Black History Month is tomorrow! This is a time for celebration, learning, and spotlighting cool stuff in Black nerd culture. I’m excited. In the meantime though, I want to talk about making good characters in our fiction. And because I’m still riding off the adrenaline, here’s another post about Steven Universe and Star Wars: The Force Awakens!
Spoilers for both after the jump.
Where to start? Black characters aren’t the most common in nerd media to begin with, so when we actually get to see one, I’m always happy. I’m even more happy when the character is well written and not a stereotype. Too often, Black characters are relegated to the hardened criminal or sassy sidekick. You’ll frequently see these characters as thugs, jive-talking buddies, or Black women with attitude. Additionally, these characters may be portrayed as selfish, hard to work with, or unaware of others’ emotions. Tucker from Danny Phantom fell into this trap, with his selfishness either causing direct problems for the crew or at least slowing them down. With characters like this, negative attitudes towards people of color are reinforced and ingrained.
In addition, it’s relieving to see explicitly (or very strongly coded) Black characters, rather than having to grasp for straws with characters who are pretty much headcanon Black, like with Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z and Knuckles from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. I wrote before about how Black-coded characters may be a way to satiate the need for representation without actually having it. These are characters that many audience members will claim are supposed to be Black (or other people of color) but are really non-human and some other color from the rainbow. (Green and red, in this case). Again, this is slightly cool because you have a character to identify with, but it’s not really representation.
But even without falling into stereotypical territory, many Black characters still don’t get to have a large range of personalities. I’m not sure if this has become a case of over-cautiously trying to prevent caricature, or just uninspired writing, but sometimes Black characters do feel like token characters; they simply feel more like palette swaps of other cast members to fill a quota than actually fully realized characters. Brock from Pokémon was like this. He was an all right character, but he never felt like a Black guy, at least to me. (He may not have been, but he was markedly more brown than his melanin-deficient pals.)
This is where it gets a little tricky to explain. “Dom,” you say, “beyond just skin color, how can a character feel Black as you say?” And that’s a valid point. Admittedly, much of it does come down to audience feel and reception. It’s a touchy line between stereotype and “some people actually exhibit these mannerisms”. Unfortunately, some of it is just “this character is really cool and has some mannerisms like me”. But some characters are allowed to be both Black and non-stereotypical.
Coming from Steven Universe, Garnet is pretty strongly coded as Black, has a Black voice actress, and gets some strikingly Black traits even though the Gems don’t technically have races. She gets to experience a full range of wonder and love and her whole composition as a fusion embodies this: she is two smaller Gems who stay permanently fused because they are in love rather than for any specific tactical purpose. In the most recent Stevenbomb block of episodes, we get to see how Ruby and Sapphire met, which was sort of by chance. Their fusion was even more serendipitous. From the get-go, her personality reflects the wonder of being in love, so she always takes it seriously. Garnet gets to be badass and supremely cool, for sure, but she is a strong leader and often leads/teaches through empathy. When Peridot officially joins their team, most of Garnet teaching her to be included is by relating to her, culminating in her explaining that her permafusion is about love. (Which was explained through shipping, of all things.)
Finn from The Force Awakens is another great example of a Black character who gets to be empathetic. In a few occasions, he acts as an audience surrogate (he fears running into the First Order, he doesn’t think going to retrieve a “common droid” is worth risking their lives, he misunderstands the Force) which always appeals to me. I love when a character asks questions or reacts in a way that feels close to how I would. Often, characters of any race seem to treat situations in fiction like minor occurrences to be unyielding tough people. In this way, he is already characterized by empathy. Another fairly defining trait of Finn is that he gets to be scared. Again, not many characters get to have this freedom without being a coward. His fear is immediately justifiable, though, because he has defected from an organization that kills entire villages for just being sort of in the way. His arc with Rey often has shades of empathy as well. When he first meets her, he frequently grabs for her hand when running away. She, and many audience members, dismiss this as him seeing her as a damsel in distress. But to me, and many others, this came off as him needing comfort more than trying to provide it. As well, it stands to reason that Stormtroopers would be trained in teamwork. Later in the movie, Finn is finally about to escape the conflict, but only comes back to help Rey and his friends. He doesn’t behave like he is obligated out of loyalty, but out of genuine care for his new friends. This is really refreshing to see.
Garnet and Finn both exhibit forms of vulnerability that make them feel more real and show that Black people are more than just strength and sexuality. The fact that their primary traits seem to be caring about the people around them seems almost revolutionary, even though it shouldn’t be. More characters should be like this, to be honest. The Black experience is as vast and diverse as any group’s, and I wish our fiction would reflect that. Caring, empathy, and love are a part of values to many people, and when I see those traits in characters, it helps me connect on a level that being cool and badass alone doesn’t match. I’m willing to bet others feel the same.