Superhero Super-Fans Talk Race And Identity In Comics
The X-Men comic franchise has proven remarkably sturdy in the half-century since its launch. It's spawned dozens of animated series and four major Hollywood films with a fifth due out this summer. Part of that is due to its central premise — a minority of superpowered humans called mutants are discriminated against by their government and fellow citizens — which has functioned as a sci-fi allegory for everything from the civil rights movement to the AIDS crisis.
"The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants," Chris Claremont, a longtime X-Men writer once said. "So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice."
But an artist named Orion Martin noted that the X-Men comics have frequently skirted around the depiction of people on the receiving end of real-life discrimination: the main lineup in the X-Men team has been mostly straight white guys. Martin nodded to the work of Neil Shyminsky, an academic who's written about the X-Men's complicated relationship with real-life racism:
[He] argues persuasively that playing out Civil Rights-related struggles with an all white cast allows the white male audience of the comics to appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples... "While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality."
So Martin decided to reimagine them, recoloring some famous panels and covers so the main characters are brown — a move that changed the subtext and stakes for the X-people.
In this reimagining, Wolverine, known for "his snarling, predatory aggression," becomes "a stereotype of angry black men. My Code Switch teammate Matt Thompson, who didn't have a much previous knowledge of the Emma Frost character, said the contrasting images of the X-Men heroine as black and as white underscored how hypersexualized her portrayal is.
We wanted to mull over the role of race in the X-Men universe — and in comics more broadly — so we decided to pick the brains of some serious, thoughtful geeks. Here is the full chat, but if you don't have the time, you can read the tl;dr version of this convo here. [Editor's note: Many of the links below include salty language. Be forewarned.]
Arturo Garcia is the managing editor of the influential race and pop culture blog, Racialicious. Kendra Pettis is Racialicious' TV Correspondent. Kelly Kanayama writes about geek culture, mainly for Women Write About Comics. Alan Yu is a Kroc fellow here at NPR.
What were your initial reactions to Orion Martin's decision to recolor the X-Men?
GARCIA: Visually striking, of course. Even if you don't buy the premise of Martin's argument, it does underscore the lack of diversity in Marvel's — and the comic industry's — choice of protagonists and franchise centerpieces.
YU: At first, it didn't look that different to me, and this requires a little context. I didn't come to the US until four years ago and didn't know much about the civil rights struggle before taking American history classes in earnest. I never gave a second thought to the fact that most X-Men characters are white (though I think Storm is a notable and important counter example) and so recoloring them didn't change much for me.
Now I see it differently, but not because I see the X-Men as an analog to civil rights, moreso due to the general lack of diversity in comics.
PETTIS: The first thing I wondered was whether or not they would have looked less surprising to me if he hadn't used such iconic pieces of artwork. The idea of race-bending iconic characters and switching up their perceptions and characters is nothing new to me — I was a journal-based role-player over on Livejournal and the like for years and race-bending was my MO — but seeing the change on well known covers and panels does a lot more to emphasize the lack of diversity in the franchise despite what the characters as a whole are supposed to symbolize. Despite years of putting my imagination to work, it's still strange to see it on actual canon work.
DEMBY: Could you explain how race-bending works?
PETTIS: Basically, it's just a reimagining of a traditionally white character as a person of color. When I was starting out in role-playing it helped me identify more with the characters I was writing. Jean Grey was easier for me to write as Zoe Saldana than as Famke Janssen. And since there weren't exactly an overwhelming amount of P.O.C. characters to play (I played no fewer than six versions of Synch), race-bending gave me more options if I was looking.
YU: When I think of race-bending, the first example that comes to mind is actually Nick Fury. The first time I saw him (I think it was the '90s Spider-Man cartoon) he was white, but then he became a black man in the "Ultimate" line. I don't think it really changed what I thought about him though.
KANAYAMA: It definitely stood out, partially because (as Kendra says) these are iconic characters, but also because there were hardly any black or dark-skinned X-Men when I was a kid. I do see Martin's point about falling into stereotypes with the re-coloring — in the case of crazy-eyes Jean Grey, for instance, there's an overly angry/crazy/out-of-control stereotype that gets applied to women from a lot of non-white races. However, I think part of the problem is that we just don't see very many black/dark-skinned/obviously non-white characters in comics, and that this is what contributes to creating the stereotype trap.
