Representation of Asian Masculinities and Femininities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

By: Saheel Junaghare and Christopher Wayne

With the substantially increasing popularity of superhero films throughout the twenty-first century, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) provides the most consistent production and cinematic quality across its diverse array of films. Since its conception in 2005, the MCU sought to portray a variety of different characters from the original Marvel comics, but the sentiment to provide audiences with a genuinely multi-faceted experience did not translate in practice to the cast, crew, and production of the Marvel films. When asked about diversity in the Marvel films, President and Marvel Chief Creative Officer Kevin Feige lauds the diversity the company brings to its films and states “when there are people from various backgrounds and genders, stories are better” (Childs). The company’s statement may be true in theory, but their actual portrayal of masculinities and femininities tells a different story. Despite efforts to cultivate gender-norm-defying diversity in the Marvel films, there continues to be a misrepresentation of Asian masculinities and femininities throughout the Marvel film franchise. This paper will highlight a few of the many instances of misinterpretation in support of the idea that Marvel can better portray the masculinities and femininities of Asian people of color.

Contradictory Masculinities and Femininities 

A stereotype is an oversimplified but exaggerated symbol of a group of people that becomes a way for dominant groups to exercise power over Othered groups (McClearen). Across modern media, Asian Americans have been subjugated to the concept of ambivalent dialectics that produce specific pairs of representations around racial and gender identities. Ambivalent dialectics are stereotypes of a particular identity “that appear to be opposite but in fact work together in particular ways” (Ono, K. A., & Pham, V. N.). Oftentimes these stereotypes seem to conflict with each other creating a significant identity crisis within minority groups. The idea of ambivalent dialectics in the Asian community is not new and “both historical and present U.S. and Asian contexts influence the construction of Asian American stereotypes” (Kawai).

 The MCU toys with the idea of ambivalent dialectics with respect to Asian masculinity. Asian men are often represented as as nerdy, docile, and asexual. When contrasted with overly sexualized representations, Asian men serve to promulgate the facade of variety, but such representations really repress and categorize Asians. The MCU is no different in its display of Asians on screen. 

CutaCut

In the winter of 2019,  Kumail Nanjiani made international news by becoming the first South Asian superhero in Hollywood. Kumail is representative of Marvel’s valiant attempt to cast an Pakastani American actor. While the casting of Kumail is representative of a long overdue introduction of South Asian Americans into the cinematic universe, Marvel’s unveiling of Kumail in the upcoming movie The Eternals sparked controversy by representing a rapid departure from traditional South Asian masculinity. Nanjiani fell victim to the ambivalent dialect such that South Asian American men have been predominantly portrayed as quiet, nerdy, and asexual. As a result, despite numerous attempts by Kumail to open up about his physical transformation and the strict diet he undertook, the actor nevertheless met significant backlash over accusations of steroid use (Ritschel). In many ways, the public outcry over Kumail’s body is further representative of systemic racism and a misguided standard of masculinity. Professor of women and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota Jigna Desai notes how a “popular culture steeped in histories of racism and colonialism that create hierarchies of desirability, sexiness, and masculinity” had a significant hand in Nanjiani’s representation (Oliver).  

Nextshark

In the 2017 film Spiderman Homecoming, character Ned Leeds is portrayed as the epitome of an emasculated Asian male. Ned Leeds, based on the Asian comic book character “Ganke Lee,” is evidence of extremely poor handling of Asian masculinity by Marvel. Throughout the film, Ned serves as a source of comic relief for the audience often at the expense of a witty remark by a white, cis-gendered Peter Parker. Leeds can be considered reflective of the “Coon” stereotype of the “the ‘harmless’ comedian” who help where they can but are usually cracking jokes in a state of naïve belief that the main protagonist has powers and is unable to physically help (Kelley). Many are quick to acknowledge that the inclusion of Leeds played by Filipino-American Jacob Batalon is a big leap for Asians in cinema; they fail to analyze the character through a gendered lens. Leeds’ character, considered a hacker, gamer, and geek, purveys the idea of an inferior, asexual, asian character. 

Asian American men are not alone in falling victim to severe ambivalent dialectics as Asian females in the MCU are depicted in contradictory tones as well.

