We Need More Asian Women Superheroes
Growing up, I never missed an episode of Wonder Woman. I loved seeing Lynda Carter deflect gunshots with her golden cuffs and tie up bad guys with her truth lasso. Even though Wonder Woman was an immigrant like me, she was also a white woman whose red, white and blue uniform symbolized her “All-American” standing. I’d spin around like her until I was dizzy, wondering whether I could ever transform into an All-American superhero.
So when I heard that Chinese-British actor Gemma Chan was the lead superhero in The Eternals, a Marvel film directed by Chinese academy-award winner Chloé Zhao, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Finally, a superhero film headlined and directed by East Asian women set in a multiracial Marvel cinematic universe (MCU)! This is significant since Asian women leads are rare in Hollywood films. My recent co-authored study of 1300 top box-office films from 2007-2019 found that only six films were led or co-led by Asian or Pacific Islander women. That is less than half a percent. Asian women directors of box-office hits are even rarer. If The Eternals makes the top 100 box office hits list, Chloé Zhao would be the first Asian woman solo director of a hit live-action film in more than 14 years.
Why does all of this matter? Because Asian American girls need to see themselves represented in positive leadership roles both on screen and behind the scenes. One study found that self-esteems among girls and youth of color in the United States are negatively affected by their media consumption. Furthermore, racial invisibility and stereotypes can skew the way viewers understand and categorize people groups off screen. Given the rise in anti-Asian hate in the United States—with Asian women targeted in hate crimes and twice as likely to report racist attacks—we desperately need complex cinematic representations of Asian women not rooted in stereotype. Having an Asian American woman director who can draw from lived experience would help facilitate this.
With so much at stake, I went into The Eternals with unrealistic expectations. Given Chloé Zhao’s recent Best Director Oscar win, I wanted her to redeem Asian women once and for all. As a result, I came out of the film with mixed emotions. While I thought the film was entertaining enough, I did not feel empowered by the lead Asian woman superhero. But because I’ve lived through famines of Asian representation, I am wary of expressing public critiques. I don’t want to inadvertently fuel Hollywood’s biased system predisposed to exclude future Asian and other marginalized voices. But
just because I critique a film, it doesn’t mean I don’t support its existence. Years ago, I had a MoviePass subscription that allowed me to watch unlimited films in the movie theater. After watching at least one new release every week, I quickly realized that there are many more mediocre films than award-worthy ones. To me, equality is having a plethora of films ranging from good to bad. Asian Americans should not be held at a higher standard than any other group when it comes to representation. We deserve the right to “fail up” too.
With that being said, The Eternals is far from a failure. It is a beautifully-shot film that entertains with compelling performances from a diverse cast. Gemma Chan plays Sersi, one of several “Eternals,” or ancient immortal aliens with superpowers sent to protect the earth from monsters called “Deviants.” Sersi is deeply connected to each of the human communities she protects. Her love for humanity is evident both collectively and individually (through a human love interest played by Kit Harington). Sersi can transform one inanimate element to another through the touch of her hands. In contrast, Ikaris (played by Richard Madden) displays more destructive superpowers. He reminded me of Superman with his ability to fly, shoot laser beams out of his eyes, and supernatural strength. The other Eternals openly acknowledge Ikaris as the most powerful among them. Some even choose to follow him instead of Sersi despite her official appointment as leader by Ajak (played by Salma Hayek). Ultimately, Sersi’s collectivist compassion triumphs over brute strength and zealotry.
Gemma Chan explained in Vogue UK that her character is “not necessarily the best fighter [and] doesn’t have the most obviously impressive powers…The main thing is she’s an empath. She has a connection with humans, and with the world and the earth. That is her strength.” While I agree that empathy should be an esteemed superhero trait, I also see it as a gendered characteristic of female superheroes. Professor Monica Miller and other scholars have documented how “male heroes are more often highly aggressive, while female heroes are more often compassionate, nurturing, and understanding.” Even Mantis, one of the few Asian female superheroes in the MCU, was an empath, albeit a minor character compared to Sersi. Furthermore, Sersi’s power to transform elements is a typical power for women superheroes. Miller’s research finds that male superheroes “more often had super strength and resistance to injury, while female characters more often were able to manipulate elements”—the exact difference between Ikaris and Sersi’s powers. So while director Chloé Zhao intended Sersi to be a “nuanced female superhero that is rarely seen in this genre,” she merely reproduced existing tropes. And when you factor in race, a meek, vulnerable and compassionate Asian woman can invoke the lotus blossom stereotype.
