the last section I covered the film like an imdb summary that doesn’t give away the ending, but a discussion of this theme requires knowing how the film ends.

When I went into the theatre, I did not actually know that some witnesses had reported that the match ended in a draw, and it was a surprise that the film showed the match in this way. The last scene of the match shows Wong and Lee facing one another and positioned like how the match started, both exhausted, but seem to have reached some kind of unspoken agreement about what the match meant.

The second surprise was that the match wasn’t the end of the film. The Tong want their money, and without a clear winner the bets they ran mean nothing. They put extra pressure on Steve to convince both masters, since he would have vested interest in Xiulan’s freedom. In separate conversations with Steve, both Wong and Lee express an aversion to saying they themselves lost, but they are also uncomfortable with releasing an independent statement that the other lost. Frustrated, Steve goes to the restaurant to try and rescue Xiulan by himself, which results him being beaten up and thrown out.

Lee and Wong decide to team up to save him since their it was partially their indecision that led to this predicament, and they both feel some obligation to Steve as their student. They prop Steve up in the alley and fight their way up through the restaurant building to the Tong’s offices (most likely referencing the pagoda in Game of Death). Having just had most of their muscle decimated, the Tong agree to strike a new deal with Lee and Wong, which is that in return for a winner and loser, all the trafficked women in Chinatown go free. Under these circumstances, Wong tells the Tong that he lost and Lee says that he is satisfied with this statement.

This caps off every character trajectory. Xiulan is free and she and Steve are reunited, and all the other girls are free. Steve witnesses and understands what kungfu can truly do and what is at stake. Vinnie, the other student with gambling debts, earns it back from betting on Lee. As for Lee, he tells Steve that at one point during the match, Wong had him in a headlock, during which Wong actually asked him a question: “Do you understand?” The technique where Wong floated from a 2-storey height, the effort it took Lee during the match, and using kungfu to help Steve has made Lee understand that he still has a lot of room to grow and a lot to think about regarding what kungfu means.

The significance of the (essentially fabricated) match results is the most interesting for Wong though. Since he knows that defeating Lee would teach Lee nothing, and a draw puts other lives at stake, the only choice is to lose. It is not spelled out in so many words in the film, but actually physically losing the match would also not teach Lee anything about his limits, since victory would confirm that he was the best. Thus, the only option is for the match to end in a draw, and for Wong to say that he lost. The generosity of this gesture would be an added bonus to demonstrate to Lee that the discipline of kungfu is about inner character and not just technique. Finally, saying that he lost also rounds off Wong’s mission of humbling himself. In the beginning of the film, Wong’s desire to win outweighed his respect for his opponent and for the rules of the match, but by the end he is able to put his ego aside and prioritize contributing to the future of kungfu and saving the women from exploitation.

The film portraying the match between Lee and Wong as a draw, and how the two characters handle this, makes it very unique and different from Hollywood sports films. I can’t think of a feature film where a draw or losing is productive and desirable. The closest would be war films where soldiers sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers, but the thematic point of that is teamwork between people on the same side, which doesn’t apply here.

Thematic Analysis

Here I’ll get political – I think the film’s message is important for American audiences to understand. First, as numerous commentators and media personalities have observed, both sides of the political spectrum try to vilify the other and shout them down. This approach may not convince the other side of their shortcomings, but only makes them more trenchant in their beliefs. Birth of the Dragon suggests that by having some humility, or making concessions on some personal matters, we may be more convincing in others. Second, Wong takes Lee’s pride into account when he is pondering a means to change Lee’s mind. This demonstrates something I mentioned in a previous post: when trying to create change, progressives often insist conservatives should know better, without actually taking ignorance and human foibles into account when strategizing. Wong is someone who adopts both humility and strategic thinking, which is lacking in current approaches to social change.

Regarding interethnic romance, there’s still the question of if not Bruce and Linda Lee, whether it could have been another Chinese man and another White woman. After all, it’s not only women who are trafficked and in need of help. While I was distracted instead of offended by the representation of Steve and Xiulan, and I understand other reasons that the filmmakers decided Steve to be White, it certainly does nothing to refute charges that the US is still uncomfortable with seeing men of colour with White women, and overuses White audience-insert characters because it assumes that the audience is White and needs / wants to see themselves.

Finally, even though cultural appropriation didn’t end up being a source of conflict in the film, it still presents a good opportunity to consider how Wong’s perspective fits into this argument. Wong’s lines indicate that the main issue is that he has high and very specific standards for kungfu that he does not think Bruce Lee and his non-Chinese students are meeting. The issue of kungfu as a property of a specific community is secondary, and the nuclear armaments comment is the only thing Wong says about this.

To tackle the secondary issues first: Those who know the history of Shaolin would know that it has been attacked across history by bandits, warlords, and the government. The kungfu practiced in Shaolin is rooted in spiritual cultivation, and has been developed to defend a community’s way of life. If we accept for a moment that kungfu could allow practitioners to use their chi to accomplish superhuman feats such as levitation or kill in a single strike (which Wong of the film could do), then it is not much different from superior technology rooted in scientific cultivation used to defend communities at the scale of a nation-state.

Seeing it in these terms also helps to unpack the primary issue of standards. When it comes to cultural or artistic matters, because standards are often immeasurable and subjective, appealing to standards can seem to be a means of evading objective mass deliberation and thus hoarding the power to assign value. This is not always false. However, if we accept for a moment that spiritual cultivation adds a unique component to cultural practices, the lack of spirituality would result in an incomplete art. Although Wong does not explain it in these terms, if kungfu becomes simply a set of physical techniques that can be bought and sold, there are less checks on the kind of people practitioners are, consequently kungfu could more likely be used to hurt others. Going further with his nuclear power comparison, no scientist in their right minds would think of teaching nuclear science without teaching how to safely use it. Kungfu, like any other system, needs to have an internally coherent set of checks and balances.

Wong is a master of kungfu who has devoted his life to it, and his concerns for the future of his life practice cannot be reduced to a fear of cultural appropriation. However, cultural boundaries may play a part in his misgivings, and an explanation of why they can be legitimate would also clear up criteria in cultural appropriation in general. From Wong’s perspective as a Chinese person in the 1960s (either the real Wong Jack Man or the character), how would non-Chinese access the spiritual dimensions of kungfu if most Chinese masters can’t speak English, if non-Chinese students don’t read Chinese, if these materials have not been translated, and if they live an urban American life that is out of touch with Chinese philosophy and spirituality? In other words, if other social structures are not conducive to sharing the full meaning of a cultural practice, some may legitimately elect not to share it.

In addition, the historical context between the cultural in-group and out-group matters as well. I have already mentioned the history of Shaolin having an impact on what kungfu means to practitioners there. There are also events like the Boxer Rebellion, where allied Western powers decimated Chinese country folk who were trying to use kungfu to stave off an invasion. Not that the Boxers were interested in cultivating spirituality in the same way, but it makes sense that a few generations later, Chinese kungfu masters would still hesitate to teach foreigners.  Thus the burden isn’t on these masters to share cultural practices, but on interested members of the out-group to demonstrate that they and their society have changed. These two examples of cultural boundaries also point to the implications in resistance to cultural appropriation – masters are not saying that cultural practices can never be shared, but that contemporary factors are not conducive for sharing to be genuine, or for what is genuine to be shared.

From the themes presented in the film to the discussions it generated, I think Birth of the Dragon is worth watching, even if it is incredibly uneven. DVD release is on November 21.


Charlie Hebdo and The Interview: Uses and Abuses of Free Speech and the Unmasking of God

“I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.” – Stephen Colbert

“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive – no wonder everyone keeps invading you.” – Twelfth Doctor


From last year until now, the world has been struggling over a series of incidents regarding media representations: first, The Interview was pushed back, revised, and then nearly cancelled due to threats to Columbia, Sony Pictures and theatres over the depiction of the assassination of Kim Jong-un; second, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France was attacked by terrorists in response to publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, in which 11 staff members were killed. In both of these incidents, a Western agency created satirical representations, then non-Western society protested over their representations as offensive, and then the Western content producers protested in return that their representations were justified based on good intentions and free speech/creative expression.

As a fairly pacifist human being and one that does work and research in the arts, I do not condone any kind of attack on creators of an image, however offensive this image may be. However, in discussing this matter with others, I have repeatedly defended the objections of North Korea and of Islamic fundamentalists, and repeatedly found myself on the wrong side of the argument; this post is a means of sorting out and justifying why I think the way I do. One thread in my thinking is related to what we call “free speech,” and the other is linked to representation and divinity.

Organizing these thoughts might start with what seems to be contrasting definitions on concepts we take for granted, and also different weights given to these definition: what is a “representation,” what is an “attack” (figurative or literal, or what is figurative or literal violence), and what is “satire.” There are also different stages to these controversies; of the incidents themselves, there is the stage in which a Western representation takes place, another stage where retaliation takes place, and another stage where protests against these retaliations take place; behind the event itself, there is the long history of global politics.

Working backwards, I believe protests over retaliation on the part of terrorists and North Korea has to do with the sense that their reactions are incommensurate with the representations they find offensive (accepting for a moment that finding them offensive is justified). A justifiable reaction might be also in the realm of representation or in the discursive realm, eg publishing a column protesting The Interview or perhaps a fatwa against caricatures might seem to be responding with a commensurate retaliation (even if the logic behind it seems silly to Westerners), whereas hacking and a terrorist strike aren’t. These “extreme” forms of retaliation are incommensurate because they are material rather than discursive; they cost lives and interfere with livelihoods. Cue the sticks and stones childhood rhyme – words and pictures don’t hurt but sticks and stones do.

Going more theoretical here to cite theorist Jean Baudrillard, there are iconoclasts and iconolators. Iconoclasts object to representations of the divine, because any human imagining of the perfection of divinity or associated figures would be a profanity. Putting aside any debates on whether it’s RIGHT to think this way, it is at least clear that fundamentalists of a number of religions are iconoclast, and they steadfastly proclaim themselves as such. On the other hand, it seems that the Western world is confused about whether it wants to be iconoclasts or iconolators. We believe that representations matter; social groups advocate for better and more authentic representations of marginalized groups, and the childhood rhyme is no longer tenable in school management – psychological bullying hurt as much as physical bullying. Personally, as someone who has done illustration work and researches comics, I have to admit that my Western, Humanities scholar self has a sense of perverse pride that in the The Interview and Charlie Hebdo incidents, representations matter so much. However, while we advocate for how representations matter, we also seem to get bewildered and angry when another community thinks they matter more than we do. Representations matter, but if you’re willing to kill and die over representations, then you’re clearly insane.

In the Western liberal scheme of representations, while we might not believe there is much of a relationship between a representation and the actual thing, it’s not the case that we believe all representations are immaterial or should not have material effects. What, after all, is the end goal of increased and better representations for marginalized groups and stopping psychological bullying among children? It is so that children grow up confident and assured and with psychological resources for better lives. Or that marginalized groups do not run up against a wall of prejudice and can get better jobs and education and better lives, perhaps have lives in the first place (thinking of Ferguson). Even if some Westerners believe that young Black men are more disruptive and tend more towards criminal behaviour, I don’t think we would disagree that persistent media representation of young Black men as criminal at least contributes to increased targeting by police and hence disrupt lives if not cost lives. So, if representations are a matter of life and death, then we should also not argue that, at least on a theoretical level, it is wrong for certain iconoclast religious fundamentalists to be willing to kill and die over representations.

Onto the second thread, which is free speech. Again, as a person working in and around the arts, and as someone who will usually defend fan work over copyright, I believe that society needs both an ideologically generative and economically lucrative structure to protect creativity and “immaterial” labour. On the other hand, in terms of a debate we have had internally to the West, there is the tension between free speech and hate speech, which are part of the convulsions France is currently undergoing. An article from NPR states that hate speech and blasphemy are different under French law. I am not sure about the logic behind this, but it seems that if religion is integral to someone’s identity as their ethnicity (I suppose in certain Pan-Islamic contexts it is more important than ethnicity), and if objecting to someone’s ethnicity is hate speech, it doesn’t make sense that objecting to someone’s religion isn’t. I suppose there is still the sense that the racial/biological part of one’s ethnicity is in some ways innate, and can’t be helped, whereas religion has ideas that one has agency to renounce. But if a religion is the only system of knowledge and truth that you know, and it has structured your life from the day you were born, it’s not so easily to step outside it.

Another argument I have heard in protest against Islamic fundamentalism is that the world needs a system of checks and balances, and no group should be exempt from criticism. Outsiders to the group under consideration should also not fear for their safety due to their critiques. I also do believe that aspirations of a ruling class to be fair and generous towards everyone else usually fails as people tend to protect their own interests, and hence a system of checks and balances needs to be able to function so different elements of a society can critique each other without impunity. However, to me this system of checks and balances has not been actualized, and it is as a lofty and unrealistic goal as noblesse oblige. Checks and balances assumes that each party can have their voices equally heard, and to have their stakes equally measured, otherwise disproportionate power means that there is no checks and balance. And there is no global equality. Regardless of whether the US being engaged in the Middle East was a justified action after 9/11, the UN security council expressed reservations about interventions; the US as a disproportionately strong world power was able to say it would act alone. This is not something that most countries or communities in the world can do. Due to historical colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America, nations in these locations do not have as much political or economic leverage as Western countries, thus they disproportionately have their concerns infringed upon while being disproportionately unable to influence world powers. For example, the term “banana republic” originally referred to Honduras, which could not exercise its sovereignty against American businesses who wanted to grow bananas cheaply there. Most colonized countries have not bounced back from this state of being. There are certain international laws in place to prevent exploitation, however historical legacies are not so easily overcome.

