Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: On Ruining 'My Neighbor Totoro'

What is it about human nature that as soon as we have something sweet and pure and wonderful we immediately try to ruin it by making it "dark" and "gritty"? It's like looking at something lovely for too long gives us, as a species, a headache and then we have to twist it around somehow. I mention this because in talking about My Neighbor Totoro, it seems almost impossible to avoid discussing the potential horrifying easter eggs hidden in the film. It's a gentle, soft movie that may or may not be secretly terrifying, and that actually really bothers me. Then again, I don't necessarily think it's not true...

So My Neighbor Totoro is a Studio Ghibli film from 1988, written by Hayao Miyazaki. It's the kind of loosely plotted, visually engaging, wonder-ful little film that Miyazaki was known for. The film follows a family moving into a new house in the late 1950s or so in rural Japan. Satsuki and Mei, two little girls, are moving with their father to a house in the country that is close to where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. The girls clearly miss their mother, but they are close to each other and their father is loving and despite their problems it's clearly a happy family.

As the girls explore their new home, the younger sister, Mei, discovers that the world of their house is actually full of kind spirits, particularly one large forest spirit named Totoro. The spirits live in the forest and are its guardians. As the girls interact with these spirits, who cannot be seen by adults, they are taken under the spirits' protection.

And that's a good thing, because when Mei and Satsuki get some bad news about their mother, Mei runs off to find the hospital on her own. She gets lost in the woods, and it's up to Satsuki to ask Totoro for help so that she can find Mei.

That's it. That's basically the entire film.

Made up more of moments and vignettes than any cohesive story, My Neighbor Totoro is a comforting warm bath of a movie, the kind of thing you can watch late at night and know you'll have really lovely dreams. If, that is, you don't actually google the movie and end up having horrific nightmares about the awful backstory the film very well might have. Ugh.

The basic story here is that while My Neighbor Totoro seems like a cute little movie with nothing much to say about the world or life or anything beyond the peaceful feeling of summer in the countryside, it's actually an awful fairytale retelling of a brutal kidnapping and murder that occurred in Japan in the 1960s. The evidence is all circumstantial, but it does pile up. Chief among the arguments for this theory is that the murder occurred in the Sayama Hills, where the film also occurs, involved two sisters, and happened in the month of May - both the girls names in the movie mean or sound like May.

There's also little bits and pieces that seem to support this in the film itself, like when the cat-bus is asked to find Mei and flips its destination card to read "GRAVEYARD" before saying "MEI". Or when the villagers find a sandal that looks suspiciously like Mei's in a local pond, and while Satsuki does deny it's her sister's, it's easy to think she might have been wrong. And, most damning of all, the deeply baffling ending of the film, which is just confusing no matter what you think the movie is actually about.

So My Neighbor Totoro is a sweet and soft movie about two little girls and the cuddly forest spirits who protect them, but also maybe a fairytale retelling of a horrific tragedy. I guess what I'm asking here is, even though the idea of it being this sad story clenches at the pit of my stomach, why do I kind of want it to be true? Why do I kind of want My Neighbor Totoro to be about murder instead of just cute kids and cute sprites? 

I really can't say, but I do think there's something here. We as humans are invariably fascinated by the depths of darkness that our human psyches seem capable of producing. It's why True Crime is its own booming genre, why Serial is such a popular podcast, and why I used to sneak over to the neighbor's house when I was in middle school so I could watch Unsolved Mysteries. We love dark theories that seem to make "so much sense" because we all seem to believe that if you scratch the surface of anything sufficiently cute and lovely, you'll find horrifying darkness and a pit of despair.

And for all that I am alarmingly convinced by the evidence that My Neighbor Totoro really is a sad story, I think this is a really distressing trend. On the other hand, I also think it's worrisome when we push back against this kind of thinking and yell things like, "Can't you just leave it alone?" and "Movies for children don't need to be that deep!" I feel both of these sides at once: I want the cute thing to stay cute, but I also want to recognize that children's media, along with all media, can and should be subject to deeper interpretations. So what's a girl to do?

I suppose the first step is to appreciate My Neighbor Totoro for more than just the creepy conspiracy aspects of it. It is a lovely story about two sisters who have a fantastic relationship. Despite arguing at one very stressful point of the movie, the two girls get on a hell of a lot better than my sister and I did, despite our being about the same age difference. They play together happily in this house, adjust well and quickly to their new surroundings, and are generally the kind of pleasant, helpful, and kind children you want kids to turn out to be.

Furthermore, their relationship with their father is healthy and strong. While he's not the most adept at temporary single-parenting - early in the movie he oversleeps and forgets to make lunches for the girls and later he loses track of Mei while she's playing the garden - the girls' father is the kind of parent who responds to his children's stories about magical forest spirits with utter seriousness and calm belief. He never suggests they're making these stories up or does anything but respond reasonably and with good humor. 

When the girls get all dirty playing with soot-sprites in the attic, he eagerly asks a neighbor if the house is haunted. When Mei claims she ran into a tunnel in the woods and met a giant creature named Totoro, he suggests that Totoro must be a forest spirit and takes them all to greet the forest spirits and ask for their protection. When there's a storm and the girls are scared, he teaches them to laugh so that they're not scared anymore. He's a good dad, and I love that the movie never feels the need to diminish that in order to tell a "more interesting story".

I mean, contrast this with nearly every American animated children's film - the parents are inevitably hostile to the children's imaginings. They never play along or take it seriously. It's always the parents who are an obstacle to the kids' playtime. So I like that My Neighbor Totoro gives us a parental figure who has no problem with his daughters playing with forest spirits in the woods and doesn't even mind when his umbrella goes missing because they "gave it to Totoro". I could do with more dads like him in our media landscape.

There are so many good things to praise about this movie. There's how the film depicts the girls dealing with their mother's long-term illness. While both Satsuki and Mei are thoughtful and accepting of the fact that their mother isn't at home with them, they're also saddened by this. The main conflict of the film comes when their mother is supposed to come home for a weekend but gets a cold and can't come. In a movie of utter sweetness, this undercutting sadness gives us an emotional context for the rest of what is happening and shows us how life both does and does not go on when a loved one is taken from us.

