Feb 19, 2017

Three for Three: On Race- and Genderbending

One of the most oft-argued points in any adaptation these days is when the race and/or gender of an established character is reversed. I am and have always been a proponent for diversity, and, let's just say, my life wouldn't really be where it is without the cause of diversity being championed. Representation is important, representation has power, and in some cases, representation in fiction has saved lives.

It gets very contentious for some people, though. Just over a year ago, Noma Dumezweni, a black actress was cast to play Hermione Granger in a theatrical production of Harry Potter, and a faction of fans were mad that they were making a white character otherwise. It got a reaction from JK Rowling on Twitter:

See, here's the thing with these things: "white" and "male" (and let's just throw in "straight") tend to be the default with our global fiction. When Neil Gaiman wrote Anansi Boys, he did it because it bothered him that in fiction, "white is the default." When you read novels and when the ethnicity is never stated, what skin color do you think of immediately? And a lot of the time, as in the case of Hermione up there, it's never actually stated.

Which brings us to comics. Now ideally, there'd be no need for movies and TV shows to take established characters and change them around on a racial and gender level, but we are talking about characters that were created in, shall we say, less enlightened times. (Although we are talking about 2017 here, so who knows.) As a result, the landscape, already very tilted towards straight white males, who control most of these media corporations and therefore control who appear in it, becomes even more tilted by the fact that already existing characters who are icons are mostly straight and white and male. And if you don't believe me, here's a picture of the Justice League of America from the late 50s/early 60s.

And here's a picture of the Justice League of America coming to theaters this year.

The inclusion of Cyborg there bugs me, not because it's an act of diversity, but because it's such an obvious "throw a bone" token type of diversity that I believe Geoff Johns even had to fight for just to get in there. It's still a bunch of white people and it's still a bunch of dudes, and somehow we're supposed to see that as progress in 2017.

To be fair, I'm also kind of a purist fanboy with the Justice League, and would basically like to see the icons represented instead of one of the Titans. So couldn't we have Hawkgirl and the John Stewart Green Lantern, just like in the cartoon? (It's not like anyone would miss Hal Jordan. No one likes Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan doesn't like Hal Jordan, and he's Hal Jordan. Or can we have Kyle Rayner? Is he still half-Hispanic? He's much better than John or Hal Jordan. Seriously, no one likes Hal Jordan.)

Still, I get why Cyborg is in there. Ideally, we could just create black characters, Asian characters, gay characters, new female characters, or any other character who's not a straight white male and have them reach the same heights as Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman. But that hasn't happened, because the way these things work is you're either a phenomenon (think of Wolverine in the early 80s, Deadpool in the aughts, Harley Quinn now) or you piggyback on what's currently successful. Yes, ideally we should create new things. That isn't happening, so let's mix up the old things so everyone can play fair.

Now, Hollywood has a major diversity problem, and a long way to solving that problem is to have diverse parts. If you're working off a mostly-white playbook, then you're gonna need to change things around a bit. I dunno about you guys, but I would like everyone to have a fair chance of getting screentime. Let's be fair, when 66.5% of spoken dialogue is by men, and 71.7% of it is by white people, then you need to scramble things around a bit or you're literally looking at shutting out non-white, non-male actors for particular jobs. At the same time, I don't think we need to be too strict with it, and I do still believe in the principle of meritocracy. If we take some arguments to logical extremes, then Gal Gadot should never be Wonder Woman, as she's Israeli and not Greek, or Chris Hemsworth shouldn't be Thor since he's Australian and not Nordic, and... you get the point.

Pictured: An Australian known for playing a Nordic Thunder God
and an Israeli known for playing a Greek Amazon

Side side note: Did you know that the dude who played Ando on Heroes wasn't Japanese? He was Korean, and he basically read his lines in Japanese phonetically — he didn't speak Japanese. The extreme end of the purist argument would say that he shouldn't have been cast as Ando, but he was perfect.

Side note: I actually know someone, a husband of a very close friend, who played Gaston in a theatrical production of Beauty and the Beast. This guy is of purely Filipino descent. It's already hard for him to get parts because of that descent. I don't think we should make it harder for him or people like him. Also, if we're taking the "only people of a certain race can play characters of that race, or only people of a certain gender can play people of that gender" thing to the extreme, then we need to ignore virtually all plays done during Shakespeare's time, that time Kenneth Brannagh played Othello, that Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and every time a non-American production is done of an American show.

