Is all this anger about the actress, Zendaya portraying Mary Jane in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ really about her hair?
This is more of that “white fragility” you hear so much about but can’t seem to get anyone to acknowledge. If you want to know more about it, enjoy that link. I am going to approach this from a different, less scientific, more down to Earth angle.
Goodness, can Zendaya be any cuter if she tried? Magic 8 ball says: Absolutely not!
Is this question a precursor to whining diatribes about race-bending and gender bending of comic characters in the Marvel and DC Universes by white fanboys who hate seeing anyone besides white characters on the screen?
Will there be whining like:
- Why do we have to change characters from White to Black? (We don’t but white men are vastly over-represented in comics AND film)
- Doesn’t Marvel or DC know how racist that is? (Apparently not, but they appear to be getting the hint.)
- Why don’t Marvel and DC just make new minority characters so minorities can STFU about not having any characters and leave those traditionally white characters alone? (That would be nice, too.)
- What if I made the Black Panther White? (Already been done, yo!)
- Why did Marvel make Thor a woman? (Because it sold books. Lots of them.)
UGH. These are the questions the Answer-Man doesn’t want to take on unless it’s with a baby seal club…
Here’s how I see it: Race-bending and gender-bending are perfectly acceptable options in depictions of modern media, particularly if the media draws its source from periods where racial and social conventions favored the white cisgendered male as the protagonist of choice. Any media created from the 1920 forward can be said to promote this perspective.
So why do people have a problem with this? If you have a bit of history under your belt, it seems perfectly reasonable, right?
Alas, most Americans have so little history in their lives, they are lucky to remember where they live from day to day. A study of the past, particularly through the troubled history of the United States from a white perspective tends to leave out and leave off, atrocities committed upon people of color, and tilts the perspective toward one of White Meritocracy (the idea that White people have earned everything they have and systemic forces do not exist to prevent people of color from achievement in this nation).
Thus, from the modern unenlightened white person without a sense of history, of the destruction of the Native Americans, the enslavement of Black Africans in the Americas and other nations, the continued persecution of Blacks even after their so-called release from enslavement including peonage, Jim Crow up to and including the challenges of Civil Rights, the War on Drugs, the Private Prison Complex and the School to Prison Pipeline; all conditions which disproportionately affect people of color in this nation, are all some sort of fever dream of minorities and should not have had any effect on their quality of life or representation in media.
The White impression is: They appear in media in the roles most suited to them. After all no white director or producer would dream of discriminating in their productions. Meritocracy rules all. If you don’t show up, you must not be good enough.
With this as your baseline, you can see just a tiny bit of why this change of Mary Jane Watson from a white female to a half-white female could become problematic under such a light.
Are you saying there is never a time when race-bending is improper then?
From my perspective, you call it race-bending if it takes place and the original character disappears or is replaced without internal explanation:
- E.g. if Classic Spider-Man (Peter Parker) were to suddenly be revealed as a Black man without any explanation, and go about Peter Parker’s life as we know it, fighting villains, getting pictures for Jonah Jameson, etcetera, and we are expected to absorb this change without question, you are looking at race-bending.
- This is a very undesirable form of race-bending because it is internally inconsistent. We don’t know why the change was made, thus it undermines the internal integrity of the character without adding anything at all.
- Despite all of the hubbub being raised in the unpleasant corners of the internet by bridge or basement-dwelling comic trolls no comic creators believe this to be an acceptable solution to the lack of diversity in comics. Whenever anyone makes that argument, it is a logical fallacy, nothing more.
- Since we are on Spider-Man, we acknowledge the latest inclusions into the Spider-Family include a character who is Black and Latino named Miles Morales. Hailing from the Ultimates Earth (Earth-1610) he made his way to Marvel Earth-616 (where most Marvel heroes do their adventuring) during a cosmic event which destroyed his home planet. On his world, Peter Parker and he had a friendship of sorts, and Parker inspired Morales to take on the identity of Spider-Man.
- This is an acceptable form of inclusive character development, though some may frown on it, because it creates the “legacy hero” effect. Legacy heroes are often Black or minority characters who take on the name of a previously existing hero, thus adding diversity without adding much new to the comic universe. Unfortunately, more often than not, most legacy heroes die ignored by the fans because no one likes sequels better than the original unless they are really well done.
What about gender-bending? Isn’t it wrong to make a male character female or vice versa? What are “legacy heroes” or “hand-me-down heroes?”
