Menu Close

The Silk Road to Better Representation: Marvel’s Silk and the Progress of Asian American Female Representation

By Nao Tomabechi

Introduction

It was a substantial step for Marvel Comics when Asian American Cindy Moon, or the superhero Silk, debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Jul. 2014). The artist who worked on her debut issue, Humberto Ramos, emphasized from the start the significance of her character, claiming that she “is a big character” in that “she’s gonna be a main character in the Spider-Man Universe from now on” (qtd. in CBR Staff).

The fact that Silk was planned to be a major character in the Spider-Man Universe is in itself important considering Spider-Man comics’ track record of representation of Asians and Asian Americans, or rather, the lack thereof. It is exactly for this reason that Dan Slott, the creator behind Silk, decided to add her into the Marvel Universe as he noticed, in

50 plus years of Spider-Man comics, one of the things that stood out . . . was that there had only really been one prominent Asian-American character in the cast, Flash Thompson’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Sha Shan Nguyen. Being six degrees away from Peter Parker, that meant she didn’t even really show up that often. (Lai)

In hopes for better Asian and Asian American representation, Slott created characters such as Martin Li and the captain of the police force Yuri Watanabe. However, as the former became the supervillain Mr. Negative, and the latter the on-and-off vigilante Wraith, neither of them developed into prominent characters nor full-fledged superheroes. Therefore, Silk’s role as an Asian superhero central to Spider-Man’s narrative was both extremely crucial and long overdue.

Silk’s debut is significant not only for Spider-Man comics, but also for American superhero comics in general, as Asian representation in the genre has not been without problems. With the widespread belief of the Yellow Peril, or the racialized fear that Asians are a threat against Western society and culture, dating back to the nineteenth century, Asian characters were already prone to being portrayed as the villainous Other in popular culture even before the emergence of superhero comics. These anxieties were eventually personified into characters like Dr. Fu Manchu, who was first introduced in the short story “The Zayat Kiss” (1912), written by the English author Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu, with his sickly yellow skin, claw-like nails, thin eyes, and long moustache, became incredibly popular and solidified the stereotypical image of the Asian villain. The vilification of Asians based on the Yellow Peril continued well into the forties, with superhero comics depicting Japan, the United States’ World War II enemy as evil and inhuman monsters the American and patriotic superheroes must defeat

As years went by, especially with the civil rights movements and the general support for racial equality and harmony, heroic Asian characters did gradually appear and increase in number, but Asian representation was far from positive or authentic. Many stereotypes and assumptions about Asians and their cultures circulated within comics, with many (non-Asian) creators continuing to not only use but also rely on such shortcuts. Shang-Chi, who made his on-screen and Marvel Cinematic Universe debut recently in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), is a notable example. Not only is Fu Manchu his father, he is also a master of martial arts, a cliché among Asian characters. The Japanese Sunfire who first appeared in X-Men #64 (Jan. 1970) is another stereotypical character. While his character developed depth in later years and his costume received a makeover, when he first appeared, he donned the controversial imperial flag of Japan,1 and much of his character was shaped by his hatred or skepticism towards Western society.2 Leaving the X-Men not long after joining the team, Sunfire indicates Asians’ assumed inability to fit into—and possible rejection of—the Western world, and is thus represented as inferior.

These examples are both male characters, but Asian female superheroes fare no better, considering one of the most famous and earliest to appear is DC Comics’ Katana. Debuting in The Brave and the Bold #200 (Jul. 1983), she, like Sunfire, wielded the Japanese imperial flag on her costume. Though the imperial flag is now gone, replaced by the Japanese national flag on her mask, she continues to be clearly marked as an outsider. Depicted as a samurai (although samurais no longer exist in contemporary Japan), she is generally rendered as a foreigner displaced in American society, similar to Sunfire.

Though these characters rooted in problematic stereotypes, racist assumptions, and Otherness seem outdated especially in current sensibilities, because superhero comics rely on continuity, where past and current works are tied closely together to create an extensive narrative and fictional world, they continuously appear in recent works. Accordingly, while they have been updated so that they are not obviously racist, the three aforementioned superheroes are still prominent characters in the Marvel and DC universes. Katana remains a modern samurai, and Sunfire, who still clashes with American superheroism, has become a martial artist like many other Asian or Asia-related characters. Shang-Chi’s character history has changed time and again, most notably severing his connections to the racist caricature Fu Manchu. But there is only so much that creators can do with backgrounds built on stereotypes. Therefore, Asian American superheroes such as Silk who are newly created without relying on out-of-date stereotypes are meaningful for present and future positive representation.

Silk’s character, however, is not without complications. Though in an interview with Dave Richards, Robbie Thompson claimed that he sees Silk already as a “fully realized, three dimensional character” in her debut, it is debatable whether we can immediately describe her as such. Especially in her first appearances, Silk’s character continues to depend on stereotypes of Asian women seen across popular culture, very much like past and problematic (female) Asian characters. In fact, it would take another five years for her to become a “fully realized” character not burdened with stereotypes.

This article focuses on various appearances and series of Silk to examine how her character has developed over the years. I argue that Silk faces two extreme types of problematic representation before the comics finally start to positively depict an Asian female superhero. I will first show through an analysis of her debut in Amazing Spider-Man #4-6 (Jul.-Sep. 2014) how the stereotype of the exotic Asian woman primarily shapes her character. The next section focuses on her first two solo series from 2015 and 2016 both titled Silk. Here, in contrast to her initial appearances where stereotypes had defined her, a post-racial treatment not only washes her of stereotypes, but also entirely removes her race and cultural backgrounds from her narratives. As a result, both series take a colorblind approach to her Asian identity, and Silk becomes a racial minority superhero who merely fulfills the diversity checkboxes as her background has no significance in her stories or character. The final section addresses the Silk miniseries from 2021 and 2022. Written and drawn by Asian creators, it is finally in these series that Silk engages with her Asian heritage in a more authentic manner. While there still are improvements that can be made, her Asianness is neither exoticized nor eliminated. As the article will demonstrate, following Silk’s series and appearances illuminates her road to becoming the full character she was intended to be upon her creation.