Let's see - what else? The movie passes the Bechdel Test immediately and consistently, to the point that I'm pretty sure it fails the reverse-Bechdel Test. The girls are both adventurous and fun but different enough from each other as to feel like compelling characters in their own rights. It's a lovely film to watch and the animation is clearly rendered with great skill. Totoro is cute as hell and made to be a plushie. There's a lot to love here.

I guess what bothers me most about the potential dark history of the movie, then, is that it overshadows all of this other loveliness. Yes, it's entirely possible and even kind of likely that the animators meant to reference the Sayama incident in My Neighbor Totoro. Perhaps this movie was meant as a coping mechanism, a way of reframing the horrific history of a place into a story that gives a happy ending the girls in the real world didn't have. But this history shouldn't overshadow all the wonderful things that explicitly are in the movie.

Even if this easter egg is totally true and intentional, it goes against the point of the movie to focus on it. My Neighbor Totoro is about friendship and familial love and protection. It's about how these two girls are kind and sweet to the forest spirits and receive protection and guidance in return. It's a cute adventure, and to let ourselves be distracted from this is to do the film and ourselves a disservice.

Yes, there is value in seeking deeper meaning. But there's also value in letting cute things be cute without complication. The challenge is to let all of this exist in your mind at once, to admit the horrifying nature of human brutality without letting it taint the things that really are good and beautiful and pure. That's the challenge of being human, and I suppose I should be grateful to My Neighbor Totoro for bringing it up with such clarity. The world we live in is dark and scary and we do need coping mechanisms to deal with that. The key is not to lose track of what's good.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Masculinity Monday: On the Importance of Being Sulu

It's hard to have a conversation about Asian-American characters in pop culture without talking about Hikaru Sulu. While not technically the first Asian-American man to appear as a regular on a US prime-time network show, Sulu's inclusion in the original Star Trek series was a giant leap for representation. It showed us a vision of the future that included people from all different races and backgrounds working together in peace, harmony, and good humor. It showed us a world where an Asian man wasn't just some background character, but an integral figure on the show and a competent crewmember eventually promoted to Captain of his own vessel.

You can't talk about this history of Asian-American representation without talking about Sulu.

But there's a reason we saved him for last, rather than kicking things off with the grandfather of sci-fi diversity. See, it's easy to talk about the massive impact that a single character can have on a whole genre of representation, but it's much more telling to be able to lay the whole thing out after the fact. The truth of the matter is, all roads lead to Sulu.

The first thing we talked about this month (for Masculinity Monday, that is) was Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a stoner comedy starring two Asian-American characters and openly rebutting the idea that Asian-American men are inherently "hardworking" and "submissive". This movie is in a lot of ways an expansion of the ideas put forth by Sulu's inclusion in Star Trek

While Sulu is, admittedly, an incredibly hardworking and dedicated crewmember, that's not considered a distinctive characteristic of his. He actually has lots of other traits and memorable qualities: his dedication to his job is no different than anyone else's. In addition, Sulu on the original Star Trek was allowed to be a hot ladies' man - I mean, I certainly remember the shirtless episode, don't you? These factors started a rebuttal of the idea that Asian-American men were inherently weak or fragile and more willing to work like drones, ideas that Harold and Kumar smashed into the ground forty years later.

Also it's worth mentioning that John Cho, who got his start in Harold and Kumar, went on to play Hikaru Sulu in the new Star Trek reboot. Just saying.

Next we looked at the phenomenon of the "Stealth Asian", or cases where Asian-American actors have been pushed into playing characters who pass as white, most specifically examining Bellamy Blake on The 100 and how his character might as well be white. One of the big reasons this topic is so important to discuss is because we know, because of Sulu, the importance of actual diverse representation. By looking at the legacy that one prominent character of color can have on an entire genre and culture, we can then extrapolate the cost of depriving us of other prominent characters of color. 

In other words, without Sulu, the whole "Stealth Asian" thing might not seem so bad, but when you have an example of positive diverse representation dating back to 1966, you don't really have an excuse for not doing better. Especially in a science-fiction show like The 100 that, like Star Trek, supposedly takes place in a "post-racial" society. Come on, guys.

In our third week of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we swerved a little and examined the hilarious and infuriating Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation in order to talk about the immigrant experience and what it means now for Asian-Americans to "chase the American dream". This is an important discussion to have, but it also links in again with what our conceptions of the American dream are and ought to be. Sulu might live in a futuristic utopia, but isn't that an American dream as well? By examining the world as it is and what we want from it, we open the possibility of being able to create a world where Hikaru Sulu can exist and captain a ship for the Federation. And I'm all in favor of that.

Finally, last week we talked about patriotism and what it means to serve a country that doesn't serve you by looking at Captain America's Jim Morita, a Japanese-American soldier in World War II who served in Europe while his family was presumably locked in internment camps in California. This one was the hardest to write and arguably the most poignant, because it calls to mind a horrible period of American history, the kind of thing we'd much rather forget and pretend never happened, but exactly what we need to acknowledge and remember if we're going to be the nation we always say we are.

More importantly, there's a very direct throughline from Jim Morita's experiences in the American internment camps and trenches of WWII to Sulu's existence in Star Trek, and that throughline takes the form of George Takei himself, the actor who played Sulu. Takei, who was born in 1937, was only five years old when his family was forced out of their Los Angeles home and into a series of internment camps in the Southwest. We must assume that he brought this memory and awareness of American cruelty with him as he created the character of Sulu. 

So what does all of this mean? If we've been talking around Sulu this whole time, what is left to say about him? Oh don't worry, there's still plenty.

In 1966 it wasn't exactly a common idea to have a major character on your show who was a Japanese-American man, but Gene Roddenberry's idea of a utopian future included no racial discrimination, so he approached George Takei and offered him a space in the program. Roddenberry's goal with the character was a create a "pan-Asian" character, the sort of character who could stand in for all of Asia and show that in the future the conflicts of the present would be but a dark history. 

While the character, then, is technically Japanese-American, his name is taken from the Sulu Sea, a body of water that touches a lot of different parts of Asia all at once.* Sulu was always intended to be a character who showed the very best of who humans could be, and he does.

Seriously, Hikaru Sulu is a wonderful man. Kindhearted and a good friend, Sulu is the sort of well-rounded and interesting character we feel lucky to get today, let alone in the 1960s. He loves 19th century adventure novels, enjoys fencing and gymnastics, and at one point gets mind-whammied by some poison and thinks he's the swashbuckling hero D'Artagnan from The Three Musketeers. Sulu likes botany - he has a really complex plant that requires a lot of care - enjoys chess pretty well, and generally is the kind of guy you'd be happy to spend five years in space with.

