By: Bailey Steen
This article first appeared on TrigTent.com
It’s becoming something of a staple among Twitter mobs to throw their most respected anti-hate creators onto the cancellation pyre. The most recent notable figure to be on the receiving end of this treatment is Lindsay Ellis, one of YouTube’s most prominent feminists, authors, and film essayists. Though Ellis has made a career, in part, out of pointedly combatting and condemning online bigotry, this hasn’t stopped the perennial outrage mob from attempting to burn her reputation to the ground — instead, old and new tweets of hers are being used to frame her as holding some sort of “anti-Asian bias”. In response, Ellis decided to shut down her social media account before the online harassment could continue.
If you went online on March 26th, you would have seen that Ellis randomly started trending across multi-national channels such as the United States, Australia, and England before even making a single statement regarding her own drama. In fact, she was merely the centerpiece of a decentralized effort by trolls to use her tweets to find supposedly problematic content, such as her latest opinion on “Raya and the Last Dragon,” a new fantasy animated film produced by Disney, in which she compared its narrative structure to that of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. This was decried as somehow being a racist conflation of all Asian media.
The offending tweet is below. Viewer discretion is advised.
In the fallout, it’s clear that some people are now playing a game of granting her critics undue good faith, the most surprising of these people being Ellis herself.
“I can see where if you squint I was implying that all Asian-inspired properties are the same, especially if you were already privy to those conversations where I had not seen them,” she tweeted before deactivating her account, “but the basic framework of TLA is becoming popular in fantasy fiction outside of Asian inspired stuff.” She later released a brief statement on the Patreon page for her YouTube channel, writing that “the people who are saying that this is the result of carelessness are right — I was careless.”
I want to be crystal clear that Lindsay Ellis was not careless in her critique, nor can any legitimacy to this drama be seen even “if you squint” at her words for hours at a time. Still, given the level of vitriol directed her way, it’s understandable that she may have chosen this route rather than deal with the mental stress of trying to rhetorically free herself from the clutches of an angry mob who seem to be confusing harassment for activism. We can’t expect all victims of bullying to simultaneously withstand onslaughts of online hatred and write perfectly cogent defenses of themselves without a strain on their personal-professional psyche. That being said, I’m certainly not going to pass up the opportunity to tell her critics why they’re not only wrong to condemn this innocent woman but are actively damaging the project of promoting an inclusive anti-hate culture.
For starters, the film they’re defending is not actually Asian media. In fact, it’s arguably more deceptive at framing itself that way than the likes of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which is an American-made television show filmed with a predominantly white studio and cast. Raya, produced by Hollywood’s all-power movie conglomerate Disney, does, in fairness, feature a predominantly-Asian cast, including rising star Kelly Marie Tran of Star Wars fame, as well as two Asian screenwriters in Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. Is this a clear step above all-white everything? Of course. But it’s rich to use these actors and screenwriters as tokens of racial justice when they’re in the two areas of production with the least amount of creative, financial, and distributive power. If it takes two to tango, it takes a lot more than actors and writers to bring entertainment to your screens.
To be clear, there’s no question that as the face and skeleton of the production, their role in filmmaking (let alone Asian representation) is vitally important to the industry. I’m certainly not (color) blind to the need for inclusivity in the fields of acting and writing, particularly given that Disney has its own track-record in shafting Star Wars lead actor John Boyega from the unlikely hero to common black sidekick providing comic relief. Nevertheless, let’s not kid ourselves that successes in two departments suddenly erases the entire power imbalance that comes from decision-makers such as directors, producers, and distributors, or even their underlings such as cinematographers and editors who, under the instruction of management, can suddenly cut people from their films at the snap of fingers. It’s hardly a great deal for minorities to be used as a cudgel, both by management and their self-imposed liberators.
And in these fields, who is at the helm exactly? Besides granting notable exceptions to co-producer Osnat Schurer (Israeli) and co-director Carlos López Estrada (Mexican-American), the film is still predominantly a white American production masquerading as Asian media, however entertaining or faithful audiences may interpret the film to be. To have this discussion, we shouldn’t mistake Asian-focused media with Asian-produced media, particularly if the anti-hate side is going to include Disney in their corner. So for Twitter users to falsely liken Ellis’ tweet to a white girl ignorantly saying jazz artists stole their style from “La La Land,” consider yourselves caught hook, line, and sinker in the propaganda of those trying to corner off the slight-inclusivity market. Luckily for Ellis, tropes and racial shields aren’t enough to sway her hand at popping champagne towards bare minimum social justice.
After all, Disney and Nickelodeon did not even invent these tropes of young, ambitious, all-powerful warriors traveling with their friends across the world to unite the kingdoms. No, these basic through-lines were distilled and imported from elsewhere, taken from the deep folklore of Asian mythology which does have quite an impressive history of more feminist-sympathetic women warriors. In an interview with Stylecaster.com, Nguyen confirmed that Raya’s own dragon character Sisu is actually based on Nāga, a water dragon in Southeast Asia.
“The difference between an Eastern or Chinese dragon versus the Nāga is that a Chinese dragon is based on luck and power,” she said. “And the Nāga, because it’s water, it’s life and hope. It’s just that slight little difference. We didn’t want a dragon that came in to empower [human protagonist] Raya to hit people more; we wanted one that would inspire her to open up and trust.”
