In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we’re celebrating Chicago’s own Chloe Bennet, a Marvel star turned real-life hero.
Bennet is one of the prominent Asian American figures who is campaigning for better representation in media, and for increased political participation for Asian youth. She knows what it’s like to have her identity disempowered, and she is using her fame to encourage other Asian Americans to raise their voices and tell their stories.
A Chicago Star on the Rise
Chloe Bennet, born Chloe Wang, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She comes from a big family, with a Chinese American investment banker father, a Caucasian American doctor mother, and six brothers. Her brothers are “Two African American, one Mexican American, and the rest half-Chinese,” and she jokes that her upbringing “was the United Nations meets Animal House.”
She left high school at 15 to pursue a singing career in Shanghai. Things looked promising: “My first performance was in front of 30,000 people and it was broadcast to 100 million.” However, a future in pop stardom began to feel inauthentic to Bennet, and she returned to the States to pursue a new career in acting.
After moving to LA, she took her stage name, Chloe Bennet. She gives partial credit to this change for her first successful audition: “People didn’t know if I was Asian or not. I wanted to be racially ambiguous. It must have worked. The first audition I went to [after changing my name] was for Nashville.”
Five months after landing her breakout role as Nashville’s Hailey, Bennet won the role she’s best known for, the spirited hacktivist Skye on ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
After the cast was finalized, she heard critical comments about how the perceived homogeneity of the cast didn’t measure up to the diversity of the comics.
Bennet found this amusing: “Most Asians know I’m Asian. Americans can’t always tell… It’s funny to see people say it’s not an ethnically diverse cast. This is the first show where two of the regulars are Asians of Chinese extraction.”
One of Bennet’s S.H.I.E.L.D costars was Ming-Na Wen of Mulan and ER fame. Wen was born on Macau and raised in Hong Kong, and for Bennet, working with her came with the added benefit of getting to practice her Mandarin: “It’s a lot of fun. We’ll talk in a nasty tone and pretend we’re saying bad things about the other actors when really we’re paying them compliments.”
This bonding was more than just a good time for Bennet. Having her first major role in an environment with other Asian American artists was a formative experience, acting with Wen and working under the creative direction of producer Maurissa Tancharoen, who is Thai American:
“It’s been great to be a part of a show which is groundbreaking in terms of being an American woman and being Asian on television, because there’s people who don’t see a lot of that and I’m really proud of it.”
During the show’s seven-season run, Bennet’s acting prowess earned her a following beyond the Marvel fandom. Post-S.H.I.E.L.D, Bennet has stayed busy, appearing in the new-wave musical Valley Girl and the animated Abominable.
For her next project, she’s returning to her superhero roots.
In March, the CW announced that Bennet would be starring as superhero Blossom in the upcoming live-action adaptation of The Powerpuff Girls. The reboot will tell the story of how Blossom’s “repressed kiddie-superhero trauma has left her feeling anxious and reclusive,” following her as “she aims to become a leader again, this time on her own terms.”
Like her on-screen counterparts Skye and Blossom, Bennet is motivated by the exploration of her own identity. And as a leader in the AAPI community, she’s passionate about using her powers for good. Empowered by her experiences joining forces with other Asian women, has committed herself to amplifying the voices of all Asian Americans, both onscreen and in real life.
Asian Representation in Media & Politics
Bennet explains, “When you’re continuously giving a different ethnicity their own narrative without giving them a chance to actually represent themselves or write something that’s true to them, that’s really dangerous.”
“It really seeps into the psyche of young Asian-American kids. I know it did for me. I didn’t see anybody that looked like me growing up on TV. I genuinely thought to my core that I would have no chance of being an actor because my dad wasn’t white. The more I became aware of my thinking, the more I thought, ‘Oh, this is because I look this way or because I feel this way.’
She’s realized that her experiences were by no means unique, and that poor representation has widespread effects on the psychological development of kids from marginalized groups. We all need heroes we can identify with.
In a video for mental health non-profit Child Mind, Bennet gave advice she wished she could tell her younger self: “My advice to you is you are not alone. Do not feel ashamed for being this way. You are not crazy. The power of social media can be used for good.”
Bennet became the hero her younger self had needed when she started speaking out about the racism that still pervades Hollywood.
In August of 2017, British actor Ed Skrein made headlines for his departure from the Hellboy reboot. Skrein, who’s white, had been cast as Asian American character Major Ben Daimio. However, Skrein decided to step down from the role as a result of the ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in Hollywood, where white performers are cast as non-white characters.
Bennet praised Skrein on Instagram for his decision, but she then faced criticism for having changed her last name from Wang to Bennet.
Responding to this criticism, Bennet wrote: “Changing my name doesn’t change the fact that my blood is half-Chinese, that I lived in China, speak Mandarin or that I was culturally raised both American and Chinese.”
“It means I had to pay my rent, and Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable. I’m doing everything I can with the platform I have to make sure no one has to change their name again just to get work.”
She expanded upon these points to NPR:
“An uncomfortable amount of my feedback had to do with the fact that I didn’t look like what they expected me to look like. I had a casting director tell me, ‘You’re not quite white enough for the role, but you’re not quite Asian enough for the best friend role.’”