In this context of unequal power, what “satire” is needs to be seriously considered. The famous example would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he satirized England’s encroachment on Ireland by suggesting that taken to the extreme, the English might like to eat Irish babies. Satire does not exist in an abstract world where each cultural work has the same weight as other cultural works, but a tool of the weak against the strong when no outright critique is possible. In Swift’s case, objecting to the English directly would have resulted in retribution, so satire was criticism disguised as a fable, where on the denotative level there is no criticism, just absurdity. I would argue that if the power dynamics were reversed, it would no longer be satire, but ridicule and psychological bullying. It is true that the average French journalist doesn’t have as much power as the average terrorist (sorry, “the average terrorist” sounds kind of…wrong), however on a global scale I would argue that France and French media command more attention and has more power to shape international decisions than religious fundamentalist teachings and “extremist” policies, which tend to terrorize a local context. Also, if Swift was trying to reveal British atrocities, I’m not sure what the staff at Charlie Hebdo meant to reveal – or at least the throughline between Mohammed being humanized and current extremist policies isn’t clear enough to me from a caricature to be satire. It would take a long exposition about traditions of veneration in Islam, the impact of rigid or literal interpretations of divine texts, and perhaps a statement on the choice to deliberately tackle image-making to move beyond ridicule.

In addition, perhaps specifically related to the Charlie Hebdo incident, the audience matters. I do not know the readership of Charlie Hebdo, but I understand that this magazine has always critiqued French society, and perhaps its satire has revealed to citizens machinations in French politics and enlightened them to make better social decisions. Thus, I am assuming that most of their audience are not Islamic fundamentalists or doubting Muslim followers who are trying to embrace secularism. In which case, if the caricatures are meant to be satire, I am not sure what kind of social change the cartoonists were trying to accomplish. After similar incidents they should know that Islamic believers won’t respond well to caricatures of Mohammed, and probably won’t renounce their fundamentalism after seeing these caricatures. If their audience are other liberal middle class Frenchmen, with the cartoons they are already preaching to the converted (sorry for the religious metaphor there). Thus, the caricatures are not so much socially-motivated satire as an ingroup joke ridiculing those who are already outsiders. From this point of view, this issue isn’t a free speech or hate speech issue on an abstract level at all, but pragmatically a bad allocation of artistic resources.

The Interview is a similar case and perhaps enlightening in terms of caricatoonists’ thought processes. In The Interview, two American journalists set out to prove to the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is not a god, but human. In parallel, one way of thinking about caricatures of Mohammed is that by making him ridiculous, cartoonists are stripping him of his divinity and making him human. Both of these stripping away of divinity is supposed to lead to some kind of secular or democratic liberation, as people would be able to see through a lie.

What is interesting is that Dave and Aaron are enacting what the terrorists enacted in real life, which is attack a representation to shut it down. There are three facets of difference: First, the material routed through representations or the material straight up: The Interview is fiction, whereas the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo is a real world occurrence. Second, in the case of Kim Jong-un, the representation and the crafter of the representation are the same figure, Kim Jong-un, whereas in the case of caricatures of Muhammad, the representation and its crafters are different entities. The last facet of difference is Rogen and Goldberg are attacking and taking down a representation of god and showing there is nothing behind it, whereas the terrorists are attacking and taking down a representation of god to preserve the divinity behind it.

These differences are significant, but at a conceptual level both parties were acting under very similar logic. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can conceive of making Kim Jong-un fall but cannot put it into practice, and so created a representation that they hope will achieve similar real world effects in the long run, whereas the terrorists were different in that they were willing and able to commit real world actions directly. With the second point, a Western liberal question might be to ask why not just attack the images instead of killing the people who created it. In The Interview, Aaron protests against killing Kim Jong-un because another dictator would just be set up in its place, ie it doesn’t really solve the root of the problem. It actually does – conveniently for Dave and Aaron, they can kill two birds with one stone and kill the image of god and the dictator who crafted him in one go, whereas the terrorists don’t have that convenience. The same logic might apply in the terrorists’ mind – just protesting verbally that images are offensive falls on deaf ears and more images would be made; might as well kill all the cartoonists and root out the problem. Third, as I’ve discussed earlier, both the film producers and Al-Qaeda are iconoclasts, just different kinds.

One point this post is aiming for is that for all of lofty Western values, in practice strategies don’t necessarily operate on different grounds than terrorists. Another point is that in the West we need to work out exactly what we believe representations are and what they’re meant to accomplish, and acknowledge some kind of internationally-accepted limit, that’s just as important, I think, as a UN security council. As a subset of this, we need to be clear about what satire is meant to accomplish.

Third, we also need to assess what it means to unmask god. If we are so keen to destroy the image of god of another community and show him to be human, we should also accept that another community might be rather keen to destroy the images we make of their god. Also, regarding allocations of artistic resources: if a terrorist attack doesn’t convince the Western world that they’re wrong in drawing caricatures of the divine and just deeply offends everyone, how would a movie showing a terrorist attack on a man people think is god going to change anything instead of deeply offending everyone? Finally, if we unmask god, what do we put in his place? Do we take a boat off into the sunrise with the dog we rescued? Do we try to become god? How do we teach a community who has lived with god that God is dead and we have killed him?

Doctor Who and Ethnicity, Part I: Race and the cultural embeddedness of Science Fiction

At the end of May, there was a controversy surrounding British television series Doctor Who, due to the impending publication of a collection of academic essays titled Doctor Who and Race.  Since the volume is out now, I expect the issue to open up again.

This controversy brought out a lot of things I have been turning over in my head since I started watching the revived Doctor Who.  Anyways, the press picked up on essays in the collection that describe Doctor Who as propagating British imperialism, being dismissive of Black characters, and demeans cultures that are not industrially developed. Fans of Doctor Who got offended, and the BBC defended itself by saying that Doctor Who is especially committed to colour-blind casting and depicting all of humanity (and since this is a science fiction show, all potential life forms) as equal. The editors of the collection responded to this controversy by reminded fans and the media that not all the essays are critical of Doctor Who.

This Part I will deal with analysis of the episodes’ representations of race and ethnicity, as well as representations of British culture, especially British ideas of tea and Asians. The controversy also has a few instructive lessons on science fiction, media in a global context, and the relationship of academics to everyday life, especially popular culture, and that will wait til Part II (I wanted to post all of it together, but seeing as the essay collection is published already, posting asap on the issue seems important. And also it will cut down the length). Here I will discuss what I have seen of Doctor Who (henceforth DW) but will also briefly talk about a couple more scifi shows: Fringe, Firefly, and, uh, Doraemon, just to put things into non-Western perspective. Most of it will be about race and ethnicity, but some of it will be about gender, sexuality, and cultural consciousness in general, because constructs of race and gender and sexuality are part of cultural consciousness.

This post is NOT meant to be a summary or review of the essay collection, and it was written without having read any of the essays in the collection. Rather, this is what I might have written if I were a contributor to the collection, as a way to think through the issue on my own before reading about other people’s opinions. I’m sure many points below have already been touched on in the essays, and I don’t claim to have thought of them first or anything. Actually many of the issues of Doctor Who and race have already been debated in the media, just not the the extent that they have recently with the publication of Doctor Who and Race.


Bit of a pre-amble on the issue, and on scifi, below

I. Black characters in Doctor Who: Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, and recent minor characters

II. Cultural embeddedness: British culture and conceptions of Asia (plus a bit on Fringe, Firefly, and Doraemon at the end)

(Sorry, no underlining or italicising for titles as per MLA guidelines. My browser crashed several times trying to post this so I’ll neglect the unimportant stuff.)

Similar issues of scifi and race have already come up in relation to Battlestar Galactica (my post here), whose themes involved race and ethnicity more directly than Doctor Who. However, Doctor Who is a children’s show, which means that the BBC, academics and fans might all be more invested in its representations. It is more an educational tool that might make children more or less tolerant of aliens, whether they be the extra-terrestrial type or the resident immigrant type. I think it is not difficult to see the former as an allegory for the latter in scifi. Science fiction (speculative fiction in general) can do something that general fiction can’t, which is allegorize current earth-bound ethnic relations with an expanded universe of humans, aliens, cyborgs, etc, a context in which the immediate practical interests of one ethnic group (usually ours) can be set aside so as to better deliberate morality (also usually ours). Hence, scifi is a great place for self-reflexivity without people getting angry and defensive. As for the distinction between scifi and fantasy and which one has potential to do this better, I’m not equipped to answer this, though comments are as always welcome.  So first off, I’m re-iterating that scifi shows like Doctor Who and controversies they might generate are very important and should not be brushed off as the purview of a few nerds or a few academics angrily punching at their keyboards. Though, in the spirit of self-reflexivity, I’m a nerd and an aspiring academic, so my estimation of the importance of Doctor Who and its controversies might be an over-estimation. More on that later.

One last thing:  I believe that the essay collection deals with both the older run of DW and the revived one starting 2005. That might have been where some of the confusion arose that lead to controversy – the 1960s had different takes on identity constructs like race, and academics who were critiquing those older series might have been reported by the press as critiquing DW in general. I’ve only watched the revived one, so I will be evaluating what I think of that one. Although, after the latest season finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” I was in DW withdrawal and tried watching the very first episode. In this episode, the first Doctor compares the Susan’s teachers’ incomprehension of the TARDIS to “savages” who cannot understand a train. So, I stopped watching.

I. Black characters in Doctor Who: Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, and recent minor characters

As with most controversies (eg controversies about Hetalia, here), I can see this issue of Doctor Who and race both ways, that is I can find a number of examples which support BBC’s statement that DW is colour-blind and committed to ethnic equity, and on the other hand I can also find a number of examples that support the academics’ analysis that DW is imperialist and Black characters are not treated with respect. And because I’m Asian I can find examples of Asian characters that land on both sides of the argument. And aliens. Here goes.

As BBC states, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith. Martha is definitely a good example of where DW handles race pretty well. As a character, she is knowledgeable med school student, resourceful companion to the Doctor, and I would say a resilient and wise woman at the end of her journey, recognizing that her life cannot always revolve around the Doctor (especially since he doesn’t return her affections), continuing work for UNIT and helping to save the universe at the end of Season 4.  I don’t think she is a stereotype of Black women, especially since she isn’t particularly sexualized. At least I don’t see it – Rose and Martha, and more recently Amy, all had their fair share of revealing outfits and not. Donna is slightly older and temps at offices, so she’s out of the comparison.

Parts of the story that happens around Martha are also well-handled. One alternative to putting up ethnic stereotypes in the media is to put up ethnic minorities who are “just ordinary people” or characters who obviously go against the established stereotype, eg a Chinese person who’s not good at math, or an affluent, meek, and law-abiding African American. However this approach has also been criticised because at times it does run against realism. In the case of math it’s not so important, but the argument is that an affluent, meek and law-abiding (let’s abbreviate this set of traits “AMLA” for now) African American eclipses thousands of African Americans who live in poverty, develop resourceful solutions to survive, and have the law constantly on their backs, through no fault of their own, a social situation that the AMLA African American character seems to have transcended through the American favourite of pulling himself up by his bootstraps or somehow achieved without explanation. Anyways, the point of that detour was that sometime characters are not stereotypes but they can still be problematic if they totally ignore race or the realities of ethnic inequality.

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This issue has come up for the 2-parter “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks” (S03E4-5)where the charismatic leader of the 1930s New York destitutes living in Central Park’s Hooverville is an African American man named Solomon (above). I remember reading praise for his character, but with someone commenting that realistically an African American man during those hard  times would hardly have been elected leader. Personally I agreed with this one – he would probably have been seen as competition by the White working class and chased out of Hooverville. But anyways, the response to this criticism was that a scifi show that puts Daleks in Manhattan in the 1920s hardly needs to follow historical accuracy on other fronts. I can also see the point of this argument – why only speculate about the future in scifi? Though, since the two episodes also focuses on how the Daleks can potentially change their racist doctrine, there could be a corresponding change/development in the human community going from intolerance of an African American leader to an acceptance. That would probably have made the episodes too complicated, so settling on humans already achieving ethnic equality is probably the next best thing.

