Ornamental Orientals and using Asians Bodies as Narrative Props

Melissa Slaughter

OnScreen Columnist

In the past year, we've seen a bizarre resurgence in Orientalism, white washing, white saviors, and AAPI erasure in the form of films like Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, and Ghost in the Shell, as well at TV shows like Iron Fist. With the exception of Marvel’s Doctor Strange (a franchise deemed too-big-to-fail), all of these properties flopped, in terms of critical success. Only Iron Fist may have been a commercial success, but even that’s up for debate.

The continual critique of each of these properties is that not only did the telling of these stories deal in the dark and dirty world of white-washing and erasure. But that overall, these narratives are poor quality and lazy writing. But how is that possible?

Aloha was written and directed by the award-winning Cameron Crowe. Uber-successful writers Ed Zwick and Max Brooks conceived the story of The Great Wall. And Ghost in the Shell is a beloved Japanese property that needed little to no major changes for the live-action adaptations. Even in the realm of TV, Iron Fist falls on the heels of the critically successful Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. How could this MCU show have fallen so far from it’s thoughtful predecessors?

My theory: these production teams thought that an Asian backdrop was enough to prop up the story, that audiences might forgive boring characters and stale storytelling if they were entertained by exquisite Asian-inspired art direction. They turned to what is traditionally called Orientalism, and brought this concept back to its full effect.

So I’m calling it now. We are entering the age of Nouveau-Orientalism, and New Age Colonialism. Instead of taking over lands, white men are taking over Asian narratives, Intellectual Properties and in some cases, literal Asian bodies.

Warning: from this point on there are spoilers to The Great Wall, Iron Fist, and Ghost in the Shell. Continue at your own risk.

What is Orientalism?

In 1979, Edward W. Said published his groundbreaking book, simply titled Orientalism, where he explored the origins of Orientalism. He defines Orientalism as “the way that the West perceives of — and thereby defines — the East.”

A popular example of Orientalism in story form is that of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. A made-up land with silly names, Mikado is a story entrenched in the perception of what is East Asian. Much like Netflix’s Iron Fist’s fantasy land of K’un-Lun, Mikado wraps itself in an Oriental Rug to cover the white protagonists underneath.

By Said’s definition, Asia can never properly represent itself in a property that partakes in Orientalism. The act of Orientalism is to constantly define and separate Asian culture as the “other.” “Otherness” is a constant struggle for many Asian Americans. Yet in Iron Fist, Great Wall, Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, thetheme of “Otherness” is not acceptable for Asians to portray. One only has to look as far as Lewis Tan losing the lead in Iron Fist to professional wet blanket Finn Jones.

White Saviors can’t save bad stories.

Great Wall, a white savior story many confused with white-washing, is a snooze fest. The Asian characters, while I'm glad to see their faces, are one-dimensional. Setting the story in China doesn't take away from the fact that Matt Damon's arc is unoriginal and uninspiring. More thought was put towards how the dog-beast villains would communicate than was put towards how the humans would connect with one another. No matter who you placed into this visually-stunning movie (because director Zhang Yimou’s personal aesthetic did it’s job), there was almost no way anyone could have saved such a drab character in an under-realized storyline.

Iron Fist is a brat. At least, Finn Jones's incarnation is. His version of being "the other" is to whine. You know what Asian Americans actually others do? Like Phil Yu and Lela Lee advise us, we get angry!

Using Asian supporting casts really just accent how mediocre the white male leads are. The break out star of Iron Fist is not Finn Jones, who can’t seem to keep his problematic PR mouth shut. It’s Lewis Tran, the drunken monk. And it’s Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, who many have touted as the primary reason to watch the show.

Erasure is alive and well and living in Hollywood

Tilda Swinton’s casting was just the beginning of this shenanigan. Instead of rising to the challenge of casting a person of Asian descent, writers instead side-stepped the process by claiming that she was a Western Monk turned Eastern Ancient One. Does this seem like a cop-out to you?

Tilda’s situation is an example of erasure. Using Asian set dressings while taking Asian bodies out of the stories, thereby erasing the people who created this culture in the first place, is the new trend in Hollywood. Call it white-washing, call it erasure, call it race-bending. Whatever you do, don’t call it equal. Iron Fist couldn’t change races, but the Ancient One could? I call BS. And I call on the writers to do better.

Speaking of doing better, the granddaddy of all erasure was finally released. Ghost in the Shell side-stepped so hard it fell off a cliff. The set dressings of this film were Asian to a tee. Asian bodies were literal props in the forms of geisha-bots. There was no trying to hide the story’s Japanese origins. So instead of addressing the problems of placing a white woman at the center of an Asian property, the filmmakers made it a part of their storyline. The twist was offensive, and a little traumatizing. Ghost in the Shell’s premise hinges upon an Asian woman’s brain has been placed into the shell of a white woman.

It’s literal erasure. A white cyborg body literally replaces the physical identity of a Japanese woman. This narrative tells us that Asian woman are erasable. Our bodies do not belong in a world clearly set in Japan, or at least in East Asia. Asian woman face enough turmoils with the exotification of our bodies. Now our bodies are to be commodified as white women.

This narrative is what I call New Age Colonialism. A group of white scientists violently took a Japanese couple against their will, without their consent, and re-assimilated them into white-presenting bodies. Designer bodies. Idealized bodies, stripped of the culture and features that originally housed a Japanese ghost. If this isn't a perfect example of colonialism, I don't know what is. White men in power calmed the Japanese rebels by literally re-wiring them to function in the world as white.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Reappropriate aligns the forces transracialization of Motoko Kusonagi as figurative rape. It's the violent, nonconsensual forced destruction of a Japanese body and soul for the advancement of the white body.

How do we stop the madness?

Social media outrage has made it clear how Asians feel. Hashtag protests have made it clear that we will not be #whitewashedOUT, that we will see anything #starringJohnCho and #starringConstanceWu and that we are #NotYourAsianSidekick.

But now, more than ever, we need more writers, directors, and producers on the scene. We need people in the room. Casting Constance Wu in Crazy, Rich Asians would have meant nothing if John Chu wasn't directing. Zhang Yimou made the world of The Great Wall look amazing. But the white team of storytellers didn't look beyond the Tai Tao and the film suffered.

Never forget that these properties are built on the backs of Asian culture and Asian peoples. Imagine how great The Great Wall would have been if Justin Lin had been a producer? What if Gene Luen Yang, the man behind the Chinese “New Superman,” had also been the brains behind Ghost in the Shell? Or if any of these showrunners had taken the reigns of Iron Fist?

If you want to know where to find Asian writers, look no further than the theatre. Ma-Yi Theatre Company has been churning out playwrights whose plays have been premiering across the country. Playwrights often cross into TV writing anyway. Just look at Carla Ching (Graceland; Fear the Walking Dead) or Diana Son (West Wing;American Crime). Looking for Asian American Executive Producers? Check out AMC’s Into the Badlands producers Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung, who also serve the star and action director, respectively.

So do not brush aside lazy writing as the excuse for these bad films. No matter how amazing or terrible the writing, erasure is erasure. White-washing is white-washing. If filmmakers and audiences are to move on from this string of racialized flops, we must force the trends of Nouveau-Orientalism and New Age Colonialism to become a thing of the past. We must open up the writer’s rooms to more people of Asian descent if we are to tell these stories, and if we are to go beyond these stories. Because with great power comes great responsibility. Asian storytellers are willing to rise to the challenge.