 

The Exotic Debut: Amazing Spider-Man #4-6

Silk debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Jul. 2014), a tie-in to the Marvel crossover event series titled Original Sin (2014), where major superheroes learn shocking, or even traumatizing, secrets. Among them is Spider-Man, or Peter Parker, who finds out that a past classmate of his, Cindy Moon, was also bitten by the same spider that gave him powers. However, whereas Peter was soon able to establish himself as a superhero with his newfound spider powers, Cindy was locked in a bunker by the insistence of one white man, Ezekiel Sims. Convinced by him that her powers are life threatening to those around her, and not wanting to bring danger to her friends and families, she complied with Sims’ urging. Upon this revelation, Peter goes to her bunker—where she is still locked away after a decade—and frees her.

Unlike the white (and male) Peter Parker who remained free to become one of the most famous superheroes in the Marvel Universe, Silk, an Asian American woman, was regarded as dangerous, was taken away, and has lived her life in invisibility. On the one hand, her character history may understandably be deemed problematic, as it exemplifies how certain privileges such as freedom are freely given to white men, while Asian women are deprived of them. However, on the other hand, her origins are eerily similar to the history of Asians in America. Indeed, Silk’s past and origins defined by confinement could instead serve to recount the life and history of Asian Americans and Asians in America, while also criticizing the United States’ overall treatment of Asians.

Consider, for instance, how much of “Asian American history” entails “a series of exclusions” and regulatory measures “based on race” (Parreñas and Tam 112) such as unfairly strict immigration policies, anti-miscegenation laws, internment camps, or simple racism. These instances, all resulting from racist beliefs such as the Yellow Peril, had forced Asian Americans into invisibility. Cindy’s confinement in the bunker and her removal from society finds likeness to such measures taken against Asian Americans: she was first declared a threat to her family (and perhaps society), and then taken away to a facility to train to control her powers, all by the white man, Sims. Neither of which has ever happened to the (white) Peter.

Having no access to the outside world, Cindy, in her bunker, is not only silenced; like past Asian Americans who were sans many rights, she is also deprived of all agency including those related to her powers. For instance, the training is conducted by a white man who considers her (powers) too unrestrained and makes the decision to “teach” her to become more subdued. Even when her training to control her powers was discontinued after some time, despite it being one of the primary reasons Cindy willingly retreated from society, she had no say on the matter and remained in captive for unforeseeable years. This silencing of an Asian women by a white man finds similarity with how white society expected the “unruly” Asian American to assimilate appropriately to its standards to become more “refined.” Her regaining freedom and growing to become a superhero thus could have represented a previously silenced racialized minority finding her voice and identity in contemporary America.

Yet Amazing Spider-Man misses this opportunity and instead opts to deliver Silk through typical characterizations commonly found among Asian figures. For one, Asians have the tendency to be portrayed as forever foreigners where they can never adapt to and are never in tune with the Western society they live in, and Cindy’s depiction fits well within this description. A literal stranger to the world because of her bunker days, the only way she can navigate current America is through Peter, a white man, who decides it is his responsibility to help her. Peter, therefore, is not only her white savior, but also the white man who introduces American society to the foreigner, never minding the fact that she is American to begin with. Silk’s identity (and superheroism) in this new world, then, is built under and around the tutelage of Spider-Man.

Silk’s position as a foreigner that a white man must liberate and guide reestablishes Spider-Man’s superior status as both an individual and as a superhero. This is reminiscent of the pattern seen across many works where white men attempt to “civilize” foreigners by “forcibly injecting Western law, religion, and language” (Azhar et al. 285). Such mission and responsibility of the white man, Rudyard Kipling describes as a “White man’s burden.” The language the comics use underlines Silk’s role as a “burden” Peter must carry, as he describes her release as “let[ting] her loose” (Amazing Spider-Man #4) as if she is a wild and uncontrollable animal, and sees it as his duty to tame her so that she will not get into any trouble or danger.

Silk being a “perpetual foreigner” (Huynh et al.) marks only the beginning of the long list of stereotypes she exhibits. Submissive and/or passive (Tajima 309), seductive and sexually exotic (Pyke and Johnson 36), as well as self-sacrificial (Silliman et al. 164), are some stereotypes of Asian women commonly found across many works, and Silk impressively meets them all. Take, for instance, her submissiveness in the self-sacrifice she makes by entering the bunker and completely giving up her freedom. Silk, in making the “honorable” choice to protect those around her, willingly, passively, and submissively stays secluded from the outside world without raising objection. This is in contradistinction with Peter, who gained the freedom to swing around the city as he pleases with his powers, and found confidence, self-assurance, and agency.

Sure enough, with her newfound freedom (given to her by a white man), she is no longer the obedient and passive woman that stays silent in seclusion. Yet the liberation from her confinement leads her to exchange submissiveness for hypersexuality. Silk’s dramatic transformation is, however, not surprising, as stereotypes of Asian women seem to be on binary ends: they are either the submissive and innocent “Lotus Blossom, China Doll, Madame Butterfly, Geisha Girl,” or the “dangerously sexual,” seductive, and exotic “Dragon Lady” (Yamamoto 47). Silk only has two choices to begin with.

