There’s not much I could love more in an action movie than giant robots and giant alien monsters, but in 2013 Pacific Rim brought me giant robots fighting giant alien monsters. In a futuristic world, an underwater portal allows monsters known as Kaijus to rise from the sea and destroy coastal cities, so, naturally, humans operate giant robots called Jaegers to fight them. The film tells the tale of an international team of Jaeger pilots ending the conflict.
But that’s not all. Pacific Rim brought me Mako Mori. She’s one of my favorite female characters ever, not just because she’s a dynamic woman of color, but because she represents the possibility that there could be such characters in Hollywood. In this post, I’ll discuss how she’s unique as a character, and why her presence is important for film.
Once, in my freshman year, I went to a meeting of my college’s anime club. There were a few other girls there, but I was the only Asian in the room. When I walked in, the president of the club greeted me with “Konichiwa!” Perplexed, I thought everyone was greeted that way at the Anime Club, so I just sat down. As others came in, he simply said “hello” or “welcome” to them, in English. He didn’t say “Konichiwa” to anyone else. After the meeting, I explained to him that I wasn’t Japanese; I’m Australian but of Chinese heritage. He looked disappointed. Feeling awkward about that interaction, I never went to another Anime Club meeting.
That was over ten years ago, and I still think about that incident. In retrospect, I’m sure that he wasn’t intending to be racist or to pick me out as being different. But unjustified assumptions and misguided intentions do not make for good relations, nor do they promote for understanding and tolerance.
Assumptions, otherness and stereotyping
As an Asian Geek Girl, I occupy an uncomfortable space where I am the subject of multiple conflicting stereotypes. Obviously, I was female and Asian before I even knew anything of geek culture, but, at this particular intersection of race, gender and geekdom, there’s not a lot of material out there specifically on how Asian geek girls fit into overall geek culture. I find this curious: there’s plenty of information on geeks, girls and Asians separately (or even Asian girls, geek girls, and Asian geeks), but getting the trifecta is much more elusive.
Perhaps part of this is due to the fact that who counts as Asian will vary according to cultural and geopolitical lines: even though my Chinese ancestry typically drops me squarely in the “Asian” category, British census forms, for example, consider “Asian” and “Chinese” to be separate categories. Also, there are distinctions within the realm of what counts as “Asian”, each with their own heritage and contributions to geek culture. Speaking Japanese to an Asian person at an anime club meeting makes assumptions that just because anime is Japanese and that a person who is interested in anime may look (in some sense) Japanese that they are Japanese. On another level, however, it also suggests that the speaker doesn’t care or appreciate the difference between Japanese and non-Japanese Asians: they’re pretty much the same, so you can speak the same language to them.
There’s also the notion of otherness: within geek culture (and society, more generally), there’s an expectation that the norm is a white male. As someone who is neither white nor male, the assumption is that I don’t fit in. Here’s an example of such otherness: Cosplaying is an area where stereotyping becomes quite apparent. Although I’ve not personally experienced anything as insidious as Chaka Cumberbatch’s experience with cosplaying outside my race—which is almost inevitable since there are so few Asian female characters in video gaming (the pocket of geekdom that I’m most familiar with), I have come across several cases of awkward—if not mistaken—identity.
Once, I cosplayed as Lara Croft, and nobody called me Lara Croft. Instead, I got “Asian Lara Croft”. When a (white) friend cosplayed as Lara Croft at another event, nobody called her “white Lara Croft”. She was just Lara Croft. If I had dressed as Chun-Li, nobody would have called me anything other than Chun-Li. Because Chun-Li is Asian, and I’m Asian, there’s something obvious and “natural” about my playing Chun-Li, which would be absent from my playing Lara Croft. I’m the “other” Lara Croft. I can’t be the real thing because I’m the wrong color.
Schoolgirls and ninjas
Like the President of the Anime Club, I’m pretty sure that people who call me “Asian Lara Croft” aren’t doing it maliciously to point out that I’m not white like Lara Croft. After all, I’m pretty aware of the fact I’m not white already. Why, then, does this sort of thing happen?
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Since you’re not aware of these biases, you can claim to not be racist or sexist, and believe that you are acting in ways that reflect that, even if your actions say otherwise—there are several tests you can take to examine the strength of your mental associations of a race or gender with positive or negative attitudes.