Anyways, with Martha in DW, she manages to go against stereotypes of Black women and her part in the story generates race-related situations or at least anecdotes. A favourite would be the 2-parter story “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood” (S03E8 and 9), where Martha is posing as a servant for the human-ized Doctor as they stay in a boarding school in 1913, hiding from aliens hunting the Doctor, who are tracking him by sensing his Time Lord essence. Martha faces outright racism and dismissal from the students at the school and other staff (one nasty student asking her how she can tell if anything’s clean with dark skin, the matron telling her that a woman can never be a doctor, and even if one day they can, “hardly one of your colour”), and the townspeople (the war veteran at the community dance event telling her to use the servants’ entrance). The general tone of these episodes is that the matron’s understanding is limited despite her good intentions otherwise, and the boys can be just plain evil, and children should not be like them. Aside from these two episodes, as a fan I loved how she was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets (though Sonnet 18’s dedicated not to the Dark Lady but actually the Fair Youth, but never mind), but with an accompanying facepalm from both her and Doctor that Shakespeare’s names for her (Blackamoor, Ethiop girl, Queen of the Afric) are “political correctness gone mad” (S03E02). For me this would teach children a far more subtle lesson than “negative stereotypes are bad.” It also potentially teaches children that even positive stereotypes are bad and that trying too hard to make up for stereotypes with political correctness can also derail.

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On the other hand, I think there are also problems with Martha’s character. To be fair, she is not defined by her unrequited love for the Doctor, and it is understandable that he has just lost Rose, however I was still uncomfortable that a non-White female character spending a lot of time onscreen pining after a White man, which is what the Doctor looks like even if he’s not human. This visuality makes a difference:  during “The Shakespeare Code,” when Martha is concerned that she might be carted off as a slave because she’s Black, the Doctor responds first with incomprehension and then “and I’m not even human. Just walk around like you would any other place. It works for me” (image above) This seems to be logical except that the Doctor can walk around with the privilege of a white man because he looks like one, but his attitude that his strategies of passing would work for Martha is rather presumptuous. To make an extreme argument, it’s almost having your cake and eating it too – having a certain degree of otherness to the Doctor to suggest that the show is tolerant towards otherness, without actually having to address otherness because people don’t perceive him as other. Granted,” The Shakespeare Code”‘s main theme is about the power of words and stories, which I find well conveyed, however it does seem implausible that Martha could walk around Elizabethan England without getting harassed. After all, Othello is the “Moor” of Venice, not London, and if I remember my undergrad Shakespeare classes,  Italy’s place in the Elizabethan English imagination was kind of an exotic hodgepodge that was exotic precisely because it wasn’t like England. Also, I understand that the Doctor’s first reaction of confusion might be to mirror young audiences’ surprise about slavery if they don’t know about it already, but for the Doctor, who has observed and participated in all of human history, to not know about the slave trade is also implausible. This issue could have been taken care of by the Doctor recognizing that Martha’s skin colour poses a danger to her and then using a perception filter on her so that people around them won’t really recognize that she’s Black. This won’t even impact how Shakespeare sees her, since he could see through the psychic paper’s trick.

And then there’s Mickey. Some people believe that the first Black companion is not Martha but Mickey, so he has that going for him. However I have a feeling that the “dismissal attitudes towards Black companions” that the press says that the academics have seen in DW might be about Mickey, because the Doctor is really not very nice to him to start with. For example, in the pilot episode “Rose,” the 9th Doctor doesn’t seem to really care whether Mickey’s been killed by the Nesteen consciousness or not, and when Rose finds him alive and runs to help him, the Doctor sort of rolls his eyes. Though the Doctor sort of has a dismissal attitude of 20th and 21st century humanity in general (“these stupid little people have just learned how to walk”), he especially likes to, well,  to use British English, to take the mickey out of Mickey. In S02E03, as the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigate a school for producing record student results, Mickey stumbles into a closet full of vacuum-packed rats and screams, and the Doctor accuses him of screaming like a 10-year old girl with pigtails (don’t even know why that’s relevant). Anyways, at first Mickey’s character is, as he puts it, the tin dog of the group (a reference to him having a supporting role like the robotic dog K-9, in the same episode), and in S0S04, when Rose objects to the Doctor wanting to keep a horse that has stumbled into a spaceship, the Doctor replies, “I let you keep Mickey.” So Mickey is likened to a tin dog and then a pet horse.

DW 03

Moreover, his character is often the one providing comic relief, for example in S02S04, while Mickey, Rose and the Doctor are on a spaceship, we see Mickey through the ship’s cameras where his face is distorted to look comical. Rose: “You’re not keeping the horse!” Doctor: “I let you keep Mickey.”.  Since there is a long history of Black characters used as comic relief (or, in other words, laughing at Black people), such as blackface minstrelsy, Mickey as comic relief is just repeating a stereotype. Incidentally, I learned just last year that the character of Mickey Mouse has roots in blackface minstrelsy, which explains the white part of his face around his features. I’m pretty sure the Doctor calls Mickey “Mickey Mouse” at some point, and the writer, actors, and production team on that episode probably had no idea about Mickey Mouse’s origins. Anyways that just makes Mickey’s representation in Doctor Who a little worse.  He does comes to his own in Season 2, staying on to clean up the mess of the cybermen, and again at the end of Season 4, so arguably the earlier quips about his uselessness are in place to accentuate his later character development. However, arguably you can have character development without the characters being a laughingstock the begin with, examples being Rose and Martha. Again, Donna’s sort of out of comparison because Catherine Tate is a comedian to start with .

Also, returning to a problem of romance similar with Martha, he’s basically a Black man losing a girl to a White man. Not only that –  at the end he ends up with Martha, and despite Jack Harkness’s sexual flexibility covering all genders and all life-forms, we don’t even get any interracial couples at the end. Personally I feel that his relationship with Martha came out of nowhere – we see Jack, Mickey and Martha walking off, and the next time we see Mickey and Martha they’re married. Granted that as both ex-companions and experience fighting hostile aliens, they have a lot in common, however I can’t see their personalities meshing and there was no development in this regard. I suppose an argument is that BBC left it up to fanfiction writers.

Another argument would be that the show needed comic relief, and since you can’t laugh at main characters like Rose or the Doctor, you go to the next-of-kin and laugh at Rose’s boyfriend Mickey and at her mother Jackie. And Jackie is White, so it’s not like the show only uses Black characters as comic relief. And the BBC just happened to cast a Black actor as Rose’s boyfriend. And Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor isn’t because she’s Black and he’s “White” but he would behave in that way to any companion that came after Rose, and the BBC just happened to cast a Black actress as Martha. I understand that this might really be the case, however this might reveal a problem about colour-blind casting. Similar to the problem of race neutrality not reflecting or making up for real world ethnic inequalities, colour-blind casting can be a problem if it really is blind. Colour-blind casting, meaning that casting directors don’t consciously slot actors into ethnic stereotypes, implies that things will come out balanced. However, decisions can be unconscious and require colour consciousness to balance them out. What if the casting directors, influenced by a history of Black characters as comic relief,  unconsciously chose Noel Clarke as “best” for the role of Mickey because he was Black? I’m not saying that’s the case, I’m just taking issue with the BBC’s implication that colour-blind casting is a solution to ethnic problems in casting.

DW 04

And starting in the 5th season with Steven Moffat as the showrunner, there aren’t any significant recurring characters of non-White races, however a few minor characters can be important to comment on. First, in the second episode of Season 5 we have a future Queen of England, “Liz 10,” who is played by Sophie Okonedo (above). Since the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton just went by last year, there were some comments that for the first time, someone in the British royal family was marrying a “commoner.”  Liz 10’s possibly mixed-race character implies that at some point in the future, someone in the royal family marries a Black person. Since the aristocracy of Great Britain does not have any non-White individuals at present, this hypothetical future Black person would probably be a “commoner” as well.  I’m not sure that the child audiences of DW would necessarily grasp this, but personally I thought this was a bold move to make.

The other three Black characters I can think of off the top of my head, though, don’t necessarily make any imaginative interventions of this sort. First would be Colonel Manton in the Season 6 mid-season finale (S06E07), “A Good Man Goes to War.” I actually thought that Danny Sapani did a wonderful job at giving Colonel Manton a commanding and dignified demeanor, especially how he restores order among his soldiers after the Doctor sets them against each other, however that comes to nothing as he’s on the “wrong side” (fighting against the 11th Doctor) and the Doctor goes on a rare angry rant about how he wants Colonel Manton to be known as “Colonel Runaway” in the future. Then there’s River Song’s previous incarnation, Mels, played by Nina Toussaint-White. There was a lot of praise from the press about how Touissant-White brought life and energy to her character, and I agree, however I’m bothered by the association between her character and crime and misbehaviour, basically all through her childhood, mouthing off to teachers, stealing cars, etc, with Amy needing to get her out of jail at one point (below). Going back to the Russell T. Davis era, I was thinking of the Black family in S02E11, “Fear Her,” where mother isn’t exactly sorry that her husband has died because he was abusive to both her and their daughter, and part of the story is the daughter trying to move on from the fear of her father. I understand that River Song was brainwashed and trained to become a psychopath so she could kill the Doctor one day, however it is at this kind of juncture that colour-blind casting needs to be actively rethought. Toussaint-White is a powerful actress and great for a pre-Doctor River Song, and colour-blind casting would cast her instead of casting a White person (which would maintain continuity with River Song). However, do we want to cast a Black actor as a teenage psychopath, when Black people are already associated with crime? Similarly,  for “Fear Her,” do we want to associate Black people with domestic violence and dysfunctional families? To me Colonel Manton and teenage Melody Pond are instances where the Black actors performed wonderfully in their roles, but were limited by how their roles were written, and I don’t know what the writers were thinking of in “Fear Her.”

DW 05

Leaving race aside for a moment – I also think that there is a problem with gender in Doctor Who, despite the inclusion of strong women like River Song and Martha Jones. It seems that people who fail to be “the best of humanity” have often been women in recent years, and not because they were indecisive or passive. For example, Harriet Jones, who blew up the Sycorax even though they were retreating (Christmas Special between seasons 1 and 2), Ambrose who murders a Silurian soldier (who was also female, while Ambrose’s father and husband were sort of the hapless sort), and Miranda, who sparks conflict with the Flesh in S06E5-6. While many of the minor male characters were just hapless, these women seem to be portrayed as failed humans precisely because they were too opinionated and too ready to act. Also, I’m still not sure about Amy’s character. Despite being feisty and strong-willed, she often doesn’t actually contribute to solving the problem. This bothers me, but I haven’t thought about this as much as I thought about race and ethnicity.

II. Cultural embeddedness: British culture and conceptions of Asia (plus a bit on Fringe, Firefly, and Doraemon at the end)

Another complaint from the essay collection was not necessarily about race per se, but about how Doctor Who situates itself relative to culture. Something about the Doctor loving cricket being an indication of the show’s British imperialist tendencies? Again, the book just being released means I’m not sure exactly how the argument goes.

Cricket doesn’t show up a lot in the revived series, however tea certainly comes up a lot as a signature of British culture. Something like this is what makes DW a very British scifi show, because even though Americans drink tea, it’s not such a part of American culture that it needs to be repeatedly mentioned, even to laugh at it. To be fair, in whatever context cricket came up, tea comes up ironically as a way to laugh at how British people seem to think that tea is the solution to all physical and psychological ailments. For example, Rose’s mother brings tea on board the TARDIS during the Christmas special, while the new 10th Doctor is still unconscious from regeneration. Mickey comments, “Tea. We’re having a picnic while the world’s coming to an end. That’s very British.” However tea ends up being exactly what the Doctor needs to regain consciousness, so its therapeutic value seems to be restored at the end of the episode. This contributes to the same issue mentioned earlier, that the Doctor is non-human but this total otherness is gotten around by his appearance being that of a White man. In this case, while his biology is non-human, this is gotten around by him actually needing tea, making him more like “us,” or more like the British. Especially since that the Time Lords are life-forms superior to humans (technologically, of course, but also cognitively, in that they can sort of see all of space-time laid out before them, and also biologically, having 2 hearts and able to cheat death a certain number of times by regenerating), basically in having tea being what the Doctor needs is having a part of British culture being validated by a superior alien culture. If Cricket is associated with British imperialism, I can’t think of any current food component more embroiled in imperialism and colonialism than tea. Maybe coffee, or tobacco. Or bananas… or cotton…well actually a ton of things, which is actually quite telling of how Western culture has gotten to where it has. Anyways, why tea is so British isn’t interrogated, just that Time Lords need it too and it does have therapeutic value despite jokes being made about it.

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Another time that tea comes up in the Moffat era is in S06E11, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory are pulled into a maze-like place that looks like an 80s hotel, with other people trapped inside. One of them is Rita, who seems to be a medical school student or a nurse, and who identifies as Muslim. First of all, I really do like her as a character and I think audiences are meant to, as when the Doctor seems to evaluate her as a potentially more resourceful companion than Amy and tells Amy jokingly that she’s fired. Her identity as a Muslim is also handled well, as when the Doctor guesses that she’s Muslim, she jokes, “Don’t be frightened.” Her strong Muslim faith is also figured strongly in the plot, as it helps her accept her demise in a dignified manner (I suppose, though, her faith is what gets her killed, though every kind of faith gets people killed in that episode, so it’s not like the story was hinting that being a Muslim would make someone especially in danger of getting killed). Anyways, as everyone is running around confused and terrified of a minotaur-like creature, Rita offers to help everyone calm down with tea, and also says that “I’m British. It’s how we cope with trauma” (above). I find this slightly at odds with her identifying as a Muslim. Obviously I’m not saying that Muslim people don’t or aren’t supposed to like tea, and I’m also not saying that there can’t be hybrid identities. However I find it a bit of a mystery why a devout young Muslim woman would necessarily subscribe to the specifically British culture around tea. If she thinks that the hotel is Jahannem (something like Hell in Islam) and her faith is powerful, why would tea still be what she uses to cope with trauma? Or, in other words, tea seems like a universalizing component of British culture in this episode, again without interrogating its associations with imperialism and colonialism.