The over-sexualized presentation of the female body in superhero comics itself is not uncommon. Indeed, the superhero genre is infamous for its physical representation of women, as many past scholars have pointed out and criticized (Cocca; Robbins; Brown). Carolyn Cocca, for instance, points out that “many [female superheroes] are sexualized in ways that male characters are not” (20), and Richard Reynolds describes “the costumed heroine” as “the object of sexual attraction” (Reynolds 37). That Silk is no exception is, to a certain extent, thus expected. The superhero costume Silk creates for herself, for example, is merely webbing tightly wrapped around her body, and flashing her upper thighs and portions of her shoulders. Immediately before she webs herself her “costume” (if it can even be called that), she is seen wearing shorts and a tank top, but the placement of the webs suggest that she is naked underneath. Rather than hiding her civilian identity, her “costume” only serves to accentuate her breasts and hips. Once she is in her superhero gear, she repeatedly contorts into “broke back poses,” a term coined by Cocca referring to the various poses women in superhero comics are forced into, which show every line and curve of the female body but are only physically and anatomically possible if their spines are broken.

The Asian female body like that of Silk’s, however, is not only highly sexualized; with Asian Otherness, (hyper)sexuality is exoticized. Exoticized (hyper)sexuality of Asian Otherness is one of the most notable stereotypes seen among depictions of Asian women. In fact, “the construction of Asian American women in highly sexualized terms” is such a common occurrence that Traise Yamamoto describes it as among the “long tradition[s] in American cultural production” (46). Yamamoto further elaborates:

the sexualized Asian American female body as the object of spectacle has become a convention so thoroughly naturalized, or nearly so, that its status as a convention deployed for specific ideological cultural work is no longer easily recognizable, particularly when it is twinned with the putatively “post-racist” rhetoric of tolerance, inclusion, and color-blindness. (51)

That is, because the image of the exotically sexualized Asian American has been so overused, not only has it become traditional, but also almost undetectable, especially when it is camouflaged by the celebration of diversity represented by the Asian figures. In works that allegedly advocate diverse and positive representation, “the sexualization of Asian American women functions simultaneously in terms of long-standing orientalist traditions and newer proclamations of multicultural diversity, joined through the mechanism of visual fetishization” (Yamamoto 53). Consequently, the stereotype of the hypersexual and exotic Asian woman remains unquestioned by the creators who use such tropes, as well as the audience that consumes them.

This observation fits particularly well with Silk, for though she was created to diversify the Spider-Man Universe, the comics sexualize her character. From the moment she is freed from captivity, she acts with no regard for rationality or logic, suggesting she is all physical. Her physicality, however, is most underlined by her sexuality, which is depicted as animalistic and even out of control. Her feral sexuality first emerges when she is enraged towards Spider-Man for releasing her since her release may endanger her life, only for the two to suddenly start kissing. This is later explained as their bodies reacting to their shared spider-hormones, but it is not both of their hormones suddenly spiking; it is, instead, Silk’s raging so ferociously that Spider-Man’s spider-sense is forced “out of control” like never before (Amazing Spider-Man #4). As Spider-Man thinks to himself that this is nothing like he has ever experienced before in his life, Silk’s body is depicted as one that is different, Othered, and can offer exotic sexual encounters. Silk’s physicality, which is irresistibly seductive, promises unprecedented sexual experience, and her superpowers are connected to her sexuality in a way that Spider-Man’s are not.

With her body driving him to have sex with her and Silk going along to her hormone rush, neither of them are willing to “let go” or “stop” touching each other despite being out in the open and public on the roof (Amazing Spider-Man #5). Their physical positions, too, imply Silk’s tameless sexuality since she is throwing herself onto Spider-Man “in the stereotypical position of the sexually aggressive woman, l[ying] naked on top of [the man]” (Yamamoto 49). Ultimately, it is Peter who regains himself from the overload of hormones to sensibly state that they should not be doing this. With the white man acting more rational and level-headed in comparison to Silk, who is following her “basic[,] primal connection” (Amazing Spider-Man #5), Silk’s “Asian female body is visually deployed to both recast the reality of white racism and reassert the centrality of white masculinity” (Yamamoto 47) since her agency in sexuality is decided either by her physicality or by Peter, but never herself. The entire ordeal therefore reminds us of what Edward Said described as Orientalist representations of the East or non-white Othered bodies, where they are indicated to be wild and “disorderly” (129) in opposition to the orderly and “superior Western knowledge and power” (244).

At this point of Silk’s story, however, Silk’s Asian background is not mentioned. Readers would only know that she is Asian if they had read interviews with Silk’s creators where they mention that she is Asian American, or if they had recognized Moon as a Korean last name. Her superhero name “Silk,” too, can possibly be an indicator to her Asian heritage. Though the name certainly could have come from spider silk since she can organically create webbing—unlike Peter who makes and uses artificial ones—it also undeniably brings to mind the historical relationship of silk and Asian cultures.3 But if the reader has not been able to pick up the hints to her Asia background yet, it is problematic that the biggest indicator is her eyes that are drawn obviously thinner and more slanted than the other characters. Without her cultural background appearing anywhere in the issues, her Asian identity, then, is reduced to mere physical presentation, which is loaded with sexualized imagery. This is, perhaps, not surprising, as the “engendering of the Asian body is always inscripted through the sexual, either in terms of lack or excess” (Yamamoto 46), which, with Silk, is incredible and insatiable “excess.” Sheridan Prasso contends that “mystery and sex, fear, and desire . . . [are] how [the West has] written about, thought about, and conceived the East for much of our 2500 years of recorded contact” (29). Silk, whose history and background still have much left to be revealed, who is overflowing with sexual energy, and who is to be feared for her superpowers that connect directly to desire, therefore, amply continues this tradition.

 

The Raceless Asian Superhero: Silk (2015; 2016)

Silk’s first solo series, Silk, came out in 2015. As the title suggests, Silk is no longer a side character but the protagonist, and the series focuses on her adapting to her new life. With new friends, relationships, and a job, she strives to establish her identity both as Cindy Moon and as Silk. It is also in this series that she ponders what kind of superhero she wants to be. But her hardship and challenges entail more than fighting evil and protecting the city in the name of heroism. She also struggles to control her emotions that were left unstable from her traumatizing experience in the bunker, and all this combined together introduces readers to new superhero stories that are unique to Silk.

