The Cliffs of Insanity: “But He’s Black”

Cliffs of Insanity GeekMom

This week’s adventure climbing the cliffs of insanity is all about the discussions, and sometimes meltdowns, concerning what seem like separate events but are instead all part of one idea: Straight white men shouldn’t be the only choice for heroes.

Our adventure will take us all the way to Michelle Rodriguez, who laid down the sexism gauntlet at Comic Con International to a crowd of “fanboys” in Hall H who weren’t expecting to be challenged. The video above is only a small part of a larger statement.

But first, let’s talk Doctor Who. The diversity discussion in its latest iteration has been all the speculation about the casting of the twelfth Doctor. He should be a minority! He should be a woman! He should be Idris Alba! (No, wait, we’re holding onto Alba to be Batman. Or James Bond.)

Why did these discussions happen? Because the Doctor has always been played by a white guy and so it remains. The world has changed in the last fifty years and it’s no longer reason enough to cast the Doctor as a white man because that’s always been the case. Tradition isn’t a good answer.

In the terrific documentary Casting By, now playing on HBO, Director Richard Donner talks about how he cast Lethal Weapon. He worked with legendary casting director Marion Dougherty, who helped him settle first on Mel Gibson. When she suggested Danny Glover for the other lead, Donner said “but he’s black.” And Dougherty said, basically, so what?

Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, X-Men
Was this very successful reboot “pandering?”

In the documentary, Donner is speaking before an audience and they laugh initially at the anecdote. He cuts off the laughter and continues, saying having Dougherty challenge him was “like a nail to my heart.” He didn’t realize his own bias, his own prejudice in not seeing Glover in the role. If a role didn’t specifically call for an African-American, he didn’t see it. The realization led, of course, to the casting of Glover, who fit the role of Murtaugh perfectly. Donner said it also changed his life because it opened his eyes to how prejudiced he had been.

I’m not asking people to feel Donner’s pain, as I’m sure Glover and other actors faced far more problems as the ones being passed over for roles. But Donner’s story is indicative of how we all need to expand our minds and question our inner default settings.

“But he’s black” isn’t enough of an answer.

It’s not enough of an answer when we’re talking about casting the new Doctor, the next Batman, or making sure the supposedly upcoming DC movies (I remain skeptical until I see them) aren’t filled with all white guys plus one token women who hasn’t yet truly been considered for a film because she’s “tricky.” (Read: Wonder Woman is a girl and Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with that.)

It’s not even enough to say, “but she’s not a guy.” When casting decisions are also made with open minds, the results can be wonderful, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Angelina Jolie in Salt.

Peter Capaldi seems like an excellent choice for the Doctor; he was the best thing about Torchwood: Children of Earth. However, Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, or another of the fabulous actresses the UK seems to produce at the drop of a hat would have been very good too.

I’ve heard the claim it’s “pandering” or “shoehorning in” to deliberately create multi-racial or gender-diverse casts in our popular entertainment. I’m not sure why this claim should be so. I live in a pretty rural Northeastern suburb and the world outside my window is more diverse and more full of women than those in many mainstream comic books or movies.

Was it pandering when the property that kickstarted the big Marvel renaissance in print and in the movies was deliberately and consciously put together to be diverse? I’m talking of the All-New X-Men, which included Storm, Jean Grey, and, later, Kitty Pryde. Colossus was Russian, Nightcrawler was German, Thunderbird was Native American, and Storm was from Africa.

That team seems to have done okay with “pandering.”

A fact that Len Wein, who co-created them, should have remembered when he talked about mainstream comics issues with gender and racial diversity recently with Todd McFarlane and Gerry Conway at a Television Critics Association press tour for  the documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle.

“I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character,” Wein said.

I believe what Wein was trying to say was that any character has to be more than one-dimensional, and that’s fine, but I wish he’d nudged or rolled his eyes or even objected when McFarlane claimed “there hasn’t really been historically a comic book that has worked that is trying to get across a kind of message, if you will.”