He's also a respected and competent crewman, the officer most trusted to take the helm and command the bridge when neither Kirk nor Spock are present. Sulu is, in fact, in charge of the ship during a number of stressful and intense incidents, and he handles all of them well. He's damn good at his job and he definitely doesn't apologize for that.

More than all of this, though, Sulu is emotional without being weepy. He's masculine without being macho. And he's sexual without being sexualized. In all of these and even more ways, Sulu is a walking refutation of the stereotypes that plagued the Asian-American community of the mid-century and a lot of the tropes that plague them today.

Arguably most importantly, Sulu's inclusion on the command deck of the USS Enterprise was a huge step for the idea of Asian-American future. By putting Sulu front and center and vital in the Enterprise's bridge, Star Trek created a vision of the future where Asian-Americans were not just present but crucial. 

A future where there were no barriers based on race, where a boy who looked like Sulu could grow up to be the captain of a spaceship. A future where no one would call him racist slurs, where no one would demean his masculinity, where he could be whatever he aspired to be.

We've talked before about the ability of fiction to create reality. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, openly cited Star Trek's Uhura as the character who inspired her to even try to become an astronaut. Making Sulu part of Star Trek didn't just create some warm fuzzies for the Asian-American community, it had a big impact on our cultural conception of Asian-American identity in the here and now. We're still feeling those reverberations today, and that's why Sulu is so important. 

It's also, however, why we need to move past him.

Look, Captain Hikaru Sulu is amazing and I love him, but he first appeared on our televisions fifty years ago. Literally. It has been fifty years since Sulu first swashbuckled his way into our hearts, and in a very real sense, we haven't moved past him as a representation of Asian-American masculinity. 

I mean, yeah, there have been some small inchings along the road of progressiveness, but nothing substantive. He's still the go-to guy. He's the character we all think of, the icon. And that's not good, because we should have a lot of icons by now. We should have a whole host of Sulus to look up to, not just the one.

So it's time to get our butts in gear. Asian-American representation, particularly representation of Asian-American men, lags so far behind representation of white men as to be statistically insignificant. Asian-American men are still beset by stereotypes about weakness and lack of sexual appeal and being worker drones. We need better, and that means that we need to demand better. Hollywood is, as you might have guessed by now, adverse to change in the extreme. We have to make a noise if we want to be heard. We have to make them listen.

How do we do that? Well, as much as it pains me to admit it, the first and easiest way is to use capitalism against them. Support projects with Asian-American leads. Go see movies about Asian-American characters in the movie theater and pay full ticket price. Praise those movies on twitter. Don't shut up. Be obnoxious. Keep doing it. And don't go see movies that whitewash out Asian characters, even if they're the big movies of the summer. Stick to your guns, and put your money where your mouth is.

Talk about Asian-American movies and television shows and books and comics and don't let anyone stop talking about them. Force the issue. Highlight what you love, decry what you don't. In other words, speak up! Asian-American Heritage Month might be over for this year, but that doesn't mean it's time to be quiet. 

Sulu is an amazing character, a hero who I totally looked up to as a little kid. But he shouldn't be the only iconic Asian-American character we can name. He should be one of many, and if Hollywood isn't going to give that to us, we're going to have to make them. I like to think Sulu would approve.

#friendship goals
*Sulu's first name, Hikaru, was actually not decided until 1981 when novelist Vonda McIntyre named him so in her Stark Trek expansion novel, The Entropy Effect.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Dr. Joan Watson (Elementary)

If you take anything from the articles we've posted this month on what it means to be an Asian-American strong female character, I hope it's the complexity inherent in even considering the question. For all that we as a culture like to reduce "Asia" into a vague notion of East Asian cultures all blended together, Mt. Fuji rising over the Great Wall of China, the truth is that Asia is huge and Asian-American is a very very broad term.

In trying to work through the stereotypes associated with it, then, we have to admit this broadness and look at the multifaceted ways the Asian-American community is seen in the United States. More importantly, we have to look at how this diversity is often blurred over by the media, taking narratives that should get more time and space and reducing them to "best friend" stories or making a character's entire arc actually about her white dad. Then again, there is space to recognize the shows and characters who do get it right, showing best friends who become integral parts of the narrative and characters whose arcs and heritage become the spine of the entire show.

To talk about Asian-American stereotypes is to discuss an entire world of issues, from stories about "tiger moms" and "blushing geishas" to portrayals of "harem girls" and "burkas". If you take nothing else from our writings this month, I hope you at least get that Asia is a very big place.

But I want you to get something more too. For all that advocating for social change through changes to our cultural products and media feels often like a Sisyphean task, it's important to remember that speaking out about this problems does work. It does! Definitely not as quickly or effectively as we all would like, but you can't deny the value and importance of greater understanding.

This month we also saw movements like #whitewashedOUT, where Asian-American media commentators and advocates discussed the horrible issues of whitewashing in mainstream American media. We saw awesome twitter trends like #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu, that reimagined mainstream Hollywood hits as being vehicles to star Asian-American actors. And these stories, though seemingly superficial and only based on "raising awareness", have caused nation-wide conversations. Talking about it is, as it turns out, one of the best things we can do.

So let's talk about one more. Let's talk about the rare case of a character who, well, got it right. Of a show that tried really hard to do the right thing and succeeded. Of a character who is inspirational while also being flawed, who is a brilliant over-achiever but also still a human being, who always looks like she walked off the pages of a fashion magazine but needs three alarms to get up in the morning. Let's talk about Dr. Joan Watson.

Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is, as a point of fact, the first character we really meet in Elementary. And contrary to prior incarnations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, she's not there to ooh and ahh at Sherlock's brilliance. Instead, within our first scene of meeting her, dominance is established and it's not Sherlock holding the reins.

No, disrupting the usual order of both Sherlock Holmes adaptations and society in general, it's Joan who runs this show. She comes on not as a curious bystander but because she has a job to do: she's been hired to act as Sherlock's (Johnny Lee Miller) sober companion for six weeks as he readjusts to life outside of the rehab he was in for heroin addiction. 