To be fair, Sersi should not have to bear the weight of historical stereotypes compounded by the dearth of Asian women leads in Hollywood. Within the context of the film, Sersi’s empathic abilities and transformative powers are a good counterbalance to Ikaris and other Eternals’ more belligerent abilities. She is the true hero of the entire film and survives to realize her vision of protecting human life. Given that over 25 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander characters in the top 100 films in 2019 died by the end of the movie, Sersi living to the end of the film is progress. After all, Gemma Chan’s previous Marvel character—Minn-Erva, a minor “Kree” villain—died before the end of Captain Marvel (2019).
Ultimately, the problem is not with Sersi but the historical marginalization of Asian women superheroes on the big screen. One of the earliest Asian women to appear in a film based on a Marvel comic was Kelly Hu’s “Lady Deathstrike” in X2: X Men United (2003) who had zero speaking lines. Similarly, Kea Wong’s Jubilee in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) never spoke and Psylocke (played by Mei Melançon in X-Men: Last Stand in 2006 and Olivia Munn in X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016) and Blink (played by Fang Bingbing in X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014) barely registered in their respective films. Dr. Helen Cho (played by Claudia Kim) had a minor role in Age of Ultron (2015) while Lana Condor’s Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) said less than five lines and never got to use her powers. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) Michelle Yeoh made a brief appearance as Aleta Ogord (but blink and you’ll miss her). And then there was Mantis, an alien character who embodied the “abused, submissive, and infantile Asian woman stereotype” (played by Pom Klementieff in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in 2017 and Avengers: Infinity War in 2018).
The more substantive Asian women cinematic superheroes showed up in Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings played by Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, and Meng’er Zhang. However, they remained supporting characters to Simu Liu’s titular “Shang-Chi.” Of note are Asian women superheroes on television like Daisy Johnson (played by Chloe Bennet) and Melinda May (played by Ming-Na Wen) on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Colleen Wing (played by Jessica Henwick) on Iron Fist. But in comparison to the plethora of leading white male superheroes, Asian women remain marginalized in comic book-inspired films and shows.
If there were more Asian women superheroes, then an empathic Asian female superhero like Sersi who leads through compassion would be merely one amongst many. If Jubilee from the X-men led her own film, she could obliterate her enemies with pyrotechnic energy plasmoids or “fireworks” from her hands. With a film centered on Silk, there would be an Asian Spider-Woman with equivalent superhuman strength, speed, agility, and Spidey (or “Silk”) sense to those of Peter Parker. Given that The Eternals comics were originally created by Jack Kirby more than 45 years ago featuring mostly men and no characters of color, Chloé Zhao brought her vision of an Asian woman superhero and a diverse cast to the narrative. We need more directors and writers to do the same. One upcoming Asian American superhero I can’t wait to see is Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani American and Muslim superhero who will star in her own Disney Plus series and in the upcoming movie, The Marvels. Having read the comics, I was immediately struck by the relatability of Kamala Khan as a child of immigrants struggling to balance her newfound powers and traditional upbringing. With Pakistani American women like Sana Amanat and Bisha K. Ali behind the comics and series, Ms. Marvel will enrich and expand the slate of Marvel superheroes.
As many Asian women and girls are out there, we need the same variation of superheroes because representation matters. When I saw the new Asian American Muppet, Ji-Young officially debut on November 25, 2021, along with this drawing of her as a superhero by Jim Lee, Chief Creative Officer-Producer of D.C. comics, I cried.
It was as if the little immigrant girl who grew up watching Sesame Street and Wonder Woman finally saw herself represented as an American superhero.
Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist and pop culture expert. She is the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism and co-author of The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders Across 1,300 Popular Films. She has appeared on PBS, NPR, MSNBC, BBC World, and Dr. Phil. She is a guest writer at CNN, Elle, Los Angeles Times, NBC, and Newsweek. Nancy is currently writing a book about her life through the films and TV shows she grew up watching.