That’s a pretty ignorant claim to make when you’re sitting right next to the guy who deliberately created a diverse X-Men team that was all about putting forth a message: Being different isn’t a reason to be hated or feared. If there’s any property that’s about a social message, about having to hide who you are and wanting acceptance, it’s the X-Men.

There’s a reason being a mutant has been viewed as a metaphor for being gay.

And speaking of being gay, Andrew Garfield set the geek world on fire a few weeks ago when he suggested Spider-Man could be gay. I don’t think Garfield expected his suggestion to ever happen. What I suspect he wanted was make people think outside the box.

Why does Spider-Man have to be straight? One could point out that being a gay teen in our current society might be all the more reason for teenage Peter Parker to feel ostracized, one more reason why he might not fit in as yet. And I can easily imagine a triangle of Peter/Henry Osborn/Norman Osborn having all sorts of intense conflict, especially as the son has to choose between the one he loves and his father.

Why can’t Spider-Man be gay? One hint: the answer can’t be “because he’s always been straight.”

So, yes, I hope Capaldi does great as the Doctor. I hope an excellent actor is chosen as the next Batman or the next Flash. But I also hope that those in charge of our popular entertainment realize the American population is almost 50 percent non-white and over 50 percent female. This is not about leading changes in society, it’s about reflecting the world that already exists.

Which makes it pandering to always make sure the heroes are straight white guys.

And speaking of schooling people….

My Girl Crush on Michelle Rodriguez Keep Growing

“Somewhere around 1, I leaned over to El. “Sure are a lot of white dudes at this thing, huh?” I joked. Half-joked. OK, I wasn’t really joking: every f***** panel had maybe one woman or one person of color on it. Sometimes, rarely, both. 

She smirked at me and showed me her phone, where she’d been Tweeting with the hashtag #HallHwhitedudecount. The last panel, she’d recorded, had had 4 out of 5.

“I noticed,” she said. 

I realize that the overwhelming lack of non-white guys in cinema is not a surprise to anyone. But it almost started to feel like a parody, sitting there, listening to an enthusiastic young white dude talk about the billions of dollars poured into his project starring this strong-jawed white dude, this older wizened white dude, and this white actress (playing, usually, someone’s mother or nurse). I wasn’t even mad anymore, just apathetic.”

This is from a terrific report by Kate Conway on XOJane of being in Hall H at Comic Con International in San Diego. And then, Conway says, out came Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of  “Women Who Kick Ass” panel consisting of Katee Sackhoff, Maggie Q, Tatiana Maslany, and Danai Gurira.

Onstage, though, it was like a f**** dam had broken. Michelle lectured us all, at length, on how 80% of the content written for women is by guys, and how they don’t know shit. “Dudes, I love dudes,” I remember her saying, “But they don’t know how to write for women.” Maggie Q talked about how, as an Asian-American actress, everyone expects her to be quiet and demure and also know how to do kung-fu in heels. Danai Gurira actually used the phrase “white male privilege.” In a room full of 6,000 Marvel fanboys! Male privilege.

I kept screaming, entirely spontaneously, like the sound was being ripped out of me. I couldn’t help it. I think I cried a little. I felt like I was in church.”

The panel didn’t meet with everyone’s delight. I’ve read several account of the audience being none-too-pleased at sexism being called out so openly among them.

Which is absolutely the reason that we need to keep questioning “why not?” and not accepting “but he’s black/gay/female” as a proper answer.

I leave you with a company that had the vision a long time ago to think outside the box. The late great Milestone Comics, which gave us Static, should serve as a reminder that non-white, non-dudes love superheroes too.

Milestone covers

That we haven’t moved forward much since 1993 is a bit depressing and all the more reason to keep challenging the default setting.

