On diversifying superheros and media:
April 4, 2015 9:19 PM   Subscribe

In the video, Michelle Rodriguez offers a few choice words on diversity in casting: “Stop stealing white superheroes.” It caused a bit of an uproar in some circles, and Michelle made a video clarifying her statements. But first, let’s address the premise itself. Are all of these superheroes, “originally” white, whose races are being changed, being stolen?
posted by sciatrix (42 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yet another fascinating post from sciatrix. Abs the linked article led me to this very cool piece from The Nib, as well.
posted by bardophile at 10:02 PM on April 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


Can we look back at the cultural legends that the comic book creators stole their characters' superpowers from (oh, yeah, most of them date WAY farther back than the Golden Age of Comics) to see what cultures were involved? Lots of Greek Gods, of course, and Thor is a direct steal from the Norse, but I bet you'll find a lot of stuff originating in Asian and African legend.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:19 PM on April 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm a little more concerned about whether Rodriguez was on the verge of getting another DUI there, frankly. As far as stealing goes, though, and in particular the one that she was asked about, well, there's nothing inherently "white" about being part of the Green Lantern Corps--or, for that matter, inherently humanoid, carbon-based, or even corporeal (I'm pretty sure that Alan Moore had one that was a mathematical equation)--and thus it's a bit odd that, of the five humans that have represented Earth and by extension Sector 2814, all of them have been American males.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:31 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is why Superheroes have disguises - so YOU can be behind the mask. If you're darkly complected, a woman, not terribly rich or LGBT: Once the mask comes down, the boots come up, and the undies are on the outside - it's game time. You're the only chance we have, no-one believed in you, not even yourself, yet here we are. You. Will. Rock. Them.

No-one knows who you are under the costume, so you get to be how you think and feel you ought to be, and since you're saving EVERYONE from the Shrinkerator-Bomb, EVERYONE feels the same way you do about your secret self.

Who cares if the secret identity has a white, male sounding name? That sort of name applies itself to a wiiiiide swath of people living in America and elsewhere.

You get to be a superhero even if you're a latina from the wrong side of the border. You're the only chance we have.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:41 PM on April 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


Ultimately I do agree with the conclusion in the article. But I also can't deny that I crave new myths, and I want those myths to be made by and for people who aren't white and male. I think it goes hand in hand, though.

Pulling PoCs into preexisting hero pantheons to rebalance their diversity is important for representation, and I really hope that will lead to other people having the inspirational capital to make new characters that are less fettered by the last hundred years' oppression (so they can fight the oppressions of the next hundred years, of course!)

I really liked this line from the article:
We live in an era where new stories don’t necessarily overwrite old ones.
In my time as a semi-casual enthusiast of folklore, this is what I've really noticed has changed on the ground level. It might be unintentionally reinforced by this whole remake period Hollywood's been in, that "your" version is equally valid to "my" version of a story. But I also think it's from the increasing validity of different forms of narrative - books, movies, comics, webshows, miniseries all might have a profit hierarchy but their validity as the "real" story is more even than it's been.

As for the best Green Lantern, that's Galius Zed, obviously.
posted by Mizu at 10:43 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are all of these superheroes, “originally” white, whose races are being changed, being stolen?

no. don't start discussing fake questions the fools put to you. just buy the comic books when they come out.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:43 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's easy for Michelle Rodriguez to say these things, because she already is a super hero.
posted by maxsparber at 10:50 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel like I side a little more with Rodriguez on this, though I definitely wouldn't frame it the way she has (even in her apology video). It's not that I dislike attempts at diversifying old superheroes, it's more that I just really dislike the DC/Marvel universes in general and I wish they would just fade out into history already and make room for new ones. One of the things that bothers me the most about the entire superhero genre is how nothing can seem to overshadow DC/Marvel and the golden age versions of their heroes. Sure every once in a while a little spotlight is shown on other things--Watchmen, or the Incredibles, or Big Hero 6, but eventually those fade out and we're back to Yet Another Superman/Batman/Spiderman/etc Movie. I can't think of many other genres that have it as bad as this--you could make similar complaints about specific franchises like James Bond or Doctor Who, but at least James Bond and Doctor Who aren't the entirety of "action" or "science fiction." Imagine if they were... ugh. That's how superheroes are right now.
posted by picklenickle at 11:16 PM on April 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is where I make my obligatory comment that my favorite superhero (and supervillian) of all time is Taylor Hebert. She's an original and intriguing character that I really relate to and I wish desperately for some sort of movie version but I doubt it will ever happen. It doesn't matter to me that she's not a white guy because there are already plenty of white guy superheroes out there if I need to identify on that basis. I identify with her all the same because of who she is, not what she looks like.