The Wrap

In the critically acclaimed MCU television series Daredevil, Madame Gao serves as the leader of the evil organization known as The Hand and possesses superhuman longevity. Throughout the series Gao embodies the yellow peril stereotype as a ruthless science fictional Chinese lady with a propensity for vast threatening power (Rivera). Gao is inherently asexualized, attributing a unique femininity to her. Gao very much encompasses the Dragon Lady stereotype albeit without the sexualized, temptress frame.  

Wikia

Marvel’s portrayal of Helen Cho in the Avengers Age of Ultron presents an ambivalent dialectic in contrast to Daredevil’s Madame Gao. Cho’s character is highly representative of The Lotus Blossom stereotype. Helen Cho is a world-renowned geneticist and the leader of U-GIN Research Group called to assist the Avengers with her research and technology. While evoking the Lotus Blossom stereotype, Marvel portrays Cho as the smart asian who is casted as needed  to assist hyper-masculine males achieve their goals throughout the film. Cho is played by Claudia Kim, a 5’9” South-Korean born actress whose apparel and hair style in the film represent an aesthetic that reinforces the Lotus Blossom stereotype.     

Hypersexualization of Asian Femininities  

Hypersexualization for the pleasure of male audiences in the superhero genre “is real and has been for a long time” (Hickson). Duke University’s Celine Shimizu states that “hypersexuality of Asian women” is prevalent throughout society and “occurs at the sites of production, consumption, and criticism” (Shimizu). In both the television shows and the films, Asian Americans are overwhelmingly depicted as hypersexualized under either the Lotus Blossom or Lady Dragon stereotype.  

The Comeback

In Marvel’s Daredevil, Elektra represents one of two east Asian Americans in the television series. In many ways she embodies the Lady Dragon stereotype. She is depicted as a dangerous antihero constantly either trying to seduce or threaten the life of our heterosexual white male protagonist Daredevil. Quite disturbing throughout the series is Elektra’s portrayal as a sexually desirable, thin woman who is always wearing tight revealing clothes and reduced to her flirtatious and lustful engagements with Daredevil. In an attempt to appease the fantasies of male audiences, Marvel harms the depiction of Asian femininity on screen. Episode after episode of Elektra being choked and grabbed by Daredevil helps to promote the stereotype of the lustful Asian woman. 

Vox

There are very few characters in any fictional universe more hypersexualized than the Mantis portrayed by Korean-Canadian Pom Klementieff. Though she is a fictional character, she is very much tied to an Asian identity. Born to a German father and Vietnamese mother, Mantis is left in Vietnam by her father for the possibility she may mate with the eldest Cotati on Earth and become the mother of the Celestial Messiah. From her very conception, Mantis is a child left for the purposes of possible mating. As she matures, she excels in the marital arts, but also has her mind-wiped to become a sex worker and barmaid. She constantly romanticizes and fetishises other characters such as Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Mantis eventually joins the Avengers and mates with the reanimated body of the Swordsman. By virtue of her backstory and character tropes alone, Mantis is inherently hypersexualized. In terms of her physical appearance, her antennas instantly give her away when she is attracted or aroused by a male character, partially for unusual comedic effect. Additionally, Mantis is routinely belittled by male characters around her as the film reduces her to a character that exists only to mate (Murphy). On a broader level, Mantis once again represents the hypersexualization of Asian femininity. 

Asexualization of Asian Masculinities

Asian masculinities are frequently portrayed in modern media as asexual. Asexualization of the asian male is damaging as it provides a framework by which Asian Americans can be emasculated and otherized when contrasted to their white counterparts. “Asian American men are often stereotyped as passive, feminine, nerdy, asexual (e.g., myth of small penises)” and are often “left in ambivalence: either conform to the White male norm, or be typecast as having deviant forms of masculinity and not being what society considers a ‘real man’” (Iwamoto, D. K., & Liu, W. M.). The danger is that it “poses a major dilemma for Asian American men, who are left to create a new form of masculinity, even though there are few models of masculinity for them” (Iwamoto, D. K., & Liu, W. M.). 