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8 thoughts on “The Cliffs of Insanity: “But He’s Black”

  1. Great article! Thank you for sharing and calling it out (now to start changing it…..)

  2. The problem is exactly what Lein said, having a female/black/gay character at the moment is reported as just that. If Spider-Man was gay, the story would be about Spidey being gay, if Idris was announced as Batman, the stories would be about him being black. I don’t know what the solution is, perhaps it just takes time, I’m from a generation who doesn’t give a shit about race or gender or orientation, so maybe as people my age and younger become the people in charge, creating characters and such, it’ll change and diversity will rise.
    But the Rodrequez thing seemed counter productive, yes, there are a load of white guys at comiccon or in the audience in general, but that doesn’t mean their any form of “ist”, just that they’re the people who show up and lend their support. I don’t know, maybe that’d change if there were more black or female leads, but I know it wouldn’t effect whether or not I went to see the new Fast and Furious, Batman or whatever franchise there is.

    I’ve spoken to some girls I know about this, and they said they want more female leads, but when a film comes out like Hunger Games, they didn’t go. Why? Because they couldn’t be bothered. So maybe that’s an issue, white guys go to the cinema more, hence the audience statistics, more disposable income or just an interest in going over other activities other kinds of people choose.

    1. The Hunger Games made $408 million, according to Box Office Mojo, and inside movies reports that audience was 61 percent female. Your anecdotal evidence doesn’t jibe with the data about the female audience for the movie.

      As for Spider-Man being changed, I might suggest you look at Miles Morales.

  3. It’s an interesting article, but it smacks of the sophomoric. Dismissing tradition “because it’s tradition” is a wholly inadequate argument; indeed, it begs the question.
    Characters have integrity in their make-up and conception which they deserve to retain in order to remain who they are as characters. This integrity goes beyond what we the audience might like to see, it is why a character of depth is capable of taking actions we find objectionable, even reprehensible, but which are nevertheless true to the character as created and re-assimilated generation after generation. And it allows the character to serve as a yardstick against which the nature of other characters can be compared.
    Casting Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in “Alien” was a brilliant choice for many reasons, including her gender, but this only became a truly focal point of the character in “Aliens” when the film’s climax was boiled down to a war of annihilation between two mothers of different species for the survival of their young. From that point on, by definition, Ripley could not be anything but a woman; casting a male in the part in any remake would completely change the nature of the character, and at that point, it would be time to introduce an entirely new character.
    Comics and novels are different. The race or gender of a character is irrelevant right up to the instant the characterization has begun; from that point on, the character has a life of their own – their own. Slipping a new skin or gender onto the character for the sake of social acceptance is as depressing in a fictional character as when we see people do it in real life, and for the same reason: It is a betrayal of the innate truth of the individual, whether that individual lives and breathes in reality or only in our cultural imagination.
    We are all of us defined to at least some degree by the realities of our physicality; we are men, women, gay, transgendered, lesbian, bisexual, gifted or disabled mentally or physically or both, blonde, brunette, redhead, black, yellow, white, brown, red… the list goes on. These are aspects of our real, physical selves and accepting or changing them also speaks to who we are as individuals.
    But as free individuals, we draw the line at forcing others to change these aspects of themselves to suit our desires. We would not – at least, we should not – demand a person remain the gender they were born as if their soul requires they alter it. Nor should we demand a person change their gender because it would suit us better; it’s their life, it’s their business to decide. The final authority for how we live our lives must be ourselves, and only ourselves.
    Fictional characters, beyond the lifetime of their creators, have no such champion. Their only defense for who they are and how they appear is the tradition behind them. If they were created at a time when a certain archetype for heroes dominated, there is no reason to deny them their integrity as artistic creations simply because times are different now. There are plenty of new archetypes to be explored. In the realm of comic book superheroes, one had only to consider the variations in NCsoft’s now-shuttered computer game “City of Heroes” to see how little effect stereotypes had in restricting character designs.
    Even in the mythology of the ancient world, from which comic books trace their lineage, new heroes and heroines arose over the course of time that would have been unthinkable when the earliest myths arose. Perseus, one of the earliest heroes of myth, was a demi-god of unattainable ability, as was Heracles; but Atalanta, arguably the first female super heroine, remains a magnificent and fascinating character, and her abilities stemmed solely from her prodigious athletic ability and iron will.
    The point is, there are limitless character concepts yet to be explored, and there is no reason these new characters cannot be as sexually and ethnically diverse as anyone cares to make them. There is no reason to co-opt existing characters except for the cynical desire to assure they will remain profitable by piggy-backing an exploitative cosmetic change onto an already-successful icon. And that, sadly, is exactly what movies in general and comics in particular are doing.
    “We need a gay superhero.”
    Sure. Why not? No reason a superhero – or a super villain – can’t be gay.
    “Let’s make Spider-Man gay!”
    To what end? How does that in any way fit the nature of the Spider-Man character as that character has already been established for over half a century? Worse, what does it say about the integrity of the comics themselves when they just put another “costume” on Spider-Man, rather than stand up and say: “Here’s a cool new character. We’ll call him “Valence”… He’s got all these amazing elemental control powers, cold, heat, transmutation, the whole lot… but when he’s not using them to help people, his life is a mess because he is trying to retain joint custody of his kids from his ex-wife who’s never forgiven him for coming out of the closet and now that he and his partner have decided to legally marry, she is ramping up the pressure by fighting to keep the kids in a state that is notoriously homophobic.”
    From the first moment this character sees ink on a page, the basic truths about him as a person, fictional or not, are inviolate. If his title were to take off in sales and become a movie… how many anti-traditionalists would support changing him into a straight male?
    Would anyone support making T’Challa, Prince of the Wakanda, an Irish-American girl from Queens?
    These are not extreme examples; they are examples of why tradition matters in myth.
    And they are examples of why “Because it’s tradition” is the ONLY argument that matters in regard to these stories.
    Because the tradition in question is the tradition of the character; not the society they came from or the one they are in. Look at how awful the recent re-imaginings of comic book heroes have been since abandoning the “tradition” of their backgrounds. Continuity is what myths are all about.
    And it is by respecting the traditions inherent in individuals, especially fictional ones, that myths provide that continuity, and make a fertile ground for new myths to broaden the pantheon of the idealized individuals that fuel our dream of adventure and, more important, triumph in the face of adversity.