To return to Shakespeare for a moment, it’s obvious to see that the literary figures featured in Doctor Who are often the canonized White people, such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. I suppose Agatha Christie was a good choice as a woman writer of genre literature, but we’ll never see the Doctor and his companion visiting, like, Salman Rushdie or something.

Otherwise, in general I do find the new Doctor Who rather Britain-centric (though one thing I find more accessible about the Steven Moffat era is that it focuses less on Britain ), and this comes up when it makes quips about Americans. I’m all for people making quips about Americans in other media because so much of global media is controlled by Americans, but anyways. First, during the same Christmas special with all the going-ons about tea, the Sycorax are on the verge of invading Earth and Harriet Jones, prime minister of Great Britain, gets a call from the president of the US saying he wants to take command of the situation, which she responds to with “He’s not my boss, and he’s certainly not turning this into a war.” In the first episode of Season 6, where the Doctor lands in President Nixon’s office but is confident that he won’t be shot, River Song  runs out of the TARDIS to remind him that “They’re Americans!” The implication is that Americans are a violent culture and the British are not. However, given Harriet Jones’s actions at the end of the episode, where she orders Torchwood to fire on the Sycorax ship when it is retreating, puts this into doubt. Of course, the Doctor disapproves of her actions, and the audience is meant to as well. However there remains something of the tragic hero in Harriet Jones, as her decision to fire on the Sycorax ship comes from the conclusion that humanity needs to show the universe that it can defend itself, even without the Doctor, which in of itself is a valid conclusion. She also sacrifices herself to defend Earth from the Daleks at the end of Season 4. Given the quips about American tendencies for violence in DW, Harriet Jones’s actions are represented as a  personal failing rather than a cultural one. However, given real life situations like Tony Blair buddying up with Bush for military action in Iraq, it’s pretty obvious that one human culture, especially those in industrialized Western societies,  isn’t significantly more pacifist than another culture. Maybe Canadians. Anyway, an extreme argument could be that DW is erasing a history of British violence by displacing it onto Americans, while rationalizing it as needing to teach children about pacifism.

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Personally I wouldn’t go so far, but what disturbs me more is how Harriet Jones assumes that she could speak for Earth, if the President of the US is not fit for this job. When the Sycorax asks for the leader of Earth, she steps forward, despite 1/3 of all of Earth’s population being hypnotized (more or less) by the Sycorax. When she is teleported onto the Sycorax ship, she is given the choice of having the 1/3 of the human race kill themselves or having 1/2 sold into slavery (above). All through this process, there was nothing like “Earth doesn’t work this way” or “I need to consult the leaders of other countries first.” Saying so wouldn’t even have changed the plot, as Rose and the Doctor are also teleported onto the ship soon after and the Doctor takes over the situation. In addition, Harriet Jones characterizes the Guinevere I space probe as  “This country’s limitless ambition, British workmanship sailing out there among the stars,” and I have a feeling that the audience is suppose to agree at this point.  To me this is still the remnants of British imperialism at work – the space probe can be seen as a 21st-century equivalent of ships from Europe in the “Age of Discovery” in the 15th and 16th centuries. And if it finds any alien life forms, Britain will speak for Earth, thank you kindly.  Thankfully DW isn’t like this all through the other seasons, though. In S05E09, when miners in Whales stumble upon a civilization of Silurians under the Earth’s crust (Silurians are evolved from lizard species in prehistoric ages rather than from mammals like humans were, and went into hibernation because they believed that an asteroid was going to destroy Earth), the Doctor says that he doesn’t represent humanity but Amy Pond and Nasreen Chaudhry are good representatives to bargain with the Silurians about how to potentially share the Earth. It was nice to see that while saving the Earth multiple times, the Doctor here doesn’t presume that he could represent human interests. (As a way to apply this scifi story to current events: as of writing this, we are still in the midst of the Edward Snowden issue. Apparently one of the arguments against him was that it was unconstitutional for random 29-year-olds to decide what national secrets to reveal, but supporters of Snowden argue that the American Constitution ensures that lone dissenters still need to be heard even if they are average folk.) This doesn’t mean that everything’s right with this episode, though. Amy’s solution for sharing the Earth was to ask the Silurians to live in areas that are uninhabitable for humans. While I’m sure the Silurians have terraforming technology or something along those lines, Amy’s assumption that they could survive in those places humans can’t is strange, especially since the underground environment resembles a rain forest. More importantly for race and ethnicity though, asking the pre-existing Silurians to live in the Sahara Desert it sounds disturbingly like exploiting the land’s resources while herding Native North Americans onto reservations. Being British, perhaps the Doctor Who team didn’t pick up on this similarity.

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Going back to race and ethnicity, though, it is interesting to see that the representation of race and ethnicity in DW is also very embedded in British specificity when we look at how different Asians are represented. First of all, while there are more South Asians (including an Indian Space Agency in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (S07E02), Torchwood scientist Rajesh Singh in the finale episodes of the 2nd season, Solana in S04E02, the housekeeper Miss Chandrakala in S04E07, Nasreen Chaudhry in S05E8-9, and perhaps also Rita in S06E11 and Martha’s colleague in S03E01) there are very few East Asians. I can only think of 3 characters in all 7 seasons of the new DW, which is Toshiko Sato from Torchwood before Torchwood was a show (in  S01E04), Lorna Bucket in S06E07 , Alexei in S07E06. Lorna Bucket is a soldier in the army of the Church in the future (which is something I often wonder how Christian critics of Doctor Who would handle), and she looks mixed race and the character isn’t from Earth, so that was a nice inclusion. However, Alexei is a computer tech guy, and Toshiko is a lab technician, which seem to be instances of rather stereotypical casting.  I’m not necessarily criticising the lack of East Asian characters, not yet anyway, because to me they are just indicative that Britain understands Asia differently from Americans. In North America, if one says that someone is Asian, the listener would most likely think of East Asians first. However, Great Britain used to hold imperial power in South Asia, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still a part of the Commonwealth, with and so South Asians might be more familiar to the average White British person than East Asians. (However, from a quick look at a poll reported on Wikipedia’s page on England, there has been an increased number of Chinese immigrants.) Leaving aside DW for a moment, I remember reading The Grey King (by Susan Cooper, published in 1975 and set in Wales) in elementary school and feeling very glad that a character criticizes some children for calling new South Asian immigrants “Pakis.” So, without a lot of knowledge on the issue, I’m going to tentatively say that the representaion of South Asians in British media is, if not decent, at least prevalent.

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The relative distance of East Asia to Britain does become a problem, however, in an episode like S04E10, “Turn Left.” In this episode, the Doctor takes Donna to a planet ostensibly inhabited by future descendants of Asians, most likely Chinese (above), where Donna gets her fortune told. However the fortune teller actually sics a giant beetle-like creature onto Donna to eat away at her past. I found this episode rather offensive to East Asians for multiple reasons. First is the architecture of the planet – it is supposed to be a society of the future, however it looks like China in the 1600s (there’s even one extra with a queue). This represent a common complaint about non-Western cultures in scifi, which is that while Western cultures are imagined as continuing to develop technologically, non-Western cultures are imagined to be distinct only by virtue of their traditions, and hence even in the future they look traditional. Another point related to this is that the brief street scenes in the episode show Donna and the Doctor being offered various foods and items from merchants in charts. Basically, in addition to the inability to represent Asian-specific modernity (and futurity), this episode also shows the inability to imagine Asian culture as something other than a tourist economy offering stuff to White visitors, which is probably what tourists in Asia see, Or the inability to imagine an Asian society that doesn’t look like a Chinatown, which has developed a tourist economy for sustenance. Third, the whole fortune telling thing recreates the figure of the mysterious and inscrutable Asian, again based on some sort of tradition, plus a dose of threat as the fortune teller is trying to prey on Donna (below – and this is the fortune teller’s expression for most of her appearances. Another example of good acting but limited by the part).  Fourth, speaking characters all speak with an accent. The TARDIS translation matrix translates Latin into English without a Latin accent in S04E02, “The Fires of Pompeii,” so I’m not sure why an “Asian” accent remains in “Turn Left.” And that Pompeii family is made out to resemble a contemporary generic Western family too, with the husband going for class mobility and buying big art to show for it, a slightly emo teenage son, sibling rivalry, etc. No such similarities for Asians.

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This was just one episode in Doctor Who, however I see this kind of representation of East Asians elsewhere. In Sherlock, also run by Steven Moffat (together with Mark Gatiss), the second episode of the first season had Chinese tea sets in the British Museum, mysterious symbols related to international underground trafficking, and Chinese acrobats/ninjas/triad members who perform cruel and unusual means of torture on Watson’s girlfriend. Despite the Sherlock series being very smart, the thoughtlessness of Asian representation in this episode dumbed it down ideologically. Similarly, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (also called LXG, and I mean the comic by Alan Moore, who is British, not the movie, which was Americanized in part by the addition of Tom Sawyer), a large portion of the first volume had to do with Chinese underground activity in the limehouse district of Victorian London, plus an appearance by Fu Manchu. Given the more complex and sensitive treatment of Jekyll/Hyde in the comic and the expanded role of Mina Murray, I was especially annoyed that Fu Manchu wasn’t really altered form his character in the novels and remained a villain played straight, out to take over the British empire. Possibly fuelling anti-immigration debates in England, don’t you think?  This seems to be an inherited image of Chinese people that is particular to the British.

In fact, this idea of Victorian-era Chinese criminals in Limehouse is also in Doctor Who, just not in the episodes. Apparently the character of Jenny Flint, feisty Victorian-era  Cockney girl and accomplice and romantic partner to Madam Vastra, met Madam Vastra while Vastra was saving her from Chinese gangsters (this is from The Brilliant Book 2012, which I read on the DW Wiki). This was the most disappointing instance of bad representation in Doctor Who for me, because I love Jenny and Vastra as a couple, especially since the production team was pushing queer inter-species romance with them (Vastra is a Silurian). Race was even brought up for Vastra and Jenny – in “A Good Man Goes to War,” Vastra quips that mammals all look the same to her, which offends Jenny, and Vastra apologizes. To me this is like addressing stupid comments like “All Asians look the same.” The back story of how Jenny and Vastra meet is disappointing because the they really do seem to be an example of how Doctor Who can transcend conventions related to race and sexuality, until it relies on vilifying Chinese people to bring the two together.

I’m not saying that Americans have a better understanding of East Asians or that it hasn’t had Fu Manchu ideas about Chinese people, but because of the history of indentured labourers, internment, and Asians in particularly professions, America has different stereotypes of East Asians. In addition, because there are more East Asians in America than in Britain, plus having a history of activism around representation, typecasting, and the like, I can’t see an episode like the 2nd one of Sherlock being released without protests or petitions. American television might be slightly better at representing ethnicities because of this, for example Asian characters in Grey’s Anatomy (though I remember reading an essay that said Sandra Oh’s character is the stereotype of the overly technical Asian doctor whereas other White doctors were more spontaneous), Lost having  Kwon Jin-soo and Kwon Sun-hwa. Sadly, two American scifi series I actually watched every episode of didn’t have many Asians in them either, which are Firefly and Fringe. For Firefly this is especially annoying as China is supposed to be one of two world powers. Anyways, obviously this series is very American because its premise is what would happen if revolutionary fighters lost something like the War of Independence, with the good guys still fighting for personal agency and political self-rule.

For Fringe, my main complaint isn’t the lack of recurring Asian characters, but the weird optimism that the show ended on, which I attribute to its American cultural locus. I know it was a rushed ending and the fifth season barely made it on air, but it contradicts what the characters ought to have learned from everything that came before. Anyways, in Fringe, the premise of all the problems is that the fringe scientist Walter Bishop upsets two whole parallel universes because he crossed between them to save his son. At the end of the show, he takes a boy into the future to wipe out the Observers, who are vastly intelligent but emotionless people that humanity develops into some time in the future, which come back to the present day to invade humanity. For me, Walter and everyone else should have learned about the butterfly effect by now, which is that trying to fix a problem could potentially create a larger one, and one should not play God. Hence, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to anyone that trying to wipe out the Observers could potentially create an even bigger problem. The reason I feel that this is very American is that this seems to be how America as a nation operates – it continues trying to right wrongs all over the world even though it has been faced with disasters in the past such as the Vietnam War. America as a nation that continues hoping that it could be the hero, and so the ending of Fringe is with the Fringe team not heeding the lessons of the past and going off to help humanity and be heroes.

