2015 so far has been an interesting year in nerdy media. We’ve had amazing entries that were expected such as Avengers 2 and Metal Gear Solid V, as well as surprises such as Splatoon and Mad Max: Fury Road. These second two proved that diversity can push a franchise. Inclusion and proper treatment of women and girls can really boost a work into the public eye and enrich its quality. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that nerd culture has a ways to go in terms of racial diversity. There have been controversies about the lack of color in Mad Max, Splatoon, and the Witcher 3, among other titles. Lack of inclusion, while getting better, is nothing new; it’s a relatively simple concept that needs to be fixed, but it isn’t the one I want to discuss today. No, I want to highlight a more nebulous problem. I want to discuss the cavalier treatment of Black identity and culture.
Before I get started, I want to state that I don’t speak for every Black person, or every person of color for that matter, but I think some of these themes are, unfortunately, fairly commonplace. The topic that brought this to my attention rather strikingly was a recent Deadpool trailer. Now personally, I enjoy Deadpool, primarily from his appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. But I also enjoy the character’s more diverse attributes. So, I’m really looking forward to the movie. However, I was a bit put off by the trailer. For the uninitiated, it is embedded below. Content warning for language, sexual situations, and violence:
Cool, right? For the most part, I agree! But it gets a little troubling after the turn. See, once Wade Wilson is upgraded into Deadpool and becomes violent, the background music changes to hip-hop. The message is then interpreted as “hip-hop is something only a violent person would enjoy”. As he prepares to, and does, casually and gleefully kill people, a song by Salt n’ Pepa plays in the background. Then, once he mentions that he has some rage to express and shoots a guy through the head, a DMX song begins. DMX is an incredibly problematic rapper—his songs often have themes of misogyny and homophobia—but he is far from emblematic of rap as a genre. But here, his music is used as a proxy for an entire sound.
The same DMX song is used in an episode of Rick & Morty, a parody-like science fiction cartoon, when two characters become extremely muscular and exact well-deserved street justice on villains. Unfortunately, the music and genre have become quickly linked with aggression and violence. To be clear, I’m not here to defend a singular rapper. Again, his music is very obviously offensive, and hip-hop as well as every music genre is no stranger to problematic elements, but the issue arises in the isolation: hip-hop isn’t so commonly used in pop culture (outside of silly and extremely stereotypical situations). If hip-hop and rap are only used when characters perform violent acts, it enforces the idea that rap music, and by extension Black culture, is just a joke and a shorthand for violence.
This trend was analyzed a couple years ago in a Slate article entitled “The Troubling Viral Trend of the “Hilarious” Black Neighbor”, in which the author discusses the disproportionate rate at which Black news witnesses become memes online. It’s just in my experience that nerd culture seems to be a bit worse with this sort of thing. It mostly comes from dissonance: many progressives and social justice proponents will advocate for women’s rights and LGBTQ+ acceptance, but happen to have a blind spot in terms of race. Just as in broader pop culture with Taylor Swift (ignoring the separate challenges Black women face in criticism), Amy Schumer (making racist jokes while claiming to be feminist), and Tina Fey (championing feminism while body-shaming women of color), many figureheads in gaming and nerd culture seem to have similar blind spots.
This may be me speaking a bit personally, but it hurts to see a panel of white dudes be derided for their lack of diversity, only to be replaced by a selection of white women. Taking my male privilege into account, there are more than a few women of color available who should also be represented, Black women especially. There is always room for intersectionality. In a similar vein, I’ve been struggling with interactions with other enthusiasts. Unfortunately, Black slang seems to be another punchline for people. I’m not sure if this is due to “Bros” adopting the dialect, but it is offputting to hear critics and fans adopt a “dumb voice” to use phrases like “yo yo yo” or “sup dawg” as a way to exhibit ignorance. It’s the same with slang like bling, crackalackin, fresh, or -izzle speak. (These, by the way, are quite dated expressions.) The sentiment always feels the same: Black culture is simply a joke or device used to imitate low intelligence. To round it out, game developers often rely on lazy stereotypes to identify Blackness as criminal. Whether it be colorism in making evil, darkness, and blackness synonymous, or making the crooks in a game of Cops and Robbers all coded as Black (Battlefield: Hardline did this), it again puts us in a place of criminality.
That said, I’m not one to assume that these instances are always intentionally offensive, far from it. I think these biases are more implicit and subconscious. Appropriation discussions aside, I want to urge enthusiasts, critics, and content creators to consider why they want to use these speaking styles and themes the way they do. I want to call colleagues in various nerd and geek spaces to try to be more cognizant of how we’re speaking and creating our media. We all have learning to do, I sure do, but we have to make sure we keep each other accountable.