Is the World Ready for a Hapa Psylocke?
With Psylocke featured in the upcoming film X-Men: Apocalypse, we can expect some extra attention to fall on Marvel’s striking, purple-haired mutant who wields a telekinetic katana. And with that attention, the problem of racial identity in the character’s backstory is getting some new scrutiny. In her current iteration, Psylocke is a white British woman, Betsy Braddock, whose mind --- by a series of outlandish plot developments --- is in the body of Japanese ninja assassin named Kwannon.
On Tumblr, a fan asked Cullen Bunn, the incoming writer on Uncanny X-Men, whether he would address the “problematics” in Psylocke’s racial identity in his series. Bunn replied that he’d put thought into the issue, but his answer in the end was, in a few more words, “maybe.” It’s something he wanted to address, he wrote, but, “I also want the book to be accessible to new readers, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to hit that too heavily in early issues, you know?”
Well, no, I don’t really know. With respect to the argument about attracting potential new readers: It’s too late.
Psylocke’s character in the comics is already beyond the point where her story is accessible. Her backstory is too convoluted to make sense of, even without getting into the problems of racial appropriation. The reader on Bunn’s Tumblr cites the idea that some writers, like G. Willow Wilson, have had of returning Psylocke to her original body. It would eliminate the whole literal appropriation problem, sure, but it would also mean another white face in a genre that needs diversity.
So what can be done?
When I think about the issue of race in reference to Psylocke, there is a twinge of interest rather than outrage. You see, I am Asian-American woman of mixed heritage. (I identify as hapa.) My childhood in the suburbs was more similar to that of my white peers than not. And yet, what was different was what defined me, even to my friends. And to strangers? I have these eyes, this skin, this hair; and people have made assumptions about me because of that.
What if, I’ve sometimes wondered, Psylocke as a character can reflect that experience? Of the perpetual “foreign” status put on people of Asian ancestry? Of the duality of living as a Westernized person of Asian background? Or of being of mixed ethnicities in a society that expects you to identify as one ethnicity?
To be clear, Betsy-Braddock-in-Kwannon’s-Body is not a mixed-race person. But her experience does, in its way, call out to mine.
In X-Men: Apocalypse, Psylocke is being played by Olivia Munn, an actor of mixed Chinese and European ethnicity who was raised in Tokyo and Oklahoma. I’ve yet to see any interviewers ask Munn how her diverse background might contribute to her portrayal of Psylocke --- they seem to be more interested in how she puts on the costume --- but I have hopes that she will bring her experience to the role.
Could Marvel hire a creative team that could bring such a perspective to Psylocke? Of course they could. For now, however, the idea of Psylocke as written by a writer like Marjorie Liu, and drawn by an artist like Ming Doyle or Fiona Staples, will have to live in my imagination.
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