Stereotyping is one of the most controversial topics in pop culture, and there has been plenty of discussion about it in the comic industry. Asian characters are routinely scrutinised, but a superhero that goes against type is Colleen Wing. Mainstream audiences have been introduced to her through Iron Fist, where she’s played by Jessica Henwick. The comic version has been around for several decades, representing the resilience of the Asian American community.
A mixed heritage
Colleen was born to Professor Lee Wing and a Japanese mother with samurai ancestry. Her father taught Asian history at Columbia University, so she grew up with a mixed upbringing. At some point, Professor Wing learned that Danny Rand would seek to avenge the death of his father, so he sent Colleen to meet him. Colleen and Iron Fist became quick friends and the two helped each other on multiple occasions.
Years later, Colleen returned to New York City, where she met Misty Knight. Misty saved Colleen from a gun battle and the two of them became best friends. Colleen’s friendship with Misty is an important relationship for both women, as Colleen helped Misty get over her depression when she lost her arm. The two of them set up their own private investigation firm, Nightwing Restorations Ltd.
Colleen has shown great pride for her heritage, being trained by her grandfather Kenji Ozawa. She embraced her samurai roots, becoming a skilled fighter. Her weapon of choice is a 1000-year-old katana that she inherited from her grandad.
In contrast to how she’s portrayed in the MCU, Colleen received the knowledge of K’un L’un when Iron Fist melded their minds together. This gave her the ability to focus her chi, increasing her strength and improving her ability to heal.
Breaking the mould
Colleen is a character that breaks the stereotypes of Asian characters because of her attitude and upbringing. Traditionally, Asian characters are portrayed as being overly polite and perfect at everything. Colleen is crass, blunt and operates in a world of shady morality.
In a 2017 interview, Jessica Henwick confirmed it was a major reason why she chose to take the role in Iron Fist.
“One stereotype I get a lot as an Asian actress is that you’re playing the model minority – the Asians are the best, that they’re perfect and positively moral all the time. Colleen is the opposite of that. She swears a lot, she’s a good person but she can be bad too. She’s shades of grey.”
“She doesn’t have a ‘tiger mother, she has no family, and she’s living in – well, not quite poverty – but she can’t pay her bills. She’s really struggling. She’s got to rent the dojo out to Weight Watchers! And that’s something that we never see for some reason.”
“Statistics just came out that in New York City, Asian Americans are actually the poorest of all the minorities, and have the highest rates of poverty – and that’s a story we never get to tell. Another stereotype with Asian roles is that they have to do martial arts. And that was the one that made me go ‘hmm’ with Colleen. But actually having done it, it was so integral to the character…Ok, she’s an Asian who does martial arts, but what comes after that? What if you fight regularly – what if your morals are compromised? What if you’re addicted?”
Colleen’s profession as a private investigator makes her stand out as well. Through her job, she has the opportunity to help disenfranchised members of the community. Being a PI can be a messy job and requires a different approach to traditional police work.
Colleen has also operated outside of the law by taking over a sect of The Hand called The Nail. She took it upon herself to try and steer the group in a better direction, but realised that she couldn’t change their nature. Ultimately, she betrayed them.
Jessica Henwick’s portrayal of Colleen demonstrates Asian characters don’t have to be confined to a specific role. The character has got plenty of potential and she deserves to be recognised as a culturally important superhero.
Colleen is an example of a fleshed out female samurai. Be sure to read my article about how samurai are portrayed in contemporary comics!