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HomeAnonymousSimu Liu Controversy, Explained | The Mary Sue

Simu Liu Controversy, Explained | The Mary Sue

TORONTO, ONTARIO - JUNE 28: Simu Liu attends "Barbie" Canadian Press Day on June 28, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario.

For many, Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu‘s steady climb to mainstream celebritydom looked like a win for representation. Like other marginalized groups, very few Asian performers (especially men) get to his level of success without having 50-plus credits under their belt; Kumail Nanjiani, Steven Yeun, Henry Golding, and Manny Jacinto come to mind. However, as Liu began promotion for Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, many of his unsavory posts from Reddit emerged.

An intra-community dialogue about his comments quickly spilled into a Marvel Fandom™ discussion. Thanks to Liu’s actions and the nature of the internet, a lot got lost. Even engaging with criticism was dubbed as “Asian Hate,” with whataboutisms flying left and right. The following only examines instances where Liu is clearly out of pocket, particularly about his critics—which isn’t to downplay the situations where he’s fully justified in calling people out.

This includes the regular crowd of haters decrying any and all diversity in media, and his callouts of media playing into the “all Asians look alike” lie. While there’s a lot of nuance around the layers of featurism and colorism in the casting of Crazy Rich Asians, it was very out of pocket for people to loudly express their desire of Asian men with Eurocentric features over Liu. (This extends to social media users in China calling him ugly for similarly terrible reasons.) Liu’s particular criticism may be suspicious, but the racist response was disgusting. From the outright to subtle, many have said racist things to or about Liu. But those issues are—and should remain—separate from Liu’s own behavior.

Men’s Rights Activist

Simu Liu’s initial controversy comes from his alleged posts on Reddit under the username NippedInTheBud, including making sexist/gender essentialist comments toward women in sports, and Islamaphobic commentary about Muslims. Before the account—which has been credibly linked to Liu—was deleted, these comments were mostly made in r/aznidentity forums. While not its sole purpose, this subreddit is a nesting ground for Asian Men’s Rights Activists (MRAsians). Like other men’s rights spaces online, it’s a forum where male users blame marginalized people (including women) in discussions about systemic issues they face.

What makes MRAsians different from the general MRA community is the bullying of Asian women, especially Asian women who date non-Asian men. Most patriarchal and incel (or incel-adjacent) communities adhere to an orientalized fantasy of a submissive (East) Asian woman. For a number of complicated reasons, not least of which is their proximity to real Asian women, MRAsians don’t engage with this as strictly. Additionally, some MRAsians express resentment of Asian women for society’s fetishization of them, and lash out. In dating studies, Asian men tend to rank very low in desirability alongside Black men. Politically Invisible Asians have, in detail, documented recurring trends of misogyny, hatred towards multiracial Asians, homophobia, and anti-Blackness.

I don’t bring up r/aznidentity to invoke the “find the Red” mentality. Firstly, this isn’t a straight-up neo-Nazi or incel forum. The subreddit r/aznidentity appears to genuinely want to bring Asians across the diaspora together to work through stuff. However, like any community, it has allowed extreme content and ideas—especially ideologically regressive and conservative ones—to thrive. I see this a lot within Black spaces and the “Hip Hop news” social media sphere. (The latter of which is largely run by non-Black people.) Bigotry manifests so easily before accounting for bad faith actors or issues facing each community—for example, the psychological influence of being propped up as a Model Minority for half a century.

I’m emphasizing Liu’s time around MRAsians because that’s his sphere of influence and he moves like them online. To his credit, Liu did distance himself from the NippedInTheBud posts and MRAsian attitudes within a few weeks of the Reddit comments surfacing. In particular, he denounced attacks on Asian women and “over-correcting emasculation” with misogyny. However, Liu undercut this distance from MRAsians by “liking” posts implying his innocence and re-upping past posts. Regardless of intention or how much he’s grown, Liu’s dismissal still ended in harassment of Asian women online by him and MRAsians, particularly feminists and journalists who were already receiving the ire of MRAsians.

Accusations of homophobia

Content warning: child sexual abuse (skip to next section)

Until the most talked about issue became his ego, the biggest transgression was Liu’s alleged 2015 comments on pedophilia and homophobia. This began on a r/worldnews post linking a BBC story on Germany asking pedophiles to sign up for confidential treatment. Talking to anonymous pedophiles, the story discussed a behavioral therapy program designed to help them live with the rest of the population without causing harm to children (including indirect harm caused by possessing pornography.) Despite laws enshrining literal child marriage, these programs are rare. Many would rather expand punitive measures like executing and imprisoning pedophiles, even celibate ones, rather than treating the root of the problem.