This also means that her series and her character are now independent from Spider-Man. Ergo, there is a role reversal in that unlike in the issues in Amazing Spider-Man, he, in Silk, is a supporting character that appears only occasionally. Additionally, when Silk feels that Spider-Man, who is always eager to give her advice and assistance, is overbearing, she rejects his offer to help, and even calls him out when he is overstepping boundaries. The relationship of Spider-Man and Silk found in her solo series thus differs greatly from her previous appearance where he had elected himself as her keeper, instead depicting the two superheroes on more equal terms.

Silk’s problematic stereotypes, especially in terms of sexuality, are also portrayed drastically differently. Whereas previously she was drawn incredibly suggestively, the art in this series—the majority of which is provided by Stacey Lee and Tana Ford—and her new superhero costume accentuate the curves of her body less. No longer does Silk merely wrap webbing around her (presumably) naked body, but instead wears a full black and white body suit. Excessive sexuality has been removed not only from the visuals, but from the narrative, too, for the hormone reactions between the two spider-heroes are no longer mentioned. This allows Silk to step away from her previous depiction as an exotic and wild sexual creature.

Silk is also no longer the submissive Asian woman. In Amazing Spider-Man, readers saw her get angry at Spider-Man for releasing her because she believed she was dangerous. In Silk, however, instead of meekly accepting her prior captivity as a sacrifice made for the better, she shifts her anger towards her captors and the confinement she was forced to endure. That she clearly states that she “prefer[s] being in control. Making [her] own rules” (Silk #6, Oct. 2015) is thus important considering she was not allowed that agency throughout the years in the bunker, but also because many Asian women in media stereotyped submissive rarely have any control or agency over their identities and/or bodies. This statement of hers, then, marks her refusal to (submissively) defer to overused stereotypes of Asian women.

In addition to rejecting hypersexualization and exoticization, Silk clearly calls out many other assumptions made towards Asians. This includes her rebuffing the demand to bow to the supervillain Goblin King saying that she is “not really a bowing kinda gal,” or by confessing that she “was a C student” instead of the straight-A’s student Asians are expected to be (Silk #4, Apr. 2016). The solo series thus seems to be ready to finally move beyond stereotypes. However, “ready” means that the comics are only prepared to move forward and have not yet arrived at ideal representations. For one, as much as the series tries to get rid of stereotypes, it is not completely bereft of them, and representation of Asian culture in general has much more left to improve. Cindy’s Asian, or more precisely, Korean American background, heritage, and culture, for instance, is depicted as belonging to a singular and vague “Asia.” This may be a step up from her first appearances where her Asian identity is suggested only by her slanted eyes or her exotic and sexual nature since cultural aspects are now somewhat inserted into her character, but only by so much. When her Asianness appears, the comics fail to reflect her Korean (American) culture, nor differentiate imagery or cultures of different East Asian countries. In her flashbacks of the days before her confinement (which are the only times when Silk’s Asian background can be seen), her argument with her now-missing parents takes place in a living room with a large painting of a cherry tree in a frame that is more Western than East Asian. It should be noted, that while appreciated by many East Asian countries, cherry blossoms tend to be associated with the Japanese rather than with the Korean. Similarly, in the conclusion of the 2016 series, when her now-found family gathers for a homely dinner (in a dining room which, again, has pictures of a cherry tree in Western picture frames), Cindy’s mother is wearing a Chinese-inspired outfit, and the Moons enjoy their meals with chopsticks that none of them seem to know how to properly hold or use. Such scenes continue to produce the problematic notion that Asian cultures (which usually refers only to China, Korea, and Japan) are all one and the same, and can be represented by props such as cherry trees, chopsticks, and loosely inspired fashion.

What is most notable, however, about both the 2015 and 2016 Silk series regarding the representation of race is that besides this very ambiguous Asian culture that appears occasionally, the entire narrative as well as Silk herself is somewhat suggested to be raceless, and there seems to be no place for an Asian identity in her character or heroism. As a female superhero, Silk seems to recognize and actively criticize sexism. For example, in issue four of the 2016 series, she says to a villain who calls her “my dear”: “Not cool. Condescending at best. Sexist at worst.” And yet things regarding race or racism never arise anywhere in either of the two series, and the experience she may presumably have as an Asian American (woman) is not mentioned at all in any of the issues throughout the two series.

This erasure of race, or colorblindness, is not unique to Silk, but is rather a phenomenon that is seen increasingly in contemporary popular culture. Colorblindness refers to situations or works that usually feature a racially diverse cast and may seemingly promote diversity, but deliberately ignore or erase narratives, conversations, and/or discussions about race. It derives from

the belief that racial group membership and race-based differences should not be taken into account when decisions are made, impressions are formed, and behaviors are enacted. The logic underlying the belief that color blindness can prevent prejudice and discrimination is straightforward: If people or institutions do not even notice race, then they cannot act in a racially biased manner. (Apfelbaum et al. 205)

Such ideas are built upon the belief that because the civil rights movement was a “success” and with the years, attitudes towards race have changed, racism no longer exists in the United States’ social structure and does not serve as an obstacle to success (Doane 15). It is a belief that “surged during the historic 2008 election” (Squires 4) and after, when Barack Obama became president, as many saw him to be proof that every individual of all races has equal opportunities to succeed in life.