She's there to make sure he doesn't do drugs or fall back into bad habits, but it turns out that Joan has a lot to contribute to Sherlock's crime solving too. An accomplished surgeon who left the medical field after losing a patient, Joan quickly establishes herself as a great resource for Sherlock and he starts finding reasons to bring her to every crime scene. 

But the real strength of their relationship comes not from Joan's additions to Sherlock's medical knowledge. No, the reason we the audience fell in love with Joan and the reason Elementary isn't just one more show about a brilliant jerkass pissing people off and being right all the time, is that from the get-go, Joan sets boundaries and parameters for appropriate behavior. She stands up for Sherlock, smacks him down when he's inappropriate, and generally enforces the idea that part of recovery, part of solving crimes, and part of being a damn human being is basic compassion and empathy. And that being smart doesn't give you a free pass to ignore that.

This is Joan's role on the show and this is what makes her not just a fantastic female character but an amazing subversion of the normal tropes dogging Asian-American women in media. She is the arbiter of good behavior, not in a way that means she's "mom-ing" everyone or in the sense that she's a nagging, shrill wife figure. 

No, Joan is nobody's mommy - but she's a professional who believes in caring for people. She's not touchy-feely, but that doesn't mean she can't value kindness. So even as Joan transitions from being Sherlock's companion to being his apprentice to being his partner, she remains an equal emotionally. She's treated with respect and she demands it from those who see her as lesser. That is Joan's legacy, and that's why we've left her for last.

Asia is a very big place and stereotypes about Asian women are wide and varied. But there is one thing that all the stereotypes seem to agree on, even when they contradict elsewhere. We seem to hold a pervasive belief that Asian women must be either meek and submissive or shrill and demanding. There is no middle-ground in our cultural understanding. You can be one or the other, and on a bad day you can be both. But there is no option here for an Asian woman who stands up for herself calmly and reasonably and is respected for doing so. Except Joan.

Well, okay, there are lots of other examples sprinkled throughout our pop culture, but Joan really does stand out as a benchmark character, alongside other such breakthroughs as Jessica Huang and Kamala Khan. She's a woman who stands up for herself and is rewarded by the narrative for doing so. In fact, the more Joan comes into herself, the more the narrative rewards her. 

Her first actions on the show are to establish her boundaries and make sure that Sherlock respects them - on your average show like this that would mean Joan is a mean no-fun character who we're supposed to hate. But here, Joan is right. Sherlock is wrong. And he learns from her. 

This is significant in any case but especially significant given their respective races and positions in society. Joan is an Asian-American woman, raised middle-class, who has a high level of education but lacks the financial and cultural resources of some of her peers. Sherlock, on the other hand, is an able-bodied white man from a wealthy background, whose resources mean living rent-free in a brownstone in New York City. Their lives are pretty different, and we are encouraged by society to judge them according to that.

The fact, then, that Joan is in a position of authority over Sherlock means a lot. It's a big step forward for Asian-American women on television. Even more, she retains this respect and feeling of authority even as her role switches with Sherlock's and she becomes his student. She's still a respected and necessary character on the show and in Sherlock's life. That matters. In a season when Sleepy Hollow can get renewed even after killing off its female lead, it means a lot to understand that without Joan there is no Elementary - it's not even worth trying.

Even better, Joan is defined in the show entirely by her own actions. She's not Sherlock's love interest - the writers of the show insist that they have no intention of ever going there. She's not his sidekick - by the fourth season, she is actually the NYPD's preferred contact. And she's not falling back on this career because nothing else worked out - Joan is a phenomenal surgeon, a requested and respected sober companion, and the kind of brilliant where she could do pretty much whatever she wants. 

She's an equal.

There is so much more I could say about Joan, but I think you've got the gist by now. Joan is an Asian-American woman whose life realistically includes struggles and problems we can all relate to: her mother worries that her job is beneath her, she hates getting up in the morning, and she has trouble establishing work-life balance. But she's also a firmly Asian-American woman, who regrets not knowing Mandarin better, who has to deal with racist assholes questioning her skills, and who still feels the weight of the immigrant experience even having been born in the US. 

Joan is all of these things while also being a woman who pushes back against stereotypes about Asian women who don't speak up for themselves. She's outspoken but not "shrill", she's calm but not meek. She has a clear sense of what is and is not appropriate and she does not hesitate to speak out against injustice. She's a reminder of the awesome stories we can tell when we take the time to actually write Asian-American women as people.

Basically, Dr. Joan Watson is the kind of representation we want. She's complex, engaging, funny, sad, competent, flawed, and painfully aware of herself at times. She's a person, the kind of person you wish you were lucky enough to meet in the real world. Yes, she's the best of us, a high bar to live up to, but she's an example of what you get when a show really genuinely wants to do a good job. It makes characters like Joan, Asian-American representation that doesn't just ignore stereotypes, it pushes through them and comes out the other side, nuanced and healthy and ready to take on the world.

More please.

Also she's adorable.

Strong Female Character Friday: Alex Parrish (Quantico)

We're not quite done with Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month here on KMWW - there are still a few more characters to go! But helping us get there again is Trey Stewart, bringing us some awesome commentary on Alex Parrish from the hit show Quantico. Alex seemed like a character we should talk about, since she's one of the first Asian-American female characters to lead in a prime-time drama. So, take it away Trey!

In my earlier post on Nimah and Raina Amin, I didn’t go into much detail on the show Quantico itself. For better or worse, the Amin sisters are not the main characters of Quantico. That honor goes to Alex Parrish (played by Priyanka Chopra), the subject of today’s Strong Female Character Friday.

Before talking about Alex Parrish, though, it's worth taking the time to talk a bit about Priyanka Chopra, the actress who plays her. Priyanka Chopra is the former Miss World, a musician, and one of Bollywood’s highest paid actresses. She has been in around fifty films and has won close to one hundred awards. It is fair to say that Angelina Jolie is the American Priyanka Chopra, not the other way around. So with a background this fantastic and impressive, how did Chopra end up starring on a network drama about terrorists?

Originally, Alex Parrish wasn’t written to be an Asian-American character. The story of how she became Asian-American is worth telling because it highlights one of the ways that television, and other forms of media, can become more diverse. In this case, the diversity of Quantico was the direct result of intentional action by Anjula Acharia-Bath, an Asian-British woman who has built a business focused on fusing Asian and American pop culture. The goal of this fusion is to create fewer stereotypical and more positive representations of Asians in American media. Acharia-Bath worked with an executive at ABC to bring Chopra to the network and ultimately to Quantico

The show itself is based around the premise that our protagonist, in this case Alex Parrish, is accused of a crime that she did not commit. The twist, however, is that the crime she's accused of is terrorism, and her status as an Indian-American woman makes her a suspect even before the damning evidence starts pointing her way.

