The struggle for representation of people of colour in comic books and Hollywood continues to be a controversial subject…
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could live in a world where racism didn’t exist? Where slavery never happened, where the Nazi regime never existed, and where the President of the US didn’t incite white supremacy. Unfortunately, that world doesn’t exist, and racism is something that’s as dangerous now as it was in 1939. With populism, Brexit and Trump, racism has taken its cloak off.
Comic books, however, aren’t real. They create fictional worlds that are generally more idealistic than the one we currently live in. But, they too aren’t innocent when it comes to the issue of racism. Are they doing enough to show diversity among people of colour? And, more importantly how are they translating to the big screen?
The first and most obvious subject, though, is whether the number of non-white characters in comic books is as high as it should be.
Maryann Erigha of Temple University talks about how she believes American popular culture has always been dominated by one demographic in her article Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change (2015). “The orchestrators of this historical and wide-reaching trail of American popular culture artifacts have been almost exclusively white men, while the narratives from women and racial/ethnic minorities have occupied far less space in the cultural canon.”
Ash Carter is the screen editor for the Nottingham-based magazine, Left Lionand will soon be starting a film production Masters. In terms of whether he believes there are enough non-white superheroes in comic books and superhero films/TV shows, he says, “I don’t know how many enough is. It seems to me that a fair representation of the multi-cultural society we live in would be ‘enough,’ and looking at it in those terms, I’d have to say no.”
Nathan Best is the owner of Comicbookmovie.com, a website exploring and celebrating all things comic book, and he believes the quantity is high enough, but the issue lies with the characters themselves. “I think that in general there are plenty of non-white superheroes,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think many of them are overlooked because they don’t have their own titles, or haven’t been in the public eye for a long time. Villains could use some more diversity, there definitely seems to be more white/Caucasian villains in comic books.”
If we look at which superheroes Hollywood chooses to pick up for films, we see a significant difference in the multitude of white superheroes, to comic book movies based around heroes of colour. For example, the current Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) cast a man of colour in their first film, Iron Man(2008), but he was very much a secondary character. There were also Middle Eastern men but on the most part, they were playing villains — terrorists at that. In fact, by the time their first film led by a character of colour — Black Panther (2018) — is released, it will have taken ten years and 16 live-action films.
“There were also Middle Eastern men but on the most part, they were playing villains — terrorists at that”
Phoebe Tonks is the entertainment editor at Geek Pride, and she finds the comic books themselves to be more diverse than the film and TV adaptions. “The comics do a better job at representation, in the sense that they’ve at least attempted some semblance of it,” she says. “There’s a huge slate in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity across the major publishers; take the X-men for example, throughout their entire comic run, you’ve got Jewish representation, Muslim representation, East Asian, South Asian, Black, Romani, Latino, Native American etc.”
The X-Men comic franchise is a perfect example of diverse representation. Not only is the whole premise based on being an outsider, a weirdo, seen as abnormal, but the characters themselves represent many different ethnicities. This is a comic book franchise that is arguably more relatable than any other. This franchise could be the inspiration for more character diversity among the whole industry.
“There’s an entire world of possibilities. It’s not exclusive to that title though. Marvel, DC, Image, Darkhorse, etc have all had more leeway and I think, in effect, more inclination to explore ethnic diversity on paper rather than the film and TV shows that have spawned from their original properties. A lot of the televised and cinematic incarnations of characters tend to be whitewashed to the hilt, which is just a problem endemic to western media in general,” explains Tonks.
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) carried out their own research into how often racism was occurring in the England and Wales during 2013 and 2014. They found that: “In 2013/14, there were 47,571 ‘racist incidents’ recorded by the police in England and Wales. On average, that is about 130 incidents per day.” Many people like to believe the phrase “never again” from World War II is true, but in fact, these statistics show racism is something that just won’t die. There will always be neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists, and just straight out racists on this planet.
IRR also looked into how many deaths were caused due to a known or suspected racial element. “Our research indicates that in the twenty years after April 1993 that there were at least 105 such deaths in the UK,” they claim. This number may seem low for a twenty year span, but surely that number should be 0.
When such hate still exists, the worst thing an industry could do is stereotype. However, Ash Carter believes that’s exactly what Hollywood is doing with comic books. “Whilst white characters can run the spectrum of good to evil, encompassing all of the complexities that come with well-written characters, non-white characters tend to fit neatly into specific, racially stereotypical boxes,” he explains. “Black characters still tend to be written as if it were the 80s, as if there’s an audience expectation for black men to be wise-cracking side-kicks, or women to be sassy and overbearing. Asian characters are either bookish or martial arts experts. From personal experience, I know of non-white actors that have auditioned for roles in comic book films and have been expected to fulfil these stereotypes. Specifically, an actress of Chinese heritage I know was recently let go by her agent because she refused to learn a martial art, as it was seen as essential to her attaining acting roles.”
“White characters can run the spectrum of good to evil, encompassing all of the complexities that come with well-written characters, non-white characters tend to fit neatly into specific, racially stereotypical boxes”
Erigha believes there is a serious need for change in Hollywood, and people have been attempting to put pressure on the industry for years. “For decades, scholars, workers in creative industries, as well as civil rights organisations have pressured decision-makers in Hollywood film and television industries to open their doors to embrace greater diversity,” she explains. But “women and racial/ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in Hollywood, far below their proportion of the US population.”
