Monday Musings: That Oxymoron, the Self-Hating POC

I normally don't do posts on Mondays, but this article I read yesterday is still on my mind. Take a moment to read That Oxymoron, The Asian Comic Superhero by Umapagan Ampikaipakan from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I wanted to dissect everything wrong with this article via Twitter, but it's Twitter, and I needed my thoughts to be connected by more than me replying to myself in 140-character bursts.

A summary of the article for those who don't want to read it (that's fine; I sometimes don't read the article someone is about to rant on lol): making a typically white American superhero anything OTHER negates everything any fan of color can dream of attaining.

Are you confused? Because I'm confused. Let's start the dissection.

The final page of the first issue of the new Ms. Marvel comic is pitch perfect. A strange mutagenic mist pervades the streets of Jersey City, activating a secret alien gene that triggers a transformation within our teenage protagonist. She punches her way out of a chrysalis to find that she has mutated into another body: The Pakistani-American Muslim Kamala Khan, with her newly minted superpowers, has been transmogrified into a tall, leggy blonde.

It is a fantastic visual gag.

Is it? (Does this transformation remind anyone else of something? The overweight Jewish girl who gains powers and becomes a hot, thin redhead?) As a young black American girl growing up in a predominantly white community, I wanted SO badly to look like my blonde, blue-eyed friends. I thought my darker skin and short, nigh-unmanageable hair was awful. There's nothing funny about that. 

But it doesn’t take long ... for Kamala to realize that her brown Muslim self is as potent as can be. All she needed to become super, besides a costume and a mask, was a strong sense of individualism, righteousness, a can-do spirit and a purpose. The superhero comic is an inherently egalitarian genre, even though its lead characters are exceptional: After a bout with a radioactive spider or some Terrigen Mist, it could be you or it could be me.

Which is why the recent push by Marvel and DC for greater diversity in comics doesn’t make much sense.

Wait, what? Isn't the push for diversity a push for egalitarianism? According to Ampikaipakan, only in the United States. To non-Americans, in his words:

The superhero comic is the American dream illustrated, and by definition the American dream must be accessible to all. However monochromatic its characters...

Okay, I'm going to stop you right there. By definition, the American dream must be accessible to ALL. So, by definition, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed male should appeal to people all over the world. He can be you, young black girl in Kenya, and you, old Japanese man in Kyoto.

I'm being very sardonic about this, but only because it doesn't make sense. The American Dream, unfortunately, has always been portrayed as the perfect white family to a world dominated by people of color. But that doesn't make it a necessity, because obviously, if you aren't white, you never can be. Speaking of which:

I’m Hindu and grew up on the adventures of gods with formidable features: the elephant-like Ganesh; the monkey-faced Hanuman; the blue-skinned, butter-eating Krishna. But they always remained out of reach: I could never be Ganesh or Krishna; they were deities. Yet I could be Spider-Man, because I already was Peter Parker.

I want to stand on my desk and yell at my screen in a weird balancing act that this is a ridiculous comparison. I could never be a deity, but I could be a normal person. Well, duh. And yeah, he wasn't looking at Peter's race, just that he was the Everyman who was bitten by a radioactive spider, and you don't have to care that your favorite superheros are all white, but why would making Peter Parker suddenly Peter Ampikaipakan "[undercut] the genre's universal appeal," as he says a little later?

Because had I seen a black Batgirl (even though I absolutely loved the dark-haired, short-haired Barbara Gordon played by Yvonne Craig in the original TV show), I would have been so empowered to see someone who looked like me playing a superhero. I did love Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, but she was also a villain. I don't want universal appeal to also entail that the bad guys aren't white, because that's what negating the importance of POC superheroes also does. If the universal superhero must be white America, then what is the universal villain?

"It can’t be an accident that so many efforts to create an Asian superhero have failed."

No, it wasn't an accident, but the main example he uses, the Chinese superhero the Green Turtle during WORLD WAR II, is flawed beyond measure. Did he imagine that just because the character was fighting against the Japanese that Americans, great at their inability to tell the difference between anything, were going to sympathize with an Asian character in 1944? Green Turtle was created to fail, not just because he was an Asian superhero, but because he was an Asian superhero trying to be pushed during a time of anti-Asian sentiments.

