Ethnic Superhero Season, or What Michelle Rodriguez Can Teach Us About Believability

Virtually any time that something happens at the intersection of Black people and comics, I get a message on Facebook. That’s because my friends love me, I’m sure, but it occasionally leads me to be inundated with eight or nine messages about the same thing. Take, for example, this video of Michelle Rodriguez, which was sent to me by about twelve people a month ago:

In the video, Michelle 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? First, a superhero is functionally a mythological entity (yes, they are—I will fight you), and cannot be stolen. They can, however, be appropriated, and this may be closer to what Rodriguez meant. My initial reaction was confusion, both personal and academic. As an individual, I was confused at why another person of color objects to the practice of diversifying white characters, especially Green Lantern who has already seen a Latino character—Kyle Rayner—in a print run.

Academically, I was confused because the notion that white characters can be “stolen” or “appropriated” when they are primarily what’s made available to young people of all races, while even our fantasies are “regulated by white believability” is troubling. Even more than that, myths are shaped, stolen, borrowed, passed around, and stripped for parts regularly. That’s their nature and cannot be separated from their purpose. It’s what they do. If you don’t believe me, on the left is a picture of Chinese Jesus.

There’s no universe in which I’m sad that Thor is a woman in the newest print run, and I don’t feel that men have lost anything; Thor was a man for all comic print runs beforehand (except for that time he was a frog). A little turnabout is fair play. Similarly, I’m not upset that Heimdall was played by Idris Elba or that Johnny Storm is being played Michael B. Jordan. I’m not even upset that Donald Glover keeps teasing us with this Spider-Man thing, or that Tyrese Gibson keeps telling us how ready he is to play Green Lantern (although I wish they’d stop teasing us, I’m getting chafed over here).

I see this tendency to change the race and gender of characters as a “get in where you fit in” approach to diversity. Often, new works which prominently feature Black characters have a hard time getting noticed, published, or made into films, though there have been a few good showings and it’s only recently that women are really getting their due in terms of comics and comic book movies. While I’m speaking in general terms, I really don’t feel that anything is being “stolen”. But maybe Rodriguez had a point, either broader or more incisive:

Now, she makes some of what I would call missteps, like the reference to Catwoman when the best Catwoman from the TV run was, in fact, African American. But, I see her point, and it sounds and feels better than the video caught on the street. Still, she raises some questions. Functionally, I think it boils down to “should we be out there doing our own thing?” to which the answer is an unequivocal yes.

I fully support the notion that we should be creating our own art, our own spaces, and our own comic book heroes. What does that look like? It means supporting work by diverse artists and authors. For example, when the Black Panther film comes out, go see it. Be sure to let the companies that mass-produce our popular culture that we really do like other flavors than vanilla. More importantly, support diverse, independent comics and films. It sounds like an Amazonian task, but we can change the frame of our mythology by supporting those who would contribute to it, not just those that currently dominate it.

This brings me to the thing that most irks me about Rodriguez’s comments. She mentions “a language,” which boils down to the success of a feature, exhorting diverse stakeholders in Hollywood to to make work that expresses their diversity rather than inserting that diversity into existing characters. I worry that this ignores the reality that either creating new diverse works or inserting diverse characters into existing works is looked upon with skepticism, even when it’s working.

From Empire, one of the shows mentioned in the Deadline article. via Vulture.

From Empire, one of the shows mentioned in the Deadline article. via Vulture

Take the recent article from Deadline, “Pilot 2015: The Year of Ethnic Casting“, which winds its way from making a list of wildly popular shows featuring Blacks leads and talking about new trends in casting which benefit professions of color to bemoaning-without-actually-saying-it the plight of white actors who get roles. The author quotes one talent rep who says “they need to say the best man or woman wins,” which seems to miss that this has never been the case in Hollywood and that these demonized quotas (if they exist) aren’t forcing producers to find losers and give them starring roles. They’re encouraging them to to do the work to find talented professionals of color, which is exactly what I want them to do.

An important note: as mentioned in the comments on Deadline and in this Slate Piece, the article’s title was originally “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?” (Here’s what I and everyone else think of that.)

I mention that to say that, for the first time, people of color are seeing something like proportional representation, and people both in and out of the industry are reacting to it with skepticism. I mention it to say that it’s not always so easy as just doing it. It’s not as though every time people of color make something fresh and entertaining, the whole comes beating down our door. Look at how many haters and so-called “friends” Shonda Rhimes has.

As I close, let me turn back to superheroes and modern myth. With the acknowledgment that it is hard work just to be Black in the modern myth industry, again, I support us making and contributing as much of “our own” content to the industry as possible, from in or outside of Hollywood. However, the perspective that grounds’ Rodriguez’s comments is ultimately fallacious.

I simply cannot get comfortable with the notion that there is a substantive issue with making a particular representation of a character a different race than they have previously been. First, it doesn’t erase the history of that character. Donald Glover as Miles Morales doesn’t obliterate Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield or Peter Parker from our collective memories. We live in an era where new stories don’t necessarily overwrite old ones. Second, whiteness is in such a prominent position and white superheroes are so common that to move the spotlight is to normalize representation, not “diversify” it.

Moreover, many of the “white” superheroes whose race is being changed in movies are only white in certain iterations of that character. There’s been more than one Black Captain America. Heimdall isn’t white, he’s an alien, and is part of trend that assumes whiteness is present where it isn’t. I guarantee you, if DC made a film where Superman was Black, there would be uproar and snide remarks. Why? There are Black Kryptonians. Superman is an alien who has neither our genetic makeup nor, necessarily, our racial politics.

Even the character that started the whole Rodgriguez kerfuffle, Green Lantern, isn’t necessarily white. There is a Black Green Lantern, John Stewart, who may be as well-known as any other. Like I said, Kyle Rayner is Latino. There’s been more than one female Green Lantern; the Wikipedia list thereof makes that fairly plain.

So, why, exactly would making Michelle Rodriguez a Green Lantern be stealing a white superhero, or unoriginal, or a diversion from canon? Those comments only begin to make sense if we assume that any character that was ever prominently white has whiteness as a fundamental characteristic. That any character who ever was prominently a man, or whose title was held by a man, has maleness as a fundamental characteristic. We know that’s not true. The only logical conclusion could not be more plain—that our fantasies, our myths, are policed by a white, male sense of believability.

And that’s terrible.

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2 thoughts on “Ethnic Superhero Season, or What Michelle Rodriguez Can Teach Us About Believability

  1. Michelle is probably not a Comic reader and not aware there is more then one Green Lantern.

    I am ok with changing the ethnicity. of characters. I’ve become more ok with it then I used to be.

    But I understand why when adapting from one visual medium to another many fans want the Character to look as close as possible to what they are used to that character looking like.

    Sometimes I feel the random changes of character Ethnicity show to me how Hollywood isn’t really interested in looking for the characters who are POC that already exist. Example, it seems in order to make the Daily Planet staff diverse they default to making either Perry or Jimmy black. Because there are only 3 DP employees everyone knows the name off (4 including Clark). Poor Ron Troupe will never make it into a movie or TV show it seems.

    Of course some cynics might suggest Troupe basically is a Black Jimmy Olsen, in even marries Lucy Lane like Jimmy does in various Silver Age stories.

    But he does have his unique qualities. A good adaptation of the Death and Return of Superman storlyine would include him and the article he wrote about the Cyborg Superman, dedicated to Clark Kent.

  2. Pingback: On Privilege, Casting, and Loss | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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