    1. Don, I believe you’ve missed the point of the article, which is that we all can be, like Donner, stuck in our default settings. As Donner said, if it wasn’t on the page, he didn’t see it. “Pretty freakin’ frightening,” he says in the documentary. And it is. We’ve all (and I consider myself no exception) have grown up in a culture, certainly, where straight white men are the default. Hence the popular joke about the boy who’s rescued from the fire by his dad and the joke is a riddle about how his dad could also be the one at the hospital.

      The answer is, of course, that his *mother* is the doctor, which doesn’t immediately occur to most of us.

      You’re stuck in comics continuity. But comics continuity changes all the time. Black Canary has been three very different and distinct characters. I know of at least one well-known comic creator who thinks Spider-Man hasn’t been the same since Steve Ditko left the title. And in a world when we can retcon out a child, a divorce, whole 50 year swaths of history, why is this one characteristic so sacrosanct. Heck, Superman couldn’t fly in his first appearance. Should we go back to that because of tradition?

      Let’s take The Dark Knight Rises as an example. New Robin at the end, of course. Not the same as in the comics. Horrors! Except the filmmakers thought it worked. So, clearly, *changes* can and are made. Nick Fury wasn’t black in the classic stories. Then Samuel L. Jackson fell in love with the character and he was. Continuity isn’t a reason, it’s more of an excuse that prevents people from stepping outside the default setting, especially as all these characters were created at least 40 years ago, when it was rare for non-whites or women could be heroes. (Thought the Batman TV show was quite progressive, putting in Eartha Kitt as Catwoman for a time.)

      Only each of us can know if we’re reacting to these ideas as Donner did, out of a default setting.

      But, collectively, we all need to be aware that the straight white default exists and that’s not a good enough reason to keep on doing it all the same way.

  4. There IS a comic startup picking up where Milestone left off or at least trying too. Arclight Comics you guys need to check them out. They dont have much up I guess they’re working on stuff behind the scenes but it at least sounds promising. I hope they can pull it off. We’ll see what happens

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