CinemaBlend

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy examples of an Asian American in film is Wong, the Master of the Mystic Arts in the film Dr. Strange. Wong’s asexualization is not as obvious at first glance as other Asian characters in the MCU. The asexualization of Wong is far more apparent when contrasted with white male protagonist Dr. Strange. Both characters are magicians of the same caliber yet Dr. Strange has multiple love interests and Wong does not. Wong remains principled and devotes his life to the protection of The Book of the Vishanti. His devotion to his duty renders him inherently asexualized, adopting a role akin to a monk in the MCU. Even Wong’s physical attire – tightly fit, neatly tucked robes – exudes spirituality, devotion to his craft, and passivity. Dr. Strange’s attire, in contrast, with broad shoulders and a long cape display ideas of dominance behind hegemonic masculinity. Wong, whether the MCU intended him to be or not, is an asexualized character. Wong is one of the most identifiable Asian American characters in Dr. Strange, and perhaps the entirety of the Marvel cinematic universe, so his portrayal is problematic for the asexual perception of Asian American identity as a whole. 

YoungHollywood

Jimmy Woo is an FBI agent and a former S.H.I.E.L.D  agent that is introduced into the MCU in Ant Man and The Wasp (2018) and again in Wanda Vision (2021). Woo’s sole task in Ant Man and The Wasp is to monitor Scott Lang (Ant Man) who is on house arrest. Woo is consistently outwitted and always two steps behind Lang. Although his character embodies a degree of intelligence, Woo comes across as dumbwitted and especially undesirable to women throughout the movie. The stereotype of the Asian who is bad with women continues in Wanda Vision as Woo is attempting to help Agent Monica Rambeau and astrophysicist Dr. Darcy Lang solve a mystery of a missing town. While Woo is portrayed as a lighthearted addition to the team with Dr. Lang, he is juxtaposed with Agent Rambeau who plays a combative action hero who is forwarded as superior to Woo. Woo’s portrayal is extremely significant because it is representative of the lessening of sexual appeal in an Asian male across two different mediums, both film and television. 

Overall, though Marvel executives may claim the company fights for diversity and just representation across media, the images throughout this paper reveal that the studio still has a long way to go with respect to Asian masculinities and femininities. While society as a whole has become aware of gendered and racial stereotypes in the twenty-first century, Marvel’s films tend to further the otherization of Asians in film. Ambivalent dialectics threaten an identity crisis for Asian Americans trying to identify with heroes and characters on screen. Hypersexualization of Asian femininities objectify Asian women and categorize them into Lady Dragon and Lotus Blossom stereotypes. Asexualization of Asians serves to emascualate Asian males in the media. With respect to interpreting Asian femininities and masculinities, Marvel still has a lot of progress to make. 

Works Cited: 

Shimizu, C. (2007). The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham; London: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv11319vx

Hickson, A. (n.d.). This Is The Problem We Have With Female Superheroes. Female Superheroes Hypersexual Comic Book Characters. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2016/11/130254/sexist-female-superheroes-comic-book-characters-hypersexual. 

Iwamoto, D. K., & Liu, W. M. (2009). Asian American men and Asianized attribution: Intersections of masculinity, race, and sexuality. In N. Tewari & A. N. Alvarez (Eds.), Asian American psychology: Current perspectives (pp. 211–232). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Kawai, Y. (2005). Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril. Howard Journal of Communications, 16(2), 109–130. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170590948974

Murphy, T. (2018, May 22). Opinion: The Infantilizing, Abuse, and Disrespect of Mantis. Geeks Of Color. https://geeksofcolor.co/2018/05/21/opinion-the-infantilizing-abuse-and-disrespect-of-mantis/. 

Oliver, D. (2021, January 22). What the outcry from Kumail Nanjiani’s sculpted body tells us about racism, masculinity standards. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2021/01/13/kumail-nanjiani-what-body-shaming-tells-us-racism-masculinity/6644520002/. 

Ono, K. A., & Pham, V. N. (2009). Asian Americans and the media. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Ritschel, C. R. (2021, January 4). Kumail Nanjiani sparks debate about body-shaming and racist double standards with new photo. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/kumail-nanjiani-body-marvel-steroids-racism-b1782313.html. 

Rivera, T. (2021, May 15). Black Mask, Yellow Peril: Anti-Asianism in Netflix’s Otherwise Brilliant ‘Daredevil’. The Nerds of Color. https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2015/04/30/black-mask-yellow-peril-anti-asianism-in-netflixs-otherwise-brilliant-daredevil/. 

Shimizu, C. (2007). The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham; London: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv11319vx

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