Saturday, October 27, 2007

Karate Kid: Laundry Boy To The Legion

Holy crap, I just watched the latest "Legion of the Superheroes" cartoon.

Okay, so in this Legion universe, Karate Kid is Asian. An Asian martial artist. That's clever. If you're going to have an Asian kid in the Legion, he might as well wear a white karate outfit and be into martial arts.

But it gets better. Karate Kid wants to join the Legion. But he has no superpowers. So they take him into the group on a trial basis. He must prove himself to them and, basically, earn his keep.

So what job do the Legion give him?


They give him a cart with wheels and he has to go to every Legion bunk and pick up their laundry. He is also a great housekeeper.

In return, the Legion makes it clear that he has yet to prove himself to them, and is not really as legit member.

Karate Kid doesn't really hang out with the rest of the group, because they really don't accept him. He is paired off with Chameleon Boy -- ostensibly another "minority" member who also is on thin ice with the Legion.

But as Superman keeps reminding them, Karate Kid may not have fancy-schmancy powers like the rest of them...but he has a strong work ethic! Steaming and pressing Element Lad's sheets and polishing the mess hall, Karate Kid is a role model of what you can accomplish "when you don't have a lot but are willing to work hard."

Through it all, in a fake Asian accent, Karate Kid spouts out pseudo-meaningful nuggets of wisdom about "finding your own destiny" and working despite the odds.

This episode was the most mind-bogglingly patronizing thing I've ever seen since viewing the silent movie "Shadows". In that movie, Lon Chaney takes the role of the wise, stomach-churningly humble, hardworking Asian laundryman. The fact that around 80 years have passed since that film & this cartoon but the Asian protagonist has been portrayed so very similar is troubling.


  1. I agree with your assessment of the episode, but often these things aren't the result of an unconscious agenda, just unfortunate coincidence and a lack of awareness on the part of the writers. Careless, perhaps, but likely not malicious.

    I look forward to rabid Legion fanboys telling you this is all in your head - or worse, that it indicates your own prejudices that at the very least comes from you looking down on ethnic minorities because they need saving. It's the interwebs equivalent of saying "I know what you are, but what am I?", like no-one tries to be PC anymore or something.

  2. I didn't even make the Asian/laundry connection until I read your post. Now I feel kind of headache-y.

    I'm surprised nobody involved in making the show realized it, though.

    I mostly enjoyed this episode, because it emphasized having a positive attitude, while not being preachy about it. This is something I strongly believe in. My life is kind of a mess, but I take full responsibility for it, and I'm taking steps to improve things for myself. I think it helped, having Chameleon Boy (who at this point is one of the only sympathetic characters among the series regulars) demonstrate that it's a difficult philosophy to live by at times, and yet it's one that's ultimately worth aspiring to.

    What I didn't like was having most of the Legion act like total douchebags -- just like in the old Jerry Siegel stories! Cosmic Boy, in particular, came off as a major tool. Also, the Legion has a "support staff"? Have we even seen any of them? They weren't apparent in this episode, that's for sure.

    The show's racial politics are a mite tricky, given that Karate Kid was originally a white guy. I think this mess could have been avoided had the producers gone for more diversity by modeling the other characters on various ethnic groups to begin with. Who gives a shit if fanboy "purists" complain? The cartoon's not marketed towards them, anyway! Right now, the only other (real-life) minority character on the team is Star Boy, and he's hardly ever seen, much less heard. (I also think this was a huge opportunity that the comic book managed to miss -- twice! -- during its reboots.)

  3. Ugh. I'm hardly the kind of guy who gets pissed off at subtext (I've defended the portrayal of Asians in The Talons of Weng-Chiang for Pete's sake), but this...

    It's sort of like if Tyroc joined and they made him carry luggage. The Asian=Laundry connection is just... ick. They could not have been so clueless.

    Aside from that, not a bad episode.

  4. Haven't seen the episode in question, but as someone who works in animation, it is surprising that no one realized the egregious use of stereotypes, esp.since scripts and storyboards go through rounds of corporate reviews looking for precisely these kinds of things.

    Then again, it's my opinion that Asian stereotypes do get a greater pass over those of other races/ethnic groups/religions/sexual orientations/body types, mainly due to the distinct lack of activism among Asians concerning these kind of things. We need our own Al Sharpton.

    I think Bryan is splitting hairs above; it's a very fine line between a "lack of awareness" and an "unconscious agenda". The falling back on stereotypes not only reveals lazy writing IMO, but also deep-seated attitudes that, while they may be unconscious, are no less boneheaded.

  5. I agree that the writer most probably did this in an unconscious way. But I also agree that there was a whole mess of gatekeepers and editors that could have "caught" this one before it saw air.

  6. Wasn't the original Kid non-Asian? White even? (not that it matters). Why does the karate guy have to be Asian looking? Why not african American? Heck, its space, make him a freaking Skrull.

  7. In answer to Keith: Val Armorr was originally white but that was retconned during the Mike Grell years, and he was made half-Asian. His mother was an American secret agent and his father a Japanese crimelord.

  8. No. Trust me on this. Asian-Americans do NOT need their own "Al Sharpton."

    Al Sharpton is a corrupt racist huckster who makes blacks everywhere look bad. Do you REALLY want to be represented by that sort of a person?

    (If you'd said "Martin Luther King," or even "Jesse Jackson," you'd have been making a better argument!)

  9. "Then again, it's my opinion that Asian stereotypes do get a greater pass over those of other races/ethnic groups/religions/sexual orientations/body types, mainly due to the distinct lack of activism among Asians concerning these kind of things."

    I hate to disagree with this, mainly for the sole reason that a big reason there's a pass over of Asian stereotypes is because there's really no Asian prescence on TV to even really complain about. Hell, look at Firefly, a series overflowing with Asian culture and language and any kind of Asian is background filler at best. No Asians to speak of to complain about in the first place.
    An no, I don't think we need an Asian Al Sharpton running about. =P

  10. I've given up on Hollywood to give any proper depiction of Asians or any ethnic characters (I personally hate the word minority in no way am I less than anyone just because there aren't as many of us).

    Political correctness is not their job. They'll still make money no matter how good or bad their product is.

    No one will say anything because no one wants to accuse the head writer or the producers of being racist. They'll get fired. Most of the animators on this show were probably asian. But they won't say anything because that's they're job and they'll put it in the back of their heads.

    I was in this situation.

    But it's really unfortunate that these stereotypes are on a children's television show. No wonder I run into so many Asians with so much angst, some of it self deprecating. We had to grow up with this.

    Some day I would like to see White stereotypes on a cartoon-- but White people never seem to get pissed off at that.