The problem lies in Liu’s response. Ahead of him playing a pedophile role, Liu looked at media portrayals and clinical studies of the disorder, and applauded Germany’s approach to handling an issue that affects 1-5% of the population. Where he went wrong was in comparing this group and their treatment to the experience of being gay. In the Reddit thread on the BBC story, NippedInTheBud commented, “From a biological standpoint, it’s no different than being gay—a small mutation in the genome that defines our sexual preferences. Depending on what area of the world you were born and what time, it also may have been a perfectly acceptable thing to act on those urges.”

While Liu clarified that he was only referring to stigmatization and that pedophilia is wrong, it was harmful to invoke these together. Misinformation about these topics (particularly the idea that all LGBTQ+ people are pedophiles), is too sensitive to be throwing around even with the best of intentions. Bigots weaponize the far-too-common belief that pedophilia is linked to queerness and LGBTQ+ acceptance. Even in good faith, and in a rather compassionate conversation about the pedophilia treatment, Liu came off as homophobic. Ultimately his intentions don’t matter, especially when using that connection to demonize LGBTQ+ people is still fairly popular.

The second, smaller issue arises in the possible context of the character he referenced. For Gizmodo, Charles Pulliam-Moore hypothesized that the show in question was the Canadian program Blood and Water. Moore argues that this character is a liar and manipulator, making that his core character trait, not pedophilia.

Lashing out online

Much of everything I’ve outlined above has been lost in the sauce. With a bigger spotlight and Liu’s general demeanor on social media, he’s become disliked for a different reason: his ego. Regardless of his upward mobility as a Marvel hero, leading man, and a supporting character in Barbie, when people talk about Liu online he doesn’t respond well. While some of the high-profile instances of Liu going after people have involved people who tagged him directly, most cases are quite the opposite.

Liu (and/or his team) combs social media for mentions of his name and then goes on the offensive. On multiple occasions his name isn’t said, but Liu still engages. Some instances appear to be the result of fans (and posts on r/aznidentity) alerting him to critics. Instead of disengaging because he now has a massive fan base, Liu claps back—oftentimes with the same energy regardless of the comment. Criticism of anything he does is treated as an indictment of his identity and/or his talent.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, it appears that Liu only does this when he feels like he is in a position of power. For example, while he’s gone after journalists and random TikTok users, he has retracted criticism of prominent bigots. While working on Arthur the King with Mark Wahlberg, Liu deleted past tweets calling out his co-star for committing a hate crime against Johnny Trinh, a blind Vietnamese man. Before beating up and casting slurs at Trinh in 1986, Wahlberg was caught several times verbally and physically attacking Asian men and Black children. Through various measures, Wahlberg’s sentence was reduced and he only spent 45 days in jail.

Forgiveness for a leg up

Speaking with People, Liu defended his deletion of the tweets about Wahlberg “as a gesture of professionalism and to open [the] door to progressive conversations and (hopefully) positive change.” Lui continued, “Obviously it’d be pretty weird to go to work with that tweet still up.” Here Liu is sending two messages. One, that he’s an arbiter for racial justice. In actuality, his and Wahlberg’s actions don’t indicate that any actual conversations or progress happened. (This is not an explainer on Wahlberg, so go check what he’s been up to in the last few years for that.) Also, this statement falls short because of the way Liu has branded himself, which gets right into the second message sent, and one that is a recurring pattern: Liu desires personal comfort over meaningful change beyond how it might impact him personally.

Liu made his brand speaking truth to power. His social media over the past near-decade consists of rightfully calling out people and organizations for their racism towards the Asian community. The most famous instance of which is calling out whitewashing and lack of Asian representation in Hollywood—including Marvel Studios. Now choosing to revoke callouts, or cushion them with compliments, it seems like he only advocated for representation for his own benefit. It’s hard not to see the parallels between Liu’s actions and influencers in the Ally Industrial Complex online.

Additionally, “Gesture of professionalism” has a subtle whiff of respectability politics as Liu is assimilating to the sad reality of working in Hollywood: not calling out your peers unless it is fashionable to do so. (Again opting for incremental liberal changes instead of a restructured society that’s fair for everyone.) As an artist who got their platform in part by speaking up about injustice, Liu doesn’t have that luxury in the eyes of many. That attitude is also present in his tactless praising of civility in the face of oppression. (This was in response to another Marvel show, Falcon and Winter Soldier.) Instead of weaponizing the Buzzfeed dialect of social justice language to absolve himself of accountability and retrospection, he should log off.

(feature image: Photo by Mathew Tsang/Getty Images)

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