Whilst Doctor Strange and Iron Fist can become martial arts wizards, and Iron Man and Bruce Banner can be wise-cracking, why can’t a man of colour play an American war hero? Or why can’t a woman of colour play an ex-spy? It seems the possibilities are endless for white actors, but for any actor of colour, they must fit in that racial box that makes Hollywood feel safe, and allows them to never have to challenge stereotypes.
Best agrees with Carter. “Film and TV definitely take more liberties with characters than in the comics,” he says. “They’re much more likely to change a character’s ethnicity or even gender compared to their comic book counterparts. With that being said, it happens in comic books as well. Miles Morales, the African American Spider-Man, is one of the more popular incarnations of everyone’s favourite neighbourhood Spider-Man.”
Hang on. Comic books turned one of the most popular superheroes in the whole of the comic book industry from white to African American and no one battered an eye lid? Imagine the outcry if Hollywood did such a thing. Let’s not forget the anger that came from Twitter at rumours of Idris Elba, a British actor of colour, becoming the first black Bond (this was never confirmed).
@vincenxxzo tweeted: “Get it in your skulls you half wits, Idris Elba is black. James bond is white.”
Another tweet in reference to the idea of Idris Elba being cast as James Bond came from @C_Westling: “James Bond is white. Not black.”
Even British model and actress Joanna Lumley showed her dislike toward the idea of Elba being cast as Bond. “I don’t think he is right for Bond, who is quite clearly described in the book,” she claimed. Many took this to be Lumley stating that the author of the original James Bond books, Ian Fleming, wrote the character, Bond as white, and this should never be changed.
Tonks agrees that there is still a serious issue within Hollywood, and it’s diluting the comic book industry. “Even despite Hollywood declaring that it needs to level the playing field, we’ve still got a distinctly porcelain slate,” she says. “In all of the Fox & MCU films combined, not a single canonically Romani character was portrayed as anything other than white. Or take the New Mutants casting for example, where two canonically Afro-Latinx characters have been cast as non-black. There’s no sense in it; it’s racism at its core.”
“There’s no sense in it; it’s racism at its core”
From the year 2006 to 2016, British Film Industry has conducted research into how many black actors have been included in British films. They found that “59% of UK films do not feature a single black actor in any named character role at all.” This makes it clear that there is a serious lack of racial representation within the film industry.
Tonks does, however, believe that comic books themselves are improving with racial diversity. “We’re now in an age where a black veteran like Sam Wilson can take up the mantle of Captain America, where we can have a proud Muslim standing up as Ms Marvel,” she explains. “That’s iconic, and hugely significant in providing children (and adults for that matter) with a role model and hero that is just as important and just as inspiring as the white mantle holders that came before.”
The source material is clearly there, comic books are somewhat leading the way, but one of the richest and most influential industries in the world still seems too scared to explore non-white superheroes.
Best is a little more optimistic about film and TV adaptations of comic books, although, he admits more needs to be done. “Right now, in 2017, Luke Cage has his first season under his belt. Wonder Woman was successful in her first solo film, and Black Lightning is set to premiere this fall, so I think things are looking pretty good,” he says. “There’s more that can be done, but it’s a fine line when working with characters that have so much history and a fan base that’s hyper-critical about any changes.”
Comic book fans are known to be difficult to please. However, many fans are now calling out for more diversity. We’ve entered a world where a white actor being cast as a character of colour is hugely criticised. So, perhaps it’s about time Hollywood listened to the superhero fans and become more diverse.
Carter feels the film and TV industries are trying to become more diverse, but going about it in the wrong way. He has his own opinion on what should be being done. “Attempts to offer more substantial roles to non-white actors, or to try and include a certain number of non-white actors in meaningful roles can, and often do seem patronising and paternalistic,” he claims. “I think it isn’t a problem that can be solved in the short-term, but more of a case of writers creating characters that have little or no bearing on race, and casting the right actors for those roles, regardless of their ethnic background.”
People were unsure when Daniel Craig was announced as playing the new James Bond because he was blond and was deemed as rough around the edges compared to previous actors that played this role. But his take on the role has proved so popular, he’ll be staring in at least five films from the franchise. The quick and easy turn-around in acceptance towards him was arguably because of he is a white man.
A woman has now been cast as Doctor Who for the first time, and on the most part, the feeling around this has been positive. The rumours that Bradley Walsh — a white man — would be playing the companion, in fact received much more criticism.
The proof that characters can change and still be as successful, or if not, more, is there. But yet something still stands in the way of the film and TV industries representing ethnicity in a more diverse manner. The copious amount of white superheroes and villains compared to those of colour being transferred to the big screen just demonstrates this.
Tonks believes Hollywood in fact has a responsibility to show a more realistic version of the ethnically-diverse world we live in. “You need to research and properly invest in the fact that ethnicity can drastically alter life experience and the perception of the world,” she says. “The world is not white; and both print and screen media ought to reflect that.”
So, it’s clear that the white-washing that Hollywood is accused of time and time again is fairly legit when it comes to comic book films and TV shows. Although comic books aren’t perfect, they’re at least trying, and they’re creating source material that Hollywood COULD be using, but choose not to. And that’s the real issue here, Hollywood is still choosing white characters over characters of colour.