DC’s racefail, featuring Cass Cain
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise for anyone reading this that I love Cassandra Cain. I love her a lot! My heart grows five sizes when I read her comics. Sometimes during the day I’ll randomly start thinking about Cass and then almost tear up that she isn’t regularly in anything anymore, that’s how much I love Cass.
The simplest way to explain why Cass is one of my favorite comic book characters sounds incredibly superficial—she looks like me. But how often does an Asian girl get an Asian girl vigilante to look up to? Cass is incredibly important to me not only because I can relate to her struggle to find self-worth and identity and a cause worth fighting for, but also because she’s a positive role model who isn’t white.
But there’s no denying that, as a character, Cass is problematic. Despite being one of the most prominent Asian characters in DC comics, she is also one of the most prominent examples of exotification and otherization (oh shit is that a word? I have no idea) of Asian characters in the media as well.
The thing is that Cass has no connection at all to any real or even made-up Asian culture. She was raised entirely by her father, who, first of all, is white, and who did not make any effort to instill any sort of cultural values in her at all in the pursuit of perfecting Cass’ understanding of physicality. Her mother, even if she had had any contact with her in her developmental years, is still only an amalgamation of stereotypical, pseudo-Asian traits from some indeterminate village somewhere in the monolith that is Asia.
Yet consistently throughout her comics canon, Cass’ Asian-ness is emphasized both in art and in dialogue. She’s drawn with black hair and slanting eyes, minor civilian characters ask her about her heritage, and, most recently, she seems to have become the Batman of Hong Kong despite not having any ties to the area or the ability to speak Cantonese—we can only assume that she is Batman’s “far east agent” (BARF) solely on merit of her being some sort of Asian.
The other facet of Cass’ background that DC seems unable to let go of is her abnormal upbringing. That’s totally understandable—Cass’ speechless childhood is something that fundamentally defines her character, her struggle, her motivations, and her loyalty to the bat symbol.
But think about it this way: Cass is “the other”. She’s totally different, totally strange, and this is because of the way she was raised. But, as DC doesn’t want you to forget, Cass is also Asian. By repeatedly emphasizing how different Cass is because of her upbringing, and simultaneously repeatedly emphasizing her ethnicity, DC inextricably links this quality of “otherness” with Cass’ Asian-ness. And with Cass being DC’s most visible Asian character, all that this does is imply that Asian people must be different simply because they are Asian.
So what has DC done? DC has created a wonderful and complex Asian role model, albeit with no real Asian cultural heritage, and yet they’ve still managed to make her the “other”.
And that’s what I find a little ridiculous. On one hand, it would be silly to assume that all Asian characters must have strong ties to their cultures in order to be good characters. On the other hand, it’s insulting that DC wouldn’t bother to spend any time researching real Asian cultures, instead opting to create an Asian character who could be just as alluringly “exotic” on the basis of an upbringing completely divorced from any ethnic cultural heritage.
So, after all that babbling what am I asking for?
I’m asking for a respectful, well-researched representation of an Asian character who is aware of and who is active in their cultural traditions without being completely defined by them.
I’m asking for an Asian character who grows up entirely devoid of any knowledge of Asian cultures, and as thus must face the ignorance and assumptions of other people despite being basically American.
I’m asking for an Asian character who isn’t automatically deemed the “other” just because they are Asian.
I’m asking for Asian characters!! Cass’ particular situation wouldn’t bother me as much if there were a more diverse representation of Asians in comics. As it is, though, with Cass as one of the most prominent Asian characters in the DCU, her existence only serves to reinforce the notion that Asians are, by default, exotic and foreign, regardless of cultural heritage.
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