I suspect that there is alternative footage out there etched on some forgotten Hollywood studio hard drive of Mantis — the supernaturally repressed and antennaed Asian female empath introduced to the world in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, who we learn was adopted and raised by her white male demigod master, Kurt Russell’s Ego (Kurt’s character’s name, not the actor’s sense of self-importance), for his own pleasure. As an empath, Mantis not only can directly experience first-hand the emotion of any being that she touches, but can even alter the emotions of a sad being “into contentment, for a short while.” The special touch of this supernatural Asian woman, however, is used “mostly to help her [white male] master sleep.”
In other words, Mantis is Marvel’s prototype of the submissive Asian female stereotype we all know and hate, an empty vessel for white male patriarchy, loneliness and guilt embodied in what amounts to a celestial happy-ending masseuse. The intentional stereotyping of Mantis becomes ever more clear as her character develops. In a character development dialogue with her on-screen male counterpart, Dave Bautista’s Drax, she explains that she was found by Ego in her “larval state” and “raised by hand” as his adopted pet.
This gross bug lady
is my new friend.
I’m learning many things,
like I’m a pet and ugly.
In my imagined alternate footage of Mantis — the discarded scenes of an inferior cut of this rather wonderful summer blockbuster — she will ultimately dig into that nugget of repressed outrage and anger, and as Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is locked in his God-father’s death grip, she summons her inner bad-ass, locked away for eons by her captor, and strikes him down in a CGI-enhanced blaze of empowered feminist fury. Mantis finally becomes the Asian woman worthy of our progressive ideals, and ticket money.
But that footage, if it exists, never made it into the cut. Instead, the movie ends with a final throwaway joke about how ugly she is. No Asian woman on celluloid, I posit, has ever suffered so much intentional verbal abuse for the sake of zingers as Pom Klementieff’s Mantis. And her primary abuser is, like Mantis, played by a half-Asian actor, and is defined by his emotional underdevelopment, eternal shirtlessness, uncontrollable rage and intergalactic criminality. He is #hypermasculazn for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So why do I love Mantis so damn much? Why is she perhaps the most relevant and enlightened Asian female character to ever come out of the Hollywood Industrial Complex?
It begins with Drax finding Mantis physically repulsive. Clearly she is in reality beautiful, slug-like antennae or not, but this only drives home the point that Drax’s repulsion is played for ironic laughs. For Drax it’s not a matter of preference, it’s a visceral and perhaps biological revulsion at even the idea of having sex with her; in one scene Mantis sneaks into Drax’s bed to warn him of a danger, which he momentarily misinterprets as a sexual advance. His rejection of this potential is absolute.
Through this arrangement, GotG2 is able to more fully explore the sexually submissive Asian female stereotype with her full vulnerability intact, because her male counterpart simply has no interest in exploiting it. Drax is here not trying to virtue-signal (compare, say, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor vis-a-vis the similar naivete of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman). Drax is simply trying not to throw up. But by denying the sexual potential so explicitly, GotG2 does not reject the submissive Asian woman stereotype, but instead goes deeper into it.
This comedic de-sexualization allows Mantis to remain true throughout to her character’s origin, an extreme introvert devoid of inner motivations, a mere vessel to accept the interiority of her white male patriarch. The submissive Asian female stereotype is typically accompanied by the specter of sexual vulnerability, and it can either be consummated or, perhaps worse, simply ignored. When Mantis sneaks into Drax’s bed and mounts him, this is peak vulnerability. But instead of sex, or an embrace, or even a moment of embarrassed arousal, we get… dry heaving.
But to Mantis, who is now on a mission, this rejection is of no real consequence to her. There is no shame in her game.
As Brene Brown puts it in her deconstruction of shame, shame is the fear of losing connection with others over some undesirable or unorthodox inner trait. What “underpins” shame is, as Brown puts it, a sense of extreme vulnerability. Yet Brown also maintains that it is vulnerability itself which allows human connection. In the fantasy sci-fi universe of GotG2, the narrative freedom that comes with dealing in alien taxonomies allows what cannot be accomplished in a humans-only movie: sexual vulnerability without the sexual potential.
And so Mantis becomes one of the beloved Guardians fully intact, without having to “overcome” her empath nature in that imaginary climactic scene, so auspiciously discarded on the cutting-room floor. It’s one thing to shatter a stereotype, another to go deeper into it and find liberation within the confines of the stereotype itself. Ego, it turns out, is not much more than an interstellar sexpat. He created his own planet through his experiences on other worlds, including our own, and Mantis is so recognizable a stereotype to us not simply because of speculative white male fantasy, but — let’s face it — because of pervasive white male experience. And so what of the happy-ending masseuse, the naive college freshman, the inexperienced international student, and the mail-order bride? Are we to believe they are simply grotesque creations of white male fantasy, in which their only interiority that the world at-large may acceptably find connection with is a hidden kernel in desperate need of the heat of shame to explode outwards in an ecstasy of violent liberation?
Or, do we need less shame, and more Drax?
It is beautiful!
It is. And, so are you.
On the inside.