With the original coloring, I don't think people would say that crazy-eyes Jean is a stereotype of white women, or that the aggressive Wolverine is a stereotype of white men. That's because we see so many white characters in comics and popular media in general that one problematic portrayal and one grizzled/savage portrayal doesn't contribute to building a stereotype (although the ideology of the Phoenix storyline with regard to women and power is pretty troubling, but that's another point for another discussion). Even if these two characters are somehow seen as carrying negative implications, they're drops in the ocean. But once you visibly portray them as non-white, that ocean shrinks to a puddle, and every drop counts for a lot more.
On a less-analytical note, black Emma Frost looks fantastic.
PETTIS: She does, doesn't she?
KANAYAMA: But her hypersexualization has always stood out to me, to the point where I'm amazed anyone could miss it (no offense, Matt Thompson!); for instance, this and this are covers of actual comics that got published. It's what turned me off from reading about her previously. Once Frank Quitely et al. allowed her to wear a shirt, thus placing the focus on her speech and actions rather than using her as the subject of a straight male gaze, I was right on board.
DEMBY: A lot of people have pointed out that mutants aren't good analogs for marginalized groups; gay people can't blow up buildings with their eyes or read people's minds. The idea that the government would want such people to be registered doesn't seem too crazy, right? I'm stacking the deck here a bit, but: do you think the X-Men have any utility for the way we think about real-life discrimination?
KANAYAMA: Grant Morrison's New X-Men did pretty well in its portrayal of how minority cultures are fetishized, appropriated, and vilified, often all at the same time. There's a moment in one issue where a (white) man expresses hatred of mutants just before he confesses an enjoyment of the music of an all-mutant band. This is a world where there are mutant singers/musicians, fashion designers, and other celebrities. Superficial expressions of mutant culture are the new hot thing, but interacting with and accepting mutants in everyday life is apparently impossible.
The strength of this approach is that it isn't exclusively applicable to a single minority group. Minorities have their culture appropriated and fetishized by the majority while still being unable to have an equal voice in everyday public discourse, or even to have their displeasure with that misuse be recognized as a legitimate grievance.
GARCIA: I certainly think part of the franchise's appeal has been to act as a point of identification for readers who feel they "don't fit in." (Much like Marvel's No. 1 act, Spider-Man.) Ideally, that's an entry point for people to consider broader issues. And — not to jump the gun on a point you make below — Marvel certainly hasn't shied away from playing on those types of themes in telling their stories.
But as we've said at Racialicious, Marvel undercuts itself by confining mutants to X-related books; you don't see anybody with a relatively benign power like, say, "mild" super-speed acting as a courier in Daredevil. Kitty Pryde, who has been written as maybe the team member best able to "pass," has never gotten a chance to live a life outside of the team's sphere of influence. (The UK-based Excalibur team had a few connections to the X-realm, so I'm not counting that.)
So that's the problem: you can't say you're making a sincere effort to deal with race and race relations when your stand-ins for marginalized communities are stuck in one brand, and not part of your larger universe. And that's how you get hot messes like Rick Remender's "don't call me a Mutant" debacle in Uncanny Avengers.
DEMBY: Could you explain the Remender thing?
GARCIA: Background: The series was pitched as a coalition of the X-Men with the Marvel Universe's preferred superhero team, the Avengers. What it was was: Captain America picking mutants he thought were "good," including Havok, the brother of Cyclops, who is now a fugitive for "killing" Charles Xavier.
Havok is appointed team leader, and he states in a press conference that he doesn't want to be called a "mutant."
Now, when that's the only term that's been used — and even reclaimed as a point of pride — by this community, for a guy with a history as a government operative to come out against it is problematic, particularly when he can pass for a "regular" human. But when faced with legitimate pushback from people like Comics Alliance editor-in-chief Joe Hughes and others on Twitter, Remender (himself a white cis-male) wrote in part that critics should "drown [themselves] in hobo p*ss."
