Awkwafina. You may know her, or not. But her name has a bit more spotlight with the coming release of Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Marvel boasts a unique powerhouse film universe with heavy profits that no one has seen before. Everyone enjoys their cinematic projects, but that success cannot remove how Marvel continues to suffer from a major diversity problem. You may recall that prior to Shang-Chi, the minority actors/characters are always sidekicks and minor roles. That is, until Black Panther. These characters never own a significant role until the white hero takes a stand or heads in a direction for them to follow.
Iron Man has Don Cheadle’s Rhodey/War Machine.
Captain America has Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon (who ultimately takes the mantle).
Thor has brief moments of Idris Elba’s Heimdall and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie.
Hulk has… Well, no one. And the rest of the Avengers desperately needed sunscreen and seasoning in their food until Black Panther arrived in Civil War to finally add melanin to the equation. Oh, and there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
The films have shown improvement through recent years, and the release of Shang-Chi’s solo film is an example. Asian representation is finally getting its spot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But Awkwafina’s choice as the lead romantic interest of the titular character shows the diversity problem remains. It’s just a bit shrouded.
The obvious issue with Marvel’s diversity
Being representative of the world around us should be easy, especially by a billion dollar entity like the Disney/Marvel marriage. At least to start, there’s an explanation for the initial trajectory courtesy of an old, conservative white man in power. The Marvel universe continues to make brilliant strides under new creative head Kevin Feige today. But, even then, it’s not enough, because there are still plenty of hiccups.
There’s a tokenism in Marvel that’s grown from the few diverse hires that reach the cinematic slate. When a breakthrough character comes along, the entire film is dedicated to that race. Don’t get me wrong, that’s phenomenal for representation, but it’s a testament to the lack of willingness on Marvel’s part to organically include a minority into a greater role at all. Diversity in Marvel seems to cling to those very same heavy profits that propel the entire franchise forward by featuring more diverse characters starring in movies surrounded by people that look only like them. It’s almost like those minority characters have to exist within their own ethnic bubbles to be a focus. T’Challa is the lone exception.
The bubble doesn’t apply to just the script
To that point, the heroes who take the lead within their ethnic bubbles are conveniently latched onto a movement.
Black Panther was marketed heavily alongside the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2018. Captain Marvel was hyped up during the #MeToo movement. Shang-Chi happens to be coming during a time where #StopAsianHate is a trending, and necessary, hashtag. Weird right? Marvel knows how to market but it’s a bit insincere to push the branding along next to the real-world issues.
Regardless, Shang-Chi’s release is a major milestone: a film featuring a predominantly Asian cast. Casting Simu Liu, known for his role in Kim’s Convenience, is a brilliant move, showcasing Marvel’s intent to find an actor that’s a great fit for the role, not just a big name for the sake of diversity.
And then they chose Awkwafina. Goddamn it.
Culture vulture success
Awkwafina, who is actually Nora Lum from Forest Hills, Queens, first earned notoriety for being a “rapper” and posting YouTube videos of her music that garnered her millions of views. She now has acting chops via Crazy Rich Asians, which was a blockbuster hit and the female-led Ocean’s 8 movie. She even owns a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her lead in The Farewell. Now, she’s on the Marvel stage and it just doesn’t quite hit right.
As one can judge by her stage name STILL being her call sign for acting work, Awkwafina has awkwardly nurtured and maintained a career despite the fact that she’s essentially hijacked black culture, in the most stereotypical way, and has held onto that for dear life. She’s boasts “blaccents” with her rap persona and in most of her roles up until her Golden Globe project.
Funny how easily discarded that accent was.
What even is the point of still being “Awkwafina”?
She could easily remove her stage name, especially now that she has a strong acting career. Awkwafina also no longer raps (last album in 2018) nor hosts her former show Tawk (yes, even her little show followed the trope), so moving on is more logical! Hell, even Dwayne Johnson doesn’t go by “The Rock” anymore. Instead, she’s doubling down, even moving into the second season of a television series loosely based on her life, still embracing the Awkwafina name.
The intent here isn’t to solely slam Awkwafina. It’s more to point to Marvel’s need to strike diversity authentically and with a measured approach. One can’t help but realize that Awkwafina is still profiting off of a likeness she has no connection to, especially considering her upbringing in a well-off suburb in Queens, New York and not Brooklyn, as her rap persona claims. Her “culture vulture’ schtick has single-handedly sparked her rise to fame, and even though it’s problematic as hell, she’s not budging.
What could have been…
Overall, there are so many Asian actresses that are fantastic for this role. Each undoubtedly would’ve killed the role as the female-lead in a Marvel project. Each definitely would have found chemistry alongside Simu Liu and a host of legendary Asian actors like Michelle Yeoh and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung.
But Awkwafina got the gig. I applaud Awkwafina for her constant focus on representation. It’s beautiful to see someone mindful of what her representation can mean to her community. It’s desperately needed to have voices that seek to uplift minorities to greater platforms. But it’s disingenuous to claim such pure intentions while abusing a stereotype of other minorities. This is the same person that said she won’t “ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people” in an interview with VICE a few years back.
I’ve walked out of auditions where the casting director all of a sudden changed her mind and asked for accents. I refuse to do accents. And I think like—so far, like a lot of the parts I’ve gone out for have been really real characters and being Asian is not part of their plotline. I’m OK with having an Asian aspect if it’s done in a genuine way. I’m not OK with someone writing the Asian experience for an Asian character. Like that’s annoying and I make it very clear, I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people.Awkwafina in her interview with VICE, May 2017.
So making a minstrel of black people is cool? Got it.
Does she avoid the topic?
Awkwafina can address this issue too. But she seemingly avoids the controversy altogether. There has yet to be a tense moment where that question is directly asked of her. It’s never thrown right into her face during an interview. The closest she’s come to that direct questioning was via an interview with Yahoo! Movies UK. The actress claimed she’s open to the discussion. But that was three years ago.
If Marvel needed to select an Asian actress that would’ve provided a similar or superior jolt of acting chops with comedic timing, they could have easily done that without her. They could’ve done that by selecting someone that didn’t make a mockery of black culture/behavior to earn their keep.
So, shout out to you Awkwafina for getting the bag and repping your people. And shout out to Marvel for trying. The movie will likely be a hit and Awkwafina will continue a prestigious career. But it doesn’t make it any better.