We aren't living in an era that puts the most emphasis on originality. We live in an era of epic stories told in sequel after sequel. In the short term, we may need to play around with the identities of superheroes to promote more representation because it's not a great time to launch new ideas. That will cycle out in time. I think the focus should be on making sure whatever you write, original or a new chapter in a long tale, you make sure the diverse representation is there.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:36 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sure every once in a while a little spotlight is shown on other things--Watchmen, or the Incredibles, or Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is Marvel Universe. In the original comics, they supposedly once fought the "astral embodiment of all those killed in the 1945 nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki" who apparently were on average massively evil, since they went on to not only try to "slaughter millions in downtown Tokyo" but also kidnapped someone's mother.
posted by effbot at 3:03 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I kind of feel about this like I'd feeling about people "stealing" apples from a heavily laden tree in the front yard of a rich person: steal a few, it's not like I don't have plenty more.
posted by jb at 3:24 AM on April 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sure every once in a while a little spotlight is shown on other things--Watchmen, or the Incredibles, or Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is Marvel Universe


And Watchmen is DC.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:42 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Theyre not of the Universe though nah mean? I think the fundamental disagreement is with the concept that specificly the core Superheros of the 50s-60s-70s are the pantheon of contemporary myths that need to be retold and diversified or if we should instead disregard that universe and create original superhero stories in an entirely different world, like say, Powerpuff Girls or KickAss does.

I'm more on the latter side. Though obviously I'd cheer for a Spider-Man & Abatman In The Morning.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:18 AM on April 5, 2015


Dreaming up new superheros from scratch and making them non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-human. whatever--that's diversifying. Taking preexisting, readymade superheros and painting their faces with walnut juice--that's affirmative action.
posted by jfuller at 5:21 AM on April 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Theyre not of the Universe though nah mean

Those angry atomic bomb victims appear in Spiderman, and members of Big Hero 6 worked for good members and fought bad members of the Universe. So quite a bit more interlinked to other Marvel stuff than Watchmen to DC stuff; Watchmen was indeed published by DC but otherwise separate (intentionally, since DC didn't want Moore to ruin any existing characters, however obscure).
posted by effbot at 5:52 AM on April 5, 2015 [2 favorites]




Dreaming up new superheros from scratch and making them non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-human. whatever--that's diversifying. Taking preexisting, readymade superheros and painting their faces with walnut juice--that's affirmative action.

I keep forgetting that some people think affirmative action is a bad thing.
posted by srboisvert at 5:57 AM on April 5, 2015 [31 favorites]


Can we look back at the cultural legends that the comic book creators stole their characters' superpowers from (oh, yeah, most of them date WAY farther back than the Golden Age of Comics) to see what cultures were involved? Lots of Greek Gods, of course,

I think we should listen closely to people of the originating culture and make a film version of Tides of War with Idris Elba cast as Alcibiades and Yeong-ae Lee playing all narrators. Pretty please?
posted by ersatz at 5:59 AM on April 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


The beau and I were talking about this re: having Miles Morales as the Spiderman in the upcoming Civil War movie. I'm super pro it because I like Miles Morales. Heroes change, let's look at Ms. Marvel, who is now Kamala Kahn and Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel who used to be this Skree guy (and a few others). That isn't recasting but rather a changing of the guard and it creates this cool continuity in a medium that is awful at continuity. And as attitudes change it makes sense that these changes better reflect the demographics of the real world. Thor is now a lady but it doesn't retcon or diminish Odinson's Thor, it's just a different Thor. I'm excited for Black Captain America because it's not going to get rid of Steve Rogers, it's just going to give someone else a shot at it. (which is also nothing new, just look at Bucky Barnes) and their story will be their own unique thing.

Kamala Kahn isn't just Carol Danvers but Pakistani, it's about Kamala navigating being a Muslim kid in Jersey City who also is a super hero.

That being said, there are a lot of already existing POC superheroes that I would like to see in the spotlight. But just like Lady Thor doesn't disminish all my beloved lady heroes, I don't think having Black Captain America will diminish Luke Cage, Nick Fury, Storm, Sunspot, Cloak, and the many others
posted by KernalM at 6:42 AM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Mostly I want a Static Shock movie. He's DC and the tenor of the DC films are all super serious intense things so it would never happen with the levity and style I'd love, but I can dream.
posted by Mizu at 6:57 AM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am of many minds on this, including one where, since I don't read many mainstream superhero comics, I really don't care, but...

I think diversity is good, and most of the comics I read are by and/or about women, people of color, and GLBTQ people. Most of the comics I read are also creator-owned, and are not subject to the whims of audience demographics and marketing decisions.