Only the comics industry would let comments like that go on a public forum without any disciplinary action.
DEMBY: Yikes. Does this kind of antagonism from creators change your reading habits as people who love comics and also care about diversity?
GARCIA: I've stopped reading that book for pleasure, if that's what you mean. Now I just keep tabs on it to watch for more race-fails. But, again, the lack of consequences reminds me that, on the corporate level, Marvel only wants to discuss "diversity" when it can make a buck. The company also made a big deal about a gay character, Northstar, getting married, but hasn't done much with him since.
PETTIS: I lost my longtime love Barbara Gordon to the Nu52, but generally I try not to let creator's opinions mess with my enjoyment of their books. I've been reading Bill Willingham's Fables since '02 despite the fact that he's using the book as a (poor) metaphor for the Israeli-Palestine debate and has some real life politics I can't agree with. But Fables itself is fantastic.
KANAYAMA: If a comic appears to espouse racist/minority-unfriendly/sexist worldviews, I tend to just stop reading, especially if these drive plotlines. Otherwise, I get too angry. Sadly, this has meant saying goodbye to DC, at least for now. Like Kendra, I do try to read comics as independent from their creators (I unashamedly enjoy Sin City, except for the creepy Asian fetishization surrounding Miho) but in some cases creators' views seep in and taint the whole thing.
On a more optimistic note, although many comics and comics-related properties are still hugely problematic when it comes to race, there does seem to be diversity in comics that didn't exist before - and it's great to have those options. When I was growing up, the only Asian female characters I regularly saw in comics were Jubilee and Psylocke (it was the 90s) — the spunky teen in rainbow brights and the sexy ninja type with a perpetual wedgie. And there were no Asian male protagonists that I can think of. We finally got Amadeus Cho and Tony and Toni Chu in the last decade (along with the terrifying-but-fascinating Talia, who only got her first real spotlight role a couple of years ago, albeit as a villain), and while it's shameful that it took them so long to get here, at least they're here now.
DEMBY: Are there any comic books that you feel deal with real-life racial issues in a thoughtful way? Any specific storylines?
KANAYAMA: Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese is one of the best treatments of contemporary racial issues I've ever seen in comics. It deals with the conflicts between how we see ourselves represented by the media, how those closest to us (family, etc) seem to represent us, our cultural and shared histories, and how we represent and conceive of ourselves.
Scalped is also wonderful for this. It doesn't place racial issues front and center - at least not for the most part - but that's partially because most of the action takes place within a community where everyone is Native American, so there isn't as much racial contrast between the characters. It also turns the fetishization issue bloodily on its head by casting a white character obsessed with Native American culture as a violent, murderous maniac who's one of the most dangerous people in the series. And it examines the historical and socio-economic factors involved in being a racial minority in contemporary America with a thoughtfulness that I haven't seen in any other comics.
PETTIS: Race isn't a central part of the Image series Chew, but it is one of the few books I can think of that centers around an fully developed Asian-American protagonist with a life and fully envisioned (also Asian-American) family.
DC's Batwing solo book (RIP), was the first mainstream hero (that I can recall) to come out of the Congo. Long story short: Batwing (David Zavimbe) was first known as "Africa's Batman" during Grant Morrison's Batman Inc., but finally graduated to his own series in DC's New 52. He was a former child soldier in the Congo whose parents had both died of AIDS and spent a good chunk of his run taking down a warlord in the Congo, which made him a first in many respects. So while the book didn't necessarily deal with race, it was unique with an almost entirely African cast and its setting.
KANAYAMA: I completely agree about Chew. Not only does the protagonist Tony have great characterization and a hilarious family, but he's also in a relationship with a white woman (and his former work partner is a bisexual man, which is clearly part of who he is as a person but isn't his single defining characteristic). Both Tony and his twin sister Toni stay well away from the stereotypical portrayals of Asian men and Asian women respectively without it falling into overcompensation: Tony is shown to have fully operational sexuality — directed towards an all-American, fresh-faced blonde! — and the Caucasian characters in the series are sidekicks or otherwise secondary to him, while Toni's portrayal a) isn't sexualized in the least, b) steers clear of the Dragon Lady/hot assassin trope, and c) casts her as the outgoing, daring one.
