So I talked a bit about that as well as fem!lock, the Sherlock fandom practice of writing/drawing Sherlock Holmes as a woman. Basically, I looked at the ways having a minority actor play a previously-white character addresses some charges of racism, and the ways it doesn't go far enough.
Read it at my blog or below the cut.
On the Limits of Black (and Hispanic, and Asian, etc.) Spider-Men
This weekend an actress stood up and said something about racial representation in Hollywood, a few people found it offensive, and then she apologized for it (sort of). It would hardly deserve discussing on a slow news day, except for the single fact that her original point is … not totally ridiculous. I don’t actually agree with her, but I definitely think it’s worth discussing.
The actress in question is Michelle Rodriguez. She was asked about rumors she’d be starring in the new “Green Lantern” movie, to which she replied:
That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. I think it’s so stupid because of this whole minorities in Hollywood thing. It’s so stupid. Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own. What’s up with that?
(See the video here.)
When I first heard the comment, I thought she was saying that comic book roles should be deserved for white actors and actresses for some reason (I suppose because white artists had created it, and that it was “stupid” to set up a kind of affirmative action for minority actors. But that doesn’t seem to be what she means at all, at least if you take her clarification (that seems a more apt word than apology to me) as genuine. What’s “stupid” isn’t that white people would lose roles to minority actors; it’s that we think taking a white character and changing the race is enough. He thought is that we really need a truly diverse set of superheroes and role models pulling on those other characters.
I’m shamefully ignorant about comic book fandom (I recently mentioned at Tumblr that I can barely tell my DC from my MCU, though I try to be teachable), but even I wondered how accurate Rodriguez’s statement was. The cast of the most popular comics is definitely blindingly white, at least in the leading roles, but when it comes to the artists creating them, we need to be careful about just what we mean by white. Stan Lee, the granddaddy of all comic book artists, is Jewish after all, and working in a time when Jews faced quite a bit of racial discrimination themselves.
Perhaps more importantly, I never thought most superheroes were meant to be exclusively white. Set aside Thor, Loki, Odin and the like, characters pulling on Norse (or other white) mythology explicitly. Most of them are just American characters, supposed to be open to anyone. Of course they were always portrayed as white characters, but that’s the racism of the time (then certainly, arguably still today). It’s an unfulfilled promise. Just having a black actor play a character doesn’t by itself correct that problem, but when done right, having a black Spider-man would include minorities in that tradition. Giving the spotlight to a new specifically minority character wouldn’t.
“Done right” is the key, though. I’m always a bit frustrated (for instance) by fanfic stories that rewrite Sherlock Holmes as a woman as if that solves all the problems of sexism in the series. Sherlock Holmes in the Doyle stories is swimming in sexist attitudes, both in how he and Watson describe female characters and in the assumptions they make about female characters that feature as more than clients. Irene Adler is an exception, the one woman worth caring about, and she is more put on a pedestal than anything. Mary Morstan is expected to be Watson’s shining light and mind the hearth while he and Holmes go out at all hours and depend on each other emotionally in a way Watson never does with his wife. Holmes also has the privilege to access police scenes without having to work his way through the ranks or operate within standard procedures, and this only happens because he has all sorts of societal privileges: white, of a certain social class, and male. A female Holmes would not be able to do these things, any more than Clark Kent could have been black in the 1940s. He wouldn’t have been on the paper and he certainly wouldn’t have escaped scrutiny the way Clark Kent/Superman actually was able to.
The trick, in both cases, is to make the change in a way that addresses these changes, not that paints over and ignores them. I actually think the Captain America franchise did some really interesting work here in the way they had Sam address Steve in their first meeting. You can see it in Sam’s eyes when he talks about the “good old days”: he’s expecting Steve to tell him how great that greatest generation was, how things just aren’t as good these days. And that’s going to be a problem because for Sam’s parents and grandparents, the good old days weren’t anything to remember longingly. When Steve turns around and says, “Actually they weren’t all that great, and the way things are now is much better” identifies Sam’s struggle with Steve’s in a really interesting way. Captain America may be white, but he’s got the kind of outlook and back-story that could have been played by a black man out of Harlem rather than an Irish kid beat up by every bully in Brooklyn. And this lets Sam Wilson’s connection with him as a black man feel genuine. If they had gone so far as to make Captain America black (which I would have welcomed), you’d need to do similar work to make him feel believable. Just as, if you’re going to truly make me buy a feminized Sherlock Holmes, you’re going to have to address the unfair way women are treated in law enforcement, the way that would create barriers to the Work, and the way her rejection of sentiment for cold logic (if that’s the characterization you buy) meshes with sexist assumptions about how women are, and the biological realities of hormonal fluctuations and changing moods. Does fem!Sherlock get PMS, or do people think she does? How does she deal with that? Do people assume she will because of stereotypes, do they expect her to be more emotional than she actually is, and how does she deal with that? A female Sherlock Holmes would need more than longer hair and maybe a skirt to feel authentically female, at least to me. And a black Spider-Man needs more than just darker skin.
