I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron on Friday night. It was ridiculous — RIDICULOUS — and I loved it. I’ve seen several tweets and a few reviews panning the movie, and I admit that in the initial heady afterglow of seeing a Korean actor on the silver screen, I couldn’t even begin to understand the disappointment. Is it possible that we did we not see the same movie? Did you people not notice the talented and gorgeous Claudia Kim as Dr. Helen Cho? Was that not enough to please you, to meet your lofty standards? I just don’t understand you, or what it takes to make you happy.
Look at Helen work. Look at her telling that crazy Cradle of hers what to do. The high neck of her fancy futuristic labcoat looks very uncomfortable, but she is making it work. This is a woman who can help drive the plot (such as it is…), a woman with the guts to stand up to evil, a woman who could name her kids Amadeus and Madame Curie Cho and calmly say to all the haters, “I like to keep my expectations high, and if you cannot understand that then I feel sorry for you.”
With Helen Cho in Age of Ultron, we get an Asian woman in a big-budget major motion picture who:
1) has a name,
2) gets more than thirty seconds of screen time,
3) does not die immediately after being introduced,
4) has no apparent martial arts skills,
5) is neither a math tutor nor a geisha,
6) gets to talk and say smart things — even in a roomful of white characters, who actually shut up for a minute and listen to her when she is explaining her science and why she’s a boss,
7) does not exist solely to give some white lady no one cares about questionable relationship advice, and
8) is not a crime lord and/or running a shady as fuck business out of a big scary warehouse.
It’s hard not to notice when you consume so many shows and movies and franchises over the years — when you love so many things about them and want to love them more — and you rarely if ever see anyone like you in those spaces, in those worlds.
Helen Cho is played by Korean actor Claudia Kim, and it’s always nice when Hollywood doesn’t just swap out one kind of Asian for another because #alllooksame. Is she still a background character? Well, sure. But the fact that we don’t learn much about her doesn’t bother me as much in a movie full of larger-than-life characters whose personal lives, even when glimpsed, are always secondary to the mission. Dr. Helen Cho is a badass geneticist whose invention can rebuild damaged skin and MAKE ORGANS and shit. Her science makes Tony Stark look like the little kid he kind of is. She’s not an Avenger, she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she gets her moment.
I knew she was going to be in the movie, but I wasn’t expecting her to have such a pivotal (if still too small!) role. My expectations regarding the super white, super male Marvel movie universe are low when it comes to seeing people of color, women of color in particular. I was surprised at how excited I felt watching the few scenes Kim was in. Representation in pop culture is something I do think about as an Asian American, but most days it’s pretty far down the list. When I rant about it, usually in response to some Orientalism or some stupid ninja reference on a TV show, invariably someone will say, “Aren’t there much bigger things to worry about?” And I’ll feel chastened, because yes, of course there are — much, much bigger things.
Still, it’s hard not to at least notice when you consume so many shows and movies and franchises over the years — when you love so many things about them and want to love them more — and you rarely if ever see anyone like you in those spaces, in those worlds. My older daughter is seven now, moving beyond the steady diet of PBS kids’ fare we kept her on for so many years, and a few weeks ago she asked me why there were no Asians in most of the movies and shows we’ve watched together. Eventually, I know, my kids will get that it’s not really about the numbers. They’ll get the none-too-subtle message that there are plenty of us here, and if we aren’t seen, it’s not because we don’t exist, but because some people just don’t care about seeing us.
This is why, as a kid, I would follow literally any show with an Asian character, no matter how terrible; why I loved and watched Shelby Woo (unquestionably a fun show, but also kind of a model minority stereotype-enforcer); why to this day I’ll give almost any show with an Asian cast member a trial of one full season, even if it’s super boring. And this is also why, three days after seeing Age of Ultron, Claudia Kim’s all-too-brief presence in the movie is what I keep returning to, what I keep thinking about — not the dry one-liners or the weird fight scenes or the extreme lengths to which they went to try and make us care about Hawkeye, but just the sheer novelty of seeing a character like Helen Cho onscreen.
It shouldn’t feel like such a big deal, and I wish I didn’t have to feel so excited about a character like hers. I wish I could be neutral and reasonable and blasé about media featuring Asian characters who don’t seem like tokens or play to obvious stereotypes, but it’s so rare that I can’t be. Is it getting better? There are certainly more Asians on TV. But after going to see Age of Ultron, I tried to think of other American movies with Asian or Asian American characters that meet all the criteria I mentioned above, and I had a very hard time. It was especially difficult thinking of Asian women whose film characters could pass the test. (There are probably more than I think but far fewer than there should be; it would be awesome to get a list going in the comments! HELP ME.)
If this is frustrating for me, just a casual viewer/fan fielding awkward questions from her kid, I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for Asian actors and artists trying to make a living. As great as it was to see Claudia Kim in Age of Ultron, we shouldn’t have to feel so grateful for one role in one movie.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.