Monday, July 18, 2016

On Changing Character's Race and Gender

I saw a story today about how Iron Man is now being portrayed by a black female in the comics. This is part of a bigger trend by Marvel to try to increase representation of minorities in their stories by replacing popular existing characters. They have done this with a female version of Thor, a black version of Spiderman, a female Wolverine, and a black Captain America. There are likely others I am forgetting.

It isn't just Marvel or comics doing this either. On TV and in theaters we have seen recently a black version of Perry White, a black version of Jimmy Olsen, a black version of orphan Annie, and a female version of Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes' partner. Remember that this is not about actors portraying characters of a different race, such as Scarlett Johansson portraying Motoko from Ghost in the Shell. That's a different issue. This is about the character themselves being altered and made to be a different race or gender. In the case of Marvel comics, what they have been doing is replacing the white man behind the mask with existing or new minority characters. Not quite the same thing but the same basic purpose.

So how do I feel about this as a black man? In general I oppose it. I think making jarring demographic changes to characters can be interesting for Elseworld comics – thought exercises, side stories and the like. However for mainline runs or big budget movie adaptations, I think it is wrong for a number of reasons.

The first thing that bugs me about it is the blatant pandering. These companies switch the race of an already popular character and then pat themselves on the back for “uplifting” minorities and increasing their representation in media. Any minority with a brain ought to be annoyed at how condescending that is. This attitude from media companies, “See! Look! Look! He's BLACK now! She's a WOMAN now! See? Aren't we awesome???” In practice whenever the biggest and most surprising thing about someone is their race or gender, you are almost guaranteed to have a boring character. What's more, it doesn't even really achieve the stated goal of “increasing minority representation,” since everyone knows that they just temporarily replaced a well-known white character. It is equivalent to bringing in a few black substitute teachers at an all white high school and then acting like the school has meaningfully increased minority representation on its staff.

I dislike tokenism. I dislike the idea that a single black comic character can somehow be representative of all black people. It's insulting. Beyond the pandering is the fact that it is incredibly lazy. In the same way that Hollywood increasingly only churns out sequels, reboots, and adaptations, big comic book companies are loathe to launch new heroes. Instead, they just take someone already popular and switch up the demographic details. “Hey, everyone already loves Thor. Lets just do FEMALE Thor!” The implicit message is that women and minorities do not deserve their own heroes. Let them be content to just ride the coattails of a tried and true white male hero who has already paved the way for them. Why take risks on non-white and female characters when you don't have to?

It isn't just insulting to minorities though; it is also unfair to white people. How is it that people can complain about “white washing,” in Hollywood when the same thing is done to white characters again and again? How would we feel if Hollywood remade Blade with a white guy as the main character? Or how about we get Emily Stone to play Storm in the next X-Men movie? Or how about we have a man take over as the new lead of Tomb Raider? The fact is, all characters, white, black, male, female, or whatever, have a history that should be respected.

Greek mythology gave us great characters like Hercules and Zeus. It is unique to that culture and something Greeks can be proud of to this day. In the same way Sherlock Holmes is a uniquely British character. Kuro Hazama (Blackjack) is a uniquely Japanese character. All over the world, from South America, to Africa, to Europe, are civilizations with their own mythologies and literary traditions. Some have been passed down for centuries. When we change those histories – rewrite Annie as black or James Bond as a woman – we disrespect the heritage of that character as well as the culture that spawned it. Implicitly we understand this with non-white characters. No one would dare rewrite Zorro as a blonde German. But because of contemporary PC altruistic philosophy, we think it is virtuous to blot out characters of white or male or European ancestry.

How is it that the same people who whine about Justin Timberlake appropriating black culture by singing R&B can be OK with explicit appropriation of white characters? The common argument as to why it is OK to replace white / male characters but not others centers on nebulous non-concepts like “historical injustice,” and a supposed lack of representation. But this does not bear much scrutiny. For one, no injustice is corrected by erasing white or male characters. All you do is create a new injustice. Secondly, this does nothing to help women and minorities thrive in creative fields with their own unique characters.

Every time you you swap out a popular white character for a minority, you send the message that there is no need for or interest in minority characters that stand on their own. Instead, you teach minorities that their time is better served petitioning corporations to change white characters for them. This has the effect of tacitly affirming the opinion of racist whites who believe that not only are minority characters inferior, but that minorities are incapable of even attempting to compete with whites in creative fields. You are proving them right.

And here we come to my biggest reason for not liking these changes: It is divisive. It creates more hostility between minorities and whites than it cures. It perpetuates the dangerous zero-sum idea that the only way for minorities to gain is by tearing down whites. The minorities that buy into this take it as a victory every time an established white character is 'taken,' and made 'theirs.' Whites, rightly, see their own culture as being unfairly appropriated.

Minorities do not have to 'take' from whites in order to uplift themselves. Instead we need to work and build and create for ourselves in order to excel. We need to build our own stories, our own franchises, our own communities. We cannot blame racism for not doing this. Yes, racism exists, but it is not so powerful as to force us to beg, hat in hand, for noble tolerant white people to give us their sloppy seconds. Insisting that whites temporarily change the race / gender of their own popular characters to make us feel like we are equal creative participants in popular fiction is a degrading idea. It is a continuation of white man's burden. Instead of relying on the charity of whites, we need to show that original black characters can be successful on their own.

This is why characters like Black Panther and Lucius Fox are so important. Black Panther is an original African hero with his own unique background and concept. He's just as awesome as the Dark Knight with the right story. Lucius is an example of an original supporting minority character done right. Fox makes Batman more believable, is a brilliant engineer, shrewd businessman, and a key ally to the Wayne family. He also just happens to be black. No big deal. No need for a parade or a whole lot of self-congratulations on DC's part. Just a cool new character blazing his own trail in movies and comics. That is what women and minorities need. More Black Panthers and more Lucius Fox's.