Because colorblindness comes from many Americans wishing to distance themselves from racism, it also “opens the door . . . to embrace racial diversity . . . and inclusion” (Doane 18). Tanzina Vega hence argues that recent popular works can notably be defined by colorblindness or be described as “postracial,” for “cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity.” While this idea of not “see[ing] any color, just people” (Bonilla-Silva 1) seems idealistic, many problems arise with colorblindness. This is because insisting on colorblindness, whether in real life or media representation, forecloses opportunities and possibilities to discuss current race relations and racism due to colorblindness’s rejection of the notion of race itself. As a result, “colorblindness . . . serv[es] to reify and legitimize racism and protect certain racial privileges by denying and minimizing the effects of systematic and institutionalized racism on racial and ethnic minorities” (Nilsen and Turner 4). Colorblindness, then, is but the refusal to acknowledge that “the ugly face of discrimination is still with us” by claiming “it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chance” (Bonilla-Silva 1). This leaves unquestioned the currently existing racism and racial inequalities, which include white superiority and Eurocentrism. Ergo, “representation” of racial minorities that relies on colorblindness is “mostly symbolic” (Bonilla-Silva and Ashe 68), since rarely anything about the characters’ racial backgrounds is communicated, nor does it ever challenge any sorts of disadvantages they may have been inflicted due to their race. Diversity achieved by colorblindness may “increase the number of minority roles” (Bonilla-Silva and Ashe 68) but no voice is given to the supposedly represented groups.

Furthermore, the colorblind series and narratives, by dismissing race and currently existing inequalities of race, merely (re)establishes white and Eurocentric ideals as the uncontested norm. Lifestyles built upon Western imagery, thoughts, and ideals, then, are deemed as the standards to which people are expected to conform to and lead, and those who do not are marked as the Other, and possibly even “as deviance or divergence from [the] assumedly universal norms” (Lewis et al. 79). What is also implied here is that whiteness and Eurocentrism are commonly understood as not only the norm, but also as the “unmarked, unspecific, universal” (Dyer). That whiteness, too, is certainly not raceless but rather “culturally specific” (Lewis et al. 79) is unacknowledged.

Nonetheless, colorblindness “that foregrounds racial differences in order to celebrate multicultural assimilation” seem to have become favored by popular works and series (Nilsen and Turner 4). As Sarah Nilsen and Sarah E. Turner point out, negative racial stereotypes, while they “do continue to circulate within the media, the dominant mode” of representation in popular works has shifted towards an ideology that attempts to embrace diversity and multiculturalism (4). But it is one that fails in that “the significant social, economic, and political realities and inequalities that continue to define race relations today” are denied (Nilsen and Turner 4). Therefore, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Austen Ashe are accurate when they maintain that “racial contacts” gained through having raceless non-white characters on the screen or page “does not mean substantive integration, [and] simply having a diverse cast does not adequately or accurately represent the racial reality of twentieth-century America” (68).

Silk’s first two solo series fit exactly within this colorblind ideology, considering that Marvel’s celebration of diversity means having an Asian American superhero and protagonist but with the complete absence of race in the narratives.4 Cindy leads a “normative” and “unmarked” Western styled life, and her Korean heritage is reduced to paintings of cherry trees in the living room. This casual but complete reliance on Western lifestyles and imagery that fails to take into consideration anything else, such as Asian, or more specifically, Korean culture, affirms the widespread belief that whiteness and Western culture imply neutrality and racelessness.

Cindy’s discovery of ongoing racial inequalities after regaining her freedom could have had a place in her learning to become a superhero, but the chance was not taken. The world in which Cindy emerges is not ideal in that supervillainy runs rampant and the world almost ends in the final issue of the 2015 series, but race-wise, there seems to be nothing to be concerned about. In fact, racial harmony is suggested by her instant befriending of the white Rafferty and Lola who has darker skin, or in other words, by the “interracial buddy formula” which is “another [common] feature of the colorblind ideology” (Smith 784-785). Such portrayals of race or the lack thereof reject the reality that “racism and racial inequalities persist,” instead offering an idealistic society where “people of color [are] living discrimination-free lives” (Squires 4-5).

Moreover, colorblindness in Silk is problematic not only because it erases Cindy’s racial and cultural backgrounds, but also because it reaffirms the belief that Asians do not experience racism. Because of the model minority myth—which refers to the notion that Asian Americans are considered idealistic “good” minorities in that they have assimilated into and have embraced white hegemonic American values—there is a misconception that Asians in America have experienced less racism compared to other racial minorities (Chou and Feagin 13). “Educational and economic ‘success’” achieved through their assimilation is oftentimes claimed to be proof that “whites no longer create significant racial barriers for them” (Chou and Feagin 13). Thus, racism towards Asian Americans, “its impacts and existence[,] tend to be minimized” (Watanabe and Jang 66), and consequently, many voices of discontent from Asian communities have gone long ignored. Silk’s series, therefore, with race or racism having no role in her narratives, risks upholding the assumption that stories featuring Asian American protagonists have no need or reason to address racism since racism is not an issue for them.

And yet, in spite of the erasure of race, its implications, societal situations, and cultural backgrounds, as Jonathan Rutherford notes, “paradoxically, capitalism has fallen in love with difference: advertising thrives on selling us things that will enhance our uniqueness and individuality[;] . . . [C]ultural difference sells” (10). Colorblind ideology is above all effective in that these “multiracial people” depicted raceless “in particular help facilitate a sense of safe diversity, satisfying the need to bring color into the frame without conflict” (Rutherford 11) or inciting uncomfortable debates concerning race. Series like the 2015 and 2016 Silk, therefore, are such “diverse” series that “sell,” as they feature one of the very few Asian American protagonists, but tell a story that is not too “racialized.”