But as Kendra says, Chew doesn't really deal with racial issues; in fact, it's become notable partially for not talking about race while offering a diverse cast of characters.
GARCIA: My favorite moment actually isn't from the comics. There was an episode of Static Shock in which the hero, a Black teenager, visits Ghana with his family. He has an adventure, of course, and teams up with an African hero, Anansi. But there's also a moment when Static phones his white friend/colleague, Richie, back in the U.S. and tells him something to the effect of, "It feels different here. Here I'm just another kid." And Richie doesn't get it, but he doesn't give Static grief over it, either. He just accepts it.
For me, having grown up in Mexico before emigrating to the U.S., that moment resonated down to my soul. I immediately felt happy for any kid getting to watch that and experiencing that moment. And I'll always be grateful to Dwayne McDuffie (R.I.P.) for bringing that to the viewers and fans of Milestone Entertainment — despite, it should be said, opposition from the corporate forces at DC and Warner Brothers.
DEMBY: Kendra, it seems like the Batwing thing is the latest in a long tradition of creating new heroes of color whose identities are predicated upon the identities of some more-established white characters. There's the new Muslimah Ms. Marvel, or the Green Lantern John Stewart.
PETTIS: DC is traditionally pretty big on that. They'll always circle back to their original Justice League, even after killing someone like Bruce Wayne. They're the company's prestige characters and so that's why you get 50 different books for the Bat-Family, while someone like Katana (DC's Japanese soul capturing martial artist) gets one solo book since her first appearance in 1983, and it only runs for 10 issues.
John Stewart has always been an interesting case, though. I grew up with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner (who is Mexican-Irish-American), but as DC's animated 'verse continued to grow, John Stewart became sort of the Green Lantern despite spending a good deal of the '90s retired and partially paralyzed. If you ask kids who the Green Lantern is, for the most part they name John not Hal. Yet, when it came time for the Green Lantern film, studios — in their continued desperation to make Ryan Reynolds happen — went with Hal Jordan. The prestige character who — fun fact — isn't even the original Green Lantern (that's Allan Scott), so there goes that excuse.
There's a moment when Static, the black teenage superhero, phones his white friend/colleague, Richie, back in the U.S. and tells him something to the effect of, "It feels different here. Here I'm just another kid." And Richie doesn't get it, but he doesn't give Static grief over it, either. He just accepts it. For me, having grown up in Mexico before emigrating to the U.S., that moment resonated down to my soul.
YU: That's actually what happened to me. I was first introduced to Green Lantern from the Justice League show, so when I read the Green Lantern Secret Origin book (which came out around the same time as the movie) my first reaction was, I thought Green Lantern was a black guy?
KANAYAMA: I recently spoke to an American university lecturer who told me that when the GL movie was first announced, several of his students thought Idris Elba would be a good fit for the role, because to them the Green Lantern is black. I also heard from someone else that their friends thought the casting of Ryan Reynolds was whitewashing/racism for that same reason. But I'm willing to give DC the slight benefit of the doubt, in that their approach for the last few years has been to please who they see as True Fans, despite said fans making up a small proportion of the money-spending public. To people who primarily or only know the Green Lantern through comics published before the 90s, he's Hal Jordan, all-American white guy. Hence Ryan Reynolds.
DEMBY: Dwayne McDuffie, who wrote much of those Justice League episodes, once said that he pushed to make sure John Stewart was the Lantern in the cartoons, and said exactly what Alan did: "If you ask a kid who Green Lantern is, the kid will say it's John Stewart," Adams says. The black guy.
GARCIA: Kendra brings up a very good point: The DC Animated Universe was a bastion for characters of color; the League cartoon gave Stewart relationships with a white woman, Hawkgirl, and a Black woman, Vixen, that were arguably more nuanced than many prime-time romances. (Stewart/Hawkgirl was healthier than Fitz/Olivia, I'll say that much.)
GARCIA: Just playing to the crowd!