So with that, let me talk about racebenders and genderbenders in TV and movies that were either rumored, actually done, or talked about, and talk about three I'm not cool with, three I'm on the fence about, and there I am cool with.
Three I'm Not Cool With:

Luke Cage: This is most "purists"' immediate example when defending the skin color of any racebent white character — that it's the same thing as if you made Luke Cage white. Which, it isn't. Luke Cage is a victim of systemic racism, growing up in a poor black neighborhood and being framed and immediately convicted for drugs, something that, in America, is an actual racial problem, and was continually targeted by a racist cop in his jail. Luke Cage is black. So much of what he is is a microcosm of what happens to black people in America. This is not to say that people from other races do not go through what Luke Cage goes through, but for black people, it's a reality. To change Luke Cage's skin color removes that power from black American readers.

That's another thing you should ask: does changing the race of this character remove power from the race I am changing it from? Also, is the race represented by this character already well represented that we can "sacrifice" this one character this time around? In the case of Luke Cage and other very ethnocentric characters like the Black Panther (king of an African nation) and Storm (African weather witch), the answers are yes and no, respectively.

Iron Fist: On the other hand, we have Iron Fist, the very white rich guy who went into the mystical land of K'un L'un and learned all sorts of martial arts. Before casting Finn Jones, some fans were clamoring for diversity and were asking to make Iron Fist Asian. This doesn't sit well with me. Look, I'm not Chinese (mostly) or Japanese (at all), but I am Asian, and racebending someone to be an Asian martial artist doesn't feel like progress to me so much as stereotyping. I can get that we don't really need yet another series where a white man goes into a non-white region to play the role of savior (Matt Damon is doing that right now, to virtually no critical or commercial acclaim), but the stereotype here feels almost backwards to me. I would feel uneasy.

Also, from a pure marketing perspective, I dislike it when the change is made to an existing character when another existing character can actually fit the bill. If we really want an Asian martial artist on the airwaves, we shouldn't be looking for a racebent Iron Fist; we should be campaigning for Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu (and spoiler: it seems we're gonna get him).

From a visual perspective as well, Iron Fist is supposed to be the outsider, and making him Asian, although he'd still be an outsider, would de-emphasize the point.

But for me, Iron Fist should remain white in 2017 because the single most poignant thing about Iron Fist and Luke Cage is this: they are best friends. Despite their couldn't-be-any-more-different backgrounds, despite their almost irreconcilable philosophies, Danny Rand and Luke Cage are best friends. One is white, the other is black. And that's a beautiful thing, and in 2017, I think that holds more power, especially across states that voted red, than simply making Danny another Asian martial artist.

Captain America: No, I'm not talking about passing the shield over to Sam Wilson, the Falcon, who is a black man. I'm talking about making Steve Rogers anything other than a white man. And the reason for this is simple: amidst all the super soldier serums, the radioactive spider-bites, the gamma-irradiated hulks, it would still be a stretch of suspension of disbelief for me (and I'm going to bet, you) to believe that anyone other than a Caucasian male would be able to bring 1940s America together.

When half the country couldn't accept a black president in 2008, to the point that they elected a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan in 2016, a non-white Captain America in 1941 would have major repercussions.

Okay, so actually, that sounds fascinating. I'd actually like to see that done in an alternate reality storyline, but for me to believe that you could just switch Cap's ethnicity — or even gender — like that and have it play out the same way? That's a wild stretch, even for superhero comics.

It would have to be something like this.

While we're at it, Superman's a similar case. Yes, he could be any other ethnicity, but if you're going to change it, it changes the landscape of the world he's in, and you should be prepared to commit to that.

Three I'm On the Fence With:

Peter Parker and the Cast of Spider-Man: When Zendaya, who is half-black, half-white, was cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming, I immediately thought she was playing Mary Jane. Ethnicity doesn't matter to me with Mary Jane Watson, a character who is best known for being a wild party girl with red hair. Those are qualities that could apply to anyone regardless of race.

Then I found out Zendaya isn't playing Mary Jane, and immediately thought she was playing Liz Allan, Peter Parker's high school crush, who was racebent by the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon in the late aughts to be Hispanic.

Then I found out Zendaya is playing "Michelle", whose last name, I can only hope, should be Gonzales. And I realized, wait, why does she need to play a "name" character?

I like Michele Gonzales. I have an irrational love for Michele Gonzales. Why does every one of Spider-Man's movies need to have either Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson? I know one of them is endgame, but in the meantime, can't we build up the other characters in our stable? How can other characters gain the recognition and status that these other characters already have if they're never given the chance?

A while back, there came an edict from Marvel saying that Peter Parker should always be straight and white, a decision that frustrated many. I am a big fan of alternate versions, and agree that in some alternate versions there are universes where Peter Parker isn't straight and/or isn't white, but for movies? If they ever decided to just racebend Peter Parker, I would, as a brand/marketing person, see it as a colossal wasted opportunity, because this guy exists.

