Don’t get me wrong, I love Stan Lee. I think his contribution to nerd and geek culture throughout his incredibly lengthy career is impossible to match. That being said, Lee seems to have become well out of touch with the changing demographics of popular culture. Recently, Lee came out and stated that he was opposed to changing Peter Parker (Spider-Man) to a character of color, or to a member of the LGBTQ community. This tells me that the Generalissimo is painfully out of touch with the necessary changes that need to happen within the realm of comics and geek culture.
Do we even need to change Peter Parker?
In a word, no. I think that the preoccupation with “changing Peter Parker” from white, to a person of color, or from straight to queer, is a bit misleading. They don’t really need to, there is a smorgasbord of Spider-People to choose from, up to and including a pig…
Marvel, and Stan, have missed an opportunity. They really could have had their cake, and eaten it too… No, that’s not correct; they could have had their cake, and given every other cake-desiring fan a piece as well. It was recently announced by Marvel that Miles Morales, the biracial teen from New York, who was also bitten by a radioactive spider, would be taking over as the primary Spider-Man. Peter Parker will still exist in this universe and take on a mentor or teaching role for the young Mr. Morales. This is where Mr. Lee and his rabid supporters hosed up: They could easily have said “I don’t think we should fundamentally change the Peter Parker character, but do we really need to? We have Miles Morales portraying Spider-Man, and we can just concentrate on his story.” But they didn’t say that. We, instead, get this gem of a quote: “It has nothing to do with being anti-gay, or anti-black, or anti-Latino, or anything like that. Latino characters should stay Latino. The Black Panther should certainly not be Swiss.” So, there’s no black people in Switzerland? That seems a bit callous, obviously untrue, and based on the linked article, pretty insulting.
Miles Morales represents the greater population of New York in a way that Peter Parker can’t. New York City is the largest melting pot in the U.S, and has been for over a century… The days of the sweater-vest wearing Peter Parker are over. He’s a dinosaur, a relic of years gone by. Morales is the future, and represents a more accurate cross-section of the United States, and definitely a more accurate cross-section of New York City in particular.
A Lot’s Changed Since the 60’s
We already mentioned The Black Panther, so let’s revisit him for a moment. The Black Panther appeared in 1966, and (at the time) represented the shifting opinions of black characters inside of comics. While not the first black character in comics, he was certainly one of the first black superheros. There were a handful of characters that appeared in comics prior to this but they were mostly regular ol’ humans, and typically supporting cast members.
What do I have against The Black Panther? Nothing, other than the dated, minstrel style representation of Africans and Africa in comics. Here, let’s take the opening lines from The Black Panther’s fictional character biography, straight from his Wikipedia page:
“The Black Panther is the ceremonial title given to the chief of the Panther Tribe of the advanced African nation of Wakanda. In addition to ruling the country, he is also chief of its various tribes (collectively referred to as the Wakandas). The Panther habit is a symbol of office (head of state) and is used even during diplomatic missions. The Panther is a hereditary title, but one still must earn it.”
Uhm, alright. I guess making up a country, and using some pretty stereotypical views of African symbolism might have been considered culturally sensitive in 1966, but it sort of feels out of place now. I am also a little confused about the necessity of utilizing a made-up country (Wakanda) to represent this culture. What’s so awful about trying to accurately portray something inside the profoundly diverse array of existing African civilizations? I actually cooked up a couple answers to that question:
- No one in the comic publishing industry in 1966 knew anything about Africa, and had no intention of doing the research to find out.
- None of the existing African culture fit the bill as advanced enough for the character.
These options seem equally likely, and both are equally depressing. Just like the continued reading of the Wikipedia page:
“In the distant past, a meteorite made of the (fictional) vibration-absorbing mineral vibranium crashed in Wakanda, and was unearthed. Reasoning that outsiders would exploit Wakanda for this valuable resource, the ruler, King T’Chaka, like his father and other Panthers before him, concealed his country from the outside world. T’Chaka’s first wife N’Yami died while in labor with T’Challa, and his second wife Ramonda was taken prisoner by Anton Pretorius during a visit to her homeland of South Africa, so for most of his childhood T’Challa was raised by his father alone. T’Chaka was murdered by the adventurer Ulysses Klaw in an attempt to seize the vibranium mound. With his people still in danger, a young T’Challa used Klaw’s sound weapon on Klaw and his men, shattering his right hand and forcing him to flee.”