But I digress. The point is, between the League's show, Young Justice, Brave and the Bold and Static, characters of color had multiple spotlight opportunities. So seeing the New 52 get moved to the animated arena in last year's "Flashpoint Paradox" feature felt like a defeat. Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio hunger for the Silver Age like Galactus does the Earth.
DEMBY: This is more of an observation than a question. The disconnect between the characters' races and the book's larger theme sometimes seem at odds. Charles Xavier, the X-Men's leader, believes that humans and mutants can peacefully coexist. Magneto, their most persistent foe, believes that the survival of mutantkind rests in their separating from mutants. But there's a really good moment in the most recent X-Men movie, in which Magneto makes a fairly on-the-nose allusion to real-life racial discrimination, and almost all the mutants of color or mutants who are not otherwise obviously human decide to roll with him. They're the people who can't "pass." All the white kids who look human roll with Xavier. (Abigail Nussbaum had a pretty thoughtful take on this dynamic in X-Men: First Class as well, although she looked at its allusions to Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust survivor Magneto's quasi-Zionism.)
KANAYAMA: Grant Morrison's New X-Men tried to remedy some of this, with the introduction of "good" mutants with unattractive non-human features, but Shyminsky (as referenced by Martin) makes the salient point that the leader of the "good", assimilation-oriented mutants is still a white WASP-ish man, whereas the leader of the "bad", conflict-oriented mutants came from a cultural minority and underwent and witnessed incredible suffering, which came about when a monoculture attempted to assert absolute dominance. During Magneto's early life, I'm sure that he saw people around him trying to fit into the dominant culture, at least enough to not get killed, and then saw that this didn't work. Professor X may have suffered discrimination because of his mutant abilities, but that's nowhere near on the same scale as seeing everyone around you, including your loved ones, be slaughtered en masse when you're a child. So I'm more inclined to believe him than Professor X about minority issues.
I'm not saying that Magneto Was Right, but he makes a couple of good points.
DEMBY: I remember seeing that scene and thinking that Magneto Was Definitely Right.
GARCIA: Actually, Beast sticks around with Team Charlie, and he was already blue and furry by that point. And don't forget the scehe where Sebastian Shaw makes a remark about slavery and we get an EXTREME CLOSE-UP of Darwin.
KANAYAMA: My analysis is coming purely from the comics here, but Beast did go to Harvard (and in the movies is played by Kelsey Grammer, who got famous by portraying a white male character associated with wealth and high social status). I didn't take Darwin into account, though - and that's one heck of a loaded name.
Whenever someone floats the idea of casting a person of color in the movie role of a superhero previously deployed as white, there's an outcry from fans and occasionally even some writers. A writer at Comic Book Movie was adamant that casting Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the forthcoming Fantastic Four movie, would "confuse a lot of people" and "now is not the time." Does this kind of defensiveness around the whiteness of a character underscore the centrality of race in the creation of white characters?
GARCIA: Yes. Because it's the natural result when the industry spends decades prioritizing white male characters — you have white male fans getting twitchy over this sort of casting while accepting white-washing or all-white stories, as Junot Diaz memorably observed. So you can't even have a nice preview spread for the new Ms. Marvel book without jackasses like these rushing into the comments section:
So much for geeks being the "enlightened" sort, right?
This reliance on a racist, misogynist, homo- and trans-phobic fanbase was recently brought to light by Paul Dini's statement that the Young Justice cartoon, a wonderfully diverse work that spotlighted women, women of color and young men of color, was canceled because too many women were watching the product.
Dini's story was foreshadowed by a Bleeding Cool report from 2011 mentioning that DC Comics told retailers they were specifically targeting men in the 18-to-34 range. I'm gonna guess they're not including P.O.C. in that description.
Now, one could argue that Marvel has shown more diversity, and the creation of the new Ms. Marvel and the Mighty Avengers book, a book with a team mostly comprised of P.O.C. But the sticking point is equity; the odds that any of these characters would be centerpieces in a crossover or multimedia properties, has historically been low.
The news that Luke Cage will be featured in a Netflix series is encouraging, but there's no indication that he'll be "promoted" to the movie universe — or even that his series will get a decent shot at success if the numbers aren't in the realm of Orange Is The New Black.