“And I remember genuinely thinking, ‘Oh yeah, yeah she’s right.’ Like, I’m not fully white so I couldn’t possibly be the lead even though there was no limitation on the breakdown of the character saying that this new character needed to be any ethnicity.”
“Also, when they see Chloe Wang, when you’re new as an actor and your agents are trying to put you out for different roles, the casting directors go, ‘No, that’s OK. We won’t take her. We don’t know who that is. We’re not looking for [an actor] like that for this role.”
When NPR asked Bennet if changing names meant assimilating and accommodating stereotypes rather than fighting them, she responded,
“Part of it probably is, and as I said, part of me does feel guilt about that at certain times, but it’s my journey, it’s what I did and there’s a certain point where you have to play the game, and I’m doing everything I can with the platform I have now to make sure that no girl who comes to Hollywood now whose name is Lee or Wong or Chung or Wang has to do this again. It’s really about changing the narrative and changing the content for Asian Americans.”
Talking with The Hollywood Reporter, Bennet explained, “We need to rebrand what it means to be Asian American. We need to make sure we instill pride in our community... Let’s bring it all together to bring pride in our community.”
Bennet believes that uplifting the AAPI community through media and making space for more of their stories is naturally linked with increased civic participation.
In an article for PopSugar, she explained, “When you’re not represented in culture and in politics, you’re told that… you are not important, so then voting feels irrelevant.”
Represent Us Now
To make the biggest impact in representation, Bennet used the same strategy that regularly saves the planet in the Marvel Universe: the team-up.
After the 2016 election, Bennet sat on a panel with Brad Jenkins. Jenkins is a former managing director of comedy site Funny or Die and he was associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement during the Obama administration.
Jenkins recalls his feelings as they processed the implications of the impending Trump presidency: “It was a very sad panel. It was supposed to be this celebration of the Asian American experience, and it essentially ended up like a wake. The biggest takeaway was that Asian Americans did not show up at the polls. The Asian American community is so vibrant and powerful and creative and we weren’t seeing it.”
The two decided to combine their powers in politics and entertainment to reclaim the celebration of the Asian American experience. In 2017, they launched RUN AAPI (Represent Us Now) to boost civic engagement.
Bennet explained, “Part of the reason why I started RUN is because I really want to encourage Asian American kids and teens and anyone really, to start telling their stories because there’s so many unique and interesting and dark and sad and funny stories that haven’t been told because we haven’t gotten the chance.”
They also partnered with the National AAPI Power Fund and the National Education Association to conduct the first-ever political opinion poll focused exclusively on Asian Americans ages 18-34. Data from this poll included the fact that one in three young AAPI unregistered voters weren’t planning to register, and 43% of registered voters were still undecided as to whether they would actually vote.
In the poll, many young AAPI listed “not favoring any candidate or general indifference to politics” as significant barriers to voting.
In an interview with Popsugar, Bennet attributed this apathy to “the underrepresentation of AAPI in government, and the fact that politicians rarely dedicate resources to target Asian American voters. For instance, the poll revealed that only two in five Asian Americans had been contacted by parties and community organizations to encourage them to register to vote, or to offer voting information.”
“What I really want to do with RUN is make sure that we are able to break down these otherwise maybe confusing topics or issues or policies, especially the ones that affect the AAPI community, and turn it into really digestible content so that people can begin to understand, and understand why it affects them.”
Their largest communal effort to date was #TheNew. RUN launched this campaign to ramp up participation in the 2020 election. The campaign debuted with a video celebrating the “diversity of the culture, personalities, and force of the AAPI community.” The video gained traction among celebs like Taika Waititi, Steven Yeun, John Cho, Lulu Wang, and Lana Condor.
The Sleeping Giant
The AAPI community has been referred to as a “sleeping giant” of political engagement. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the US electorate, but their vast potential to create change has historically gone unused due to the apathy Bennet describes.
But as more Asian Americans make their voices heard, political analysts say that the giant is beginning to wake up. This shift has the potential to change the entertainment and political landscape of America.
For example, RUN AAPI’s goal of mobilizing the youth vote was realized during the 2020 election. Over half of all voters under 30 made their voices heard, which is an unprecedented high, and over 10% above the participation rates of the 2016 election.
According to the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, this youth vote was bolstered by the young Asian voters who turned out in record numbers.
Tufts attributes this increase in voting rates to AAPI youths’ engagement with the issues of climate change, racism, and healthcare access. They also credit the rise in Asian American grassroots leadership.
Together, these factors contributed heavily to Joe Biden’s win.
With Great Power...
Stan Lee created Marvel stories with the message: “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
Bennet has taken this message to heart. With the cultural power she’s gained from her famous Marvel role, she considers it her responsibility to inspire others:
“We’re not taken seriously as a cultural force and a political force… the biggest thing for us is really motivating AAPI youths to see themselves and to care about these issues because they really do affect them.”
“It’s kind of on us as a community to step up and go, ‘We’re actually going to change that.’ This is a bigger culture issue. The lack of pride in our community comes from generations not seeing ourselves on screen, not seeing ourselves in politics, not seeing ourselves represented. When you see yourself, you are inspired.”
At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.
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Image credit: Jason Leung