So I finally got around to watching Pacific Rim semi-recently, and I was actually incredibly disappointed. I think the major cause of this was the disproportionate amount of praise heaped on it that is still, even now, circulating, mainly to the tune of “great PoC representation!” so I had been hoping for, well, Great PoC Representation.
What no one told me was that the “great PoC representation” bit actually had a corollary, and that was, “for Hollywood.” And even on that count, I wasn’t in the least bit impressed.
But, yeah, let’s talk about why I think Pacific Rim had shit representation. Because it did have shit representation.
The most obvious thing is, of course, the fact that the primary protagonist is still a white man, never mind how much he contributes to the plot, and he remains the principle narrator throughout the movie. Now, I might’ve been halfway-OK with that because Hollywood is racist and might not even have produced this film if they had a WoC for a protagonist if they had good secondary PoC characters. But they didn’t. Yes, that includes Mako.
For one, why the fuck, out of the last four remaining jaeger pairs left on the planet, is two and a half of those pairs white? And only one of them is a woman. Like, seriously? People do realize that white people, while the origin of all that is shitty in the world, is actually not a majority, population-wise, right? On statistics alone, it’s far more likely for the majority of people saving the world to be Asian. Thus, the insinuation behind including all these white folks is basically: white people are simply more skilled. Which I hope I don’t have to say is incredibly racist. And patently untrue.
(Need I remind folks that del Toro has stated that Pacific Rim was inspired by Japanese mecha anime? So I assume that, well, the culture making these giant robots will know how to operate them when the time comes.)
And why are the only two scientists left in the program white people? Even in the United States (where white people still claim that they’re the ~majority~) the STEM fields are most often dominated by, you guessed it, people of color! Because this is kind of the only way we can get ahead in life, you know, since we’re too ~quiet~ and ~lack charisma~ for CEO jobs. So where the heck are the Asians?
I don’t even know how to continue because the race fail simply gets worse from here. Especially because this movie is set in fucking Hong Kong. And none, not a single Chinese character, has a significant role in the movie. Unless you count the three triplets who died not speaking a single word of English. Or, oh, oh! My favorite! Tendo Choi! Who is played by a–wait for it!–white dude. So the only “Chinese” character who can speak English in the whole entire movie is the one who’s “white-passing” (in quotes because the actor is white as a fucking pastry–yes, I understand he’s, what, half-Latino? but, yeah, this doesn’t cut it).
Oh, but here’s a little historical fact. Did you know that people from Hong Kong know Mandarin, Cantonese, and English? Since, you know, they were colonized by the British back in the Opium Wars, all the way up until less than a decade ago? And their education system was exactly like Britain’s, until five years ago? This is fucking basic research, and I don’t know if the directors couldn’t be arsed to do it or if they did and just ignored it because haha Asian people speaking “good” English who wants that.
Even the black market dealer was white. What the hell. I’m not part of the black market, but I have a feeling that any white dude who tries to get in on the Asian black market (all the while touting an incredibly racist pseudonym, thanks, bub) would have been ripped to shreds, no questions asked. Only white people would think that they dominate even the criminal underworld. (Hint: they don’t.)
Seriously, though, why in the Seven Hells is Hong Kong the setting if you don’t put any legitimate Chinese actors in any speaking roles. It’s like The Last Airbender all over again! You have all this background fodder that’s only there as an excuse to be ~ethnic~ and ~diverse~. Thanks, Hollywood, you have so adequately reinforced the invisible Asian stereotypes. Thanks, we really needed that.
OK, now let’s talk about Mako. Oh, Mako, you could’ve been such a great character. Too bad you were written by an American, and someone decidedly Not Asian.
First of all, what’s the deal with her character design? Why in the world does she have blue streaks in her hair? It’s incredibly distracting at its best, and horribly, horribly exotifying at its worst. OK, who am I kidding, it’s always exotifying! None of the other characters have dyed hair, so why Mako? And why only in these weird little streaks? And need I remind you she’s the only Asian character that actually has an English speaking role in the entire goddamn movie. Like, what the fuck? What is with this anime hair? I don’t care if there are some actual Asian women out there who dye their hair this way. They have the right to do whatever they want. But in a film with the only Asian representation being the one with the most exotic features? Yeah, um, NO.