PETTIS: Y'know, I'm not sure if I even need Luke Cage in the movie 'verse so long as the Netflix show is given the opportunity to shine the way OITNB was. I'm putting all the potential I saw in SHIELD into my hopes for Luke Cage. If Tracie Thoms doesn't show up as Misty Knight, someone has failed.
Marvel has a really diverse group of minor characters at their disposal, they're just failing to utilise them on the big and small screens.
But yeah-- a lot of this has to do with the category of person publishers (and filmmakers) think of as being familiar/identifying with the characters. What's the nerd stereotype? The guy who looks like Kevin Smith, or the P.O.C. girl who's been loyal to the same comic shop for years? There's a worry, subconscious or not, that if white males have no one to identify with that the readership vanishes. No amount of trend-bucking (take Miles Morales, for example) is going to change that. Otto Octavius can be Peter Parker for a year, Chris Evans and Ben Affleck can play two iconic heroes each, but Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch is too confusing.
YU: I think it's also partly because people (publishers, but some authors too) think most comic book readers are white males, and while that's true (for now), the demographics are changing. I'm thinking of the now-infamous panel where Mark Millar and Todd McFarlane said comics aren't for girls.
GARCIA: I think if you can take Agent Coulson from the movies to an underwhelming (thus far) TV show, you can work the pipeline the other way. There's already fans clamoring to see Ming Na's Agent May on the big screen, and I can't blame them for that — it shows how badly fans want to see more than just white people on the screen. It's nice that Miles Morales is the lead in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, sure, but it blunts his impact when the Ultimate Spider-Man TV show still trots Peter Parker out.
KANAYAMA: Kendra, there does seem to be an unfortunate mentality in the Big Two that diversity is for kids. Everyone who knows the Green Lantern as John Stewart seems to have gotten that from the cartoon, whereas I've never met anybody who knows the Green Lantern as John Stewart from the comics alone (which are aimed at adults). I've heard that Marvel's animated properties have several fairly standout minority characters (e.g. White Tiger) who rarely show up in the comics, which again tend to be aimed at adults. Young Avengers isn't bad on the diversity front — their most functional couple is a gay male couple, Prodigy is a bisexual black teenage boy/young man, and America Chavez looks Latina, despite being from another dimension — but this title is aimed at teenagers as well as adults. Not that there's anything wrong with that, because young people need good comics too, but diversity isn't a matter of course in comics for grownups the way it is in cartoons for children.
GARCIA: Slight point of order — White Tiger is currently appearing in Mighty Avengers, alongside Luke Cage, the new Power Man, the Blue Marvel and Monica Rambeau, who was stripped of the mantle of Captain Marvel because Marvel was preparing Carol Danvers for the movies. So she's around. But it's anybody's guess how much attention she'll get.
PETTIS: I like that theory. It boils down to the idea that the comic book industry knows that they need to create new consumers in P.O.C.s, but once they have us hooked they don't feel the need to cater to us.
The DC/WB shows of my youth (Smallville, Birds of Prey, Lois and Clark) were painfully white (yes, despite Shemar Moore and Sam Jones III), a trend which clearly continued into the films. I mean, let's take a minute to remember Marion Cotilliard and Liam Neeson being cast as the al Ghuls in Nolan's Batman flicks.
Arrow (currently on the CW) isn't perfect; it's diverse, but the P.O.C. characters played by Kelly Hu, Manu Bennett, and Kevin Alejandro among others, are overwhelmingly villains or of a certain moral ambiguity. But on the super-white CW it's definitely a change in the racial landscape and aimed, I would say, more at a 20-something female demographic. Now that I think about it, I don't actually know any white males who watch that show.
It's strange, because as a kid I'd go from Static Shock and Batman Beyond on Saturday mornings to Smallville during the week. The lack of diversity never bothered me then because I had options. As a 20-something who has a hard time getting into cartoons now-a-days, I really start to notice what was still missing then in the more "adult" stuff. There's no Maxine Gibson to take refuge in.
Sharing characteristics with a stereotype doesn't make someone a stereotype.