 

Finally Introducing the Korean American Silk: Silk (2021; 2022)

Representation significantly improves in the Silk series released in 2021 and 2022. With the 2021 series written by Maurene Goo and the 2022 series written by Emily Kim, both of which are drawn by Takeshi Miyazawa, the central creators of the two recent solo series are of Asian descent. As Sarah Kuhn has responded in a roundtable discussion on Asian representation in comics, there is a “certain level of authenticity in the specificities of a story that an Asian creator can bring to an Asian character” (qtd. in Guzman). Truthfully, both writers seem to consciously bring Asian culture into the stories, but much attention is also given to small details in the art by the artist, thus reproducing “experiences at [a] micro cultural level” (Guzman). For example, paintings of cherry blossoms and chopsticks held wrongly drawn to suggest a (vague and) general Asia are replaced with things that are smaller and more subtle but authentic such as a bag of rice shrimp crackers. Korean culture as well as language is incorporated into Cindy’s character, too, such as in the meals she eats or in her battle cries. Miyazawa, himself a Japanese Canadian, differentiates objects and items from different Asian cultures and inserts them into the comics accordingly, successfully avoiding and discarding the problematic but popular notion that all (East) Asian cultures are one and the same. As if to emphasize this differentiation, the 2021 series features a scene where Cindy is speaking to a Japanese American man about the monster she is currently facing, which derives from Japan, and these pages make it clear that the monster is specific to his culture and not hers (or both of theirs).

Carolyn Cocca has aptly written that “when the narrative’s point of view is consistently at that group instead of from that group, the objectified group’s story is not being told, empathy for that group is less likely, and the group’s power is subverted” (5). Jonathan Tsuei thus finds significance in hiring “people of Asian descent [to] work on these [Asian] characters because it moves [them] beyond simple ‘diversity’ for the sake of, but inclusion in the storytelling process” (qtd. in Guzman). It was the case in the previous two series that the “objectified group’s story [was] not . . . told” (Cocca 5), but with writers such as Kim including their and Silk’s culture into the central plot, the “subverted” power is taken back to reflect authentic voices. As a result, in the newer series with these creators, cultural backgrounds that had been so absent from Silk’s character and her story are finally visible, while the creators avoid the outdated stereotypes and exoticized imagery that were used in Silk’s debut issues and the previous two solo series.

The supervillains of both the 2021 and 2022 series, for instance, derive from Asian cultures, but neither of them is exaggerated nor is their Otherness emphasized. The central monster from the 2021 series is a cat demon named Kasha summoned by another villain from the series, the Japanese woman Saya. The Silk series is not Kasha’s debut, however. She briefly made an appearance first in X-Factor #221 (Jun. 2011) alongside many other nameless and countless demon creatures. There, Kasha is depicted as an unoriginal animal demon in half-humanoid form with red skin and a tail. That she is of Japanese origin is not exactly mentioned, but she appears alongside the wolf demon Okami (whose name is but a literal Japanese translation of “wolf”), implying possibly—though only to readers who have an understanding of the Japanese language—that she, too, is Japanese.

Silk thus takes this irrelevant demon that appeared for a couple of panels and transforms it into a proper cat demon, and it should be noted that this choice of animal is not random on the creators’ part. Kasha is actually a name of a specific yōkai, or supernatural creatures, spirits, or entities that have traditionally existed in Japanese culture. Kasha is known to steal corpses of those who have committed evil during their lives, and while its appearance is not quite clear, it is often said to resemble a cat or that it is a cat yōkai. This is in addition to the fact that cats, in general, have traditionally been believed in Japanese culture to have a demonic or supernatural element to them. Kasha’s depiction in Silk as a cat demon, but also one that happily devours lives, though not corpses, of (criminal) gang members thus makes sense. Goo and Miyazama, therefore, with their version of Kasha, take back a demon that was haphazardly thrown into a comics issue, and return it—or at least draw appropriate connections—to its origins.

While the villain of the 2021 series was Japanese, the villain in the 2022 series is Korean, and finally, for the first time, readers see Silk engaging with Korean culture. The villainous ancient witch who Silk must defeat is said to have come from the Joseon period which lasted from 1392 to 1897 in Korea. That she was damned for her witchcraft which led to her death during that age is not entirely historically wrong, as witchcraft was officially banned through much of that period.5 Additionally, it is also perhaps fitting that in her fight against the witch, Silk becomes more involved with traditional Korean culture and its history and wonders whether she should be more interested in them since they are a part of her heritage (Silk #2, Apr. 2022). When she voices her uncertainty that “[she has] been feeling [that she] should connect more with [her] heritage lately” (Silk #5, Jul. 2022), the creators draw attention to this absence in her previous iterations and prod at her future creators to consider her Korean roots as a significant part of her character.

While representation has gotten much better in comparison to her earlier appearances and her series, there is certainly still room for improvement. Like her previous solo series, the 2021 and 2022 series are conscious of feminist issues. Readers see, for example, Cindy being exasperated at her boss, J. Jonah Jameson’s outdated, ignorant, and sexist comments. The 2022 series’ evil witch, despite being displaced in time, seems to understand that back in her previous life, it was not only her witchcraft but also her being a powerful woman that made those around her feel threatened. Furthermore, most villains and guest superheroes that appear tend to be women, and the Silk comics serve as a space where powerful women can unleash their fullest potentials (and superpowers).

But while sexism is clearly denounced as such, racism again, as in the first two solo series, is entirely removed. Though the newer series are certainly better in that Silk addresses her heritage and cultural backgrounds, racism, systemic or personal, seems not to exist. Both the 2021 and 2022 series consist of only five issues, and so it is understandable that they did not have room to discuss such a colossal topic. However, it seems rather idealistic that, though both series have been published during the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent rise in racism and hate crime against Asians worldwide, racism and inclusivity are not brought up even once. Even if it had not been a direct commentary on anti-Asian violence, Silk tackling racism would have given the readers an empowering image of an Asian female superhero confronting the dangers, unfairness, and bigotry many Asians living in the U.S. (and elsewhere) experienced then and are still currently experiencing now. Additionally, and just as importantly, this would have given the series a direct relevance to contemporary issues.