I am inherently skeptical and suspicious of "revisioning mainstream characters" because there is always a whiff of tokenism and clueless pandering going on and the result is often cringe-inducing. Furthermore, being company-owner properties, later writers and editors can "rerevision" the character, undoing any good work that has been done. (Consider the bizarre character history of the Falcon.)

Additionally, I don't really buy the "superheroes are modern myths, and myths are rewritten constantly" because myths aren't, except in the broadest sense. Yes, most cultures have a "founding hero/deity," but that doesn't mean that the Yellow Emperor, Odin, and Marduk are interchangeable or that, while you can tell the story of Hercules in different ways, the outline isn't fairly fixed (Kevin Sorbo notwithstanding). There is some evidence of "competing myths," which tell radically different versions of the same stories (Orion's somewhat confused storyline, for example), but it's really unclear whether that is a result of real competition or the failure of a major writer(s) to later systematize them. Mythic stories are pretty elastic as far as details are concerned, but making Hercules a woman, for example, undermines the story (which is about controlling male violence, at least in part). You'd be better off looking for mythic woman to build your Greek revisioning around.

I think some of the kicking that happens from fans is driven by racism and sexism, but some is done by discomfort that a writer or editor has gone totally "outside the story." Making Johnny Storm black is not just changing a detail (although I suspect it is to the people making that decision), it requires substantial changes to the character relations that fans have come to take as assumed, and that's pretty close to just replacing him with a new character. So, when does it work?

Making Heimdall black required no rewriting of Thor history; the character was pretty undeveloped (and, sadly, remains so; I think Jim Jarmusch should direct a film about Heimdall in his off-hours). So changing the race of supporting characters is fairly straightforward (although it raised fan outrage). Making Nick Fury black is a more interesting process -- I think it worked because no one had much stake in the old white Nick Fury, and the new version (especially the film version) is more compelling than the old comics version (either the WWII Fury or the 70s Bond Fury). Complaining about making The Green Lantern black )or a woman) is pretty silly, since it's a title, not a person, and there have been black and female Green Lanterns for a long long time. Captain/Ms Marvel is a really weird case, since the character has such a checkered history of derivation and reworking that there isn't really a "center" to either Ms. Marvel or Captain Marvel -- the name can be fairly applied to almost anyone (heck, neither character has either a standard uniform or power set (outside, maybe of the lightning bolt). The current incarnation of Ms. Marvel is fantastic, one of those happy accidents when a property has become so irrelevant that the company is willing to let a writer do whatever they like (see Morrison's Doom Patrol and Animal Man). Black Captain America is cannon, so no one should complain there, although I kind of wish they would let the Falcon be the Falcon.

It's a bitter truism that the major comic companies have a really hard time getting non-white (and to a lesser extent, non-male) characters to "stick" (although Steel and Static had pretty good runs as I recall). I'd rather see those characters revived and given a new shot, where their race was part of the character from the get-go) than just somewhat randomly thrown into an existing property. Although, I admit, in previous threads I've admitted to being fond of the idea of Morgan Freeman as Reed Richards.

In the end, I have a lot of trouble getting too worked up about any of this (regardless of the number of words I've just typed) -- I want more diversity in comics, and I wish it would come as properties where the race, gender, gender identity, etc of the character was part of the character from the beginning and not just a set of extra modular add-ons, but I am just not invested enough in most comic characters to care that much. I'll probably go see most of the big superhero films in summers to come, however, since they are a nice break from the summer heat and thinking about work issues.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:30 AM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's true that the faces on the pages have generally been white. But those faces have never been representative of all the readers, or all the creators. They should have been. There should always have been POC heroes.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:56 AM on April 5, 2015


Once the mask comes down, the boots come up, and the undies are on the outside - it's game time.

I'm going to spend the rest of my career trying to work this sentence into a professional conversation.
posted by mhoye at 8:00 AM on April 5, 2015 [9 favorites]


Speaking as a white person, I am sick and tired of white people. Screw 'em. If I never saw another white person in popular fiction again, I wouldn't give a rat's ass. They all suck.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:11 AM on April 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'd love to see a reboot of Captain Marvel where Billy Batson is a lesbian of colour who transforms into Captain Marvel just for the benefits of being a straight white male. SHAZAM!
posted by Sys Rq at 8:41 AM on April 5, 2015 [16 favorites]


Once the mask comes down, the boots come up, and the undies are on the outside - it's game time.

