Anyone watching the cinematic masterpiece that is Spider-Man: No Way Home will have grown to know and love the plucky superhero’s best friend, Ned Leeds.
The character – like the actor Jacob Batalon who plays him – is Filippino, one of the only few South-East Asians to appear in a major Marvel film. While many praised the role, others lamented it being the part of funny, side-kick best friend who offers comic relief.
This role of the ethnic minority best friend is familiar. In the 90s, noughties, and beyond, the trope of the Black best friend was prevalent (and still is), used to make a white character seem more inclusive and become more enlightened, or exist entirely to support the white protagonist’s development.
Marvel isn’t innocent when it comes to the cliche, with nearly all the original Avengers having a Black best pal, whether they address it as such or not. As this Reddit thread points out, Captain America had the Falcon (even the interim Captain America had Lemar), Tony Stark had Rhodie, Natasha had Nick Fury, Thor had Heimdall.
There’s even a page documenting the many times a Black BFF has been used in film, literature, comics and more to a white lead (and it’s an ever-growing list).
In the past five years though, a newer version of the stereotype has emerged – the Asian best friend. Realising that it’s offensive to stick a whole group of people under a tired subcategory, film-makers and TV show creators are now shoehorning another race, under the guise of diversity. When that happens, we get loveable secondary characters such as Ned or Dr Strange’s side-kick Wong.
Marvel has certainly amped up its efforts to diversify – the release of Shang-Chi and Eternals, plus the development of Wong as the Sorcerer’s Supreme, as well as Ned’s potential future pivot into Hobgoblin – is finally paying homage to Asian actors. We can also expect Ms Marvel – a television mini-series highlighting the life of a Pakistani-American superhero in the upcoming year.
But Marvel is also deliberate in what kind of roles certain Asian actors occupy. In an interview with Wired, Batalon revealed he isn’t really allowed to work out as his appearance is not supposed to be “a leading man type”, once again reinforcing tired ideas about Asian male desirability - (research shows Asian men are often stereotyped and excluded in online dating).
And the trend of minority characters orbiting a white person’s world seems to endure. In recent times we’ve seen Shay Mitchell play second fiddle to a white best friend in You. She and Brenda Song also pair up as BFFs to a white main character in Dollface.
In Sex Education, we’re treated to two sex-positive South Asians – but both Anwar and Olivia are queen bee Ruby’s minions (let’s not forget that Otis, the main character, also has a Black best friend in Eric).
In Love Life, Zoë Chao takes the role of unhinged best friend Sara. And in Emily in Paris, the star has the character of Mindy Chen by her side.
With The Good Place, Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor hits the trifecta – with a super close Black (Chidi), South-Asian (Tahani), and South-East Asian (Jason) pal. In New Girl, CeCe is introduced through her white best friend Jess.
Though they are interesting, funny, and compelling characters, the Asian pal serves as relief to the main actors, often underdeveloped, without the rich backstories afforded to their counterparts.
And watching actors of minority heritage get side-lined has a real-world effect for people who share those backgrounds.
For 34-year-old Anthony*, who is of Filipino heritage, having Asian representation is huge. The IT analyst invests his money in Asian film-makers, actors, designers and creatives, as well as up-and-coming new artists from similar backgrounds.
Despite being a Marvel fan who made an effort to get behind Shang-Chi and Eternals, Anthony struggled to watch any of the Spider-Man films; he didn’t appreciate seeing Batalon in a minor role (Ned is omitted from some movie posters, too).
He tells HuffPost UK: “I loved Spider-Man growing up and I wanted to watch the new ones, but seeing yet another Asian actor be the funny friend instead of having more nuance made me reluctant.”
But Anthony is hopeful things are changing and hopes Ned gets his own film.
“I think East Asian representation in Western films has improved and we are sort of on the cusp of a golden age with films like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi. It’s nice to sit in a theatre as an Asian person and know that the collective laughter is because the writing and acting is funny. Not because the heavy accented, little naked man jumped out the boot of the car [referring to Ken Jeong’s typecast role in The Hangover]. These characters became the butt of almost any joke and sitting through it would be excruciating at times.
“I think there is still a long way to go but it’s good seeing more actors from different Asian backgrounds come on the scene.”
Equally, South Asian representation is pretty dire in film and TV too. Only recently, Marvel saw its first Desi superhero in Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo role.
Writer Chandni Sembhi, 24, from Slough, says it can feel like a catch-22 sometimes, you want to support an actor on a major show or film, but they’ve only got a subordinate role.
“It feels sometimes like our stories aren’t worthy of main character roles. It feels a bit superficial, like those characters are just there so the production company can say ‘look, we’ve got South Asian representation!’ without then committing to properly developing those characters. But even then, because there’s so little representation, I’m probably still likely to watch.
“These characters can also feel like they’ve been written with very little care. They can be massive stereotypes (sometimes harmfully so), or not have anything at all linking them to their cultures. It doesn’t feel fair to be used as just a plot device.”
Chandni says even if South Asian actors are playing smaller characters, they should still have fully-fleshed out characterisation.
“It would be nice to have proper representation – even if we’re not main characters,” she says. “If there is a South Asian side-character, give them appropriate names, include some lines that actually show they’re South Asian. Create well-researched and fully formed roles with complex character development. Don’t just play into harmful stereotypes that have dominated media for so long. Hire South Asian writers so you can be sure you’re doing the characters justice.
“I want to feel represented on screen, and be able to say I actually relate to a South Asian character – rather than just to support a show for doing the bare minimum in South Asian representation.”
So why do esteemed creators stick to such hackneyed tropes?
Anamik Saha, a race and media lecturer at Goldsmith’s University, says having interesting, ‘exotic’ diverse sidekicks serves a specific purpose.
“Media is produced through the white gaze,” he says. “So basically when people of colour do appear, it is still according to the white gaze (which does afford opportunities for people of colour in a way that they haven’t had), but nonetheless, there’s still this lore that that industry tells itself. Their idea is that ‘we need an audience to be able to identify to the white main character for the show or film to be a hit’.”
Saha points out though, this is untrue, as shows such as I May Destroy You, Insecure, Atlanta, Never Have I Ever, Ramy – all created by people of colour – take audiences by storm.
So what needs to change? If we want Asian talent to be able to play unconventional parts, then we need more of them behind the cameras too, says Saha.
“I’d rather shift our attention from how people are represented to who’s telling the stories. Research shows time and time again, that the culture industries are the whitest, the most privileged in the country. And people of colour, people from working class backgrounds, from alternative sexualities and lifestyles are not calling the shots. So the focus should be how we make these industries more egalitarian.
“We can challenge the dominant culture who basically monopolise all the key positions through forms of policies that force organisations to enact change. Or we can create our own alternative modes of media forms – but we need that financial backing.”
People might have differing opinions on whether they enjoyed seeing Ned as Spider-Man’s secondary companion – or any of the other BFFs mentioned, but most of us will agree that we definitely need more diversity in the industry, both on and off screen.
We can get certainly get behind any calls to change the background and the foreground – we just need to make some noise.
*Some names have been changed to offer anonymity. A reference to the new mini-series Ms Marvel was added to this story on January 4.