As recently as 2004, “Spider-Man: India” transposed Peter Parker’s story to Pavitr Prabhakar, a poor Indian boy in Mumbai. Aunt May became Aunt Maya. Mary Jane, Meera Jain. It was a near-literal translation of American tropes into an Indian setting, and made no use of India’s rich mythological traditions or particular class and caste struggles.

The same goes for the heroes of major Japanese mangas, like Astro Boy and Devilman. Though their origin stories tend to be mystical or supernatural ... in most other respects these characters are just rip-offs of the American comic book canon.

That's not Pavitr's, Astro Boy's, or Devilman's fault; it's the fault of their writers, who thought only the American experience was what fans wanted to see, and while the many angry white boys will throw tantrums on Twitter about it as they tend to do when the matrix gets reloaded with a different filter, there are fans of color cheering and jumping for joy that someone with their face is in their comic book (well, unless they're Umapagan Ampikaipakan).

The current Ms. Marvel is the most successful rendition of an Asian superhero. But Kamala is Asian-American, and her struggles to balance her duties as both a superhero and a good Muslim girl are merely another retelling of the classic American immigrant experience.

But...didn't you just say that...the others were just...I mean...

So apparently, a Peter Parker in India but still using American tropes is wrong, but so is a brown Ms. Marvel handling the struggles of an American immigrant? So, was she supposed to just be a Ms. Marvel from Pakistan still using the American tropes? Because I thought that was wrong, too. So, what's right?

Try to adapt the superhero comic’s conventions to an Asian context and the genre collapses under the weight of traditional Asian values: humility, self-effacement, respect for elders and communal harmony. American comic book heroes also act in the service of the collective good, but they do so, unabashedly, out of a heightened sense of self. How can an Asian superhero take down the bad guy without embarrassing both the bad guy’s family and his own? How do you save the world and save face at the same time? The Asian comic superhero is a contradiction in terms.

Humility: superheroes can be humble. Point blank. They're not all Dark Knight Batman. Self-effacement: superheroes typically wear masks, right? So as long as their identities remain hidden, the attention is basically on no one. Communal harmony: if a villain is disrupting the harmony of the community, wouldn't an Asian superhero stopping that villain restore the harmony, and because no one knows who the actual hero is, their family's honor is safe? No offense to the villain's family, but their honor is the villain's problem. Maybe they shouldn't have raised a sociopath.

The final point, to which I call bulls**t:

We geeks out here in the Asian hinterlands have always readily bought into American ideals because the American comic book makes us believe we can be special, too. The Asian superhero, steeped in our cultural baggage, would only undermine the fantasy.

Obviously, I can only speak from a black American perspective, but done properly, an Asian superhero steeped in the baggage of one of the various cultures (you can't lump all Asians into one culture and then speak for them, sir) should do nothing but strengthen the fantasy that a reader, with all of their issues and cultural baggage, can overcome them all to save the day.

So why did I call Ampikaipakan a self-hating POC? Because he is basically saying that anything other than a white American hero isn't good enough for people around the world to aspire to. Seeing an Asian-American superhero struggling with her identity only reflects back his issues as a non-American Asian striving for the American dream, and he can't handle that. He doesn't see that Kamala Khan could have been an awesome and accessible Ms. Marvel without becoming the tall, leggy blonde. He thinks her battling with her superhero duties and her cultural identity shuts out the world from understanding her.

But in a world that is mostly NOT American, wouldn't those trying to attain the American Dream understand Kamala's plight more because they are fighting the same internal struggle as she is? Wouldn't that show them that they aren't alone in this world that keeps throwing the ideal of white-American superiority at them?

Because Kamala can't be white, and she shouldn't have been forced to be. Umapagan, you can't be a white Peter Parker, so don't get upset when someone takes off your color-proof glasses and shows you so.


Tonja Drecker said...

Interesting rant ;)
As a 'white American' I'm always scared to comment on these sort of things. But after living in several different countries during the last 20 years, I'm tending to think that it's not so much the look, culture or background of a character that necessarily catches me as a reader but rather the universal feelings and struggles that we as humans face. It's the heart of the story which grabs.

Debra Renée Byrd said...

I can look at so many videos from other cultures and see my family in it. It blows my mind that someone from a marginalized nationality would have issue with with it.