Netflix Takes the Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype to Outer Space

Strange things happen in The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), the third installment in the Cloverfield franchise. There are alternate universes, world wars set in an apocalyptic 2028, a crawling severed arm, and other inexplicably creepy events within a claustrophobic space station. When “normal life is hanging on a thread”, the fact that one of its characters is monolingual – while the rest of her space crew is bilingual – may not seem that unusual.


In the film, Zhang Ziyi’s role as “Chinese engineer Tam” is undeniably a step-up from the typically marginal “flower vase” roles that Hollywood has offered to popular mainland Chinese actresses in the past. She is the engineer responsible for the all-important Shepard particle accelerator (which is supposed to provide the Earth with energy during a global energy crisis). Her international and diverse teammates – an African American commander, a black British woman, an Irishman, a Russian, a Brazilian, and a German – rely on her technical expertise and courage at crucial moments. She is depicted as a hands-on problem solver that eventually makes a crucial discovery that will help her crewmates correct the Shepard before dying tragically in a freak accident.


Like Fox’s space western drama TV series Firefly, the film imagines a future where China is a major technological and cultural power. Tam’s crewmates communicate with Qinghuangdao (and not Houston) in Mandarin. Viewers are left to assume that they are all fluent in Mandarin since most of them have the opportunity to speak it briefly when conversing with Tam.

This bilingual norm is relatively revolutionary for Hollywood, but why is she the only crewmate that never speaks English? Her German, Brazilian, and Russian counterparts presumably speak their native languages since they speak English with a prominent accent. However, these languages never make an appearance in the film. Tam is the only character that requires subtitles every time she opens her mouth (and she does not always get them) – even when she is conversing in a group setting where everyone else is speaking in English.

The outcome, as Bustle’s Olivia Truffaut-Wong argued, is to put a futuristic spin on the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Every other nationality and ethnicity has apparently assimilated into the bilingual Mandarin-English mainstream in this future universe. Zhang Ziyi may be a mainland Chinese actress playing a mainland Chinese character, but her portrayal in this American movie extends a longstanding stereotype that has led to discomfort, isolation, and identity conflict among the Asian American community.

P.S. Do you agree that this is a problematic characterization? Let Netflix (@netflix) and screenwriter Oren Uziel (@orenuziel) know what you think via Twitter.

CATEGORY OF OFFENSE: Denigration ( Reinforces Stereotypes)
OFFENSE DATE: February 1, 2018


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