That's Miles Morales. He's a brilliant teenager with family problems. And he happens to be Spider-Man.

I think "bending" is at best a momentary stopgap in the fight for diversity. Ideally, we should be able to create new characters altogether and have them stand on their own. When someone like Miles is already there, living and breathing, just waiting for a shot to break out, we should give him that shot.

And no, I don't think the name "Peter Parker" is enough to sell people on Spider-Man. I think the name "Spider-Man" will sell people on Spider-Man. The whole point is that Spider-Man can be anyone — and that makes it all the more important, if we're going to have a non-white Spider-Man, to use Miles Morales.

By extension, this applies to any character with an already existing counterpart. Don't racebend Hal Jordan, use John Stewart or Kyle Rayner — partly because they already exist, and partly because no one likes Hal Jordan.

Everyone in Dr. Strange: Dr. Strange got under fire for changing the Ancient One, typically portrayed as a Tibetan monk, into a Celtic woman. Less spoken about was how Baron Mordo, typically Strange's arch-enemy, got racebent into a black man.

I quite honestly have no problem with either, and I can say I'd rather watch Tilda Swinton kick ass as the Ancient One than wizened wizard. In the end, I was indifferent to the changes, but then I don't know how I feel about the fact that they killed the woman and turned the black dude evil.

Ghost in the Shell: I'm just gonna start this paragraph off by saying that Scarlett Johannson is playing The Major, and the Major's name is Kusanagi. Major Kusanagi is supposed to be Japanese. Ghost in the Shell is supposed to be set in Japan. So I try to imagine if we took a Filipino property (like, say, Darna) and if we cast a white actress in it, and I probably would be annoyed at first, buuuuuuut.....

When Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha's Tokyo headquarters, says, "Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world," it speaks to a reality in Hollywood. You're only going to get made if they believe you can make money, and with the rare number of actresses who are seen as A-list (is there really anyone at the moment behind Scarlett), you have to ask, do I or do I not want to see a movie headlined by a woman? And in a male-dominated industry, my answer to that is always, "Yes, yes I do."

So I actually have no problem with Scarlett Johannson playing Major Kusanagi, and I like to imagine that I'd have no problem either if a Darna movie were to be made and they cast a white actress (but who knows?). My issue with Ghost in the Shell is that most actors in it aren't Japanese at all. You'd think that this kind of movie would open up the jobs to Japanese actors, but somehow that isn't the case here. If a movie sourced from Japan and ostensibly set in Japan won't open up the casting gates for Japanese actors, then doesn't that say something about Hollywood altogether?

On a related note, I liked Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger. It's established that he's crazy and that Native Americans aren't savages. I really think that movie got unfairly judged before it was even seen. And again, it's a movie that wouldn't have been made without Depp's commitment to it.

Three I'm Cool With:

The Human Torch: So we had a hot mess of a Fantastic Four movie in 2015, and right smack-dab in the middle of it was Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, playing the Human Torch. He was also the best actor in the cast. Sometimes it comes down to this: the best actor for the job is the best actor for the job.

Johnny Storm is a character who sets himself on fire and is cocky, letting celebrity into his head just a bit too much. In 1961, it would have been unheard of for this set of characteristics to be heard of in the black community, but in the 21st century — have you seen NBA players?

Where this casting decision gets me, however, is in the discussions it spawned. See, Johnny and Sue Storm are siblings. Now, I grew up in a multiracial school. One of my very best friends in the world has a Filipino mother and a white American dad. And she and her siblings have different skin tones, with one looking whiter than the rest of them. And even with that knowledge, the only thing I could think of was, "So I guess one of Sue and Johnny is adopted?"

That turned out to be the case, but that was irrelevant — I knew that it was possible that they were biologically related. I had witnessed that kind of gene-mixing with my own eyes, and I still defaulted to a prejudiced bias. I thought that was amazing. And then you see things like this, and you think, the world really is an amazing place.

These two are twins.

Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch illustrates two reasons why I would approve of racebending: (1) sometimes the best person for the job is the best person for the job, and (2) it makes us face our own biases, and in fact, knock them down.

Having said that, I still don't recommend you actually watch Fantastic Four.

