It’s that time of year again: National Hispanic Heritage Month in the USA begins today, lasting until October 15. As the current token Hispanic contributing author for this blog, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Hispanic/Latin@ presence in pop culture and what it looks like. First off, Hispanic or Latin@? (Spelling note: Spanish is a gendered language, -o generally denoting masculine and -a generally denoting feminine, so -@ is often used online in an attempt to cover both and everything in between.) Like most complicated subjects, all can be completely clarified and resolved with just a few panels of an online cartoon. Just kidding, it’s not that simple. In a nutshell, “Latin@” emphasizes geography (are you from Latin America?), “Hispanic” emphasizes language (does your country speak Spanish?). But do we include Spaniards in our definitions of Hispanic? How far do we geographically extend the idea of “Latin America”? Endless questions, with no definitive answers. Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
Bits and pieces of news about Doctor Who Series 9 have been starting to emerge over the past few weeks, not least of which that Arya Stark herself, Maisie Williams, would be starring in an episode. While the show has certainly had its ups and downs in quality over the last few years, I’ve noticed a distressing trend, and one I can’t really even blame solely on Moffat (even if I’d like to).
Look at it this way: you’re watching Doctor Who. This season’s companion has a Black boyfriend, and the Doctor treats him disrespectfully and refuses to acknowledge his identity by constantly misidentifying him. Which Doctor am I talking about?
Trick question—it could be Mickey or Danny. This forces me to point out a very unsettling pattern in Doctor Who: the Doctor’s behavior toward the men of color in his companions’ lives is pretty dang racist.
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).
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.