Quantico isn’t particularly original in this premise. Similarly, Alex Parrish herself isn’t all that original as a hyper-competent FBI agent. But to the degree that most television shows are somewhat formulaic, unoriginality isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Quantico uses a fairly common premise to do something far more rare than it should be.

If you're watching a show about a time-traveling alien, a centuries-old immortal fighting other immortals, or the best medical diagnostician ever, your main character could have any race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation and the set-up of the show would be affected very little. Chances are good, however, that the protagonist of such a show is not only white but male and heterosexual as well.

By contrast, Quantico takes a premise that could have anyone as its main character and focuses on an Asian-American woman. Even more, it specifically focuses on an Asian-American woman with brown skin. By bringing race into the show early on, it makes it a topic for discussion and forces the audience to push past stereotypes about "Arab men" being terrorists, and in so doing kind of fights Islamophobia. Since anyone can be a terrorist, most anyone could be the villain of Quantico. Or the hero. 

And when I say hero, I do so intentionally. Alex Parrish is probably the most skilled FBI agent to ever agent, is driven to pursue truth, and is literally described as a "champion" in one episode. She's amazing, a hero to the underdog, a shining beacon of the awesomeness to which we as humans can aspire. Unfortunately, to the extent that Alex embodies a heroic ideal, she is less of an actual character. This brings us to the unfortunate underbelly of Asian-American representation on television: the lack of nuance.

First off, the show might be breaking rules by having a South Asian heroic lead, but it does seem to try to bury the lead on that. Parrish is half-Indian and half-white, but we are told far more about her white father than we are her Indian mother. We basically only know that Alex Parrish is Asian because Priyanka Chopra is Punjabi-Indian and Alex’s mother is named Sita. If Chopra were not so visibly, well, brown, it is questionable whether the show would have tried to whitewash her Asian heritage away altogether.

Several times, this blog has mentioned television’s obsession with white man pain. While Quantico has a protagonist that is neither white nor male, the show is similarly drowning in white man pain. Alex Parrish’s father Michael was, unknown to her, an FBI agent. She found out that he was an FBI agent around the time she shot him to death to protect her mother from his drunken rage. Killing your own father would cause any reasonable person to feel guilty. This guilt, though, was compounded by the fact that her father was an FBI agent and, possibly, in other aspects of his life quite altruistic.

SPOILERS from here

All the stuff that Alex goes through over the course of the season is because of her father's White Man Pain. I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it makes sense of the early episodes of the season in which it felt like there was a conspiracy to not only label Alex a terrorist but utterly destroy her as well. This can be traced back to her family history, okay, sure. And making the real villain a white male FBI agent gives a villainous face to the racism in the FBI, allowing him to be brought to justice by this brown South-Asian woman.

However, I feel like the show missed an opportunity to create a villain who was a person of color, a woman, or a woman of color. Like Sameen Shaw, Alex Parrish is interesting, in part, because the stereotypical face of terrorism is fighting terrorism. Throughout the season, the mysterious terrorist framing Alex came across as a surprisingly skilled manipulator of not just Alex Parrish but other agents as well. Making the villain one of her teachers goes a long way toward explaining that. But making the villain an angry white dude - who could have resigned, become a whistleblower, or just shot Alex - is boring.

As it happens, the real life FBI is very white. The characters on Quantico are reflective of this fact. Based on the cast list on the ABC website, white men are the largest demographic group among the characters. There is one white female character. Half of the main characters are white. Then again, half of the main characters are women of color. While there are men of color in the cast, none of them are main characters.

What does this mean for Alex herself? Mostly, it means that, in defiance of the Bechdel and race tests, Alex’s allies are largely white men. Her story and role in the show is largely defined by her relationships with white men. It's not that Alex doesn’t have friends among the people of color on the show, it’s more that this aspect of the show is less prominent than it could be. Beginning while she is at Quantico, Alex’s best friend is a white woman and her romantic relationships are with white men. And in the end, the heroic sacrifice that saves the day is made by a white man.

Even with these problems, though, Quantico is still more diverse than most shows on television today. And while the women of color on the show aren't necessarily involved in Alex's plot, they do still get some cool moments and stories. So the general gist is that, while good, Quantico could be a lot better.

Alex Parrish is the first South Asian woman to be the protagonist in a prime time drama. Quantico is even more notable because it doesn’t seem to be particularly aimed at a predominantly Asian-American or female audience. 

In other words, Alex Parrish, just by existing, is a powerful statement of diversity and inclusivity, because her status as the lead character on a major prime-time network drama subverts the old Hollywood idea that shows about minorities are only for minorities. But female characters need to be more than just good diversity headlines. They need to be characters and people too, with flaws and stories that relate to their own growth, not just that of the white men around them.

Why does this matter? I wonder what sorts of media we would get if creators started intentionally creating diverse media. Maybe movie and television writers could create works in which the characters could be of any race or gender. Then the role could go to the person with the best audition. Comic book creators could do things like ask themselves: Does my story pass the Bechdel and race tests? Am I writing characters or diversity headlines?

In my previous post on Raina and Nimah Amin, I mentioned that I'm enjoying Quantico for now. After having stuck with the story of Alex Parrish for an entire season, I can say that I am willing to see where the show goes in season two. They seem to be setting up Alex’s nemesis for season two to be the female vice-president of the United States (played by Marcia Cross). It should be interesting. If nothing else, it will address the problem of Alex only really interacting with white male characters, but it remains to be seen if this is a problem the show is even interested in fixing.

Alex Parrish is a fantastic character on paper, but in order for her to really become the symbol of change we so want her to be, she needs her own voice and her own story. She can't just be a prop in a white man pain narrative, she has to be active on her own as well. So here's hoping that season two can deliver.

Trey Stewart has his PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alabama. He recently started his own education research consulting/tutoring business. He's pretty sure he'll give Quantico another season to get its head on straight.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'Captain America', Jim Morita, and Americanness

Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is slowly winding to a close, chickadees, but before it goes we still have a couple aspects of Asian-American masculinity to discuss. As you'll recall, we've already looked at stereotypes of the "hardworking Asian" with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and investigated the underrepresentation of Asian-American characters even when played by Asian actors with Bellamy Blake and The 100. We even took a look at Asian-Americans and the new American Dream with Tom Haverford and Parks and Recreation.