Ghostbusters: This isn't a comic book, but since way too many people felt the need to protest this movie, I feel that it should be mentioned. The 2016 Ghostbusters movie is my favorite Ghostbusters. Look, fellas, I hate to burst your bubble, but Ghostbusters 2 sucked and Ghostbusters 1 was only funny in the 80s. (Don't worry, Ghostbusters 1, you still have the best single scene, with the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man.) The 2016 Ghostbusters didn't take either (overrated) movie away, and wasn't made for fans of the original Ghostbusters. It was made for these fans:

I saw people complaining that it was just an ad for women in STEM, and to that, I say... so what? We need more women in STEM. When women are discouraged at a young age to go into the sciences, we need our pop culture to show them that they shouldn't be.

Also, Kate Holtzmann is the best Ghostbuster ever. I know it, you know it. We all know it.

And while we're at it, Extreme Ghostbusters was pretty good too and was better than The Real Ghostbusters.

Side note: Anyone have a list of movies that you'd actually like to see a complete gender reversal of? I actually would like to see a female-centric version of Stand By Me. Why? I don't really know. I think it'd be interesting though. 

Everyone in Riverdale: I have a love/hate relationship with Archie comics when it comes to how they deal with diversity. In June 1971, they introduced Chuck Clayton, known for being Archie's close friend and was pretty much good at almost everything, including athletics. Over the years, he was treated as a token character, and was given a black girlfriend, Nancy, who was known as nothing else but Chuck's girlfriend. Most recently, of course, they introduced Kevin Keller, Archie's first openly gay character, who of course is also good at just about everything.

I have zero issues with the fact that Archie is always trying to push diversity; I just dislike how every minority character they introduce is instantly good at everything, and also that they're only ever the only character who fits that demographic in Archie. In his notes to The Archie Wedding, editor Vic Gorelick continually notes that Nancy should be in Betty and Veronica's bridal party, because she's African-American, which would be fine if we knew anything else about Nancy. We don't. Traditionally, Archie Comics has treated minority characters in a token fashion, with side minor characters such as Ginger Lopez and Maria Rodriguez being kept to, well, the side.

On the other hand, Archie Comics is the same company that continually published stories about how the older generation should learn to understand how their kids are into punk rock, or how they shouldn't judge the new fads the kids are into because times change. So Archie Comics is an earnest company in the push for diversity and inclusion, just not one known for subtlety.

Enter Riverdale, a TV show that takes all of Archie Comics and turns it on its head. Archie is still your redhead heartthrob, but one that sleeps with Ms. Grundy, now a teacher in her 30s instead of an old woman. Betty is still, on the surface, the perfect blonde girl, but one whose family has a history of mental illness (yet another underrepresented or, at best, misrepresented demographic). Mr. Weatherbee and Pop Tate are black (black authority figures are on the list of things you wouldn't have seen in 1940s America. when these characters were first created). Reggie Mantle and Dilton Doiley are Asian. Veronica Lodge, the best character on the show for my money, is Hispanic. All three of the Pussycats are black.

It's weird for me to say I like this show, because I didn't really like Afterlife with Archie and I'm not really enjoying Mark Waid's "more realistic" Archie series, but I actually am loving this show. How much of it actually has to do with Archie, I don't know, because it's so different from core Archie that it feels silly to even really talk about the racial changes when there are so many changes. From Archie being jailbait to Jughead Jones not being asexual (which is fine, I think), the racial changes all seem secondary. Still, Riverdale is traditionally a white town with four black people (Chuck Clayton, Coach Clayton, Nancy, and Valerie, who is almost never in Riverdale) thrown in, and then your random other non-white character thrown in from time to time, that scrambling things around to make it more representative of America was necessary. But with that, let's talk about Veronica Lodge and the Pussycats.

Veronica Lodge is the best character on the show, and in fact the only one who I still see, after four episodes, through the lens of the comics from which they came. In the comics, Veronica half the time has a heart of gold, and the other half of the time is the bitchiest bitch of the west. Camilla Mendes portrays her as one who could easily shift back and forth between the two. She does it perfectly. And like I said before, sometimes the best person for the job is the best person for the job. Does the fact that she's Hispanic change it for you?

The Pussycats on the other hand seemed almost destined to be fundamentally changed from the start. Here's the challenge with the Pussycats: they are traditionally a distinct property from Archie and the gang. When the Pussycats meet with the Archies, it's an event. And if you'd kept it as it is, then Josie would really just be a genderbent Archie, lacking her own identity on a show that already has its redhead musician.

By making the Pussycats an all-black female trio, it introduces a racial component about how they had to claw their way up to success in this suburban Middle America town. In America 2017, I think that's poignant.

In America—and the world—2017, all representation is poignant. It's not always cut and dry. There are nuances. And sometimes it's up for debate. These are things I'm fascinated by. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Who's changeable enough for you, and who can't ever be modified? Let me know in the comments.