One might ask, which adventure story does not end on continuing resistance against domination and heroic optimism? This question does have a point. However, for example The Water Margin, one of the 4 Chinese classics, actually has rebels co-operating with the government to put down other rebels and all rebellions mostly put down by the end. Although I haven’t read any academic articles about this, I do believe that one reason this story is propagated by the Communist government is that it both lauds resistance against corrupt bureaucracies, which the Communists in China began as, and simultaneously lauds the ability of a government to pacify rebellion by using rebellion wisely and staying in power that way, which is what the Chinese government is trying to do. The lesson from this example is not that the Communist party is wrong in promoting literature this way (although I do think it is), but that every culture promotes certain values in literature and often within the culture itself, audiences take those values for granted. Although they might appear to be universal, the values promoted in scifi shows like Fringe and Firefly are very American.

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From these examples (plus the Hollywood adaptation of LXG adding Tom Sawyer) it is obvious that science fiction is very much embedded in the culture in which they are created. Just another non-Western example to make my point – if Chinese people are villains in Doctor Who and Sherlock, then American are the villains in Doraemon. In the story about Nobuta finding a fossil of a dinosaur egg and hatching it with Doraemon’s time-reversing technology, the evil dinosaur poachers who are after  his dinosaur are portrayed to look like bandits from American Westerns. Just like how the DW episode “Turn Left” establishes an future Asian/Chinese culture based on visual cues without saying what Earthian culture it derives from (lol, since there’s a New New York, is this supposed to be New Beijing?), Doraemon also establishes a future culture that resembles Americans without saying they are Americans. So, I’m not sure whether the essay collection on Doctor Who and Race will cover this, but if Doctor Who is racist, it is not just racist but racist in a very British sense.

That’s all for now. I would like to read the collection before posting Part II, so hopefully I can find a copy and get to Part II soon.


Asian Stereotypes in The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks: The inability of television to multitask with subalterns

I focused my master’s degree thesis on writing about Asian American comics presenting Asian popular culture as a way of ameliorating the image of Asians and Asian Americans, and in the years since, I have started to hope that this is a trend that exist in popular culture more generally. After getting into both The Boondocks and The Big Bang Theory, I have started to notice that even if one cultural group that has been dumped on (African Americans, nerds) is being shown in a positive light, usually the show still needs another group to dump on, and interestingly enough this alternate group tends to be Asians (1). I’m particularly disappointed in The Boondocks – after starting my PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity and learning about studies on inter-ethnic solidarity in America, I have to admit that I don’t really see this happening in popular culture. Basically, whether it’s the Indian character Rajesh Koothrapali in The Big Bang Theory or representations of China and Chinese people in The Boondocks, they are rendered pathetic, evil, or both even as nerds and African Americans get some positive spotlight. (The Big Bang Theory first; if you like, jump to The Boondocks).

The Big Bang Theory

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Raj interrogated by FBI agent, and getting nervous.

Briefly, The Big Bang Theory is about four physics nerds at Caltech and their everyday lives, which involves a routine of work and nerdy hobbies interspersed with lusting after girls (most of whom they can’t get, though at the time of this posting, 3/4 have more or less stable relationships with women). As a nerd who likes games and comics and scifi (even if I don’t get the physics), I have been happy that the Big Bang Theory has sustained itself as a mainstream sitcom. I do find myself getting mixed reactions at the show as a sitcom though – should I be happy that nerds get some TV exposure as relatively more complex main characters, or should I be unhappy that they are the objects of ridicule? I understand, though, that this is a property of the sitcom – the ability to laugh at a figure of fear and loathing may lessen these feelings towards that figure, and so along with laughter the show is able to sneak in nuances that the audience might not be ready to receive otherwise (a good book on this is Darrell Hamamoto’s Nervous Laughter). So, while I feel ambivalent about nerds being featured on a sitcom, I understand that as a sitcom it might need ambivalence to further its point.

However, I believe that a sitcom about nerds doesn’t need to laugh at other cultures to further its point.  First of all, the show dumps a lot on North Koreans, from Leonard’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Kim, who turned out to be a North Korean spy (S3E22), to Dennis Kim, the North Korean prodigy who Sheldon is nervous about in Season 1. It is interesting that they are both named “Kim.” Kim is a common last name in Korean, however purposefully naming two unrelated characters Kim in a work of fiction either betrays an absolute disregard in telling Asians apart, or an attempt to convey their relationship to the current North Korean regime, or both.  Also, since the setting is Caltech (greater Los Angeles area), if there are Koreans on a show about nerds, the most plausible population to include would be the vast Korean American population in LA, however the show doesn’t mention these Korean Americans at all and resorts to North Korean nemeses.

But I want to focus on Rajesh Koothrapali. I can accept that as a recent arrival to the US, Rajesh has difficulties mastering North American popular culture (this is one reason I want to study popular culture academically, because his problem is also my mine, and I think it has real consequences). His faux-pas, such in the S06E11 Christmas episode where he inadvertently speaks sexual innuendos during a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is plausible and I can accept laughing at that as a part of a sitcom. However, there are other aspects of his representation that I find extraneous to the main idea of the show and also troubling / offensive. First, the consistent association of Rajesh with Indian tradition. In his apartment (helpful images and descriptions here): he has a tapestry on his bedroom door, and the cushions with “Indian accents.” As a Chinese person, I can’t speak for Indians, but a young Chinese physics nerd in Rajesh’s situation would most likely not have brush calligraphy or something hanging on his bedroom wall. Even in China this hypothetical young Chinese man would not have calligraphy hanging on his wall.  There’s definitely nothing wrong with tradition or the decorative aesthetics of Asian traditional cultures, but in mainstream media Asians have a tendency to be associated culturally with their traditions only, as if Asians consisted of a rich cultural past but no present and no future. And if they have a present and a future, it’s most likely going to be a Western one. Bollywood and popular culture of South Asia is mentioned but this is often to laugh at it, for example when Howard does an imitation of Rajesh doing drunken Bollywood dancing after getting a the magazine “Bombay Badonkadonks” (video here). The made-up magazine is meant to sound silly and does not reference any real magazine, and we don’t see Rajesh dancing, only Howard doing an imitation of him with the goal of ridiculing him.

Next is the question of Rajesh’s sexuality.  Before Howard married Bernadette, there were numerous jokes that Howard and Rajesh were like a married couple, with Rajesh often in the role of a woman in the relationship (helpful video here with some of the key moments). For example, S3E06, where Rajesh loses his Patang fighter kite due to Howard chasing after a girl during a competition, Howard tries to make up for it by buying Rajesh a new kite, to which Rajesh says “Buying me something pretty isn’t going to make our problem go away.” In this scene, Howard is clearly playing the stereotypical male part who tries to placate his romantic interest with gifts, whereas Rajesh is playing the stereotypical female part who insists on emotional understanding. I am not arguing for a throwback idea of gender roles where men have to be “manly,” whatever that means. However, there is a tendency to believe that Asian men are less masculine than men of other ethnicities, and the depiction of Rajesh contributes to this tendency. In addition, while it can be argued his feminization comes from the nerd stereotype and not the Asian stereotype, as it progresses to Season 6, Rajesh is the only person who doesn’t have a stable romantic relationship (correction: As of Feb 2013, it seems he has a shot with Lucy). In studies of ethnicity, we have talked about “intersectionality” a lot. This is when categories of identity, for example ethnicity, class, and gender, while each having an effect on how a person is treated in society, can have greater / different consequences when compounded together. A classic example is that in a workplace setting, being Black or being a woman means less chances at job promotion, so being a Black woman means even less of a chance at promotion (I think Kimberlee Crenshaw wrote this? But I can’t find it anywhere). Rajesh seems to be an example of how being Asian and being a nerd compounded on each other makes him even more feminized than the rest of the main characters. As he says when “creating a scene” at the end of S5E19, even if he gets a girlfriend, he will be known as the guy who did so after Sheldon.

Finally, somewhat related to the first, are digs at India and the fact that Rajesh is not a “real American.” This is the category that I find the most offensive. In S4E9, Howard’s comment about an Indian version of the board game Monopoly goes thus: “Indian Monopoly’s just like regular, except the money’s in Rupees, instead of hotels you build call centers, and when you pick a chance card, you might die of dysentery.” As if building call centres is India’s own economic initiative, rather than due to Western companies outsourcing and seeking cheap labour. And after all the SARS and H1N1 problems, the last thing audience need to think about Asia is that it’s the origin if the world’s epidemics. Although Howard ends with “FYI, that was racist,” this doesn’t really ameliorate what he said before. The humour is with the insult towards India, and the rational afterword doesn’t cancel the humour. However, the most troubling episode (S4E7)is when the FBI investigates Howard’s friends to find out of Howard is fit to join the Defense Department. Rajesh feels so nervous about his legal status in America that he tries all kinds of antics to prove that he is American (video here), such as singing  “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He doesn’t get the whole song, and the humour in this scene is that first he is not a real American and second he fails at pretending to be one. While his claim that part of his reason for loving America is the “rampant obesity” can be a critique of America,  a foreigner in the US being afraid of the consequences of being foreign should not be a laughingstock. This is the concern of survival for many people in the US, whether they are here legally or not. I have family who was deported from the US based on insignificant reasons (and believe me, my family falls squarely under the model minority stereotype; they won’t even report a crime, much less commit one), and I myself have been interrogated for hours upon crossing the border. This part of the episode made me feel slightly ill. Gene Yang, creator of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, said in an interview that the stereotypical character of Chin-kee isn’t supposed to an outright figure of humour: “He’s meant to come off the page and slap you in the face. If you’re laughing at him, I want you to do so with a knot in your stomach and a dry throat.” In American Born Chinese, this works; Chin-kee is represented in such an overboard manner that he is definitely a satirical figure meant to mock the ridiculousness of the stereotypes, especially since the end of the graphic novel reveals that he is a disguise. However, Rajesh is realistic enough that he may not be read as a satirical figure, and the laughter in the background of  this episode invites an outright laughter at his distress. As a nerd, I really enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory, but as an Asian nerd, sometimes I’m not exactly on board.

The Boondocks

I have been thinking about the figure of Rajesh for a while now, but what made me finally put finger to keyboard on Asian stereotypes is an episode of The Boondocks. Briefly, The Boondocks is a cartoon, based on a comic strip series, which explore the social issues of race through a Black family, the Freemans, living in a White suburb. The tone of the show is aligned with its central character, Huey Freeman, who is a mature, intellectually complex and politically conscious 12-year old, who must deal with Grandad’s lack of concern towards socio-political issues, his younger brother Riley’s blind adoration of all African American popular culture, the ignorance of their White neighbours (and larger society as a whole), and what he sees as an unmotivated and misled generation of African Americans. I started watching this series because my formative teenage years were spent in Vancouver, which is inundated by Chinese people, and I feel that I need to understand the popular cultures of other ethnicities. Not really having a good in-road to African American pop culture (I confess that I don’t like the sound of rap and hiphop, or any popular music, for that matter – my family grew up with Tchaikovsky and Debussy and the like. I’m not judging popular music to be “base” and classical European music to be an epitome of culture; as a student of pop culture, I actually think the reverse. But due to my upbringing I don’t find pleasure in popular music and I don’t understand its aesthetics), I decided that a cartoon is probably the best place to start, especially since the creator, Aaron McGruder, has sometimes described it as an anime. So far I have enjoyed it, since not many cartoons (or any fictional series, for that matter), tries to handle social commentary about ethnicity.

Some of the ambivalence I feel about The Big Bang Theory I also feel about The Boondocks, though I didn’t expect the cartoon to be so critical of African American culture. I cannot judge whether the criticisms are true, for example the attacks on BET for purposefully trying to make African Americans stupid, but if the audience is not African American, the show might perpetuate stereotypes of African Americans as stupid. But anyway, I’m not going to discuss this matter since it’s not something I know much about. I want to discuss how the series represents Asians, with a focus on S3E04, “The Red Ball.” I had hoped that being influenced formally by anime, the series would exhibit thematically a confluence of concerns of people of colour, and by and large, I was disappointed. Thematically, the series cites Asia mostly in terms of martial arts, with the character of Bushido Brown as an epitome of cultural fusion in this regard, as evidenced by his name. I could argue that The Boondocks stereotypes Asians by reducing them to martial arts figures, but compared to what happens in “The Red Ball,” the “Asia-martial arts” association in The Boondocks is less significant.

