This is a long comment I wrote in response to a discussion in the Asian Authors Alliance Facebook group about Mortal Kombat, the new CW show Kung Fu, Asian American representation, martial arts and stereotypes. I was quoted in Salon.com here!
For Asian-American creators, I think we have to recognize that martial arts is double-edged in the way it both perpetuates and breaks stereotypes.
In the pop culture of the past, martial arts and Asians functioned primarily as story supports to white-centered narratives. In white stories, martial arts was “a single story,” one designed for mysterious Asians (and techniques) help white characters on their heroic journeys.
Even if those stories provided important and rare representation for Asian-Americans in the past, many of us have “grown up” and recognize that now.
As a result, some of us may have a tendency to now want to stay as far away from such seemingly stereotypical narratives, in the same way that some of us grew up as one of the few Asian-Americans in our schools and communities and tried to distance ourselves from the one or two other Asians in the community around us. For me it came out of a desire to show people that “not all Asians know each other / are alike.” It was a messed up way of saying, “HEY RECOGNIZE ME AS AN INDIVIDUAL.”
Nobody wants to be a stereotype, and nobody wants to contribute to being a stereotype.
But if martial arts is part of your culture, or something you enjoy, why do we feel the need to suppress it? Because of what white people think? Aren’t we once again, centering, their thoughts in how we enjoy things from our own culture? Isn’t that just giving into racism? Isn’t that like being ashamed of your mom’s stinky tofu? Aren’t we then again, once more letting white preconceptions shape how we define ourselves and our desires?
Moreover, I would venture to say that Mortal Kombat and CW’s Kung Fu is actually radically different because of the diverse casts, recentering Asians and Asian-American faces as primary actors in these martial arts narratives rather than just relegating them to shadowy undeveloped support roles. These stories are using a martial arts as a familiar chassis to show Asian-Americans as three dimensional human beings, worthy of starring in stories that feature our character journeys.
We need to support these diversely casted stories because martial arts or not, their success will only open more doors for all types of Asian-American artists, actors and storytellers.