MisterSmith said...

(Disclosure: I fit the trifecta of being straight, white, and male as far as this all goes) I'll try to keep the wordiness to a minimum...

1. As far as Luke Cage and Danny Rand go, I'd be pretty against either of them being changed (mostly for reasons you articulated better than I could). Their dynamic with themselves and their lives separate of each other (and their origins) are solid specifically because of how they are. Making these two any other combination of black/white/asian wouldn't likely be nearly as effective. The code names (Power Man, Iron Fist) are up for debate, though near-future Iron Fists should likely include one of Asian descent.

2. In regards to the Iron Fist/Shang-Chi dynamic: Either white kung-fu guy is racist given his outsider/white savior status or having Asian kung-fu guy is racist because of stereotyping. Maybe this is white privilege speaking but it seems like Marvel is damned if they do, damned if they don't regardless what they do, isn't it?

3. As far as MJ goes, the only color I need from her is the red in her hair. I've seen a Zendaya photo with her having red hair and I was 100% on board after that. With Peter...we literally have a multi-verse of Spider-Men now. If a certain group isn't represented...a Spider can literally be created for them. Miles, Miguel, Mayday, Gwen...all wonderful characters with different characterizations, races, genders. And that is, truly, Amazing.

4. For Human Torch/FF: I don't like that they made Sue adopted. I think I'd have been a bit more ok if BOTH of the Storms had been black, but changing that element of their relationship doesn't sit well with me. Then again, I feel like the FF should resemble a 'classic' family unit as much as possible. (So I'd be down with the whole team being black, for example) Otherwise the relationships should be as traditional as possible. Reed and Sue as a traditional couple, Sue and Johnny as traditional siblings. Ben as the childhood friend of Reed, uncle-in-name and godfather of his first born.

5. Ghostbusters: I see no issue with the team being all women. They're all new characters in an all new continuity(?) and letting the old movies stand on their own...well, outside of being another reboot. But that's happening to everything these day, so that's fairly moot.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks for commenting. I should probably have said at some point that I'm not white or even American, but I did live in America for a while.

1. I neglected to mention Danny and Misty Knight! That's actually up there with him being best friends with Luke.
2. I don't think the stereotype, on its own, is racist (it's an empowering one, at least), but to change a white martial artist into an Asian martial artist is not, I think, progressive, and that's really the only reason you would make that change.
3. Exactly. I wouldn't want to see a genderbent Peter Parker (although one exists), so much as I'd rather see Jessica Drew or Gwen Stacy.
4. I can see that. I just think there's a dialogue to be had and doors to be opened about Sue and Johnny being of different skin tones, and that could have opened more eyes instead of been the ugly discourse it was.
5. Really, Ghostbusters wasn't without its share of problems (three of them are scientists)... but the premise wasn't one of them.

greencow said...

Riverdale is the same old same old. The main characters are still all white except Veronica, who's the closest to white-passing of all the minorities. And the other nonwhite characters are much more flawed than those white heroes. "Flawed" doesn't even go far enough when you talk about Chuck. Of all the characters this show should have built up in the name of representation, it's him, the guy who was to blacks in Archie what Kevin was to gays, and for them to turn him into such a creep is pointlessly nasty in a way I've never seen any show be; it's like, for the hell of it, televising someone pissing on the Easter bunny. (Quoting Adam-Troy Castro there on the death of Jason Todd from many years ago, and it fits even better here.) Chuck wasn't "good at almost everything," by the way. He was just a nice guy who was talented at sports and had good and bad points. Kevin is more overly virtuous, but even he isn't that extreme. "Good at almost everything" fits Betty, Jughead and even Archie a lot more.

The speech from Josie felt like it was more about sexism than racism because of the way it appeared in episode three with the girls boiling Chuck in the hot tub. If Josie had given a white privilege speech to BETTY, that would have been something. As a nonwhite woman, I would have really preferred that.

Duy Tano said...

A good point about Chuck and Kevin not being "good at everything;" I think I just went through a slew of digests at one point where Chuck was an athlete and an artist and a singer and a great guy. Except when he was drawn by Harry Lucey, in which case he was a jerk. At the same time, Archie is often portrayed as a klutz and Jughead is portrayed as weird. You are absolutely right about Betty.

I have the same concerns as you do regarding the treatment of diversity so far in Riverdale, I think I'm just willing to wait for now. :)

Cicada 5 said...

Aquaman's actor isn't white. He's Hawaiin on his father's side and Native American on his mom's.

Duy Tano said...

That is awesome. I wasn't aware of that. Thanks!

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