Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is filled with everything necessary to create a redemption-themed superhero movie. Its artful narrative is hopeful, shaking up a familiar moral ending that reserves goodness for stereotypically good people. The movie shows the complexity and nuance of humanity – even when the characters aren’t fully human – by showing audiences that imperfect beings can save the world, fight the system, and still hold their flaws.
But GOTG2 fails to tackle the overdone stereotype of a submissive Asian women.
The character of Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is layered with underlying themes of orientalization and misogyny. Her relationship with the male characters – specifically Drax ( Dave Bautista) and Ego (Kurt Russell) – as well as her unique powers are profoundly reminiscent of stereotypes about Asian women that were created in the 1830s and have largely remained unchanged.
Mantis was found in a larva state by Ego, a planet god, and now lives with him in isolation, her one purpose to serve him. She has the power to put anyone to sleep, and uses her powers solely to ease Ego into a restful state.
There is no nuanced relationship between Ego and Mantis — just a master who demands his servant ease his pain of loneliness by helping him fall asleep. She dutifully does as she’s asked, because she does not know that there is another way of life.
Mantis is what the movie describes as an empath — she has the ability to feel how others feel by touching them, and can manipulate their emotions if necessary. She is quite literally taking on the burden of others' emotions and has the ability to change them, to make them feel better — much like society tells women they are made to do.
This is reminiscent of a time when European and American men went to Asia in the attempt to save Asian women from their own countries, or use Asian women for their pleasure, or — in many cases — both. In Pierre Loti’s 1983 novel, Madame Chrysanthéme, he writes a story of an affair between a French naval officer and a wife he’s taken in Japan. Loti describes the woman and her friends as docile, submissive, and overtly feminine, much like how Mantis is described by other characters in the movie, from Ego to the overtly masculine Drax.
At one point in the movie, Mantis momentarily stops Ego from his rage by putting him to sleep. Drax says something along the lines of “I never thought she could do that, because she is so small and so weak.”
In Orientialism, post-colonialist thinker Edward Said explores why writers in the West described Asian women as weak. “[The local] women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing,” he wrote.
Said explains that the West described Asian women as weak as a way to contrast the strength of the West. To Said, these men knew that the ultra-feminine image they promoted would prop up their own masculinity, and that they showed proposed weakness of not only East Asian women, but the East itself, as an attempt to diminish the East's power in times of war.
With Mantis, the Guardians franchise continues to reinforce the idea that Asian women are weak, submissive, and made to serve their white master. Unfortunately, this is a longstanding trend. Strongly written Asian women characters are rare onscreen. And where they exist, as in Ghost in the Shell, the roles more often go to white actresses who sometimes use feminism to unintentionally or intentionally ignore issues at the intersection of race and gender. (In the specific case of Ghost in the Shell, Japanese audiences loved the film, and the writer said that he never wrote the character to be a specific race. But as Japanese-American actresses pointed out, white supremacy in Japan is also rampant.)
Mantis is slated to develop and grow as part of the Guardians franchise. American media has consistently gotten better at representing Asian audiences in films and on television. But, it is still not enough.
My hope is that we can move past stereotypical views of what Asian women should be and write narratives that empower and show who Asian women actually are – not docile and fetishized creatures that exist for the service and gaze of white men and white audiences.