But I have to wonder, is racism in genre publishing the only reason comic book characters have tended to be white, and there’s such a strong reaction against minority actors playing the roles? There’s the sexism that keeps black artists from working, or from creating explicitly black characters, of course, and then there’s the sexism that makes some white readers and viewers uncomfortable with the idea that a black man (or woman) could save the day. These are all very real problems, and I don’t want to downplay them, but they are problems that could be addressed by a black superhero developed and presented in the right way. In fact, I’d say creating “parallel” minority superheroes would blow an opportunity here to fight those attitudes. We need studios to stand up and say there’s nothing wrong with Spider-man or Superman or Professor X or even Captain America being white, that those characters were always meant to be Americans of any race, and that the decision to always show them as white in the past was a (forgivable then, but unacceptable now) mistake coming from racist attitudes we now know are wrong. A black actor filling that particular role seems like it would do that.
I can say that because I don’t actually see the comic book superheroes as built around a specifically white mythology. People better educated in comic books can correct me here. Are the villains drawing from European-style fairy-tales? Setting aside the Norse gods (which is obviously European mythology), it seems like most of the comic book heroes – going from the movies here, as that’s mostly what I know – aren’t really pulling from any defined mythology. They’re white superheroes, sure, but they’re incidentally white, they could just as easily be Hispanic or Afro- or Asian-Americans without it being just a minority character set in a white man’s world.
Still, there does seem a certain whiteness about the whole superhero idea. And not just superheroes: any sort of lone figure saving the world against impossible odds through more or less individual efforts because they’re particularly powerful or fated or otherwise special (Frodo, Harry Potter, Katniss…) all strike me as the kind of thing a white mind would dream up. We’re so taken with the rugged individual ideal. The minority communities I’ve known – and, in fairness, these have mostly been lower class or lower-middle class in urban areas – are more influenced by the idea of “it takes a village.” They know that no individual is so powerful to redesign the whole system, and while they talk (rightly so) about great leaders like Dr. King and about great tragedies like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and (going back further) Emmett Till, these are guiding forces and flashpoints that inspire larger groups. Dr. King is a hero, but not in the same way Batman is.
Of all the heroic stories I mentioned, Katniss Everdeen seems to come closest to this model. There is very little special about her: the courage to volunteer for her sister in the Reaping, some small skill with a bow and arrow, and the wit and stubbornness not to play the Game by the rules. It’s more her circumstances and the spotlight they give her that make her special. Of course, she needs the skills to take advantage and be effective, but lots of people have those things. What makes her special (and famous, and the hero of the story) is her position in history, her relation to others, not anything unique or special to her as an individual.
Which is actually a much more enjoyable story for me, but it’s very different than a superhero story. That’s why I think Ms. Rodriguez’s comment is interesting. It’s difficult for me, as a white person, to discuss what a minority superhero story would look like, but I suspect her request for authentic minority superheroes rather than white hand-me-downs recast as minorities would turn out to be a much more substantive change than she seems to think. Would a minority analogue of Thor, for instance, look like a member of a Nigerian pantheon fighting beside humans with men mutated through radiation, engineered super-soldiers, and owners of nifty flying suits against a super-powerful alien intent on conquering the Earth?
My guess – and I’m open to people explaining why I’m wrong here – would be not, precisely because Thor’s role as the protecting hero grows out of the white psyche and the whole idea that individuals are special and powerful enough to fix even massive problems, all by their own. I suspect we’d have to end up with a different genre entirely, and that would be really interesting, but it wouldn’t be a matter of giving us a black or Hispanic superhero, even an original one created by a black artist. And precisely because it’s so different, I still think there’s a role for a minority actor playing Spider-man or the like; because that’s a powerful way of saying the superhero idea should be open to all kinds of people. It’s just that that’s not the only kind of equality that matters.
So bring on the black Spidey-man, and make the next Captain America Diego Luna, and the next Fury Chow Yun-Fat for that matter. Just don’t think that’s the end of the road.
Comments welcome there or here. :-)