Honestly, I don’t think too much about it because it should follow the ideas behind race-bending. (see above)
- You have to remember, like minorities, women are underrepresented in most comic Universes. They are also often highly sexualized, dressed questionably and never with costumes which should reflect their heroic (and often dangerous lifestyle). Invulnerable women heroes can wear whatever they want, I stand by it, but if you aren’t bullet-proof or sword-resistant, you better be wearing more than fishnet stockings or an armored bikini. (See: Black Canary or Red Sonja)
- Women tended to have weaker powers, get much less character development and they are often linked in unfavorable ways to other more powerful or famous male heroes, either as supporting characters or just lesser heroes. (See the Avenger: Janet Van Dyne — Wasp)
- Switching a male hero to a female one but keeping the name or connotations is, in my opinion, undesirable but completely understandable, and I will grudgingly accept it, if it is done well or tastefully, as in the case with Jane Foster’s recent transition to Thor. (Though I never thought of the Odinson’s name Thor to be a title as such, but whatever, it is a tiny detail to argue over — but argue those trolls did…)
- I don’t consider Kamala Khan to be race-bending because the original Ms. Marvel approved of her and passed the name onto Kamala. She is a distinct new hero with a completely unrelated power-set but a legacy hero just the same. She could have been called anything else, but Marvel needing to keep their names licensed, lazily passed it on, hoping the previous “legacy-shine” would pass to the new character. She didn’t need it due to the capable writing talents of her bullpen.
Other “legacy heroes” who have managed to establish themselves include:
- Mr. Terrific (Michael Holt) is a legacy character who inherited his name from the original character mostly via a choice to embody the nature and ideals of the original. They share no intrinsic connection other than superior skills and intellect.
- John Stewart of the Green Lantern Corps could be technically considered a legacy character, but he is no less or more legacy than Hal Jordan who inherited his title of Green Lantern from Alan Scott who was the first Green Lantern. John Stewart has had the rare distinction of being the longest running screen version of Green Lantern (appearing in the entire run of JLA and JLU, from 2001 to 2006) and thus for some people, he was the only Green Lantern they have ever known.
- John Stewart is also technically NOT a legacy character or a race-bent character because the Green Lantern Corps incorporates members from thousands of alien worlds. However, readers may consider him a race-bent character if they preferred Hal Jordan or Alan Scott or their own predispositions prevent them from accepting John’s abilities as equal to the others.
- In fact, John has, until recent decades been treated as less capable or heroic than the Earth’s other Green Lanterns, his failures greater, his foibles more noticeable. Strangely enough, when he was written in roles where he was superior to the others (John was the only Human to ever embody the power of the Guardians of Oa) such periods are treated as apocrypha and happily forgotten.
So why do they change races, sexes, and anything else they can in the movies? Idris Elba played the whitest of the White Norse gods, Heimdall? Why wasn’t everyone as upset as I was?
Answer: Because it’s a movie. It’s not reality. See: Black Thor Actor Blasts Debate over his casting.
- It’s not as if the character Heimdall in the Marvel Universe, who is portrayed as a white man, was suddenly unemployed because Idris Elba played him in a movie (very well, I might add).
- This is an opportunity to do what the comics have never done: allow diversity, representation and inclusion into a series of stories which never reflected the realities of the world at large.
- It was not meant as an affront to white goodness but as a branch to offering opportunities to other people to be involved, seen and representing the possibility of such work, such visions and such mythic storytelling previously only available to white youth.
We are not suggesting this could not be disconcerting for hard-core fans but we are saying: Get over yourselves. You don’t live on Earth by yourself. Change is inevitable, remember? Women vote now, slavery was abolished and a Black man became president, it’s okay for Black people to show up in movies as something other than mammies, pimps, pushers, whores, gang-bangers or basketball players.
- E.g. In the recent Fantastic Four movie (which everyone on Earth seemed to despise) we were told to accept the change in the Fantastic Four where Sue and Johnny Storm were adopted siblings.
- While this is internally acceptable for the movie (since the story is essentially in its own Universe) it is jarring for viewers since for them, it would appear diversity is being added without, in their opinion actually being “necessary” for the story.
- Such complainers have little understanding of the history of comics, its racist background (as with so much media from the Golden Age of comics, circa 1939) and as such don’t appear to notice or care that Blacks and minorities are woefully underrepresented in comparison to their actual populations on Earth.
The difference between the past and the present is that people are more aware, want more representation and inclusion and are no longer willing to sit idly by and allow media to present a world white-washed with the idea that ONLY WHITE PEOPLE (MALES) DESERVE AGENCY.
How about we make Black Panther or Luke Cage white? That should be a possibility too, right?
- Oy. Quiet as it’s kept, the Black Panther has been at least half-white for a time. Don’t believe me? Here you go…
- Kevin “Kasper” Cole is depicted as biracial, the child of an African man and a Jewish woman. As a result of the sharp contrast between his light skin and the dark skin of his father, he has been nicknamed Kasper, after Casper the Friendly Ghost. Aspects of his heritage and the color of his skin are frequently referenced in Black Panther and The Crew.
- Kasper Cole was initially non-powered, wearing only the Black Panther’s outfit for protection and carrying a pair of 9×19mm pistols (later loaded with non-lethal gel bullets).