Now it's time to get serious - today we're looking at issues of race and identity and patriotism, and also looking at how we typically understand the role Asian-Americans have played in American history. And we're going to do it by looking at a minor character in a major film, something I don't usually like to do but seems appropriate in this case.

First, however, let's talk a little bit about Marvel and their apparent problems with Asian-American actors.

Look - I try really hard to give everyone, even multi-billion dollar conglomerates, the benefit of the doubt. Marvel and Disney, however, are making this pretty damn hard. At this point, there are only two Asian-American (or Asian) major superheroes in the entire MCU: Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) and Elektra (Elodie Yung). That's it. Maybe we could count Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), but then we're stretching. The point is, Marvel's Asian-American representation is abysmal, and it seems like they're even going out of their way to avoid having Asian men on screen. How else can you explain Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan monk?

And don't get me started on the bullshit that is insisting Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, needs to be played by Finn Jones because he's white in the comics. That's stupid and you know it.

With all this in mind, it's actually kind of uncomfortable to know that I'm going to spend the rest of this article praising Marvel for what they did with regards to one single Asian-American character in one movie, and he's not even the lead. So please bear in mind while we go through this that I'm not actually happy with how minor Jim Morita's role is here, and I definitely think that Marvel needs to get its head on straight with regards to Asian-American characters and roles. Seriously, get your head together, Marvel. Besides, my love for this character isn't about what Marvel did with him, it's about the possibilities of who he is. So, you know, keep that in mind.

Jim Morita (as played by Kenneth Choi) springs to life, fully formed, about forty minutes into Captain America: The First Avenger. He's there in the Hydra prison camp with Bucky and DumDum and Gabe Jones and everyone, ready to be liberated when Captain America comes looking for his wayward best friend. But instead of Morita just functioning as yet another piece of competent window-dressing in those scenes, he gets a tiny taste of dialogue, arguably the most interesting moment he has in the movie, when DumDum wonders out loud if he's an American and therefore worth of rescue.

"I'm from Fresno, Ace."

The moment is jarring and yet fantastically significant in its characterization. From that one sentence we can infer worlds about Jim Morita's background, childhood, and the current status of his family. But we can also tell a lot about his temperament. I mean, clearly this is a man whose reaction to racist bullies calling him unAmerican is on par with Steve Rogers' himself. DumDum is significantly larger and stronger than Morita, and we can tell that just by looking at how DumDum looms over him. But what does Morita do? He pulls out his dogtags, cocks his head, and goes sarcastic. I love this guy.

Now, if you're hoping I go on to talk about all the cool and wonderful things that Jim Morita does in the course of Captain America, you're probably going to be disappointed. For all that he's a really interesting character with a great intro, Morita does not get a lot of screentime and he doesn't have much of a role in the plot. He does go on to become one of the Howling Commandoes, which is neat, acting as their radio communications guy, and he even carries that role after the war, appearing in Agents of SHIELD as one of the Commandoes working with Peggy after Cap's fall into the ice.

But the majority of his time on screen is as one member of a group shot, another reaction point for whatever drama is happening with our white leads. Jim Morita isn't actually a very important character in this story, which is a damn shame, because as it turns out, he has more to say about what it means to be an American than anyone else in that movie besides Steve freaking Rogers himself.

I say that because of the complexity that we can infer in that one little phrase, "I'm from Fresno, Ace." But since I am well aware that not everyone is as obsessively interested in American history as I am, allow me to explain:

Jim Morita is an American with a Japanese surname, right? Fresno is a city in California which, though certainly not challenging San Francisco for population and diversity, has a large historic population of Japanese and Chinese Americans. Without getting into too much detail here about why hundreds of thousands of East Asian immigrants came to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, suffice to say that there was and is a significant Asian-immigrant population on the West Coast.

Fresno was, in the 1940s at least, a farming town, so we can infer from all of this information that it is most likely that Jim Morita's family were farmers or farm laborers. It's not necessarily a foregone conclusion, but it's probable. We also don't know how long ago Morita's family emigrated from Japan, but we can certainly guess that he's second or third-generation just based on the general immigration statistics from that time period. Born in 1919, his parents or grandparents would have most likely come to California in the early 1900s during the Western expansion boom. 

The real important part, however, comes when we use all this inferred information and think about what that means for Jim Morita right now. When we meet him in 1944, we can guess a couple of very important things about him simply based on where he is and the year. First, we can guess that Morita was, prior to being locked up in a Hydra prison camp, part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a predominantly Japanese-American regiment that went on to become the most decorated regiment of the war.

Second, we can take a wild guess and say that Jim Morita's family is, at the time of the movie, locked in an internment camp in the United States.

It's funny when you think about it. Jim Morita came into the comics world as one of the Howling Commandoes all the way back in 1967 - I can hardly imagine that the writers who created him wanted to call our attention to the history and plight of Japanese-Americans in WWII. In fact, his character in those early comics is kind of hilariously stereotypical. He knows karate and he uses it in fights, despite the story in these books being about World War II and that being a super weird thing to do. At no point do the comics go into the history of what it must mean for Jim Morita of Fresno to be fighting alongside Captain America. I'm not sure it ever occurred to them.

The history of Japanese internment in WWII is one of our nation's greatest shames and also greatest secrets. While it's become better known in recent years, thanks in no small part to the advocacy work of George Takei, who spent his childhood in such a camp, Japanese internment is the kind of ugly secret we don't talk about because we can't defend. 

With the United States whipped into a fervor of racialized anger towards Japan in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, the government decided to take steps to prevent any "Japanese spies" from further harming the country. 

To that end they rounded up all Japanese-descended citizens they could find, two-thirds of which had been born in America, and placed them in internment camps until the end of the war. They were allowed to bring one suitcase of belongings, and in many cases the rest of their belongings and property were seized by towns and neighbors before they returned.