This nuanced, compassionate interpretation of animals and spirit in Asian media is noticeably different from their American interpretations, at least when it comes to the reductive nature of marketing. If we take Raya’s own Sisu, for example, this surprisingly deep, heart-warming, inspiring picture is lacking from the film’s most recent trailer, using a mish-mash of crass potty humor and awkward dialogue to present its dragon as a more laughable sidekick than a lovably flawed companion. It’s not too dissimilar from how Avatar markets its flying bison Appa, which from the outside seems to serve as the dry, deadpan humor foil to its eccentric lead Aang, whereas the show itself does offer more than the surface. When it comes to advertising, never underestimate corporate America’s ability to distill most of its compelling media into mass-market sugary sludge.
Is it really surprising that a company like Disney rarely uses such spiritual reverence to market films, instead relying upon the common tactics of surface-level materialism? Not at all. As much as we’d like it to be, the movie mogul game has no such responsibility. But a film that relies upon man, money, and markets alone lives apart from faith and giving, which defies the underlying spiritual meaning of Asian mythos. You need not be a spiritual person to understand how mainstream American media often loses that meaning. Given that context, it’s easy to see how the kinds of comparisons Ellis makes in her tweet are perfectly justifiable, and even necessary to strengthening Asian storytellers’ original interpretations.
As Ellis stated, these narrative elements are even common among YA (otherwise known as Young Adult fiction), which all too often don’t challenge their target audiences beyond dirty jokes, underdeveloped archetypes, and hyper-individualist ‘you alone can change the system’ stories. Life is rarely so easily left in the hands of one man unless, of course, you have the benefit of being a powerful dictator with serious institutional powers. Otherwise, no, those institutional powers require more realistic solutions. I would argue her critique can even be expanded to most fictional works featuring a “chosen one” hero, Asian or otherwise. And in fairness, it’s quite easy for writers to focus on a single main character and supporting cast and flesh out their single arc, which alone can be quite daunting for child audiences. The media’s role in child entertainment is a whole other discussion.
Young adults are not the same as children, however, which I’ve explained in both a video and article on whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote. As the resources in my work show, members of the young adult group from the ages of 14 and up can be quite underestimated in their ability to: engage in political issues, retain political knowledge (even beyond their own adult peers), canvas and organize for political action committees, change their own parent’s views on social, institutional and economic struggles, and shape the way governments focus their efforts in the future. If this is the case, where’s the issue in offering audiences more than that of a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, offering foreign concepts of spirituality, trust, responsibility, social change, without treating young adults with kid’s gloves?
For Ellis, it seems there’s more to be done to offer audiences. This is consistent with her entire career as a progressive film critic believing media can give us more than problematic pop culture fluff with a stereotype cherry on top. Ironic, then, this scandal occurred when her latest video makes that agenda just so obvious: “Tracing the Roots of Pop Culture Transphobia.” Doesn’t exactly strike a bigoted cord. When these critiques are suddenly extended to Asian media, which can be so much more than the broad generalizations made by American studios who take the reigns from POC shields, suddenly it’s the person who mentions there’s a problem that’s really the problem. For her critics, Ellis slanted her eyes and mocked Asians as all the same, and are now trying to frame themselves as some morally justified crusaders against the big bad racist in their midst.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In choosing to interpret her words in the most uncharitable manner possible, this crowd serves a role no different from Nazi shitposters who try to cut down large so-called SJW creators for the sake of opportunism. Agendas differ, but the tactics are the same. And Ellis is no stranger to this. It’s quite funny given she admitted during her XOXO conference to being subjected to this same harassment behavior years prior by Mike Cernovich, the online right’s notorious fake newsman, creep, and original king of cancel culture. Cernovich, along with his audience, had tried to get Ellis’ contract terminated by the PBS network for a tweet making a joke that she’s “excited for white genocide,” the conspiracy theory that white people (like herself) aren’t breeding enough and will eventually be replaced genetically and demographically by POC.
At the time, Ellis took a similar approach in closing her profile to ignore the harassment, the only difference being she made no such statement tepidly granting legitimacy to the mob who were abusing her for making obvious critiques of modern-day racism. As much as the right beats to death the idea of “cancel culture run rampant,” allowing the Murdoch media vortex to cover the asses of people who actually further racism, good faith agents need to make a concerted effort to stop this form of ire. This is yet another milestone in the use of weaponized misinformation, employed to smear critics of the system as somehow being problematic themselves. These bad faith accusations are willfully made and ignorantly spread without regard for the person being targeted or the progress they sought to achieve.
Simply put, it’s not enough to have a select few Vaush and Xanderhaal types to preach on stream about why this behavior is wrong. These unjust opportunists must be stopped in their tracks, and we must pay particular attention to how journalists and creators cover these kinds of stories. It’s important to recognize that not only do these smear campaigns often include flagrant violations of social media TOS in the form of libel, harassment, and abuse, but they hinder the ability of genuinely progressive content to influence society. Curbing the potency of these manufactured scandals, however, will ironically require both the use of these same social media channels where faux outrage is often amplified, as well as a change in the way that big business and the tech sector reflexively capitulate to the demands of online mobs.
Unlike how Disney once bent to Cernovich when push came to shove for weird joke tweets made by James Gunn, the left should cast out these deceivers who are jeopardizing the goals of progressives both politically and culturally. For “he that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”