This post comes from a thought-storm that’s been brewing since I re-watched The Princess and the Frog a few months ago. Such a fun film! After re-watching it, I found some commentaries and criticisms that stuck out to me, namely this one—a quote from a British critic: “Disney may wish to reach out to people of colour—but the colour green wasn’t what we had in mind.” The fact that Tiana spends more time in frog form than human form is a little unsettling if compared to other Disney Princesses who, well, get to retain their natural skin color for the duration of their films. The next catalyst for this post was the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, a character who, no matter his racial background, will frequently appear shrouded completely in flames, a state which renders his human features practically negligible. Why does it seem so difficult to find genre media creators/producers willing to create media with Black characters who get to show they are Black?
As you likely already know, Michael B. Jordan will play the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four film, slated for release on June 19, 2015. This casting decision was met with its fair share of outcry, because Johnny Storm is understood to be a White character, and Michael B. Jordan is clearly African-American. I think it would be easy to write it off as just another instance of fans of a very White and very male industry being a very White and male kind of racist. But there are deeper questions about misunderstanding of the role of diversity in artistic representation. During my tenure at this blog, I’ve written a fair amount about race and representation in the geek world, not just in comics, but also in video games, and theatre. I’ll be honest, I’ve found a dearth of good arguments against increasing the level of racial diversity in geek culture. Once more, with feeling: brown kids deserve more brown superheroes. Most counter-arguments to that notion are vapid, disingenuous, or just plain racist, like “most people won’t be able to relate to that character if his race is changed/is nonwhite”. There’s a comic over at Critical Miss that sums it up perfectly:
People can identify with Fox McCloud and he’s a bipedal fox. But a dude with darker skin is somehow too alien? What is that if not [racism]?
Arguments like this one are easily, and hilariously, dismissed (seriously, go read that comic). But every once in a while, a more seductive argument against diversity of representation pops up. It usually goes something like: “Why is it okay to change the race of [x], who is White, but not okay to change [y], who is a POC, to a White character?” The argument relies on a rather misguided sense of absolute equality, among myriad other problems. It’s probably easier to get traction on such an issue if we phrase it in terms of concrete examples.