In this op-ed, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes about how the show’s handling of the American war in Vietnam and its Vietnamese characters reveal a failure to address the racist underpinnings of imperialism.
Published December 18, 2019, in the PostEverything Perspectives section of the Washington Post
Alert: Spoilers exist below.
Vietnamese people have dwelled uneasily in the American imagination since the American war in Vietnam. They existed, first, as children in need of guidance. As John F. Kennedy put it in 1956, “If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents.” The Vietnamese who did not want that guidance became a new version of an old scare, the “yellow peril” threatening the West. Ever since, we’ve wavered between these twinned images, as grateful beneficiaries of American paternalism or inscrutable ingrates. Our appearances in pop culture have stayed within a narrow set of archetypes: refugees, gangsters, prostitutes, Viet Cong, and incompetent or corrupt South Vietnamese soldiers.
The Watchmen superhero universe, which imagines a timeline in which the United States won the Vietnam War, has drawn on these stock figures. In a scene explicitly recalling “Apocalypse Now,” the 2009 movie featured a gigantic Dr. Manhattan striding over the landscape, firing blasts from his hands that blow Viet Cong troops to shreds. Then one of his antihero colleagues, confronting his pregnant Vietnamese mistress, shoots her dead. These ugly moments clearly intend to evoke the idea that war is hell, and that the war in Vietnam was a particularly bad one, bringing out the worst in Americans. But they also do something typical of Hollywood: They reduce the Vietnamese to subhumans who exist only to die.
So, tuning into the critically lauded HBO series, I was excited and wary. “Watchmen,” the show, extends what had been a mere thought experiment in the original graphic novel: After the war, the United States turns Vietnam into the 51st American state, which becomes the birthplace of the series’s heroine, Angela Abar (Regina King), a cop who is the daughter of an African American soldier and his wife. The show also presents viewers with a prominent Vietnamese character, Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), a trillionaire scientist who has enigmatic ambitions (and a bad haircut that no Vietnamese woman would tolerate), and her precocious daughter, Bian. These figures mark a substantial advance for American pop culture: There is not merely one named Vietnamese character, but two! And they speak! In fluent English!
But while I agree with the critical enthusiasm for the show’s artistry, my hopes were soon frustrated. “Watchmen” has received well-deserved plaudits for its intense focus on racism as America’s core evil: Its main villains are terrorists descended from the Ku Klux Klan. Ultimately, though, the show falters in its handling of the war. This is not simply a cosmetic mistake or a trivial omission in an otherwise well-meaning effort at “diversity” or “inclusion.” Rather, the circumscribed depiction of the Vietnamese indicates a reluctance to grapple with America’s imperial power and its entwinement with white supremacy.