Second, Jesus Christ, what is with her accent? Yeah, I know that she’s Japanese, her awkward name (while possible is still Incredibly Awkward; it’s like naming your child Blue–possible, but no one fucking does it expect in bad fanfiction) gives it away, but she was raised by Pentecost. Who speaks English. And, OK, so I just googled to see how old she was when she was adopted by Pentecost, and the wiki says she was in her early teens, so I guess I can kind of understand that (though I’ve had friends who have immigrated to the U.S. later who speak with less of an accent), but the film gives us only an image of her child. She looks no more than six, much less thirteen (as she’s apparently supposed to be)! If she had met Pentecost that early, then she should have no trace of an accent!
And, blah blah, yeah, supplementary material reveals all secrets, whatever. But I honestly really don’t give a shit about supplementary material. They can be fun and nice and interesting for the people who really love a certain series, sure, but they ultimately have no bearing on my thoughts about Pacific Rim. This was made to be a film, so I will judge it as a film alone, not as a whole goddamn continuity. If their source material is not problematic but its adaptation is, I am still sure as hell going to call out its adaptation. No two ways about it.
Finally, why in the world does Mako get so little speaking time? She’s this confident and fierce and independent woman (veering dangerously close to the dragon lady stereotype, Pacific Rim), but yet she remains totally fucking silent during all of the jaeger excursions? And leaves it up to Raleigh to make all the commands? Yeah, I get that she’s an amateur, but Mako’s been through countless simulations; she knows her shit. And even if she doesn’t, she can still fucking talk and reply to questions from Command. I mean, not knowing shit has never stopped white dudes from completely running their mouths off, but, in Pacific Rim, Mako never once talks during a battle? What the ever loving fuck?
For a supposedly great and progressive female character, Mako’s characterization is a fucking disgrace. She’s an exotic figure, a reflection of what white people think Asians are like, and all the Japanese that Mako randomly spouts feels like masturbation material for white dudes, not fucking diversity. Her way of talking is a cheap way of making her ethnicity an ~apparent~ part of her identity when there is SO MUCH more to me as an Asian woman than my accent.
OK, so Mako is a well-rounded and likable character, but isn’t that the bare minimum that any writers and directors should achieve to make a movie that’s not Absolute Shit? Why is Mako held up as such a paragon of great writing when she really just tends to fall into the same stereotypes that have plagued us Asians for generations? Mako shouldn’t be the fucking baseline for anything. She shouldn’t be a test that you have to pass in order to have a ~good woman of color character~. She should be an example of how much Asian women are so often pigeonholed and exotified and sidelined, even when they’re protagonists, even in a movie with ~diversity~.
Yeah, so Mako doesn’t fall in love with the white dude (though some people might disagree with you on that), but do we really want that to be our baseline for good WoC representation? Do we really want our minimum to be: doesn’t fall in love with white savior, at least? Where is my Actual Human Being in Mako? Where are the nuances, the connections and intersections, of Mako’s varying identities beyond her surface level exoticness? I don’t want a token Asian side protagonist; I want an Asian woman who is an actual person, who owns her identity, not the other way around.
And here’s the major question: why the fuck does it seem that no one else is asking for this?
edit: so my good friend Laura pointed out that she was super uncomfortable with “how they specifically chose Hong Kong and how the Chinese team went down even though it was home territory and it was up to a combo of Japanese/British/probably British ancestry people to save them,” because, like, “did the writers forget about the opium war and China’s relationship with japan??” And HOLY SHIT THIS IS SO TRUE??? Like, wow, Pacific Rim can basically function as an extended metaphor for colonization and cultural imperialism wow.
A+ Pacific Rim, truly the progressive project every white person thought you were.