I recently had a conversation about the Karate Kid with Ankhesen Mie (who writes at her eponymous blog) that I am excited to share with you. It was inspired by something Ankhesen wrote in a brief blog post titled “Why I’m skipping the new “Karate Kid” movie:
With all the films depicting white kid heroes flooding our screens, yes…we need more POC in such roles. Do we need such roles at the expense of other POC? Absolutely not.
In a follow-up email, she summed up her argument as: “POC shouldn’t progress at the expense of other POC.”
Here is our conversation:
Julia: Can you tell me more about what you mean by “POC shouldn’t progress at the expense of other POC”? That is, what do you see as the progress in this movie? and what do you see as the expense?
I’m also intrigued that this impression struck you so immediately without seeing the movie. Could you share what about ads/trailers/etc that you saw that produced such an instant reaction?
Ankhesen: Regarding the first question, The movie stars an American child of color as the hero. For one, this doesn’t happen nearly often enough. Usually the child hero is a white (and male). So Jaden’s casting in a major film – complete with media hype and the presence of a legend (Jackie Chan) – is indeed a sign of progress.
But with the progression comes the regression; instead of showing a child of color can hold his own around white kids, he’s moved all the way to China. For one, this scenario is unusual and not very relatable to the average black child in America (i.e., you don’t hear about poor black single mothers having to up and move their families to China all the time). Whenever the hero is a white child, the scenario is usually more realistic so as to make audiences more responsive to his plight.
Secondly, this derails the opportunity to show what black children really go through in America and at whose hands. We don’t get bullied by the Chinese when we grow up here. We’re bullied mostly by black and white kids. Thus “the blame” is shifted to another group, and they are – unsurprisingly – POC.
Regarding the second question, In America, POC are “told” we hate each other. We are “told” how we feel about other POC. I recall a few years back a study was published showing that POC tended to trust white people more than they do one another. Meanwhile, bloggers of color have found differently; POC have been working in various movements (indie film, music, shows, etc.) to work together and solidify our bonds. But when our artists try to collaborate and produce something beautiful, their films aren’t funded, they don’t reach the big screen, and their albums aren’t promoted nationwide.
The Karate Kid tends to harm these struggling by pitting a black child against Asian children, when the very opposite is what our children need to see.
And this, by the way, is the “expense” I spoke of. The black child finally gains a coveted role as a movie hero, but another group of POC – with whom he really ought to have no quarrel – is branded the villain. Add insult to injury, he goes to their country, immerses himself in their culture, and presents himself not only as an equal, but a potential superior. That’s a BIG no-no, not to mention a classic American fantasy. Even worse, this film came out around the same as The Last Airbender, where all the heroes of Asian and Inuit descent were replaced with whites, while an Asian was cast as the villain. It’s as though Hollywood is saying, “Okay, the black child will get to play, but not those other ones.”
…Except for the girl. This really bothers me because it further erroneously assures American males that no matter where they go and no matter whom they have conflict with, the womenfolk will always be “receptive” to them, and if the men of that place have a problem, it’s simply because they’re jealous. Couple that scenario with the regular emasculation Asian males already experience in America, and factor in the target age group of the audience. Asian American boys are basically being “told” that the black dude (or white dude) will always get the girl. Combined with Airbender, Asian Americans kids are being given really unhealthy messages: you don’t exist until you’re the villain…unless you’re an Asian girl, in which case, you get to be the love interest.
And while this may sound like a bit too much analysis for a kid’s movie, we have to remember that America likes to market to the young. We’ve already seen this storyline in films with older children and adults. The Karate Kid has a whiff of The Last Samurai, while Airbender practically screams The Forbidden Kingdom and Dragonball Z. And no…I didn’t bother watching the latter three either.
Julia: I’m interested in how you think Asian American kids will experience this movie. At the risk of asking you to restate some of your points, how do you think black American kids will experience this movie? (Or, perhaps, how would you have experienced such a movie as a child?)
Ankhesen: I think Asian American kids – no doubt informed by their older relatives – might have a “WTF?” moment with The Karate Kid.
As for black children, I’ll be honest. Very young children won’t notice a problem. Children are highly susceptible and thus easily indoctrinated by media. Growing up, I sure as hell didn’t have a lot black child heroes to watch. I recall my father becoming deeply alarmed when I’d take out my coloring pencils and draw a bunch of white people. That’s when I was ten. When I was about seven, I remember that I spent pretty much every day drawing She-Ra.
Most parents who are raising children of color want to overlook this stage because they don’t want to deal with their own helplessness. They don’t have much to give their kids where media is concerned. So they tell themselves it doesn’t matter, and that it’s not a big deal (what I call the “Princess & Frog Defense”) if their kids are mostly watching white kids. Meanwhile, an unhealthy psychological foundation is being laid. Children are being taught a “hierarchy” at an early age, that “white” is the default, and that for POC to see themselves in Hollywood – in a positive light – is rare and special privilege, one that POC can’t all have it at the same time. If one POC gets to be hero, the other not only doesn’t, but they either have to be bad or simply nonexistent.
Julia: You mention helplessness of parents facing these sorts of problematic media images. Is there a way out of the helplessness, for parents of children of color, do you think? Obviously, this stuff is everywhere and you have only limited influence, but do you have any thoughts on how a parent of, say, a black child of an age where this movie would appeal should respond? Go to the movie but talk about what’s difficult about it? Not go to the movie and talk about why you’re not letting them go? Or?
Ankhesen: I appreciate how my father handled it; Africans don’t believe a person is “too young” to survive. Children are very smart, highly adaptable, and generally have excellent memories. Now is the BEST time to talk about race, to teach them how to analyze movies, and let them know what kind of world they live in. When my father did this for a while, I eventually stopped wanting to see those movies. If it didn’t “speak” to me, then it wasn’t for me, and so I didn’t bother.
And while books may feel a bit outdated, reading itself and the visual arts are not. We live in the Communication Age, where it’s not hard to find what you need online. I grew up in a house filled with African art and literature (my father didn’t believe in TV) and I am quite grateful because I was spared a lot – not all, but enough – of “issues” in terms of ethnic identity and self-image. My father accomplished this before the net became widespread. So believe it or not, there are options for parents; just because it’s not shiny, widely advertised, and high-tech doesn’t mean it’s not a resource.
Parents who are raising children of color just might have to take an a cue and do things “underground railroad style” by simply exposing their kids to older art forms while giving them the tools to create art which will be more widely available in the future. That’s to say, let your kids go to film school. Let them study creative writing. Don’t get mad when they’re more interested in doing plays in college than becoming an accountant or a doctor.
POC need more actors and writers of color in America. POC make up almost half of the US population right now. The old excuse of “what the [white] audience wants to see” applies less now than it ever did before.
Julia: Interesting. I was also raised by a parent who didn’t believe in television, so I can really relate to what you’re saying. I appreciate you sharing what worked well for you. I think often we hear a lot about what NOT to to, but not a lot about what TO do, so I’m grateful for insight like this that eliminates some of the flailing around.
Thanks for taking so much time to do this. I think it will inspire a great conversation on LIE.
Ankhesen: Thanks for asking.