Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Many Stereotypes
BY MILENA ZHU '22
The movie screen’s bright glow illuminated the theater as my friends and I tiptoed to our seats. As I settled into mine, Shang-Chi began, resembling a Chinese mythological movie (think Fellowship of the Ring intro but ~Asian~). The soothing Mandarin voice-over invoked familiar memories, reminding me of rainy afternoons spent with my mom. I walked out giddy, babbling with my friends as we exited O’Neil Cinemas. Seeing Asian representation and hearing Mandarin in a big blockbuster lit up my heart. However, dazzled by the graphics and Michelle Yeoh, I had overlooked many issues with the film’s handling of Asian themes. Shang-Chi is not the “Asian Black Panther,” and Disney should not be applauded for performing the bare minimum when telling Asian stories. Although touted as the pinnacle of a new era for Asian media representation, Shang-Chi fails to properly communicate the issues facing the Asian community, as its surface-level references perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Surprisingly, the movie starts off well. It subverts the model minority myth, the idea that Asians are naturally smart and hard-working. Shang-Chi screenwriters defy stereotypes, showing that Asians are not a monolith of STEM white-collar workers; the movie first deceives the audience into praising Shang-Chi as the stereotypically successful Asian with a montage of suits and cars, only to reveal his job as the valet.
However, the movie quickly backtracks, giving Shang-Chi and his friend, Katie, stereotypical Asian credentials. He’s a genius who speaks multiple languages, and Katie graduated from UC Berkeley with honors. Their lot in life no longer presents the Asian blue-collar workers as successful in their own right, but rather as failures who supposedly “underutilize their potential.” No plot progression benefited from this development, and it only served to undermine the original mitigation of the model minority myth.
Additionally, the movie trivialized microaggressions through superficial examples. While Shang-Chi socializes with friends, the movie reveals a high school bully once called him Gangnam Style. Profound. Screenwriters minimized other forms of microaggressions as well, categorizing them as the universal Asian experience without elaboration. “Gangnam Style” inadequately represents the otherization and self-hatred produced by microaggressions, dismissing anti-Asian racism as mere bullying.
Equally important was how screenwriters almost implemented a stereotype. Originally, they intended Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, to have a colored hair streak to play into the visual cue of the radical Asian girl. This trope is an effect of the model minority myth and homogenizes Asian women as submissive; a strong, independent woman then becomes an anomaly. The actress, Meng’er Zhang, vetoed the hair streak, refusing to play into the Hollywood trope.
Similarly, the movie lacks a cohesive Asian-related theme or unique commentary about Asian experiences. Shang-Chi uses Chinese culture as an aesthetic with a hodgepodge of ninjas, ancient dojos, and mythological creatures rather than as the story’s foundation. This superficiality stems from the source material’s core: the racist comics of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Fu Manchu, the villain of this era, existed in Chinatown's darkness and represented the yellow peril that white Americans attributed to Asian immigrants. The rhetoric of the yellow peril--Asians as the downfall of white civilization--still exists today, with Asians shouldering the blame for COVID-19. Though the material has evolved, remnants of racism persist. The Mandarin is barely an improvement from Fu Manchu, and the skill of Ta Lo’s talented fighters is treated as luck rather than merit: they derive their prowess from ancient magic, while Western heroes like Tony Stark work hard with technology. The climax was muddled with underdeveloped, fragmented ideas of filial piety, honor, and stereotypical Hollywood tropes.
So, with all these issues, why is Shang-Chi beloved by many? In reality, Shang-Chi received 53 percent and 42 percent approval ratings in Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively. This may be because the movie focuses on antiquated Chinese traditions, misrepresenting current customs. However, in the United States, this issue does not manifest within Asian Americans, as many maintain less contact with modern-day China.
Ultimately, Shang-Chi has made strides toward Asian representation in the movie itself and within the creative process (i.e. the collaborations with Asian-American-run institutions like 88rising, etc.). Nonetheless, there is still much to be improved before Disney is vindicated: this movie should not be the summit of Asian representation but rather the base.