Stereotyping is a form of implicit bias. Psychologist Paul Bloom suggests that stereotyping is a convenient way to make sense of the world when you don’t have enough information about a particular instance. We can use our prior experience of the world and extrapolate in cases to make certain judgments. However, if someone has limited experience with a particular race, then there’s a higher risk of being mistaken in the extrapolation. I think Bloom also assumes that we revise our judgments as we gain information about the world, so that once someone knows that a stereotype is too general, they learn how to not make that mistake again. That said, I’m not sure if that actually happens as frequently as Bloom seems to envisage.
Further, stereotyping results in the oversimplification of complex issues. As Lindsey Yoo pointed out, Asians are often overlooked in the black-white race debate, but oddly fall onto the “white” side of the issue despite being a minority.
And then on the few occasions when they are included, Asian women are commonly separated into two (presumably distinct) categories. Of this, Yoo says:
“My body is constantly orientalized and hypersexualized by people who are more comfortable seeing me on television as a giggling, sexually repressed schoolgirl or whip-carrying dragon lady/tiger mom than they are with seeing me as an empowered individual with a dynamic history and voice.”
Ming-Na Wen as Agent Melinda May of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Thinking about how Asian women are portrayed in geekdom seems to reflect this. From anime schoolgirls (although, note that the schoolgirls need not be Asian; it’s just the fact that anime is itself Asian) to the ass-kickery of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent May or Thuy Trang’s Yellow Ranger, the stereotype is there. What geek culture tells me about people who look like me is that if I’m not wearing a school uniform and looking cute, I’m going to parkour up the wall and karate chop you in the throat. Or, maybe like Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill, I could do some combination of the two.
Thuy Trang as Trini Kwan, the Yellow Power Ranger
Where do we go from here?
It’s all quite disappointing, if it turns out that we stereotype because we’re all operating under some innate need to generalize. So, how do we fix this problem? Happily, implicit biases are malleable, and we can unlearn some of the associations we have between our attitudes and certain groups. While there are many strategies available for overcoming the problems associated with stereotyping, here are two which I think are reasonably straightforward:
Firstly, the need to stereotype and generalize comes from not having enough experience or information. One way to overcome (or at least minimalize) the stereotyping would be to increase the exposure of Asian women in geekdom, in roles besides schoolgirls and ninjas. How about we have more female Asian athletes, engineers, and artists out there? Making Asian women more visible in a broader range of roles would go far to encourage the idea that we can do other things besides giggle and do martial arts.
The second way to overcome stereotyping is to be personally accountable for instances of it. Call it out if you see it and it’s wrong. Ask people why they think that certain claims about groups are valid. Encourage them to examine their own implicit biases. Understand that we are fallible, and we will make mistakes. But even if we wrongly attribute certain features to a group, so long as we revise our beliefs once we discover that they’re mistaken, then I think that we’re on the right track. If it were easy to change stereotyping, we would have done it already!
The latter approach is simultaneously easier and more difficult time than simply increasing the presence of Asian women in geekdom. It’s easier because it’s something that each of us can do, as individuals, with little effort. However, it’s more difficult in that doing so challenges existing views about types of people, and there’s of course the risk of social awkwardness in calling someone out. But I think that overall this strategy allows for people to become more reflective of their beliefs and attitudes, which in turn can reduce the frequency and degree of stereotyping.
I hope that, in the future, I’ll see better, more accurate, representations of people who look like me in various facets of geekdom. To that end, I’d like to consider an ideal from one of my favorite shows.
I am a huge fan of Firefly. I love the idea that, in that universe, parts of my culture which are currently exotic and strange become part of the mainstream. It doesn’t dominate the culture, but it contributes to it. (That said, in my idealized future, people have better Chinese accents than the Firefly cast.) But the crew of Serenity also symbolize something else: they’re a group of misfits from different backgrounds who choose to stay together. Even though they have their differences, they put those aside to work and live together, and actually strengthen their friendships along the way.
Morena Baccarin as Inara Serra in Firefly
Likewise, in the far-flung reaches of geekdom, we are often branded as misfits from the norm. Although that’s now changing and historically geeky domains are now becoming more mainstream, we should still recognize and revel in our differences, not use them to alienate each other. By doing so, we would gain more understanding and compassion for people of different races and genders, and I don’t see how that could be a bad thing.