So if you haven’t heard, Thor is now a woman and Captain America is Black! In the comics, at least, so these developments are not in the cinematic universe. While bringing these changes to the big screen would be great, seeing these new representations in comic form is very nice. But besides being really cool, these changes are also important and carry some significant weight.
Representation of minority groups is important both from a societal standpoint and a financial one. As the popularity of geeky media grows, more people want to see themselves represented in the preferred media. As evidenced by the outrage at Ubisoft for not including female assassins in their latest game, or the ongoing “facepalming” at DC Comics, it is apparent that representation is important to a vocal part of the audience. Many fans, especially fans who don’t see themselves represented in today’s media, want to see other stories told as well. From either perspective, these are opportunities for more products sold for the companies. It’s a win for everyone involved. This can’t be stressed enough.
Often, the argument comes up: why not just create a new character? While I do agree that this would be an ideal solution, it’s a solution that fits an ideal situation. Although media is fun to consume, at the end of the day it is still a business. Creating a new character, diverse or not, is a risk and it is often difficult for new characters to gain the traction necessary to be financially viable. For example, The Movement by Gail Simone was made up of mostly new characters who were almost all from minority groups: they were people of color, queer, had disabilities, etc. However, it was canceled after only twelve issues despite a dedicated, but small, fan base.
Because of this, the easiest way to introduce diverse characters into canon is to either retcon them into a more diverse role (like Thor), or pass the mantle (like Captain America). This works better because people are familiar with certain traits and struggles of characters that make them special. Often times, gender or race isn’t one of their more important traits and and can be changed without too much issue. Especially with Marvel’s “Big Three” (Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man); there’s a built-in audience ready to see what new things can be done with those characters.
By the same token, sometimes a character’s personal demographic is important, either to the story, for representation reasons, or both. If the character’s race or gender was a major part of their backstory, or if they are part of an underrepresented group, it’s not the best idea to change these attributes. For example, part of Magneto’s backstory is that he is a Holocaust survivor. This affects his character and is relevant to the theme of X-Men, as X-Men is subtextually about discrimination and similar conflicts. Changing Magneto’s Jewish background would have a significant effect on who he is on a fundamental level. Captain America, however, doesn’t have any specific reason to be a white guy. So long as he is some sort of soldier, changing his ethnicity shouldn’t be a problem.
As evidenced by the recent Thor announcement, characters can also be changed on the basis of their gender. Wonder Woman is a character whose creation is firmly based in female empowerment, and a genderswapped version wouldn’t make much sense. From another viewpoint, there are characters like Tony Stark who would have additional friction from a genderswap. His prominent traits are an interest in science and engineering, partying, promiscuity, and being a weapons dealer. While a female character could certainly be like this, which would be interesting, the character may be viewed differently than a male example because of our socially constructed gender roles. We’re taught to think of women as polite, gentle, and lovers of the humanities. But I don’t think a female Tony would necessarily be bad, as it could be a very different approach to the character. Women are underrepresented as it is, let alone as a crass character like Tony Stark. Additionally, retconning a character as genderqueer or genderfluid would be great too, because these type of characters are so rarely seen in media.
In addition, some characters shouldn’t be changed due to the representation they add. For example, it might not be in good taste to return the mantle of Ms. Marvel back to a white woman now that it’s been given to a woman of color, the Pakistani-American Kamala Khan. In this sense, it’s a numbers game; it’s better to remove a few characters from a largely represented group. It’s not so great to do the same to a smaller group.
All in all, these changes are good. People are excited for more diversity, as evidenced by the many great comments and articles online. Of course there is some friction, but people must accept that white stories and male stories are not the only acceptable ones. People are coming around, again, as evidenced by Ms. Marvel #1 going into a 6th print run—thus proving how much of a demand there is for it! Fans want to see diverse characters. Hopefully we can see more changes on the horizon. In the meantime, I’ll keep on pulling for a female Link and Donald Glover as Spider-Man!