Let’s Talk About Privilege In Marvel’s Iron Fist | Vol. 4 / No. 22.3

Also: Movie Kung-Fu =/= Martial Arts | Image: Marvel/Netflix

Iron Fist: the good; the bad; and the privileged.

So there might be spoilers ahead, but I’ll try not to go there. I’m only seven episodes in so far, too, so these are more preliminary opinions than anything else.

Iron Fist, the new Marvel show on Netflix, is basically Marvel’s answer to DC’s Green Arrow which I think is on “the CW” (is there really a “the” in there? O_o okay, anyway). Both stories are (a) about a young white male scion of a business empire, who (b) is thought killed in their respective youths under mysterious circumstances along with at least one parent, who (c) lives through the ordeal and learns martial arts along the way, so that (d) they can return to the urban landscape from which they came with superpowers and money and fight basically the same forces of evil that tried to kill them off in the first place.

Now, the original characters—Green Arrow and Iron Fist—were both originally white, and I think it was a part of their (not unproblematic) heritage, so I don’t totally begrudge them not making the Iron Fist Asian or even Asian-American (though they could have done so many cool things if they had—not least of which is increasing Asian representation in non-supporting roles). And I do think there’s a case to be made for leaving him white, because there are useful things they could do with that—modeling white people’s place in a multicultural America, for instance, or demonstrating the proven benefits of cultural exchange—but chief among those would be an examination of white privilege. If they were going to keep him white, then they really needed to do a better job of consciously examining his privilege.

It isn’t that the show never examines his privilege. In fact, it does some interesting things with the interaction of whiteness and homelessness in the first couple of episodes that I think signal that the creators might’ve at least been thinking about it. This isn’t really a spoiler because it’s basically the premise of the first fifteen minutes of the first episode, but when he gets back he looks homeless. And he’s treated as homeless. Which is interesting.

Why is that interesting? Because he’s not even really coded as stereotypically “homeless.” He’s a young, white man who—yes, he’s dressed badly, but mostly just bohemian-looking—but a white man who speaks very well, doesn’t seem particularly crazy, and is very good at explaining himself. He looks like that guy who went to Tibet and “found himself” after college before getting that cushy office job thanks to his dad’s connections. In fact, it’s almost unbelievable to me that his looking glam-homeless would trump his obvious young-white-maleness (and just for the record, I’m a young(ish) white male—I get it). It’s almost jarring, as though it’s meant to make you stop and go “okay, being young white and male is something this series is going to challenge.” But the challenge doesn’t seem to materialize—or if it does, it doesn’t announce itself quite loudly enough to avoid normalizing it.

There are a number of moments where our hero’s privilege sticks out like a sore thumb, where he doesn’t seem to get that he’s being rude, imposing himself on the female characters in a severely entitled way (for instance). And I suspect these moments are supposed to make us squirm. They certainly made me squirm. But they aren’t followed up by anyone telling him off, putting him in his place, or otherwise signalling that his entitled behaviour isn’t cool. Nobody says “you can’t just act like you own the women in this show, their time, or their feelings.” Nobody says “have you ever heard of paternalism?” or “you do know some kinds of ‘being nice’ just look like an attempt at controlling other people, right?”

And because nobody says it, it feels like it’s not “loud enough.” When it happens it makes me uncomfortable, which is fine, and then it makes me more uncomfortable for not talking about it. Because if you don’t talk about it, it looks like we’re supposed to accept it.

I get it, maybe we aren’t supposed to accept it. I’ve made arguments about Fight Club and V for Vendetta that argue we’re supposed to be a savvy enough audience to figure that out for ourselves. But even then I feel like (at least so far—I’ll update this post if things change after episode 7) there aren’t any consequences for his privilege, and that feels an awful lot like normalization.

Because if you don’t signal loudly enough that there’s a problem with privilege—even if you’re trying to make a point about it—then it’s a real concern that your audience will think it’s just fine.

Danny Rand is a complicated character: the trauma of his obvious abuse has made him into a very conflicted person, he’s about as emotionally sophisticated as the ten-year-old that crashed in the plane, and it causes him (and everyone around him) a lot of trouble. And none of this is to say that an Asian-American Danny Rand wouldn’t still have some of the same privilege as well (he’d still be wealthy and male, after all). But going with a white Iron Fist means that his privileges are magnified. Regardless of the complexity of his character, they really needed to address it, and so what you get is an elephant in an otherwise well-decorated room. And sweet christmas, I know Marvel and Netflix have the chops to do it, too, because they did it in Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These are not people who don’t know how to do this stuff!

Anyway, the series is definitely worth watching, if only for the unstoppable Claire Temple and amazing Colleen Wing, as well as for the (decidedly not martial arts) cinematic “kung-fu” that hearkens back to an old nostalgia-inducing movie tradition. But I can only hope that as the episodes continue to roll by, it just stops for at least a few minutes of self-reflection.

Because we’re definitely in need of a more diverse cast of heroes in this world, so if we’re going to continue to have white male heroes, then we’re going to need them to model the self-awareness a multi-racial America is going to need.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.