I'm going to spend the rest of my career trying to work this sentence into a professional conversation.
Please tell me you're speech-writer for Angela Merkel.
posted by fullerine at 8:50 AM on April 5, 2015 [14 favorites]


I'd love to see a reboot of Captain Marvel where Billy Batson is a lesbian of colour

I feel like this should have been done by now, actually. Maybe not that exact scenario, but turning the superhero power fantasy around with real-world power relations.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:58 AM on April 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Speaking as a white person, I am sick and tired of white people. Screw 'em. If I never saw another white person in popular fiction again, I wouldn't give a rat's ass. They all suck.

It's true, you do suck. You should probably just forward a link to your comment to Vox Day to further bolster his position.
posted by MikeMc at 9:46 AM on April 5, 2015


Vox Day

Who?
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:10 AM on April 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


To my mind, the problem with saying that we should just make new diverse superheroes is that they would then have to compete with established characters for page space and attention.

It's a bit like a pool party where the pool is completely filled with white men. It's not just enough to have some non-white-men hanging around the yard, you need to take some of the white guys out so the others can get in the pool.

And enough with my bad metaphors today.
posted by happyroach at 12:22 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have no problem with the changing of these superhero identities to be more diverse. I might feel differently if these were reboots of long-shelved characters, since that would just be unnecessary (i.e. just make some new more-diverse characters), and possibly diluting cherished and well-established identities. But in this case, DC and Marvel have set themselves up as institutions, and these characters are still their (somewhat) living mouthpieces to tell stories, so I feel that they have some social responsibility to their audience. They seem to agree, for the most part, and they're responding accordingly.
posted by Edgewise at 12:23 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Arbitrarily changing a significant characteristic of a fictional character in order to pander to some marketing demographic is just that - pandering.

Captain America was essentially a creation of WW2 propaganda. He was the white American ideal, the scrappy underdog imbued with the best technology a nation could produce to defeat the ultimate tyrannical evil.

Nick Fury was the everyman soldier of WW2, GI Joe elevated to a leadership role in the new Cold War fight against a more devious foe.

Johnny Storm was the hot-headed teenager who had no business being near a significant scientific enterprise, except for being the younger brother of the blond, blue-eyed love interest of the key scientist.

All these roles require a white male. To simply turn any one of them black makes absolutely no sense. Mid-century America would not rally behind a black heroic figure. The US would never have put a black figure in charge of a new spy agency prior to the Civil Rights movement. As for changing one sibling to black while keeping the other one white... well, the number of blended (not mixed) race families is exceedingly small.

And yet...

A supersoldier program that tested its formula on expendable black soldiers makes sense, and highlights a significant truth about America in the 1940s, its treatment of minorities, and the relative value it placed on non-white races. A black Captain America with that backstory suddenly reveals a lot more about the white Captain America, and the nation he stands for.

A spy agency in the late to post-Cold War era would be led by someone with combat experience not of WW2 but of Vietnam, and minority soldiers were far more common in that conflict. A modern Nick Fury who's black fits the narrative role as perfectly as the Cold War Nick Fury who's white fit the narrative role of the previous generation.

As for a black Johnny Storm/white Sue Storm, what it reveals is the core of the Fantastic Four, and that's family. The F4 has always been about family, and if you don't understand that you don't understand the F4 at all. With the originals, you had Johnny and Sue linked by blood, Sue and Reed by marriage, and... Ben. He wasn't a blood relative. He wasn't married or romantically engaged with anyone on the team. And yet in many ways he was the family core. The original F4 showed that family exists where we define it. It doesn't require relationships like blood or marriage; its bonds are forged by choice. We can choose to create families in whatever form we want. By having a black Johnny and a white Sue*, it shows this even more clearly. None of the characters are related by blood. None are (yet) related by marriage. Yet they are a family in every real sense.

Arbitrarily changes are pandering, but none of these changes were arbitrary. Each one reveals a greater depth and understanding of these characters. For me, these changes let me look at these characters in greater depth, and see them as far more complex than possibly their creators imagined. It makes them better.

If you're just going to make a change to a character for no other reason than wanting to change the percentage of minority representation, that's boring. But if you're trying to say something more, to provide a greater understanding of the character, the times, the theme, then that's a change worth pursuing.

* A black Ben would have fallen into annoying stereotypes (angry muscle-bound black man). A black Reed would have been interesting as an example of a non-white boy genius, and set up an interracial love story, but it would have kept the blood relation intact. A black Sue might actually have been a better choice - besides the interracial love story, Sue is arguably the strongest team member and highly intelligent, an underrepresented image for minority women. A black Johnny keeps the focus squarely on the family issue without bringing in other complications.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:50 PM on April 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


Arbitrarily changing a significant characteristic of a fictional character in order to pander to some marketing demographic is just that - pandering.