Alongside racism, intersectionality does not seem to have been considered either. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, “is a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood among conventional ways of thinking.” Intersectionality studies promotes the idea that different identities such as being a woman and a racial and/or a sexual minority do not simply stack onto each other and exist independently from one another (Annamma et al. 12). Rather, they intertwine in complex ways that lead to unique experiences, privileges, and/or oppression. The superhero, who is likely to be an outsider to society and must balance various identities such as that of the hero persona and that of the civilian, is an apt figure to touch upon this concept. Ms. Marvel’s comics and character, for instance, are an exemplar. As Adrienne Resha contends, what makes Ms. Marvel, or Kamala Khan, interesting is her intersectionality (70) since her series deals with not only her superhero struggles, but also her struggles as a teenage girl with religious beliefs as a Muslim, and as a racialized minority in America. These identities and troubles or problems she faces are oftentimes intertwined, which agrees with Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s claim that

It is not possible to understand the (il)logic of any form of social stratification, any practice of cultural marginalization, or any type of inequality or human variation, without appreciating the deep, complex, comingling, interpenetration of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In the cauldron of social life, these categories come together. (106)

This could also have been the case for the Silk series. However Silk’s experiences and identities as an Asian American and a woman have yet to intersect. While there are moments that clearly show she is a feminist as well as moments where she actively engages and demonstrates her cultural backgrounds, they do not come together, and in the Silk series that currently exist, Cindy’s identities as an Asian/Korean American and a woman are depicted apart from one another. But now that her character and series are showing more interest in Korean and Asian culture, perhaps in a series in the near future, she will begin delving into her identity as not only an Asian or female superhero, but an Asian American female superhero. After all, that is an exceptional position not many have filled yet, not only in the Spider-Man Universe, but also in the Marvel Universe entirely, and there is much left to explore.

 

Conclusion

Despite Silk’s debut being anticipated in terms of representation, her character in early appearances was almost entirely shaped by problematic stereotypes, many of which have become normalized among depictions of Asian women in American fictional works over countless years of over-usage. This includes, but is not limited to, submissiveness and hypersexualization, the latter heavily marking Silk when she initially appeared.

When she received her own solo series, the stereotypes in relation to sexualization and exoticism were taken out. The result, however, was that anything related to race, Asian culture, and racism was entirely removed from the pages, the series becoming an epitome of a modern colorblind work. Though such works do attempt to achieve diversity, it is only done so in an artificial way as the notion of race as well as the reality of racism is completely dismissed. Not only does this allow for racial inequality to persist, but also leaves voices of different cultures and racial groups unheard.

It is finally in the 2021 and 2022 Silk series that Silk can connect to her heritage and actively show in the pages that Asian and Korean culture is a part of her character. Yet improvements can still be made, as her particular experiences as an Asian and Korean American female superhero have not been scrutinized, and racism is still not a part of the series’ narratives. Nevertheless, in comparison to those of her debut issues, Silk’s characterization and representation have advanced significantly. Series like the 2021 and 2022 Silk, which not only feature an Asian American protagonist but are also written and drawn by Asian creators, are extremely valuable because they allow comics to move on from “tokenization to representation” (Chu qtd. in Guzman). It is only in works such as these that appropriately and authentically reflect voices, experiences, and identities of people belonging to a certain group that proper diversity can be achieved. Representation can then move beyond an artificial one, where “diverse” means more than using different colors of ink for the skin or a promotion of an idealistic colorblind message that neglects existing problems concerning race.

 

 

Works Cited

Annamma, Subini Ancy, et al. “Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the Intersection of Race and Dis/ability.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 16 no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-31.

Apfelbaum, Evan P. et al. “Seeing Race and Seeming Racist? Evaluating Strategic Colorblindness in Social Interaction.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.4, 2008, pp. 918–932.

Azhar, Sameena et al. “‘You’re So Exotic Looking’: An Intersectional Analysis of Asian American and Pacific Islander Stereotypes.” Journal of Women and Social Work, vol. 36, no. 3, 2021, pp. 282-301

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, and Austen Ashe. “The End of Racism?: Colorblind Racism and Popular Media.” The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America, edited by Sarah E. Turner and Sarah Nilsen, NYU Press, 2014, pp. 57-81.

Brown, Jeffrey A. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. Mississippi UP, 2011.

CBR Staff. “CBR TV @ SDCC 2014: Humberto Ramos Talks Slott, Silk and “Amazing Spider-Man.” CBR, 20 Aug. 2014, https://www.cbr.com/cbr-tv-sdcc-2014-humberto-ramos-talks-slott-silk-and-amazing-spider-man/.

Chou, Rosalind S., and Joe R. Feagin. Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism. Routledge, 2010.

Cocca, Carolyn. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Doane, Ashley “Woody.” “Shades of Colorblindness: Rethinking Racial Ideology in the United States.” The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America, edited by Sarah E. Turner and Sarah Nilsen, NYU Press, 2014, pp. 15-38.

Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. Routledge, 1997. E-Book.

Guzman, Jennifer de. “Bring on the Spam Mussubi; The State of Asian Representation in Comics [Roundtable].” Comics Alliance, 6 May 2016, https://comicsalliance.com/asian-representation-comics-roundtable/.

Huynh, Que-Lam et al. “Perpetual Foreigner in One’s Own land: Potential Implications for Identity and Psychological Adjustment.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, vol. 30, no.2, 2011, pp.133–162.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” 1899.

Lai, Alvina. “Meet Silk, Marvel’s Newest Female Asian-American Superhero.” The Mary Sue, 19 Feb. 2015, https://www.themarysue.com/silk-asian-american-heroine/.

“Let the Good Times Roll.” Uncanny Avengers, by Rick Remender, illustrated by Olivier Coipel et al., vol. 1, no. 5, Marvel Comics, 2013.

