As a narrative form driven considerably by adversarial conflict, in science fiction a good story must have a villain just as interesting (sometimes even more so) than the primary hero or protagonist. As one of the archetypes from which much popular “space opera” is derived, Flash Gordon did much to perfect this template in the form of villains such as Ming the Merciless.
Part of the appeal of such characters in these contexts is that neither hero nor villain usually allow pressures short of overwhelming force influence the types of things either believed should be stood up for even if it happened to be their own lust for power or megalomania. However, had the original Flash Gordon been saddled with the same politically correct sensitivities as those weighing down the creativity of writers and producers of today, it is doubtful the character would have achieved name recognition as an icon of popular culture nearly on par with Superman and if he had been a real interplanetary swashbuckler our planet would have been laid to waste by Mongo long ago.
Though the series did not premiere until 8/10/07, considerably prior to that airdate publicists and producers had already fanned out across the Internet wringing their hands in an almost Phil Donahue-I-feel-so-guilty-to-be-an-American manner as to why it was necessary to alter the appearance of Ming the Merciless. For you see, in most interpretations, Ming is depicted with a Fu Manchu mustache and the flowing robes of an oriental despot.
Since the 1980’s or there abouts, Ming has become decreasingly Asian in his appearance to the point in a 1996 version of Flash Gordon he was no longer humanoid at all but rather reptilian. The reason often given is the need to avoid racial stereotyping (I wonder that the herpetological and animals rights lobbies have to say about lizards being depicted in such a light then).
Interestingly, this concern is only invoked when it benefits minorities. For example, in publicity shots on the SciFi.com website, rather than flowing robes or even a cape, the Emperor of Mongo is rather depicted in a more militaristic looking ensemble.
Furthermore, not only are all but the visually impaired able to ascertain that the actor portraying the role is blond but in the accompanying text, which is longer for Ming than any of the other characters as it goes on and on apologizing how Ming looked previously throughout comic book and cinematic history, closes by pointing out that the actor playing the part is blond.
Often, we have it so beaten into our heads that we aren’t even to think about race or physical characteristics that I was condemned up one side and down the other for criticizing a version of the Honeymooners featuring Black actors, which most other Americans didn’t think highly of either as the film was probably out no more than two weeks. And if we are to swallow the line that Ming’s evil does not depend on his appearance, then why is hair color being pointed out to us at all?
Furthermore, if we are to be told that a traditional portrayal of Ming the Merciless in inappropriate for fear of stereotyping Asians, couldn’t a pale blond in a moderately looking fascist uniforms lead to prejudice against Germans? But then again, since Germans are part of the White race, their sensibilities don’t count for much anyway.
To what extent should the anti-stereotyping mania be taken anyway? If we cannot enjoy a traditional Ming the Merciless for fear of propagating negative stereotypes about Asians, conversely, aren’t we hindering the imaginative expansion of the minds of minority children by casting the male lead as the typical statuesque blond most have come to expect to play Flash Gordon.
Why not a Black man, or better yet, how about a short, dumpy Jew? Wouldn’t watch Flash Gordon otherwise you say? Then why should we be entertained by a Ming that doesn’t even look like a Ming?
This fear of portraying a beloved character in a certain way could get ridiculously if fans do not speak up about it. For example, 50 or 100 years from now should Star Wars ever be remade, will disability advocates get all up in arms (if they happen to have any) that Vader’s characteristic wheezing is an offense against those on respirators? Likewise, retirees will claim that Palpatine’s gnarled and hunched appearance casts those of an advanced age in a bad light. Fans of the Borg from Star Trek will demand their moment of equity by claiming that the portrayal of what has become one of science fiction’s most nightmarish species does not depict absolutist collectivism and the elimination of individuality (concepts all the rage these days from leftwing secularist utopians all the way to certain Evangelical churches) in a balanced light.
And what about Hans Zarkhov? Though he is one of the protagonists of the series, in this interpretation it seems producers are playing up who could be categorized as the bumbling, nerdish aspects of his personality. If one is going to make all these self-congratulatory overtures towards the Asian community, then isn’t it just as wrong to disrespect the shows core base of fans who often fall into the “geek” demographic?
In the classic 1979 Filmation animated version of Flash Gordon, Zarkhov was not written as such. There, though hardly the man of action compared to Flash Gordon, he was depicted as a highly competent though slightly plumpish scientist around middle age.
Though concern about Ming is carefully packaged in terms of racism, a charge these days that even the most advanced deflector shields could protect not against, one must step back and wonder is that is really the underlying concern or if the offense goes to a much deeper level. For the write up on Ming in fact contains a glaring example of racism if one just happens to know where to look.
In elaborating the history of the character, mention is made of the 1980’s animated series “Defenders Of The Earth” where a number of King Feature’s Syndicate heroes joined forces to battle Ming as their primary foe. Mentioned as members of this team of adventurers are Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician.
Those that remember the series will point out that a character named Lothar is conspicuously absent from the roster. For those with no idea who I am talking about, Lothar started his comics career as Mandrake’s Black man-servant but by the time of his appearance on Defenders of the Earth had, shall we say, risen in stature to that as an equal to these other crime fighters as the team’s strongman and primary gadget guy (hence his stanza in the memorable theme song, though hardly as memorable as Mandrake‘s, “His strength is a legend. His skills conqueror all. On with his power, we never will fall. Lothar.” If ever thing is to be second guess as an example of overt or institutional racism, then why not the continued perception of this character as a mere sidekick no more important than Batman’s Robin, Captain America’s Bucky or Superman’s dog Krypto?
Villains such as Ming were initially given their particular appearances as a reflection of the so-called “Yellow Peril” at that time in light of the fear of the threat posed by Asian powers, particularly Japan. Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same as nearly 70 years later we are frankly still facing similar dangers from that part of the world as one of the primary threats arrayed against us. Anyone thinking differently needs only need to be reminded of the swarms of illegal aliens (many from Asia) flooding the country, Islamic terrorists, the Red Chinese Army, and North Korean weapons of mass destruction.
However, unlike the 1930’s and 40’s, today our creative minds do not want to awaken us to the threat of annihilation by foreign empires constantly growing stronger while our nations grows considerably weaker. Rather, we are to be kept ignorant until its too late through either forced silence or by brainwashing the youth of America into thinking these despotic regimes are just as good and often even better than our own United States.
Casual observers will quip, “What are you complaining about? Ming still appears to be a rather loathsome individual.” True enough for the moment.
But what about in the next version of Flash Gordon produced 30 or 40 years hence from now if there is still a United States or even widespread advanced civilization or technology at that point in light of the threat posed by nuclear and electromagnetic pulse weapons. With the downward slide of ethics and morality, there will probably come a point where it will be considered an outrage on par with what spewed forth from the lips of Don Imus to categorize tyrants and despots as villains at all.
Rather, such characters are merely acting in accord with the social parameters acceptable within their particular culture. After all, who is Flash Gordon to impose Earth standards on the planet Mongo anyway?
Over the course of 10 seasons and in the movie prior to that, the producers of Stargate have been able to depict a variety of interstellar warlords such as Ra, Apophos, and Eu in the customary raiment of an Eastern despot and there have been no bias related crimes as a result. If the producers of Flash Gordon want to keep on insisting otherwise, fans of Battlestar Galactica just might say such statements are full of felgarcarb.
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.