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Stinkmeaner looking up at Satan (presumably)

The first episode where alarm bells came on was the Season 2 episode “Stinkmeaner Strikes Back.” A neighbourhood terror, Colonel Stinkmeaner, had been accidentally killed by Granddad in Season 1, and in this episode, he trains in Hell and comes back to take revenge on Granddad. There is a sequence showing Stinkmeaner training in Hell. Given that the series focuses on martial arts a lot and has beautiful fight sequences, I can accept that Stinkmeaner training in Hell would involve martial arts. However, what I don’t understand is why Hell has Chinese architecture, or why Satan (I’m assuming it’s Satan) is wearing traditional Chinese clothing. Stinkmeaner can be said to have no racial/ethnic politics –  that is, he’s not like Uncle Ruckus, who has internalized White supremacy and hates everything Black, but rather Stinkmeaner is mean towards everyone – so arguably, his evil has no racial implications. But I read martial arts in The Boondocks as providing a kind of agency, a set of skills that Huey, and to a certain extent Riley, can use to metaphorically fight the system.  For a body of skills that for Huey represents agency and mastery is made evil by Stinkmeaner and then associated with being Chinese is problematic and does have racial consequences.  After all, it’s not made clear what cultural influences Huey’s martial arts draws from, whereas Stinkmeaner’s martial arts is directly tied to both Satan and China in a visual move where Hell and Chinese culture are bizarrely conflated.

Anyways, more disturbing is the Season 3 episode, “The Red Ball.” The premise is that Ed Wuncler, the corporate magnate who has the town under his thumb, is getting ready for an annual kickball tournament with the team sponsored by his rival, the Chinese businessman Mr. Long Do (the “Wushung /Woodcrest Junior/Senior Harmonious Kickball Tournament), and to win, he forces Huey to join as the star player, despite Huey’s reservations. Like the move in The Big Bang Theory, where it is North Koreans represented in the show instead of Korean Americans,  “The Red Ball” features people who are nationally and ethnically Chinese while we don’t see any Chinese Americans in the show at all. So, first of all, Asians are again rendered as perpetual foreigners.

Arguably, this show targets Ed Wuncler and his exploitative capitalism. His betting all his banks and everyone’s accounts and the Freemans’ house on the tournament is a critique of his shady business practices, but right after he admits this, he says “You think I’m bad, just wait till the Chinese take away all the freedoms you enjoy –  freedom to complain, freedom to have as many offspring and assault rifles as you like, the freedom to surf the Internet for pornography of your choice.” Okay, the pornography thing is a critique of “freedom” conceived in the West as being really not as big of a deal as we’d like to think, but what this statement boils down to is that no matter how crappy the American system is, it’s a lot better than the Chinese one, so be grateful. Despite the premise being the 12-year old Huey militating against both members of his own community and the White majority for structural changes, the message this episode is totally antithetical to the spirit of the show.

Boondocks 3.03.14

This episode also precludes any sympathy for Chinese people. Huey, after seeing the Chinese team play, agrees to play, even if he’s not playing to defeat them for Wuncler. Mr. Long Do’s granddaughter Ming, who is the team’s captain, then feeds Huey a sob story about how she was plucked from a young age to train in kickball for the Chinese state, and that if she lost she would be sent to a prison camp for athletes who have failed their country. At this point the episode goes into a series of montages: a woman forced to perform on the balance beam while rabid wolves circle beneath her if she falls off, a man doing a foul shot with prison guards pointing guns at his head, and a man jumping hurdles where the hurdles are replaced by rows of spikes. Ming tells Huey that she also longs to walk away from the game, however she is not so lucky to have that choice, because she doesn’t live in America. Another shot for how we should be grateful for America. And later we learn that this story is entirely untrue, that she made it up purposefully to make Huey underperform. Despite Ming’s story of the prison camp being a lie, the visuals of this sequence still reinforces the idea that China has cruel and unusual forms of punishment , especially since China’s issues with human rights is circulating in the popular sentiment. Also, while reinforcing this, the episode also suggests that even if the average Chinese person suffers from the Chinese system, they are not to be given any sympathy, because their complaints are a part of a duplicitous strategy to undermine American ascendency.

Boondocks 3.03.18

Jazmine (left) and Sarah (right). Sorry captions are mutated by a language setting on my computer.

Most disturbing of all is the finale of the game, where the two teams are tied, and the Woodcrest side of the crowd is rooting for their team. This would just be a “rooting for our team” spirit with no nationalist or racial undertones, except the song that everyone is singing is “America the Beautiful.” We see Tom Dubois’s family singing in the foreground, and more spectators in the background, including ostensibly an African American, and of course the kickball team consists of African Americans like Tom himself and Grandad. Later there is also a scene of American flags waving among the spectators. Never mind that Tom’s wife Sarah is an advocate on behalf of civil rights; never mind that his mixed race daughter Jazmine often feels that he doesn’t fit in; never mind that Huey has spent his life trying to change racial inequalities in American society; when it’s up against the Chinese, Americans of all other ethnicities and backgrounds are a part of America the beautiful. Right after the song ends, Huey pitches Ming in a Dragonball-esque confrontation, suggesting that Huey is the embodiment of all the patriotic American sentiments displayed earlier by the audience.  I’m frankly disappointed in Huey for tagging Ming with the ball even after her ankle and his arm are broken, or disappointed with the episode’s writers for shoehorning Huey into this role. It would be more in Huey’s character, and the spirit of the show, for him to at least realise in the last moment that he’s playing into Wuncler’s schemes. This episode had potential for examining how two children of colour, Ming and Huey, become tools in petty games of transnational capital, but instead it boils down to a message of forgetting American racial inequalties to defeat a common Chinese enemy. I’m not even going to count all the times variants of the phrase “yellow motherfuckers” popped up.

The theoretical underpinnings of this post largely came from a book we read as a part of an Asian American Studies directed reading course last term, which is Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. In this book, her argument is that the increasing liberal attitude in America towards queerness and homosexuality is due to a need to bring together American citizens after 9/11 to face the new villain, which is the terrorist. The argument tuned me to the fact that just because one group who has been discriminated against is now accepted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the problems with discrimination are fixed, because frequently it just means they’re not as much of a threat relative to some new group. Of course, this dynamics doesn’t apply only to different sets of groups, like queer Americans and Middle Eastern terrorists, but also work within one large set. Even as Asian Americans are ostensibly the model minority and bringing capital to America, I think The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks show a latent distrust and fear towards Asians.

Sorry if the second half of this post made no sense. I wrote it right after I drank a concoction of gin and chocolate milk, which for some reason seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyways, as Riley would say, haters gonna hate, and I realize that I might be sounding like a hysterical academic in this post, so I want to end on a positive note. The Big Bang Theory and The Boondocks are really quite good shows otherwise. Especially The Boondocks – the episode on Obama’s election was a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be, as I was expecting a cartoon about African Americans to be unreservedly jubilant about Obama. And also well done is the “The Booty Warrior” episode where Tom finally gets some character development, and where Huey gives a graduate-level definition of the prison-industrial complex (I cheered out loud when I was watching that part). I’m really looking forward to the next season. As for The Big Bang Theory, the best moments that ameliorate some of racism that Raj faces is when he does an American accent. It’s hard to say why those moments are funny, but they’re absolutely hilarious. I think at a basic level, it’s suggesting that Raj’s Indian accent isn’t a shortcoming that he wants to overcome, like a stereotypical English learner would, but rather, his Indian accent is something he consciously chooses against sounding like an American. I’m looking forward to the book by Shilpa Davé, Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American TV and Film, and I’m hoping Raj is in there somewhere. Also, I noticed on Wikipedia that originally the role was supposed to be Indian American until Kunal Nayyar was cast, and because he was  “so Indian” the character also became as is. Not sure how we can say how much of Raj is the writers and now much is Nayyar’s being “so Indian,” but  that’s something to look into. Here’s to hoping that Raj’s relationship with Lucy works out.


Also, when I taught comparative film as an English course in China, I was really annoyed that in The Departed, which is a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Chinese terrorists replaced Thai drug dealers as villains. Not that I wanted Thais to remain drug dealers –  that’s a stereotype Cantonese media needs to deal with. But in a remake of a Chinese film, it seems making Chinese people villains is a poor move.

One Man’s Battle: The Unappreciated Depth of Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly

For a literature course at the Chinese University I’m crrently teaching at, I decided to make the course about Chinese and American blockbuster movies instead. For the genre of War dramas, I put Saving Private Ryan for the American film and Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly (集结号, lit. “assembly signal”) for the Chinese one. While reading up on Assembly, I got the impression that most Western reviewers didn’t really get the point of the film, and especially when they compare it to Saving Private Ryan, they feel that Assembly is lacking. Most reviews seem to laud the technical aspect of the film and praise the heroism of its characters, but are uncomfortable with what they believe is yet another propaganda film saying how wonderful it would be to sacrifice yourself for the Communist government. Actually, I think the message of the film is exactly the opposite, and that the film techniques from Saving Private Ryan is used in a more compelling way.

Assembly was released in 2007 and apparently it was very popular in China, earning a hundred and eighty million RMB after running in the theatres for a few months (Baidu). Feng Xiaogang is also a very established filmmaker, though usually his focus has been dramas involving people in everyday life, like Cell Phone and If You Are the One, and most recently noted on an international scale, Aftershock. There are some things about Feng’s filmmaking that I personally aren’t used to, like the pacing [1] – for example, it’s not a Western storytelling pattern to have a climactic battle 1/3 of the way through the movie and spend the rest of the movie on character digging up a coal mine, but this is a cultural difference that I can’t count against him. Anyway, the story of Assembly is that Gu Zidi, an illiterate commander of a People’s Liberation Army Company, decides to fight to the last man during a battle against the Kuomingtang’s superior forces at an old abandoned mining site; he is the sole survivor, and spends the rest of his life trying to find a place for himself in a post-war China and prove that his company did in fact fight to the last man and didn’t desert or defect. The story pivots on the call to assembly, from the main forces behind them, that would tell his company to retreat, which his superior commander tells him to listen for (they had no radios for communication, by the way – the PLA was rather poor). Due to a blast from an enemy tank close to Gu, he couldn’t hear anything for a while, and while some of his soldiers say they heard the call to assembly, others say they didn’t. Since he is the commander, the decision rests with him, and he decides to stay.

One thing I agree with most reviewers on is that there is displays of heroism and personal growth during war represented in Assembly. Since I had it compared to Saving Private Ryan, I showed students the way Upham in SPR was too afraid to intervene in the knife fight between Mellish and a Nazi soldier, leading to Mellish’s death, and then at the end where Upham shoots “Steamboat Willie” at point blank range for reuniting with his fellow Nazi soldiers and helping to get Captain Miller killed.

Wang Jincun emerging from the trenches to shoot at a tank

Similarly, in Assembly, Gu Zidi picks up a timid man called Wang Jincun as his political commissar (the man in charge of administration and ideology in a PLA company), who at first couldn’t even look at a dead body (33:20), but in the end saw so many of his comrades die that he risks his life shooting at a tank (50:30) and agrees to blow himself up along with the mine (1:53:15).  So, in terms of identifying Assembly as a war movie that glorifies heroism and sacrifice, I don’t disagree.

What Western reviews of the film concentrate on is limited to just this heroism, and refer to it as conventionally following better war films or criticising it as being part of Communist propaganda. Perry Lam’s review in Muse apparently says that the filmmakers put “bad faith and naiveté” in “the value of unquestioning obedience to authority and sacrifice as the highest manifestation of patriotism” (can’t get at original article, only Wikipedia entry for this source). The best praise other reviews seem to offer is along the lines of, China has finally decided to show each individual small human being instead of the power of the masses, like Kozo’s review on, saying that the human element is the focus, but “there’s nothing complex or challenging here.” The review on Twitch was at best an apologist for the film, saying “Every nation has its war stories, and the way these stories are told are as varied as the nations from which they originate. Thus, to criticize Assembly for not addressing specific political issues is to hold the film to a standard to which few films are held.”

I believe that Assembly does exactly what the Twitch review says it doesn’t, which is that it does address political issues. While it does glorify heroism and sacrifice, if that was its only focus it should have ended after an hour. As I said in comments on the pacing of Assembly, the climactic battle starts 30 minutes into the film and then ends halfway through, and the rest is about Gu trying to prove his company’s heroism. After the battle, the audience is given a title card saying that all of the 9th company died except for Gu; then the next scene is Gu in an infirmary for POWs, wearing clothes belonging to KMT soldiers that he stole, and having the infirmary administration threatening to kick him out because they can’t verify his identity. It turns out later that no one can confirm his company’s existence because shortly after the battle at the mine, massive personnel changes took place, and no one can prove how his company died because their bodies were never found. Their families received less compensation for being MIA (vs. KIA), and are suspected to have deserted. He rejoins the army and is sent to North Korea. There he saves the life of his commanding officer, Zhao Erdou, who in return helps him track down his company; he also runs into Wang Jincun’s widow, who heard that Wang was executed by his superiors, and joins him to clear his name.

The second half of the movie is important because it’s not about heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, but persistence and resolve in dealing with inconsistency, insincerity and bureaucracy on the part of the leadership.

Looking at this as a still picture now, the chair actually looks like it’s going to go into Mao’s face.