Given the suspicion against Japanese-Americans at this time, it seems weird to think that the government would allow them to enlist. And you're kind of right to think that - the government did not allow Japanese-Americans to enlist until later in the war, at which time they enacted a draft on young men in the internment camps, forcing them to fill out a questionnaire about their loyalty to the United States. Should they answer "No," stating that they did not wish to fight for a country locking up their families, they were placed in prison for dodging the draft. If they answered "Yes," they were drafted into the 442nd Infantry Regiment and placed on the front lines in the European Theater.

So, in case you're keeping track at home, there's no part of this that isn't horrible.

All of this awfulness, though, only informs our understanding of Jim Morita as a fascinating character. Right? When you think about the fact that this almost certainly has to be his background, you're left with a complex understanding of who he is and why he's there and what it means for this Nisei soldier to be fighting back to back with Captain America. I'm pretty sure that the writers of the film didn't mean it that way, but I'm taking it and running.

For Jim Morita, who probably grew up thinking he was a normal American only to be locked into a camp simply for being born, to then actively choose to fight for his country is a big deal. Yes, he was probably drafted. But that doesn't change how important it is that he goes on to be one of the Howling Commandoes. Even more, we know from the film that there is newsreel footage out there with Jim Morita's face in it, right there next to our symbol of hope and liberty.

Imagine being in an internment camp and seeing that newsreel. Imagine seeing a face like yours being treated like an equal by America's "greatest soldier". Imagine seeing Jim Morita and thinking, "Hey, don't I know that guy?"

Then imagine growing up in the Marvel universe after that, when the Howling Commandoes come home after the war and Jim Morita comes back to Fresno. Imagine growing up with his name listed alongside all the others, talked of reverently in biographies and documentaries, interviewed by historians, one of the greatest soldiers from one of the biggest wars.

I've talked a little bit before about how big an impact it would have had in the Marvel universe if Bucky Barnes had been Jewish - well now think about what must have happened in the MCU, because Jim Morita is very definitely Japanese. 

"I'm from Fresno, Ace."

I'm not typically in the habit of unearthing minor characters with only a handful of lines to point out the "diversity points" they lend a certain production or show or film. In general, I find that antithetical to real diversity, a sort of veneer of representation that can't hold up. And I do really wish that Morita had more to do in Captain America than nod in the background while Steve and Bucky and Peggy argue in the foreground. He's such an interesting character and there could have been so much more to say. But, and this is the key point here, it's a start.

It's a start because, intentionally or not, Jim Morita's line is a reminder of what it means to be American and fight for your country. More than even Steve's explicit life in the film, Morita's line reminds us that being a patriot doesn't mean agreeing with everything your country does. It doesn't mean following blindly, and it doesn't mean making excuses. You can love your country and you can fight for it without thinking it's always right.

Steve Rogers is all about fighting for the little guy, and that's great, but he also transforms into a gigantic blonde Hercules, a pinnacle of Aryan virtue. Jim Morita doesn't transform and he doesn't get the spotlight, but that doesn't make him any less of an American hero. If anything, it makes the idea of his fighting in Europe even more resonant when you remember what he's left behind at home to do it.

We're almost at the end of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month now, and I thought it was well time to talk about historical representations of Asian-American masculinity. But I also wanted to talk about this, about American-ness, because so often when we focus on aspects of ethnicity and heritage, we lose focus of what it means to be American as well.

Jim Morita is American. His story is American, for all that it involves a lot of people being very focused on his race. The internment of his family, that's an American story. His being drafted and serving in a segregated regiment, that's American too. Even the bits we don't like, the ones that make us uncomfortable, are American stories as well. His Japanese heritage does not make him any less of an American or a patriot, and what I love about that line is how he knows it.

So, no, Morita sadly doesn't get his own movie or TV show or comic or even more than ten lines of dialogue, but I love him anyway. We need more characters like him, particularly Asian-American characters like him, who in one line can challenge what we understand American-ness to be, who can stand up to racism and spit in its face, and who can speak for those they left behind.

More of that, please.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Sameen Shaw (Person of Interest)

When we think of "Asian-American" characters, we tend to default to images of East Asian actors and actresses. If we're being particularly broad-minded we can usually be called on to remember including the Indian sub-continent and South Asians in there, and every once in a while we remember to toss in a few South-East Asians or Oceanic Asians. But only a couple. 

Heck, even for a site committed to diversity, we here at KMWW haven't done a spectacular job at representing Asian diversity so far this Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month. We've looked at the two different sides of the "Asian best friend" trope with a Korean character (Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls) and an Indian character (Connie Maheswaran from Steven Universe), but we've been remiss in going broader afield to talk about the wider Asian-American experience.

For the most part, in American culture "Asian" means Japanese-Chinese-Korean, and all other ethnicities are filtered into a larger unseen category of Other. And that means that even when talking about the actual issues and problems faced by Asian-American women in popular media, we have to take a step back and figure out if we're even addressing the vast diversity of Asian-Americans.

I mean, Asia's a pretty big place. Kind of the biggest, if you think about it.

That's why today we're stepping a little bit out of our comfort zone and discussing a different kind of Asian-American character, one who faces a lot of stereotypes and assumptions and preconceived notions but who rarely gets included in discussions of what it means to be Asian. Today we're talking about Person of Interest's own Sameen Shaw, a Persian/Iranian woman who is, yes, Asian.*

Now Shaw is a fascinating character for a lot of reasons, few of which have anything to do with her racial background. She's a former doctor turned wet works agent, and she has a personality disorder. She's bisexual and lost her parents at a young age. She can get shot in the stomach and stone-faced dig the bullet out herself, all while monologuing to the villain she tied up in a corner. 

Oh, and she really likes kids but she doesn't want you to know that she likes kids. Also dogs. Her most recent character arc on the show has a level of complexity and nuance that puts the Winter Soldier storyline in the Captain America movies to shame, and that's coming from me.

In other words, Sameen Shaw is a fantastically complex and interesting character and I could write a whole article on her without even touching her family background. But that wouldn't be entirely fair to her either. As we learn from the show, Shaw is actually really proud of her background. She speaks Farsi and celebrates Persian New Year (Nowruz). 

She speaks lovingly of her mother, who fled terrorists in Iran and came to make a new life in America. We don't know for sure if her father was also Persian, but either way, Shaw's identity as a Persian-American woman means a great deal to her, and so it should mean a great deal to us.

Here's the thing: when we talk about the stereotypes that afflict Asian-American female characters, we tend to be talking about stereotypes that afflict East Asian female characters. We tend to focus our discussions on things like geisha and dragon-lady and tiger-mom stereotypes, which is valid and good and necessary to discuss. 

