Rinse, Don't Repeat

Why do we keep giving Asian characters colored streaks in their hair?

Fox

Have you seen the latest trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse? You know, the one with Storm, Angel, and Magneto using their apocalyptic abilities on screen?

It’s very, very cool, but it also features one of the weirder, more subtle racist tropes that have been a feature of comic books and films depicting characters of Asian descent for a long, long time. This time around it involves the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Psylocke. Can you spot it?

Fox

You know, what? It’s a little hard to see, what with all the flipping, glowing swords, and car-slicing. Here’s a still photo; take a good look at her hair:

x-men-apocalypse-psylocke-olivia-munn-image

See those purple streaks? They’re a hallmark of most depictions of Psylocke, who’s no stranger to troubling imagery, but in the broader scheme of Asian characters, they’re a part of a long-standing, sort of racist aesthetic tradition that should be retired.

For some reason, artists and costume designers love giving Asian characters brightly colored streaks in their hair. These streaks are meant to convey how cool or edgy they are. Comic book artist Jen Bartel accurately identified the trend as lazy, problematic, and all too common in modern media:

The trend, Bartel theorized, was quite literally a way to color-code a character’s general emotional range. Blue, for example, could mean “calm or reserved,” purple might convey “toughness,” and red could just mean straight up “dragon lady.” Coincidentally, those designations match up pretty well with nearly every example Bartel pointed out.

In a memorable scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the earnest, but soft-spoken Knives Chau literally has the highlights punched out of her hair during a fight with a super-powered vegan. It’s a weird moment plucked directly from the comic book that’s meant to be played for laughs, but there’s something telling (read: cringeworthy) about seeing a guy beat the highlights out of a woman that she dyed into her hair trying to impress another guy.

In a now deleted blog post, Tumblr users Shoorm and Writing With Color argued that the trend likely originated as an attempt to “‘Americanize’ the East Asian character, make them more “exotic,” or to show how unique this character is.” While Knives’s decision to dye her hair might have seemed odd, there was, technically, a solid narrative reason as to why did it. Unfortunately, though, the streaks often go unexplained in other examples.

Ultimately, Bartel and the other artists speaking out against the hair streak trend understand that for some living, breathing people of color, a splash of purple or blue might be just the look they want to incorporate into their actual hair. The solution to the problem, Bartel explained, was actually quite simple.

“If there were more Asian characters that DIDN’T sport the hair streak as a default form of identification, it wouldn’t be a problem,” Bartel wrote. “More [characters of color] across the board = less burden for the characters that currently exist to shoulder the weight of representing all.”