The first kick in the teeth is in the infirmary, when an officer tells him that he’s met many men about Gu’s age who pretend to be soldiers so that they could get cheat the military for benefits (1:02:30). Then, when Zhao finally arranges a meeting with the party officials (1:30:40), they return to questioning Gu’s identity, accusing him of possibly being captured by the KMT before the PLA found him and hence possibly a traitor, when Gu has explained that he took a dead KMT soldier’s clothing because he was cold. The meeting ends with Gu throwing a chair at the Party official(!)What was worst started off as good news. The Party finally finds traces of the 9th company, the bugler who was supposed to be the one who blue the assembly call, now working as a groundskeeper in a memorial cemetery. He tells Gu the truth – the call to assembly was never sounded, because their overall commander decided to let Gu’s company sacrifice themselves while they retreated. So the situation was two disasters multiplied; Gu and the good nature of his company was taken advantage of on the battlefield without him knowing, and then the Party refused to acknowledge their sacrifice. In the end, Gu returns to the mine, which is completely covered, and takes it upon himself to dig up his company’s bodies. An official tells him to write letters to his superiors (1:40:55), but he says “I’ve already written nine.”

Full sentence: “Their parents gave them all names…how did they become nameless men?”

Perhaps the scene that best shows the predicament of those who sacrificed themselves is a scene of a makeshift gravesite of nameless soldiers, each with a piece of wood above their graves marked “nameless hero” (1:21:00). Alone, it speaks to the horrors of war, where soldiers die and cannot be identified and of course there are such sites in any war-torn country. But as a film, this scene can be compared to the neat rows of the Normandy gravesite shown in Saving Private Ryan, where Ryan, as an old man, can still identify the gravestone of Captain Miller. What comes from this comparison is not just that the soldiers in Assembly have not been identified, but in context of what has happened to Gu, perhaps the country didn’t care enough to identify them. After all, the whole basis of Saving Private Ryan is…saving Private Ryan, which was an edict issued by the Secretary of State. In Assembly the equivalent organization took decades just to ascertain that Gu’s company were indeed not deserters. Maybe it’s because I’m Chinese and not American, but when I watched Saving Private Ryan, I did admire the soldiers and felt very upset on their behalf, but I not to the extent about what was happening to Gu Zidi. Also, the film makes it clear that Gu is not alone. When Gu returns to the site of the battle after returning from North Korea, the PLA is handing out compensation to the local families who had lost soldiers in the battle (1:14:50). In a seemingly arbitrary fashion, the PLA officer lists one man as KIA and gives his family 700 jin (weight measurement, about 500g) of rice, but then lists several men as MIA and only gives their families 200, despite protests from the crowd. To reinforce this point, a soldier tells Gu over a meal how unfair it is that two soldiers who died with his brother were identified as KIA but his brother wasn’t. For me, this makes the film compelling, because it shows the kind of arbitrary decisions that the average Chinese citizen has to put up with on a daily basis. This I think is the point of the movie, and the first half of the film was just to establish the sacrifice of Gu and his company, so that the betrayal of the Party is that much worse in the second half.

Another criticism from Western reviews, which is mostly Lam’s Muse review about the technical expertise being sophisticated while the ideology was hamfisted, I also take issue with. A lot of people compare Assembly to Saving Private Ryan, and I can see why; SPR shows many sequences filmed in a very in-situ manner, such as making the camera shake as it follows Captain Miller up the beach in Normandy, or cutting off the sound when he is witnessing the beach landing massacre, and at the end again when a tank fires at him beside the bridge he is defending. SPR was revolutionary because it is about “one man,” and not necessarily Ryan; it is about the personal, subjective experiences of soldiers on the battlefield, and taking this humble position paradoxically but successfully makes it more heroic than if it was trying to tout abstract patriotic truths. The cinematography and the sound editing reflect this; the camera does not try to establish what is “true” in war, but instead it of often takes the point of view of a soldier, and implies that this limited perspective is all we can know about what happened. This is what you should have seen if you followed Captain Miller; this is what Captain Miller would have actually heard after the tank fired. The objective truth of the moment is that there is sound in the world, but Miller’s subjective truth is that he can’t hear anything. Thus, the film is unified in its message and execution, and therefore it is successful.

The audience can see similar techniques in Assembly, especially when a shell renders Gu temporarily deaf, and the audience cannot hear anything either, aligning them with Gu’s experiences. While these techniques are also present in Assembly, they are far from derivative because they carry a strong political message that is extremely relevant to Chinese society and politics. In SPR, the subjectivity of the film techniques establishes a general idea that individuals cannot pin down something as big and complex as war, much less pin any truth on war (eg. the justice of sending men to die to rescue one man is questioned but never conclusively answered). In Assembly, the idea is a lot more specific. The one-party system in China has essentially asserted for many years the idea that what the Party dictates is the absolute truth, and of course this is an extremely arrogant assertion. The story of Assembly already shows one man struggling against the Party, and his complaint is essentially that his personal knowledge of his company’s sacrifice doesn’t fit in with the party’s official truth. In this way, all the film techniques on the side of subjectivity in this film implicitly supports Gu over the Party. At the end of the film, Zhao manages to locate the commissar of the main forces and the Party acknowledges that the 9th company died as heroes, however what is interesting is that Gu, who has spend months digging by himself in the mine by now, no longer seems to have public approval as his goal. When he hears the news, his response is, “My brothers, why can’t I find you? Come out for a breath of air” (1:50:40).

The film ends with the bodies being discovered years later during a reservoir construction, and there is a ceremony honouring the 9th company. At the end of the ceremony, the bugler, who is also present, is asked to sound the bugle call. The impression I personally get from the ending is not that the Party is wonderful in doing justice to Gu Zidi and his soldiers, but almost a “too little, too late” kind of feeling. If the assembly call had been actually blown during the battle, i.e. if the 9th company hadn’t been treated like insignificant sacrifices, , then Gu’s life would have been significantly better. A quotation taken from Feng on Baidu says that “This film is not meant to explore themes like the value and meaning of sacrifice and so forth, but personally, it’s a story about a wronged hero who has to endure an eternity of being misunderstood” [2, link]. Also from the Baidu website is a summary of how critics in China have reviewed the film, and one prevailing idea is that “this is a movie for anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly” (link to section). Given my last 5 posts about the state of China, this is practically the whole population. Here is a page on a Baidu page (link)sort of like Yahoo! Answers, and the question was “What do you think about the film Assembly? / We need to respect history…” and the answer with 18 more approvals is “I’ve watched Assembly, and the Party’s unreliable” (the two phrases actually rhymes in Chinese, making the remark humorous in a flippant sort of way). The response to this comment is “I see this comrade has got the point, thanks everyone.” I think the lack of faith in the Communist Party is one reason this film is popular in China. Contrary to Western reviews, it’s not because this film has a safe and happy message, but that it is borderline radical and speaks to buried radical feelings that Chinese citizens have. I especially wanted to get his posted on June 4, which helps reinforce the point of the film. After all, on this day, university students who wanted to make China better died. Even worse than Gu Zidi, the Party not only refused to acknowledge their sacrifice, and then them and their families as criminals, but was the ones who issued the order to kill them in the first place.

Lastly, I hope western reviewers stop looking at Chinese media in a unilateral way and label everything as propaganda. This is unfair to the filmmakers who are in fact risking their careers and trying to get their message across at all, and also unfair to the citizens, who are clearly not cultural dupes.


[1]one thing I noticed from watching Chinese movies is that Chinese cinema and drama aren’t affected by Aristotle’s three Unities (action, time, and place) as Western drama and cinema are. I can’t say this is a failing – it’s just a cultural difference that I’m not used to. Western audiences expect movies and stories that follow Freytag’s Pyramid with tight sequence and a climax 4/5 of the way through, but that’s just one storytelling mode.
Time-wise, Chinese movies sometimes talk about a series of events happening over a long time, to the point where the audience feels like they’re watching 20-minute episodes in a miniseries. Action-wise, they also sometimes bring in seemingly pointless characters that seem to do nothing to advance the main plot (this is especially true if you’re watching an adaptation of one of the 4 Chinese classics, like Three Kingdoms or The Water Margin. I couldn’t stand watching The Water Margin especially, because there would be 3 episodes on one character in the beginning, and just when I thought he was the main character, there were 20 episodes about other characters, and then by episode 23 we went back to the first character and I’d already forgotten who he was, and he was one of the main characters after all). Assembly has this trait – Wang’s widow seems to serve no function, and she gets married with Zhao Erdou after no character development on their part. Though I suppose thematically she’s another person wronged by the government, indirectly.

[2] 这部影片并非为了探讨牺牲的价值和意义这种形而上的主题,在自己的心目中,这就是一个在漫长的岁月中不被人理解的“英雄受了委屈的故事”

Lost in Sinophobia: The Mummy 3, Hero, and China on the World Stage

I watched The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in the summer of last year, and I have wanted to write something about it ever since, but things like thesis and TESOL and moving to China got in the way. Before you get excited, I have to say that I don’t have many good things to say about it.

Well, the good thing I have to say about it is that the director, Rob Cohen, really seemed to have put his being into it. Watching the Director’s Commentary is like watching a completely different movie, almost like a historical documentary, because he explains with enthusiasm the historical details of the Emperor’s tomb , the contraptions in the tomb and their technological significance, etc. His fascination with China comes through clearly, and it’s passed my green light for not being an Orientalist rant. As the movie shows the first sights of the tomb, Cohen says, “The horses and chariots you see in the back of each frame, these are magnificent things you can see at the tomb site in Xi’An, at the museum, if you’re so lucky as to be able to go to China to see this, it’s something you will never never never forget.”

Cohen seems to have a lot of archeological knowledge about the Xi’an tomb. For example, he says that he tried to model the tomb in the movie on the actual tomb. He added details like the astrolabe, even though it wasn’t invented until later in history, just because he thinks of it as a Chinese technological breakthrough that should have screentime. The vapourized mercury put in place to kill grave robbers and the crossbows were all “true Chinese design.” He explains the significance of water wheels for Chinese irrigation. It goes beyond just oggling at foreign curiosities. Cohen says that in the movie, he made the emperor buried under the rest of the tomb based on the fact that Chinese archeologists actually discovered that there might be an underground chamber, but also tells the viewers that China doesn’t want to dig it up yet. He says he understands that finding the actual remains of Emperor Qin might be a “complicated idea” for Chinese people even though as an enthusiast for this sort of thing, he doesn’t quite understand why. To rein in his enthusiasm and to admit that he doesn’t understand is quite an achievement.

Cohen ends the commentary by saying he normally doesn’t agree to direct sequels because he doesn’t want to beat a dead horse, however his love for China made him take on this project. You can hear from his voice that he probably means it, especially when he begins with Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong’s beauty as a metaphor for how he wants the viewer to appreciate China. “”I look at the beauty of Isabella and Michelle, the face of Asia is what I wanted a lot of people to see in the film, to look and feel my love and respect for Asian culture, Asian cinema, and Asian history.” Normally, my hackles would be rising at a White man gushing about how pretty Asian women are, but in this case I feel that Rob Cohen is being humble enough vis-a-vis his object and not boiling in White superiority: the beginning of the film shows a map of the world, and the point of view of the camper focuses on China as if the viewer was falling into it. Cohen explains, “I wanted to make sure that the audience understood the relationship between North America and China, and to get the feeling of the scale of that country, and its position in the world.”

Granted. Cohen loves China. The problem is that unless you watch the director’s commentary, you don’t really take away the relationship between China and the world that Cohen seems to want you to get. The Wikipedia article on this movie says that Chinese reactions has been negative, and cites Perry Lam’s article in Muse, which says that the move is a “clever and malicious political metaphor” for the rise of contemporary China. This is exactly what I was thinking as I was watching it. Chinese products are flooding the Western market; the master depends on the slave even if the slave works in a sweatshop thousands of miles away because if all the women and children in sweatshops do go on strike, the master has absolutely nil. China is a power that can stand up to Western imperialist powers, for good or for ill, evident in China’s stance against the Western powers regarding Libya and willing to say that they are not necessarily liberating heroes. I’m not saying that everything that China does is right (this blog is usually blocked, after all. Today somehow I managed to log on and this is why I’m writing like crazy), but at least it serves to balance out some of the Western powers’ self-righteousness.

This obviously makes the western world nervous, and it’s evident in this movie. On the one hand, you have the Qin Emperor, who wants to enslave humanity for no apparent reason, and on the other hand, you have the British + American duo, Rick and Evy O’Connell, whose mission is again to protect humanity. Especially with the problems that the West has with China’s human rights record, it’s very easy to slip into portraying China as an old, peculiar nation with their cruel habits of dealing with their people. Historically, the Qin Emperor did mobilize a huge number of people to build the Great Wall and probably did treat them without today’s conception of human rights, but the Emperor Qin mummy’s megalomaniac speech is a little over the top. “Today you wake to a world in the grip of chaos and corruption. I will restore order, I will retain what is mine. I will crush any idea of freedom. I will slaughter without mercy. I will conquer without compassion,” the Emperor Qin mummy says. Wow. Where’s Rob Cohen’s love of China now? In the end, the China of the movie just seems like a superpower poised to take over the world.