I agree, but I would characterize this very differently. When so much else of what defines these characters is driven by marketing, then "pandering" could be just seen as responding to their audience as usual. These are highly commercial properties. To me, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, unless they end up destroying something special in the process. Where we agree is that there are nice ways to make these changes dovetail with the core identities of these characters.
posted by Edgewise at 4:46 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Captain America was essentially a creation of WW2 propaganda.

Like Jesse Owens. Or Rosie the Riveter. Or Nadezhda Popova, “The Night Witch.”

Nick Fury was the everyman soldier of WW2, GI Joe elevated to a leadership role in the new Cold War fight against a more devious foe.

Go For Broke, the Fighting 442! Everyone who’s seen Karate Kid knows who they are (which is everyone). Or equally good, the 761st Tank Battalion - where did you think the Black Panther Party took their name from?

Johnny Storm was the hot-headed teenager who had no business being near a significant scientific enterprise, except for being the younger brother of the blond, blue-eyed love interest of the key scientist.

It’s the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen. I have blue-eyed nephews of strong Scotts-Irish stock - and second generation immigrant non-white nieces, and they’re siblings. This is a reality in my very formerly-WASP family. They’re all great kids, and get along way better than I ever did with my solidly WASP cousins, and all of us love them with full New England ferocity.

Sue Storm can be blonde haired and blue eyed, at the same time Johnny Storm is black. This is actual real life, not pandering.

Oh, wait, why does Sue need to be blonde haired and blue eyed? And if she is, why does that signify she’s white?

Keep up. We’ve already had a mixed race Sue Storm - Mayan and Jewish and Welsh and Irish! - and she was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise terrible pair of movies.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:13 PM on April 5, 2015


A supersoldier program that tested its formula on expendable black soldiers makes sense,
And was first detailed in the Marvel Universe in 2003. Meet Isaiah Bradley.
posted by lumensimus at 7:47 PM on April 5, 2015


Slap*Happy, I don't think you read my full post, because we agree.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 2:34 AM on April 6, 2015


Just because you agree about comic books doesn't mean you can't argue about them with each other!
posted by Mizu at 3:07 AM on April 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I keep forgetting that some people think affirmative action is a bad thing.

Not so much a bad thing as a wallpapering-over-problem thing. Like going no farther toward diversity than taking an established character and using a different color ink.

What we hope for is a world such as already exists for ducks. Donald white since forever, Daffy black since forever.
posted by jfuller at 5:55 AM on April 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Arbitrarily changing a significant characteristic of a fictional character in order to pander to some marketing demographic is just that - pandering.


Isn't the reverse true as well though? That refusing to change one or two particular characteristics when anything else seems to be up for grabs (including having characters go through multiple incarnations as different people) is just as bad of pandering? Maybe even worse?

Look, you just referred to the fact that a black Captain America not making sense in the terms of the time the story was born*, and yes you then went on to justify the change in terms of historical accuracy. Really though, what about Captain America makes sense in terms the real world? That's the true trap of the white male being seen as default. It limits your options without you even knowing they're limited. In a genre where one of the most iconic examples has gone from being just really strong, to being able to travel back in time by flying faster than light, to not having powers, to having powers again (with a death and resurrection thrown in there somewhere for good measure), you really shouldn't have to have a higher standard for changing a character's gender or race than you have for anything else.

*I actually bet a large chunk of America in the 1950s would have loved to rally behind a non-white hero. Just not the ones culture likes to focus on.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:16 AM on April 6, 2015


Yeah I'm white and even I'm bored to death with all-white-all-the-time in my movie heroes. On behalf of my "people," please feel free to "steal" as many characters as you like.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:22 PM on April 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


*I actually bet a large chunk of America in the 1950s would have loved to rally behind a non-white hero. Just not the ones culture likes to focus on.

Yeah, assuming straight white males are the default is pandering to a minority- just one that the creators consider the correct one. And let's face it, that was the case even decades ago

Personally though, I consider diversity its own reward; it makes for better characters and stories.
posted by happyroach at 4:24 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Arbitrarily changing a significant characteristic of a fictional character in order to pander to some marketing demographic is just that - pandering.

Well, yes, that's a tautology. If you do something to pander, you're pandering. And I agree that characters should be retconned in a way that makes sense.

But these are characters who have proven themselves to be quite plastic in the past, and have been refashioned, over and over, to represent some of the most capricious fads of their era. I would argue that changing comics to represent the actual diversity of the world is, in and of itself, worthwhile, far more so than, say, taking away Batman's gun, or making Aquaman king of Atlantis.

I don't think this is pandering.
posted by maxsparber at 6:17 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


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