In 2019, not long after Marvel announced that Canadian actor Simu Liu would be cast in the titular role of Shang Chi, the studio’s first Asian-lead superhero franchise, Chinese social media exploded. While many fans were already rightly concerned about Marvel’s adaptation choice—Shang Chi emerged into comics in the 1970s as a reductionist Bruce Lee—others reacted against Liu himself. YouTube channel Asian Boss soon after posted a video surveying people on the street in Beijing. They asked passersby to rate Liu’s attractiveness from 1-10. The assumed premise of the segment was that Liu was too ugly to play Shang Chi. The video has since been removed.
“I got a ton of trolls,” Liu, the Men’s Health June cover star, tells us about the months following his casting. “They’d leave Chinese comments on my page, and I’d be so excited to translate them, because I thought ‘ooh they must be voicing their support.’ And [instead] it would be like, ‘Your face looks like a dog’s anus, you don’t deserve this role.’”
The apparent shallowness of the video may have also highlighted divergent male beauty standards between China and the West. One of the observations made was that Americans likely find Liu more attractive, since his muscular figure already aligns with American superheroes. In an earlier video by Asian Boss, the channel surveyed more Chinese about the ideal male aesthetic. Many favored smaller, narrower faces and bodies likely seen as feminine by American moviegoers—lankier limbs and softer facial features. The aesthetic preferences, some people said, may be influenced by the popularity of Korean boy bands, many of which reflect these softer, slimmer body types.
Regardless, the premise of the Liu video was generally disparaging. And the social media trolls weren’t helping. “Growing up, I was obsessed with being desirable,” Liu admits. “Over the course of auditioning for [Shang Chi], I never really thought I had a chance the whole time, because I never felt like I was the best looking or the tallest or the best at martial arts.”
Liu says the self-consciousness comes and goes, though, he’s in a much better place now than he was as a younger man. Had he been cast earlier in his career and faced the same trolling, Liu says, it might have been more destructive to his ego. “I have days where I really feel sexy and on top of the world, and I have days where I don’t. But more than everything I can be at peace with who I am as a whole—my charisma, my humor, my soul.”
Liu learned years ago to put aside the need for desirability—and to disconnect his self-worth from his perceived attractiveness. “When I learned to let that go, I probably became the most self-assured and self-confident version of myself,” Liu explains.
And when it came to landing Shang Chi, Liu knew the role was his for all the right reasons, anyway. “What started to click for me is that I wasn’t chosen because of my looks or my martial arts ability or anything other than my ability to inhabit a character,” he explains. He was chosen because of his acting. He was chosen because he earned it.
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