After years of public begging from all corners, Marvel Studios and Sony Entertainment have come to an agreement on the rights to Spider-Man. Spider-Man has been a part of almost every major Marvel crossover storyline, going back years, and much of the anticipation over this deal has been about his inclusion in a film version of the “Civil War” storyline. It’ll be great to see Spidey out there as part of the MCU. While I’m not entirely thrilled about many of the implications, it does give me the opportunity to talk about Captain America: Civil War and Spidey.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
—Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. Where Captain Kirk ripped his shirt open and threw punches, Picard was the thinking man’s captain, skillfully conducting Federation diplomacy before retiring to a mug of earl grey and the latest journal on exoarchaeology. He’s not a nerd who became an action hero, he’s a nerd who did an action hero’s job while staying a nerd.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, it still went without saying that a white guy would sit in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise. William Shatner was still making movies as James Tiberius Kirk, and the other major science fiction and fantasy franchises of the era were headed by the likes of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we were through the first seven of twelve Doctors Who. Hints of change were in the air, though, and Sigourney Weaver’s turn in Alien compelled an update to the infinitive-splitting mission statement of the Enterprise. Picard, unlike Kirk, was going “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
In that context, when Captain Picard spoke with his usual wisdom and eloquence, he not only appeared to be speaking for the best of humanity, he seemed to be speaking for all of humanity. You could pretend that he was of a world beyond race and gender, and that it was good. You can’t pretend forever.
Positive racial representation is so, so important in our popular media. This is not news—it’s something we talk about at least weekly on this site. But what about situations where a character’s race is never stated? Some media, by their nature, don’t include physical descriptors of their characters: what, if anything, can these raceless characters do for racial representation?
Theoretically, leaving a character’s racial identity open to fan interpretation should allow fans to invent a diverse variety of different designs for that character. It should be a goldmine of racial representation, because leaving a character raceless should allow people of any race to identify with that character. The truth of it is, though, that characters with no assigned race often end up white in the majority of fan renderings. Much like the heterosexist idea that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, when a character’s race is not explicitly stated, the bulk of a fandom will fall back on the idea that white is the default, “normal” race and assign whiteness to the character or characters in question.
White privilege is present in every part of our lives, and part of that privilege is seeing oneself in media without ever having to look. In fact, people are so socialized into believing that all main characters are white people that we often visualize characters as white even when they’re not described as such. For example, did you know that Harry Potter is never assigned a race in the books? He’s got messy black hair and great skin, but the actual color of his skin is never brought up. And yet it’s only recently that I’ve seen people making an active effort to introduce biracial Harry headcanons into the fandom. We do this because we’ve been taught over and over again that white is the norm. While it’s not wrong to imagine a character as white, it is something to be aware of, and to challenge in ourselves as critical consumers of media. What subconsciously led us to whiteness, and why did we choose that over a PoC design?
It is my sincere belief that none of you live beneath rocks, and so it seems safe to assume that all of you are aware of the happenings in Ferguson, MO. Just in case you don’t, the civil unrest (not riots) currently going in this St. Louis suburb is receiving nationwide attention. Said civil unrest began in response to the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Brown was an unarmed Black teenager with no criminal record, and while the exact circumstances of his death are in dispute, much of the Ferguson community (a community which is now almost seventy percent African American) views it as unjust homicide of a young Black man by a police officer. I’m tempted to agree.
People react to tragedies like these in many different ways, wondering how situations like these could have been avoided, asking what will finally bring peace, and often lamenting the loss of young men characterized as “good,” “college-bound,” and “upstanding.” The sentiment that the Black community cannot afford to lose another good young man is understandable, but ultimately falls prey to a dangerous respectability politics—a politics that suggests that the death of a Black person is only significant if that person was a morally upstanding community servant who fits whatever definition of “good” that white people are currently holding us to.
So, my current Web Crush is the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which attempts to confront this respectability politics head-on. Perhaps you remember one of the two pictures of Trayvon Martin that circulated after his February 2012 death. However, the second image is not the Trayvon Martin who was the victim of the 2012 shooting—it’s another boy entirely. Nevertheless, the whole idea of popularizing the second image was to indict Trayvon Martin by making him appear to be someone chasing the thug or gangsta lifestyles. The notion that this makes him guilty or makes his life worth less is obscene, and probably racist.
For the millionth time, representation matters! But unfortunately, we don’t always get to see ourselves quite so directly in human characters for various negative reasons. Maybe diverse characters were taboo at the time, maybe the author didn’t think a varied cast was necessary, or maybe the characters don’t necessarily have a racial or gender identity. But in this case, many tropes are still used to create characters that people of color can identify with.
This is sort of a personal issue for me: growing up, there weren’t a lot of Black characters outside of family sitcoms and token Black teammates. So to have a Black character who was uniquely their own person would have been a monumental thing. However, even though there weren’t very many Black characters I could identify with, there were still several racially ambiguous characters that I often thought of as Black.
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.
Last week, our own Tsunderin gave a nice recap of E3. I don’t need to retread the points she made, but I do want to talk about some of the things Nintendo did right during the week, and why it matters. Also because Splatoon has been one of the first games to bring me a real sense of excitement and I need an excuse to talk about it! Nintendo celebrated colorfulness and fun during their week at E3 and, from what I’ve noticed, the internet hype has risen to a much higher level because of this.