These stereotypes are harmful and pervasive and need to be talked about. But it's much rarer for us (and I include myself in this diagnosis) to take a hard look at the tropes that affect Asian-American characters from different parts of Asia. As an Asian-American woman, Shaw never really has to face being called a "dragon lady". But she does have to face being called a "terrorist" or a "harem hottie". And that's worth talking about too.

But before we talk about that, let's take a quick refresher and talk about Person of Interest as a show.

So Person of Interest is a CBS series currently finishing out its fifth and last season. It takes a slightly outlandish premise and spins it into a fantastic story about surveillance and big government and paranoia and finding a family where you least expected it. It's great. Really. And it's only gotten better since Edward Snowden released the NSA files that proved this series wasn't nearly as far-fetched as we all had hoped.

The premise is this: there is a machine that takes all the data about you on the web and on surveillance footage and tracks it. It's supposedly looking for terrorists, but really it's looking for violent activity - any violent activity. This Machine sees everything and knows everything. From your fifth birthday to what you put in your pockets this morning, it knows, and it uses this information to predict what you will do. It's unparalleled in doing so and has helped stop any number of major terrorist attacks.

But. It turns out that a machine isn't necessarily going to be able to tell the difference between "terrorism" and "violence", so in the process of looking out for American national security, it also ends up predicting run of the mill murders and kidnappings and premeditated crimes. The intelligence agencies that get their information from the Machine don't care about all this random violence. But other people do. 

Those are our heroes and the ones that we track - the Machine's creator, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), and his "assistant", John Reese (Jim Caviezel). They take the information the Machine gives them - just the social security number of a "person of interest" - and use it to stop crimes. That's basically the show.

How does Shaw work into all of this? Well, when we meet Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) in the second season, it's because her number has come up. 

An intelligence agent working for the US, Shaw's job is actually enforcing all the "relevant" - as in relevant to national security - information that the Machine provides. But some of the information has been fabricated and created to push forward other American interests. Shaw has stumbled into an awareness of this corruption, and so she has to be taken out. Needless to say, that doesn't work.

For a while Shaw is in the wind as a burned spy, but it's not long before she finds herself on "Team Machine", getting numbers and saving people. She even comes to view the people around her, Finch and Reese and even the wayward Root (Amy Acker), as her family. And she really loves the dog.

As the show progresses, though, the story gets more and more complex. There are twists and turns and increasingly Orwellian plots, with Shaw often at the center of it all. The third season sees the rise of a second all powerful machine, this one called Samaritan, and the fourth season has our heroes hiding out from a system of surveillance they can no longer control or hide from. Shaw finds herself clerking a counter at Bloomingdales by day and working with cut-rate thieves by night, frustrated that her life of unbridled badassness has brought her to this.

Now, I don't want to spoil what happens next, but suffice to say that Shaw's story comes center stage as the show comes into the fifth season and if you needed a reason to watch the show, trust me when I say that sitting through four seasons just to get to the fifth isn't at all unreasonable. It's very good, and Shaw is very good in it. 

Anyway. Shaw's character growth throughout these seasons is really worth looking at, because it highlights how even as a character with an Axis-II personality disorder, Shaw is still capable of growing and loving and contributing to a community. It's a story we very rarely see, following a woman whose emotions are "all turned down really low" as she nevertheless finds value and meaning in helping people and caring for them. 

Even more, she goes from a place of complete isolation to one of full investment in a family group. She's even in a loving and committed romantic relationship, something she herself wasn't sure she was capable of.

Shaw really hits the "diverse character" bingo, if that were a thing. She's a neuroatypical bisexual woman of color. I mean, wow. And yet none of those identities feel ancillary to her character, nothing feels tacked on just for the diversity points, nothing is wasted. It's all just part and parcel of who she is, and that person is freaking awesome.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with Shaw's identity as an Asian-American woman? It's great that she's such a well-rounded and appealing female character and all, but does it matter that she's also specifically Asian-American? Would this story have been in any way different if Shaw were white?

Yes. Yes it would.

It is very significant that this character, who has slowly become the central character for the whole dang show, is Persian, is Asian-American, is a woman of color. It's important because so much of the show is about how the interests of regular people and ordinary citizens can be abused when governments seek to increase "protection" by decreasing privacy. In other words, it is really thematically resonant that one of the people fighting against government overreach here is a Persian woman whose mother fled a repressive regime in Iran.

That's what we're getting at. It matters that Shaw becomes our hero, our champion of the right to live as we choose and not be caged in by the State, because of her family history and background. It matters that Shaw fight back against the government she once served, not just because she's Persian, but also because because she's a first generation immigrant. She's from a family that chose America, that chose to come here and start a new life in the shadow of tragedy. 

Shaw is American, very American, and that makes her the perfect figure to fight back against an American government gone wrong.

As for the stereotypes she faces, there's something satisfyingly twisty about having Sameen Shaw fighting terrorists when she herself has had to deal with racialized accusations of terrorism. As a Persian woman, Sameen has had to face the stereotyping of West Asian and Middle-Eastern women as accomplices in terror or as exotic "flowers" waiting to bloom in the right man's hands or as timid and oppressed sheep who need to be saved from their own culture. 

Instead, Shaw is a fully realized person who loves and respects her heritage but could never be called meek or submissive. She's not anyone's exotic harem girl. She's the person who puts terrorists behind bars. No, Sameen Shaw isn't having anything to do with those stereotypes, and her pushback only makes her that much cooler. Especially since she pushes back without pushing away her culture and heritage.

Clearly I could go on and on talking about Sameen Shaw and the sheer awesomeness that is her character arc and her relationship with Root and all of that. There's a whole other article in here about how Person of Interest subverts the Bury Your Gays trope by having Root and Shaw essentially becoming bulletproof - even when they're dead they're not really dead - but we'll have to save that for another time. For now, let's take a long moment of silence and appreciate Sameen Shaw, a character who forces us to remember the diversity inherent in the term "Asian-American" and a woman who lives life on her own terms. 

Here's to you, Sameen. 

Also I want us all to appreciate that Shaw is eating a steak off of her utility knife while doing surveillance. I love her.
*Because Iran is in Asia. West Asia, sure, but that is still part of Asia. Asia is really big, hence that whole opening paragraph.