Enter the Dragon Lady: On Heroine Worship and Reclaiming Asian Female Aggression

Guest Post by Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn's 'Heroine Worship'

Heroine Worship, the second book in my series starring Asian American superheroines, came out this week.

Those are words I still can't quite believe, no matter how many times I type them. Even as I hold the book in my hands, I have to stare at it for a really, really long time before it sinks in that it's real. It has pages and a cover and everything! And my two heroines, Evie Tanaka and Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang), are beautifully and prominently featured on said cover, perfectly rendered by artist Jason Chan.

Heroine Complex, the first book in the series, was Evie's book. It focused on her journey from wallflower to heroine, from downtrodden personal assistant to a woman confident in her own power. Heroine Worship is Aveda's book -- and I knew going in that she was going to be difficult in every sense of the word. She's aggressive and loud and dives into situations without thinking about the consequences. Her emotional arc is messy and complicated and involves her trying to figure out how to be a better friend to Evie and rein her more self-centered behavior while retaining the forcefulness and confidence that made her a good superheroine in the first place.

As Evie reminds her: Yes, she's a bludgeon. But bludgeons get shit done.

Aveda's aggressiveness is one of the things that made me love writing her. And thinking about her in such detail has me thinking about "difficult" female characters in general -- and who gets to be a bludgeon in the first place.


Sexy! Aggressive! Kickass!

I still have a vivid memory of getting into a heated discussion about the first McG Charlie's Angels movie. You know the kind of vivid memory I'm talking about, one of those bits of the past you can call up in an instant because the physical sensations associated with it are so strong: frustration welling in your chest, trying to calm yourself down so you don't make it weird, face uncomfortably hot as you try to articulate your points in a way that doesn't just sound like "blaaaaaah."

My discussion-mates -- white women -- argued that the Lucy Liu character, Alex, was a bad Asian stereotype, a "dragon lady." I said I loved the character because she was sexy, aggressive, and kickass (and also occasionally seemed to use stereotypical perceptions of Asian women against whoever she happened to be fighting).

Right, they said. Sexy! Aggressive! Kickass! So, a dragon lady.

Weirdly, this same level of exhaustive representative analysis wasn't applied to either of the white Angels, who got about the same level of character development as Alex (and honestly, Alex possesses plenty of other traits beyond her sexy, aggressive kickass-ness). I'm certainly not saying there isn't problematic shit in the Charlie's Angels movies -- there are plenty thoughtful critiques of Alex and other aspects of the movies from Asian women, and I always enjoy listening to and engaging with fellow Asian women about how we're portrayed onscreen. But this... was not that.

What I perhaps couldn't articulate at the time was this: my discussion-mates' dismissal of Alex was unavoidably filtered through their whiteness. The character checked a few boxes that, to them, represented something they'd heard was bad. They were complaining about stereotypes they had never really been personally affected by -- they never had to see their faces pasted onto "dragon lady" form, never had to feel the harm that can come from that. And somehow they could only see the Asian woman in the movie as that stereotype because she was sexy, aggressive, kickass. In their eyes, a dragon lady was apparently all she could be.

It didn't seem to matter that Alex -- an action heroine centered in the kind of big shiny Hollywood movie I grew up watching -- meant something to me, the only Asian person involved in the discussion. I felt like I was being told I couldn't claim her, I couldn't celebrate her. The fact that she contained any element they deemed "problematic" meant I had to ditch her entirely.

I remember doubting myself -- weren't they in fact articulating and bolstering a point I'd made about stereotypical characters in the past? I remember shoving down my anger, my aggression -- again, so I wouldn't make it weird. I remember the sensation that, in the end, I didn't have a right to those feelings.

But I kept coming back to the fact that to me, Alex was much more than the box they were trying to put her in.

It is impossible to explain that to someone who has the luxury of seeing herself onscreen every day.


Tough. Prickly.

Here's something I've been thinking about a lot: to me, what makes a stereotype is lack of nuance, complication, and specificity -- not the simple presence of a certain trait.

And yet... that "simple presence of a certain trait" seems to be what some people (particularly those who unavoidably see things through the white gaze) trot out as an excuse for keeping prominent characters locked in whiteness or for whitewashing them altogether. A character who knows martial arts can't be Asian…because, stereotype. A mystical, all-knowing guide can't be Asian…because, stereotype. A lady who is sexy, aggressive, and kickass can't be Asian... because, stereotype. But this is really only true if that character has literally no other traits. If the person creating/writing the character or the audience viewing the work sees that one trait and -- even if the character possesses or has the potential to possess many other qualities -- immediately thinks, "stereotype"... isn't that the problem?

I've seen tough, prickly characters like Jessica Jones and Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road described as... well, tough, prickly and therefore altogether awesome and revolutionary. I've seen tough, prickly characters like Jessica Huang from Fresh Off the Boat, Cristina Yang from Grey's Anatomy, and Melinda May from Agents of SHIELD described as tough, prickly... and therefore dragon ladies.

This is not to discount the much-deserved love these characters have also gotten, but the fact that they've been tagged with the "dragon lady" brush at all makes me see red. Because these women have complexity and layers and, frankly, many elements I relate to very strongly. I don't want them to be barred from fucking owning their tough prickliness. Their aggression. Their power.

These are some of the things I love most about them.


Photo Credit: Capoz Knows Photography

This brings me back to Aveda, the bludgeon, who has definitely been referred to as a "dragon lady" at least once. She is -- you guessed it -- sexy, aggressive, kickass. She is also hopefully more than that, if I've done my job right, an Asian American heroine who's complicated in all the ways we are in real life. Writing someone who has no problem saying what she wants, who refuses to be ignored, and who takes pride in her own excellence was incredibly cathartic -- she would likely scoff and send one of those killer Asian Lady Eyebrow Raises at anyone who dared to reduce her to a stereotype simply because she possesses certain traits (traits she's very proud of, I might add).

Through writing her, I've realized that if I could go back in time to that long-ago Charlie's Angels discussion, I'd fight tooth and nail for Alex -- and perhaps most importantly, for my right to claim and celebrate her if I want to. I'd totally make it weird. I'd be aggressive about it. Maybe I'd even kick some asses. No matter what, I'd own these qualities.

I guess that means I'm a dragon lady. And you know what? I'll own that, too. Enter the motherfucking dragon.

Heroine Worship launches in LA on July 8 at 7 pm at The Ripped Bodice (3806 Main Street, Culver City, CA 90232). The launch will feature special appearances by Jenny Yang, Julia Cho, Keiko Agena, and Will Choi from Asian AF. Plus: cupcakes, book signing, and LuckDish Curry food truck! Sarah will also be appearing 7/7 at 7:30 pm at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego and 7/9 at 3 pm at Borderlands Books in San Francisco.

Sarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex -- the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines -- for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers' Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog's Best Books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out now. Sarah also wrote "The Ruby Equation" for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the romantic comedy novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from io9 and USA Today and is in development as a feature film. Current projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her writing has appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.com, Back Stage, The Hollywood Reporter, StarTrek.com, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. You can visit her at heroinecomplex.com or on Twitter: @sarahkuhn

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