Lewis, Amanda E. et al. “The Impact of ‘Colorblind’ Ideologies on Students of Color: Intergroup Relations at a Predominantly White University.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 69, no. 1-2, Winter-Spring 2000, pp. 74-91.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Kimberlé Crenshaw: What is Intersectionality?” YouTube, uploaded by National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), 23 Jun. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViDtnfQ9FHc.

Nilsen, Sarah and Sarah E. Turner. “Introduction.” The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America, edited by Sarah E. Turner and Sarah Nilsen, NYU Press, 2014, pp. 1-13.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge, 2015.

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar and Winnie Tam. Force of Domesticity, NYU Press, 2018.

Prasso, Sheridan. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. PublicAffairs, 2006.

Pyke, Karen D. and Denise L. Johnson. “Asian American Women and Racialized Femininities: ‘Doing’ Gender across Cultural Worlds.” Gender and Society, vol. 17, no. 1, 2003, pp. 33-53

Resha, Adrienne. “The Blue Age of Comic Books.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 2020, pp.66-81.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Batsford, 1992.

Richards, Dave. “NYCC: Thompson Spins New Webs for Spider-Man’s ‘Silk.’” CBR, 13 Oct. 2014, https://www.cbr.com/nycc-thompson-spins-new-webs-for-spider-mans-silk/.

Robbins, Trina. The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton: Kitchen Sink, 1996.

Rutherford, Jonathan. “A Place Called Home: Identity and the Cultural Politics of Difference” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, (Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, pp. 9-27.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage, 1978.

Silk. By Emily Kim, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa, Marvel Comics, 2022.

Silk. By Maurene Goo, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa. Marvel Comics, 2021.

Silk. By Robbie Thompson, illustrated by Stacey Lee. Marvel Comics, 2015, 2016-2017.

Silliman, Jael Miriam, et al. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, South End, 2004.

Smith, Jason. “Between Colorblind and Colorconscious: Contemporary Hollywood Films and Struggles Over Racial Representation.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 44, no. 8, 2013, pp. 779-797.

Squires, Catherine. Post-Racial Mystique, The Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. De Gryuter, 2014.

Tajima, Renee E. “Lots Blossoms Don’t Bleed: Images of Asian Women.” Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women, edited by Asian Women United of California, Beacon, 1989, pp. 308-317.

The Amazing Spider-Man. By Dan Slott, illustrated by Humberto Ramos, vol. 3, no. 4-6, Marvel Comics, 2014.

“The Coming of Sunfire!” X-Men, by Roy Thomas, illustrated by Don Heck, vol. 1 no. 64, Marvel Comics, 1970.

“The Hero Who Hated the Legion.” Superboy, by Cary Bates, illustrated by Mike Grell et al., vol. 1, no. 216, DC Comics, 1976.

The Veritable Records of Sejong, “Year 11 (1429), Month 7, Day 20, Entry 3.” http://esillok.history.go.kr/record/recordView.do

Vega, Tanzina. “A Show Makes Friends and History.” New York Times, 16 Jan. 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/arts/television/scandal-on-abc-is-breaking-barriers.html.

Watanabe, Paul Y. and Sungkwan E. J. Jang. “Anti-Asian American Racism.” Moving Towards Antibigotry, edited by the Center for Antiracist Research, Boston UP, 2022.

X-Factor. By Peter David, illustrated by Dennis Calero, vol. 1, no. 221, Marvel Comics, 2011.

Yamamoto, Traise. “In/Visible Difference: Asian American Women and the Politics of Spectacle.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 7, no. 1, 2000, pp. 43-55.

Footnotes

  1. The imperial flag is much debated both inside and outside Japan. Some Asian countries, for example Korea and China, identify the flag as a symbol of Japan’s imperialism and wartime aggression. In Japan, it is commonly associated with ultranationalism, far-right activism, and conservatism. Donning the imperial flag thus differs greatly in comparison to, say, Captain America, whose costume designed after the national flag is a sign of patriotism and heroism.[]
  2. Problems regarding Sunfire’s costume are not completely solved. The imperial flag did come to resemble more red and white stripes over the years, and he is now clad in a more generic superhero suit that is primarily red. However, not only did he have moment when his face became a skull with a red circle on the forehead, recalling the Japanese flag, but merchandise such as action figures of Sunfire in his original costume are still produced.[]
  3. From the moment she dons her spider web costume, Cindy has a codename for herself, Silk. She does not elaborate on how she came up with the name, or why she settled on it, and simply urges Spider-Man to call her this name whilst in her costume. Her name’s connection to Asia is emphasized in the 2016 solo series when Cindy, who needed a second superhero persona that is not Silk, creates the superhero Silkworm, whose name deviates from spider-silk and suggests relations to silk textiles. Additionally, as Silkworm, Cindy wears a costume with a collar that is slightly reminiscent of some traditional Asian outfits. Therefore, one cannot but wonder if her superhero name was intentionally chosen to evoke Asianness.[]
  4. Silk is certainly not the first of superhero comics to reflect such attitudes towards race. One of the most famous instances occurs in Superboy #216 (Apr. 1976) where Superboy, with his fellow superheroes from the Legion of Superheroes, claim their superhero team to be colorblind because the members consist of variously colored aliens. More recently, Uncanny Avengers #5 (May 2013), featured a scene in which Alex Summers of the X-Men urges the civilians of the Marvel Universe to look past his mutant genes that mark him a mutant and declares that they all belong to one human race. While race is not the center of discussion here, the X-Men have long been seen to represent minority groups including that of race, and Alex’s message to only see the individual and not their minority identities rings very similarly to colorblindness.[]
  5. The Veritable Records of Sejong, for instance, mentions one Crown Princess Hwi being deposed for using witchcraft.[]

Related Articles