Emperor Qin Mummy is just a stereotypical villain – there isn’t even a love of his life thing to soften his evil like there was for Imhotep in the last two movies. However, General Yang, the under-villain if you will, is rather interesting. I feel bad because Anthony Wong, the actor for this role, is capable of extremely poignant nuance, and there really wasn’t many places to show that in this movie. However, he does tell Emperor Qin mummy, “I love this country. Only you can bring it back to greatness.” So, instead of being the incarnation of pure evil, he’s just a patriotic guy who is resorting to extreme means. In the actual historical time period that this movie is set in, China was extremely chaotic, since the Japanese invasion in WWII had just ended and the Communists and the ROC would start duking it out in the Chinese Civil War. Perhaps resorting to extreme means is understandable. However, you own community’s patriots are called patriots, but another community’s patriots are called fanatics. Never mind that in Rick and Evy, you have the union of the two strongest imperialist powers in the West, America and Britain; they’re still heroes and General Yang, his lovely sidekick, and Emperor Qin mummy are still doomed to defeat as the villains. Shanghai is the way it is in the movie and in actual history, eclectic, because each foreign country that came to China carved out a piece of it to be their own territory. Rick and Evy’s chase for archeology is never presented as imperialism, whereas Imhotep’s and Emperor Qin’s ambitions are always presented as such. Rick says that the Eye of Shangri-La “belongs to the Chinese people.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, but I don’t know how much that reflects reality. If you go to the British Museum, there are tons of artifacts that should belong to the people of X country but are not in X country.

One thing about General Yang’s resorting to extreme measures bothers me in ways that go beyond the world of the movie. General Yang is willing to support an incarnation of pure evil to achieve his means, but what about the Chinese actors? The movie is an adventure movie, a 3rd sequel whose greatest intention is to thrill and dazzle. On top of that, it portrays China in a rather villainous light, despite its pretty astrolabes. Yet three of China’s top actors, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Anthony Wong star in this movie. It seems that Chinese actors are resorting to some extreme measures to be exposed to the international audience. Exposure might bring the Chinese movie industry into greatness, but if General Yang’s approach is misguided, I think the actors’ approach is also misguided. I am not saying that Hollywood is an incarnation of pure evil like Emperor Qin mummy is, but appearing in foreign films just so that you can be more known outside China, without careful consideration about what kind of message you are endorsing, is wrong.

I am especially disappointed about Jet Li’s role in this movie, given that he played the lead role in the movie Hero. Hero is a very nuanced movie, despite Zhang Yi Mou’s dazzling colours and the actors’ martial arts performances. Its structure is like the Japanese movie Rashomon, where many different versions of the same story is told, and different “truths” emerge depending on which version you believe. In Hero, Jet Li plays the assassin (named “Nameless”) that comes to kill the Qin Emperor, because the Emperor is conquering too many lands and is getting too powerful. He gains an audience with the Emperor and does not reveal who he is at first; he pretends that he supports the Emperor and brings out the swords of other assassins who have failed in their task and tells the story of how he defeated them. For example, a lover’s quarrel between two of the assassins made it easy for them to defeat each other. However, in the end the Emperor detects that he is not telling the truth, no matter how many times he has told the story. In the end the Emperor realizes that the nameless assassin is about to kill him. However, the nameless assassin tells the truth. One of the lovers, who came close to killing the Emperor, realized at the last moment that a unification of China is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the sacrifices that are taking place. His lover, unable to comprehend his change of heart, refuses to speak to him, and that is the real reason of their quarrel. Rather than being defamed, Emperor Qin is a hero in Chinese culture, as he standardized the Chinese language as well as many other factors, long before most of the cultures in Europe had an idea of what a nation is. In other words, he had a great vision that most people didn’t understand. Jet Li’s nameless assassin also realizes this and decides to walk out without completing his mission. However, Emperor Qin orders him to be killed because he was a rebel who wanted to assassinate his king. Emperor Qin did not want to do this, but his law demands it; he looks on and sheds one tear as the palace archers execute the one man in the nation who truly understands his vision.

Jet Li’s role and the portrayal of Emperor Qin in Hero makes the Emperor Qin–supervillain role in The Mummy 3 extremely frustrating. If other actors didn’t pick up on the bland one-sided portrayal of China and the Emperor in The Mummy 3, at least Jet Li should have, having acted in at least 3 versions of the assassination plot of the same Emperor and portrayed a character who died as a result of an epiphany about another point of view. The director’s love and respect for China and the actors’ desire to push Chinese cinema onto the international stage just gets lost in action sequences, special effects, and an extreme fear of Chinese power. Especially with the actors, a desire to partake in either soft power or capitalist glory has created a kind of self-betrayal. The problem with The Mummy 3 is exactly why I wasn’t thrilled about the 300 movie, even though most people were awed and impressed by it, because it turned a decent comic into a pretty piece of Islamophobic propaganda. Of course international criticism is necessary to keep each other in line, however there is no point in pandering to international fear-mongering. Perhaps sometimes art and literature is to help its audience diffuse their tensions, such as the countless Japanese villains in Chinese TV programs giving Chinese viewers an outlet for the bitterness of WWII, but there is a point where such things can just continue to fuel pointless hatred while not really suggesting any concrete solutions. Viewers can’t go to China and defeat a 5000 year old incarnation of pure evil and save the day, and those involved in filmmaking ought to give more thought about what kind of connotation the film has.

The rant ends here, though I have to say, I am apprehensive for the same reasons about a movie version of The Horse and His Boy form the Narnia series, because the book is loaded with firepits of discrimination towards the Middle East. I’m sorry to say that my own idea of what the Middle East is like is very much coloured from reading Narnia books when I was younger.

Is Battlestar Galactica Post-Racial (or is that not even the problem)?

“[JOSEPH ADAMS] In his 40s, he is a Tauron, an off-worlder who has emigrated to Caprica; his hair is already starting to go iron-gray […] Left with a 9 year old son to care for, Joseph reaches out to young William, revealing to him that his last name is really Adama…SERIES REGULAR – SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES. HOWEVER, PREFER LATINO.”

While there are some extremely articulate discussions out there regarding Battlestar Galactica and gender (io9 has a good piece on it), there seems to be less focus on how BSG deals with race and ethnicity. Those interested in the issue would be happy to know that the UN actually held a BSG retrospective earlier this year, where the delegates were divided according to the Quorum of Twelve rather than earthly nations. A good account can be found on the website of Discover Magazine.

Those who have watched Battlestar Galactica will know that the cast comes from many diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, such as Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, Grace Park as Boomer/Athena, and Kandyse McClure as Anastasia Dualla (“Dee”). The opening quotation is taken from TV Squad’s 2008 posting, “Exclusive: Caprica casting info revealed,” which shows that the casting presents a level playing field for actors of all ethnicities. Perhaps more importantly, the series takes these actors and largely ignores their ethnicity. Granted, the universe of BSG isn’t the world of Earth (though that may be contested), but for some time I still puzzled over why Sharon Valerii was Asian. Is BSG post-racial and I am a dinosaur still hung up on this question?

What is “race” anyway? From my short coursework on this topic, it is a term to denote categorical differences in humankind, first used exclusively for biological differences and then shifting to recognize social differences, sometimes overlapping with the word “ethnicity.” There seems to be hope today that “race” can be a neutral term, but as Olmos stated during the UN BSG retrospective, it hasn’t been historically. While some people may not agree that Caucasians invented the term (eg this post by “keeptonyblairforpm”), it’s hard to disagree that the term has been used to persecute disparate groups in uneven power relations. It seems that recently there have been debate over popular culture inclusion of ethnic minorities, and whether it is a good thing. Of course, representation in all areas of culture production is necessary, but the criticism seems to be that representation has become the goal of addressing racial inequality instead of a symptom of an equal society, like saying “We have an African American in the cast, race problems solved.” The continuing impact of historical discrimination still go unaddressed, because everyone takes the successful African American actor as representative of all African Americans, whereas he/she is likely to be in the top 0.1% in terms of socioeconomic status, or some statistic like that. I’m definitely not faulting casting directors and actors for this – kudos for them for not aspiring only to be accountants or lab technicians out of a sense of personal security. But there does need to be more stories that address these unaddressed imbalances.

I, too, disagree slightly with Olmos that Caucasians invented the word “race” to persecute other “races,” though it is understandable that he and the other cast members of BSG don’t have a long historical view of racial construction. “Caucasian” is only a category that arose less than a century ago. Before the recent bout of globalization, people didn’t categorize themselves as “Caucasian,” simply because they weren’t in contact with that many Caucasian people to form any concept of a large umbrella category (same goes for “Asian” and other like terms). People thought of themselves as from an area within a country (eg, the “Cockney accent”), or at most a national conception (“English”). In fact, European countries were (and still are) very stratified. Irish immigrants to the US were seen as poor and uneducated, weren’t categorized as “White,” and faced almost as much discrimination as Asians. To think that Irish people aren’t “White” now seems laughable, because racial/ethnic categories, and those they exclude and include, change.

As Olmos stated in the UN, there is only one human race. All right, BSG seems to have accomplished that in BSG. But correct me if I am wrong; it seems that certain colonies of the Twelve (Gemenon, Sagittaron, Tauron, and Aerilon, according to Wiki) are seen as inferior, and Baltar changes his accent to seem more educated. Though displaced from earthly nations, the world of BSG isn’t even post-national. But even if we accept that the BSG universe is post-racial, what its post-raciality really points towards is just another shift in category concepts and not really any eradication of discrimination. There is a graduate course next semester at the Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster, that will examine the weird era we live in, where communities seem to have moved past the problem of racial inequality, and yet we are bombarded with the image of the Middle Eastern terrorist. (Sadly, I couldn’t get into this course, but now I’d like to take a commercial break to promote Cultural Studies and McMaster University.) BSG has been lauded to reflect the times, with post-9/11 uncertainty over the lack of security, but I believe that it best reflect this racial paradox, at once post-racial and not. To postulate that Dee and Boomer are not highly ranked in the military because of their race in the BSG universe seems absurd, and there are interracial romances aplenty. However, discrimination is largely displaced onto the cylons, who are not seen as human. Or, if we spiral the race timeline, as Irish people were gradually subsumed into a “White”ness that still excludes yellow, black, and brown (and red?), in BSG other human races are subsumed into “Human”ness, which still excludes humanoid cylons and centurions.

Personally, as someone of a visible ethnic minority, I’m extremely fascinated by the idea that cylons can look so much like humans to be indistinguishable (…except for glowing red spines). While most people have taken cylons passing for humans as terrorists passing for non-terrorists, we can also interrogate the question of race with this cylon phenomenon: Another idea in theories of race is that while groups such as the Irish can achieve equal status with other whites in popular conception, people who look different can’t fully do so, simply because they look different. BSG seems to suggest that this is true – humanoid cylons really do go undetected for long periods of time, unless you have Baltar’s nifty cylon detector. But then, if cylon/human discrepancies is biologically distinguishable, does that reinforce the idea that race is biological and not a social construct? It may seem far-fetched to parallel cylons and races, since cylons seem to be so clearly different. But two centuries ago, Irish and Germans seemed obviously different, and now we don’t bat an eye. Another thing that intrigues me is the sleeper agent cyclons who think they’re humans. This doesn’t seem to have any parallel in terrorism (which would be a terrorist who goes on a mission not knowing or forgetting what his/her mission is), but seems to better parallel the anxiety that younger generations are losing their cultural traditions and are becoming Westernized. Far from being a worry just on the part of older generations, I believe it is also a worry on the part of mainstream (Caucasian) society, who feel their White purity threatened. Hence the panic to sort cylons/racial minorities from humans/Whites.

*spoiler alert* Watching Boomer/Athena in particular addresses the label of the turbulence minorities face, and in particular situations inducing the “model minority.” When revealed to be a cylon, Boomer is incarcerated in isolation and then shot by Cally, a mechanic. Even though interracial romance occurs frequently in BSG, the first case of a possible cylon-human relationship is violently rejected by Chief Tyrol (I wrote about something related in “Racism and Culturism“). As Athena, she has to prove her loyalty beyond what is asked of other pilots. Even when (re-)accepted into the community of other officers, she is still distrusted. Roslin ordering that her pregnancy (father being Helo, who is human) terminated uncomfortably echoes the fears regarding miscegenation in North America and elsewhere. The difference between Boomer and Athena also reflects the two directions that minorities can take; either they can become the model minority and make peace with the majority, and prove themselves loyal (and risk complicity with the oppressors), or they can continue to resist and oppose the majority (and risk personal harm and furthering the conflict). That the model minority Athena seems more heroic and Boomer seems more villainous is slightly troubling, but BSG has already taken huge steps in not painting one “race” (human or cylon) as purely good or purely evil.

Within the BSG universe, the “Asian” appearance of Boomer/Athena has nothing to do with whether she is a cylon. Casting Grace Park in such a pair of characters is most likely a coincidence or a unconscious decision. However, even if the universe of BSG is post-racial, the audience watching it is far from. It’s a happy coincidence if that is what it is – Grace Park’s visible racial difference makes her character’s trials as a cylon that much more relevant. In the end, the lesson taken from BSG is not even a question of race, as in the different breeds of humans, but race as a broad denotation of any sort of delirious category used to justify ostracizing another. At the UN BSG retrospective, Olmos was apparently very vocal that BSG addresses race. But it seems to address pertinent issues indirectly, with a very very long view of history. And that’s what good speculative fiction does.