- Later on, after ingesting a synthetic version of the herbs that give the original Black Panther his powers, he possesses peak human physical strength, speed, reflexes and reactions, agility and durability, superhuman eyesight, and night vision.
- The suit Kasper wears as the Black Panther and later as the White Tiger is a vibranium microweave body suit capable of dissipating the kinetic and hydrostatic shock damage of bullets or bullet-like objects, essentially making it bullet-proof.
- It also has special vibranium soled boots for scaling vertical surfaces. Anti-metal properties of the Antarctic vibranium in his claws and boots will break down any known metal including adamantium.
- Kasper also carries energy based throwing daggers capable of paralyzing or tagging his enemies. He can track those tagged via an advanced pocket computer (which also has numerous other capabilities).
Many of the technologies and ideas used during this run of the Black Panther are still being used today. NEXT!
Power Man: (who held the name BEFORE Luke Cage did…)
- Erik Josten, otherwise known as Power Man, Smuggler, Goliath and Atlas, is a fictional character appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. The character has been a prominent member of both the Masters of Evil and the Thunderbolts.
- Josten’s powers included superhuman durability and the ability to change his size and increase his strength… Created by writer Stan Lee, and artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby, the character first appeared in Avengers vol. 1 #21 (October 1965) as Power Man, in Spectacular Spider-Man #49 (December 1980) as Smuggler, in Iron Man Annual #7 (October 1984) as Goliath, and in The Incredible Hulk #449 (January 1997) as Atlas.
Why mention these two characters at all?
They invalidate the whining of fanboys who say they should be able to change the ethnicity of characters just like when Black characters suddenly appear. Well. Look at that. It appears in some cases, perhaps it has already happened…
Altering the ethnicity of the Black Panther to make race-bending more “fair” these people are both illogical and unworthy of any real effort to explain why such things are both bigoted and ridiculous.
But I will do my best:
- In the case of the Black Panther, his entire premise is built around an African-centered character whose culture was BLACK and hidden from the world due to a desire to remain free of racist and militaristic bullshit happening in the world run by WHITE men.
- To subvert the trope and make the Black Panther a White man would only be reverting to the Great White Savior trope, something much more offensive and absolutely a sign of racial insensitivity at an epic level. See: Tarzan.
- Secondary character such as Mary Jane becoming something other than white don’t change the narrative flow of the story and don’t effectively alter the nature of the hero in any way; since the story revolves around the hero, making supporting cast members other ethnicity doesn’t change the hero’s agency whatsoever.
I suspect the real gripe is such changes make the movies resemble the real world in its diversity and we recognize that some White people hate to see such erosion of their perceived place in the cultural and dominance food chain.
There will be much crying as comics and movies change under the external pressures as people seek greater inclusion in this particular mythic creative expression. While those fans who cry the most about the changes eventually age out, new fans as well as new creators making more diverse characters will bring much needed change to the industry, and to be honest, it’s about time.
If we are going to be changing things up, let’s change it all the way up, right?
Absolutely. I think right now if DC and Marvel wanted to give their Universes a real shake up, increase overall quality of their publications, redefining their stories in ways scarcely imagined in their 75 year histories, making their realms the most interesting places they could possibly be:
- They should make every male character female and every female character male.
- They should hire their staff in proportion to national population data
- They should have 50% of their staff being women at all levels of the company.
I think comics would be the most amazing we have ever seen them, doing things in ways never done before.
- Minorities wouldn’t be sickening stereotypes, limited to lives of criminality or sports.
- Women would be super-scientists in proportions to the outrageous number of male super-scientists portrayed in both Universes.
- A woman would have tried to take over the Universe and been successful at least once.
- Men would have relationship issues and be unable to decided which male hero they should be involved with. (With great respect to the love of Apollo and Midnighter).
- We might see superheroes actually changing the world rather than fighting each other in endless battles about things which absolutely make no sense when seen in the light of day.
- See: Civil War, Civil War II, Secret Wars, Secret Wars II, Crisis on Infinite Earth, Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint, Rebirth; etcetera.
Is this really about Mary Jane Watson being turned into an amazingly beautiful half-white (or half-black depending on your perspective) woman who will get to kiss Spider-Man in the Homecoming film?
- Absolutely not. Any geek worth their salt would trade places with Spider-Man to kiss Zendaya without a second thought (if they were being honest).
- But their fears, their fragility, their racist upbringings mean they can’t acknowledge the inevitable changes overtaking them at this point in time, so they rail against the change, rail against the mixing of the races, the failure of the White race to suppress the encroaching of a Black planet, the inability to keep people of color from changing their beloved media, their stories to include people they have been taught to NEVER respect.
- Yep. And I am not going to apologize for putting out there, just like that. Let me save you the trouble of commenting as well. If you have nothing to add beyond rantings supporting the questions I have answered with fallacies, I will delete and block you without malice.
- This is an argument I am tired of hearing and even more tired of answering.
The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find other Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.