So as I thought about how I wanted to go about writing Asian characters in fantasy, I decided I didn't want to write about a fantasy version of Ancient China. And I also didn't want to go the route of Ash and have the characters be Asian in my head but not apparent to anyone who's only read the story and not any notes by me. And since the characters in Ash are supposedly Asian but the love interest has green eyes, that made me think of an upcoming (or is it out already?) YA Asian fantasy that actually has a green-eyed Asian love interest, and that was the main thing that made me so mad I couldn't fall asleep.
This book has been getting a lot of buzz, and you may have recognized it as Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, in which case you'd be right (points for you!). Ok, so I have to admit I have not read this book either (I know, I'm doing an awful lot of commenting on books I haven't read, haha), and only thought of it in my half-asleep stupor because, a few days before, I'd read Nafiza's awesome review of it on GoodReads.
Here's the relevant excerpt from Nafiza's review.
So, here’s the thing, as far as I know, Japanese people (you’ll have to forgive me for the assumption that the setting is a mythical Japan, all evidence points to that) do not have green eyes. Yet the samurai who features so prominently in Yukiko’s dream has green eyes. (She met him for half a minute and that was it, insta-lust, she didn’t even see his face, just his eyes and she was gone!) I initially got excited because hey, gaijin slave promenading as a samurai! Interesting stuff! Right? Wrong. No explanation given there but maybe it’s just me being extra picky on the details.Oh hey look, a green-eyed Japanese love interest! In an Asian fantasy! Finally, I'm talking more about the green-eyed part of my initial tweet.
So, I understand that there actually ARE some East Asians with green or blue eyes (hazel/green would be a lot more common than grass-green or sky-blue). But the vast, vast majority of East Asians have brown eyes. So what's the message behind giving the Asian love interest green eyes? Our culture already tells green-eyed people that their eyes are beautiful, but we rarely see media telling us that Asian features are beautiful, and Asian males especially don't get enough love. And there are so many slurs and jokes about Asian eyes already. Why is it ok to take away this awesome opportunity to present Asian features as desirable and beautiful and turn it into an ode to green or light-colored eyes that we already see all the time?
But maybe it's not really about how green-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people. Maybe it's about that struggle when you look different from everyone else. Maybe it's about internalizing what society tells you is the norm and hating the non-voluntary non-conformity that shows up in the mirror. Maybe it's about how it feels to be called a freak by your family and outcast for something you have no control over, and being seen as a dirty foreigner despite your loyalty to your people. Maybe it's about having someone else look past your appearances and loving you for who you are. Maybe it's about struggling to come with grips with identity when you're neither accepted by your people nor by those for whom green eyes are not so rare. Maybe it's about fighting the conventional standards of beauty and believing you are attractive when everyone who matters in the narratives you see is praised for features you don't have.
But from what I can tell from the review, the Asian protagonist takes one look at his gorgeous green eyes (half a minute, according to Nafiza) and falls desperately in love with him. WTF??? Insta-lust is terrible enough as a trope in YA fantasy (see my list of pet peeves), even worse when based pnly on a single physical trait. Don't people notice this problematic message that green eyes are inherently soooo attractive that, even someone who hasn't been conditioned by the media to think of them as gorgeous, and have never seen anything like it, will of course fall over herself for this trait? (Not saying that green eyes aren't attractive, because they can be very pretty, but people who'd never seen them before would probably freak out or be taken aback at first rather than rhapsodizing about their beauty.) And if an Asian girl in an Asian fantasy is going to fall for one physical trait, of COURSE it's going to be one that's more commonly found among non-Asian people. Heave forbid she finds a brown-eyed Asian man attractive! WTF.
I remember how it felt to think that I could never be like a fantasy heroine because I wasn't white and my eye color wasn't special enough. Whenever my sister, friend, and I played princess, we always made our alter egos white — blonde, brunette, redhead. Green, blue, gray eyes. Because only white girls get to have magical adventures and be princesses, and of course they only marry other white people. Even our pretend maids were white. I don't think there was a single PoC in our entire make-believe kingdom, which sounded right to us because, hey, that's just how fantasy magic kingdoms are, right?
But having only white people in fantasy is pretty messed up. Let's write an Asian fantasy! Let's have a kick-ass girl protagonist! Let's have a hot love interest! But here's a problem — black hair, brown eyes are just so unattractive and boring, and you know how Asians all look the same, how would any reader ever be able to figure out who I want them to see as "special"? Oh, I know! Everyone knows that in a fantasy kingdom, if you have light, special eye colors (mega points for violet!) that means the author is pointing you out as a special snowflake. So... I'll just give my Asian love interest green eyes! Now they don't all look the same, and anyway it's much easier for readers to relate to being attracted to brilliant sea-green eyes than to boring, dull, squinty, dung-colored brown eyes. Ugh.
Look, I think it's great that people find green eyes attractive; I think green eyes are nice, too. But the media is already white-centric enough with their standards of beauty and I'm disappointed that the author chose to go this route and, rather than making most of the chance to present something other than typically white characteristics as attractive and desirable, instead chose to add another voice to "aren't people with light-colored skin/eyes/hair just SO BEAUTIFUL AND SPECIAL??" That particular camp is already loud enough, thank you very much. In fact, it's kind of drowning out the other voices.
I mean, if you're going to write an Asian fantasy, is it too much to ask that you let go of your white-centric ideas of beauty while you write about Asian characters in an Asian culture? There are few enough Asians in YA fantasy, please don't force your white-centric aesthetics on one — especially if it's only for omg-special-snowflake-insta-lust.
So yeah, now you know why green eyes made me so mad I couldn't fall back asleep. :P
P.S. And for those people who want to point to Japanese anime and manga (aka the author's primary source of research) and say, "How come you're not calling them out for being full of Japanese people with weirdly-colored hair/eyes/crazy features?", the context is totally different. I assure you that Japanese people are in no danger of being whitewashed or underrepresented in Japanese media.
P.P.S. For those of you interested, here's a great review by Cyna pointing out other problematic cultural/linguistic/gender issues in Stormdancer. Definitely worth a read!