The Backlash to Simu Liu’s Casting in ‘Barbie,’ Explained

Studios don’t seem to realize that other male Asian actors exist, many of whom don’t (allegedly) have extensive online histories of misogyny and homophobia.

The Backlash to Simu Liu’s Casting in ‘Barbie,’ Explained

This week, we’ve been treated to (arguably bombarded by) images of the utterly stacked cast of Barbie, starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Dua Lipa, Issa Rae, and pretty much everyone else you’ve seen on the big or small screen before—including Marvel star Simu Liu. And as some have celebrated Liu’s inclusion in the movie as a triumph for Asian representation in the film, it’s also been met with a fair amount of eye-rolls from others.

Every now and then, the question of what, exactly, the internet’s conflict with Liu is arises, and with three months to go before Barbie releases in July, I have some time today. In the fall of 2021, around the same time Marvel released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings, old Reddit posts by Liu resurfaced, appearing to show the actor frequenting mens’ rights activist circles and regurgitating homophobic, pseudo-science conspiracy theories likening LGBTQ identity with pedophilia.

In 2015, when Liu was 26, the account that was credibly linked to him mentioned performing “a significant amount of research” for a show in which he portrayed a pedophile. His research, he wrote, made him “much more sympathetic to anyone who is born with those urges.” The now-deleted post elaborated: “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.” That same year, Liu starred in the Canadian show Blood and Water, and played a man with substance use struggles who had sexually abused his younger brother. Hmm!

Gizmodo reported that, in addition to the homophobic screed, the account linked to Liu made a series of “casually sexist remarks about women being inferior athletes to men” and “inelegantly expressed disdain for extremism in a way that carried Islamophobic overtones.” It was an active participant in the r/AZNidentity subreddit, which, as Jezebel reported last year, is fairly notorious for its militant support for “men’s rights” and its aggressive attacks against Asian women in interracial relationships, or just Asian women perceived as disrespecting Asian men, in general. Liu responded to the unearthing of his alleged Reddit history with an ambiguous tweet resurfacing an older tweet about being positive.

All of this baggage, mind you, when Manny Jacinto or Steven Yeun or Harry Shum Jr. or Charles Melton or Daniel Dae Kim were literally right there! This is—among many other obvious issues—a problem that’s going to arise when an entire industry just decides to crown a single person of color as their go-to token of representation for that community. Thanks, I hate it!

While Simu Liu’s alleged digital history has hardly endeared him to significant chunks of Twitter dot com, he’s also a source of cringe among especially younger Asian Americans, seeing as the bulk of his online jokes are rooted in 2000s racist stereotypes about never being able to please your Asian parents. He can hardly make an appearance on a Marvel red carpet without comparing himself to the late Chadwick Boseman and Boseman’s Black Panther and, offensiveness aside, it’s just… bizarre. And then, of course, after years of very performatively treating every role he landed as a revolutionary victory for racial justice, earlier this year Liu pretty aggressively defended Mark Wahlberg, who famously committed a string of hate crimes against Asian men in the ‘80s. Cool!

Returning to Barbie, I am, personally, not overly pressed about Liu’s starring role. It is what it is! What I take issue with is that studios don’t seem to realize other male Asian actors exist—many of whom don’t have extensive online histories of misogyny and homophobia.

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