KANAYAMA: Giving the benefit of the doubt on the al Ghul situation is difficult for me, because they're one of my favorite fictional families. However, I wonder if the studio's casting of white actors was driven in part by a desire to avoid accusations of stereotyping, which would definitely have happened if they'd cast Middle Eastern/brown-skinned actors as global terrorists (although everyone involved seemed fine with setting up the excellent Ken Watanabe as a disposable decoy villain, but — as the terrible, terrible Die Another Day teaches us — it's different when Asians are involved).
Of course, this wouldn't be nearly as much of a problem if we had more Middle Eastern characters in popular media, and/or if the studio had been willing to engage with the complexities of the al Ghuls' characters. If there were more Middle Eastern faces, voices, perspectives and experiences being represented to the general public, seeing two antagonists with that ethnic background would be less problematic, the same way that having white villains in American movies isn't said to reinforce stereotypes of white people, because a wide variety of white people's and characters' experiences are represented in our popular media.
Besides, sharing characteristics with a stereotype doesn't make someone a stereotype. In the comics, Ra's al Ghul certainly seems shaped by his cultural and ethnic background, but the multifaceted nature of his personality prevents him from being reduced to an easy stereotype (unless the writers are really bad). He's a father, a leader, a conflicted nemesis/mentor figure, a man who's lived through centuries and seen empires rise and fall. All of that could theoretically have been brought out in the movies, and if it had, the studio could have cast a Middle Eastern actor in a role with nuanced, intricate characterization.
DEMBY: On the other side of this: Could you think of any characters whose whiteness is so central to their characterizations that they couldn't be reimagined as a person of color?
KANAYAMA: Unfortunately, I'm going to have to say Bruce Wayne. His ethnicity isn't central to his story in and of itself, but the social position afforded to him and his family by that ethnicity certainly is. The only way I could imagine him being a person of color would be to remove the element of the Wayne millions/billions and to cast him as a hyper-intelligent, hyper-diligent guy who'd made his way up the socio-economic ladder by himself. It could work, sort of, but it would certainly suck a lot of the power out of almost anything that happens in Wayne Manor - its significance in his stories doesn't come from the fact that that's where Batman lives, but from his family's and ancestors' histories that come with the manor.
YU: I would agree with you. I was going to say Angel (later Archangel.)
PETTIS: On that same Bruce Wayne note, Tony Stark is another one whose privilege, parentage, and Hamptons lifestyle probably wouldn't translate completely. His family wealth stretches back into the Industrial Revolution.
Captain America, too. There was the "Truth: Red, White and Black" storyline back in 2003 that explained how the Super-Serum was tested on African-American soldiers first (Tuskegee Experiment style) before it got anywhere near Steve Rogers. But Steve Rogers, American symbol of hope and courage during WWII, could not have been Black, Latino, Asian or anything but a blond, white guy. I mean, I can't get away with dressing as a USO girl from the film without someone commenting about how there weren't any black USO girls (false, by the way). I just can't see a non-white Captain America working and staying in context.
DEMBY: A few years ago, I interviewed Bob Morales, who wrote The Truth. "It was so depressing I didn't think they would approve it," Morales told me. "But it was depressingly realistic. And likely." (Morales died last year, way too young.)
GARCIA: I have to disagree just a little here, if only because I was used to seeing rich, privileged Mexicans on television growing up. A Bruce Wayne-like figure who is a prince of the Mexico City social scene isn't that hard for me to imagine.
PETTIS: Fair. Would Zorro (despite being Spanish) be a horrible analogy?
GARCIA: I don't think that's a bad template. And, heck, the Waynes went to see a Zorro film the night Everything Changed, right?
KANAYAMA: I think the whole story would have to be relocated, though. Bruce Wayne has to be a white guy if he's in America.
GARCIA: Disagree; set the story in San Diego and you can easily create a Wayne-like character who's the scion of a rich Tijuana family, learned English as a child, and went to a nice prep school.
KANAYAMA: Ah, I can see that working. But San Diego is still pretty far away from pretend-New-York, where it's dark all the time and full of skyscrapers with flat roofs for Batman to crouch on.
GARCIA: But we're talking about Bruce Wayne. His character archetype still survives the translation.
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