A brief history of Psylocke's complicated and racially problematic origin story


When Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock was first introduced in Captain Britain #8, she was many things: an accomplished charter pilot, twin sister to Captain Britain, and a fledgling telepath. In time she would give up flying planes in favor of modeling and, following in her brother’s crime fighting footsteps, become the mutant superheroine Psylocke. At some point in between dying her blonde hair vivid purple and joining up with Charles Xavier’s team of X-Men, Betsy underwent a traumatic experience all too common to comic book characters: a body switch.

Through a freak series of events, Betsy’s consciousness was forcibly put into the body of Kwannon, a Japanese mutant ninja, and Kwannon’s was transferred into Betsy’s. Kwannon, inhabiting Betsy’s body, would soon contract the Legacy Virus, Marvel’s version of HIV that only affected mutants, and die not long after.

Though nothing is ever set in stone in the world of comic book storytelling, Betsy Braddock, a white British character, has been living in a Japanese woman’s body as a scantily clad, telepath for the past 20 years.

To say that Psylocke’s presence across Marvel’s various comic book titles has been highlighted with overtones of racial and cultural appropriation is a bit of an understatement. The character’s origin and personality firmly establish her as being an upper-class English woman, but various depictions of her have been shot through with an explicit fetishization of Asian women.

Male artists drawing female superheroes wearing impractical, sexually-suggestive costumes are, sadly, still very much a part of the comics industry. But Psylocke’s most iconic design stands out in particular given the story around her race and the heavy emphasis of her being a “psychic ninja.”

Depending on who’s writing the character, Psylocke has varying degrees of residual memories from her body’s original owner. Those memories are typically cited as the reasoning behind the character’s use of psychic katanas but narratively, they sometimes come across as a weak excuses to ignore the fact that at its core, Psylocke’s character is built around an odd kind of yellowface.

Olivia Munn is slated to portray Psylocke in next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Munn, is of mixed Asian and European ancestry and has spoken about the difficulties she’s faced landing roles because of her heritage.

For all of the attention that Munn’s received for the role, most of it has been focused on how she looks in the Psylocke costume rather than engaging with the idea that Fox make the character canonically biracial.

Back in the comics, Psylocke’s slated to be a featured member of the upcoming Uncanny X-Men series written by Cullen Bunn. A fan of Psylocke recently reached out to Bunn via Tumblr asking him if he planned to address the issues surrounding the character’s race.

“I was wondering do you plan to ever address her ‘problematics’ with racial identity or lack thereof, or put her back in her original body, like some writers at Marvel have said they wanted to like [author G. Willow Wilson?]” wrote Tumblr user tazirai. “Even if you don’t I know she’ll at least be written beyond the ninja trope, hopefully.”

Bunn was frank in response, expressing that he was definitely interested in making Psylocke more than “just a ninja,” but was torn as to what to do about her racial identity.

“My X-Men notebook has pages dedicated to that idea,” he began. “However, I also want the book to be accessible to new readers, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to hit that too heavily in early issues, you know? When it is the right time, I’ll tackle it.”

Bunn’s right that introducing a plot line solid enough to make sense of Psylocke’s race would be quite the creative endeavor, but it’s not as if Marvel hasn’t done more daring things in the past.

Jean Grey has come back from the dead enough times that fans are sick of the Phoenix, and in one of Marvel’s recent events mutants were effectively written out of existence. Giving Betsy Braddock her own body back and finally giving Kwannon her due as a fully fleshed out character of color are far from being out of the question.

In her essay, “Is the World Ready for a Hapa Psylocke? Jennifer de Guzman, a comics writer of Asian-American ancestry, argues that while Psylocke isn’t necessarily an entirely problematic character.

Though Psylocke isn’t a mixed-race person, de Guzman is clear to point out, there is a way in which the character could be seen as symbol of the complexity of having multiple ethnic backgrounds.

“What if, I’ve sometimes wondered, Psylocke as a character can reflect that experience,” says de Guzman. “Of the perpetual ‘foreign’ status put on people of Asian ancestry? Of the duality of living as a Westernized person of Asian background? Or of being of mixed ethnicities in a society that expects you to identify as one ethnicity?”

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