T’what now? This is really starting to feel like the 1960’s entertainment industry, because the blatant use of apostrophes obviously dictates real African dialect? To me it reads like one of those people miming what they imagine the Chinese language sounds like, by just making vaguely asian mouth noises.
The quiet tragedy of The Black Panther and Wakanda is that nerds of color, who wish to identify with the comic characters in the mainstream, end up being forced to rally behind these stereotypical representations of black or African culture. Why? Because they don’t have enough comic characters of color to have the choice not to.
I would like to note that many nerds of color have decided to take serious ownership of Wakanda and The Black Panther imagery, and I think that’s spectacular. While my gripes are general, these groups of nerds add an authenticity and gravitas to something that could easily be malformed, and turned into the equivalent of comic book blackface. That doesn’t mean that, as a group, they are getting the entertainment and heroics that they deserve. Far from it, they are just making the most of a sub par, and sparse reality.
It’s Not Just Comic Books…
This is not a problem that’s endemic to comics, it exists everywhere throughout the nerd spectrums. Film, television, video games, literature… None of these mediums are diverse enough to reflect the wide spectrum of sexuality, race, and gender that make up their fandoms. Popular early access video game, Rust is a prime example of this issue. When you create a new character in Rust, your race is randomized, you don’t get to choose. The developers ran into some… Er… Fallout, because of this. Almost immediately, your irritating, white majority started great threads in the Steam community forums that look a little (read: a lot) racist. Gamers just empirically proved that if you ever start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” you absolutely are.
What is especially irritating about the Rust issue is that the game devs have it completely right. Your avatar in the game is utterly superfluous. The avatar serves nothing more than to pin you into the world they created. It could easily be represented as a cat, a dinosaur, or an alien.
The game devs are more interested in making sure the actual mechanics of their game stack up, not if you’re the correct shade of asshole.
Whitewashing is a way of life in Hollywood, if you haven’t previously noticed. The upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe’s production of Doctor Strange, and the double-edged sword of casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One is a perfect example; Marvel’s film division has been repeatedly accused of sexism and callous disregard for their female characters, so it’s good that they cast a woman in such an important role, especially one that would normally go to a man… What’s not great, on the other hand, is that the character is traditionally Asian, so Marvel missed the boat on being able to provide a role for a notoriously underrepresented group, instead giving it to someone who is so white, she’s virtually translucent… And for fuck’s sake, they easily could have easily pulled off a great casting in terms of both gender and race.
What To Do, What To Do…
The mainstream geek world’s slavish adherence to the white status quo is frightening and disheartening, because it’s going to take the masses of predominantly white geek fans to pull us out of the mess the industry has created. We’re not going to be able to do that if we’re getting upset that Heimdeall’s role in the Thor film franchise went to Idris Elba, and not, you know, a white dude. Fandoms and properties that were historically only the realm of the dweeb now make up an ever increasing majority swath of mainstream entertainment, but geeks and nerds are still the main consumers for these properties’ source materials… In other words, as a group, we have a great deal of sway.
We aren’t the most confrontational bunch, though, and that needs to change. We need to openly challenge creators and publishers and hold them to a much higher standard. We need to be disappointed, vocally, in our heroes.
We need to openly challenge creators and publishers and hold them to a much higher standard. We need to be disappointed, vocally, in our heroes.
In light of the tragedy in South Carolina, the lack of racial understanding within the world of geekdom is particularly acute. I know, as a community, we have the power to change these things nationally… Even world wide. Geeks, Dweebs, Otaku, and weirdos of all stripes are more relevant and powerful than they have ever been as our creations and media are nationally recognized, embraced, and consumed. The only reason we’re on the outskirts these days, is because we choose to be there. It’s more important than ever to change the dialogue on race and race relations, and to truly create a community that is safe, comfortable, and welcoming to everyone who ever wants to be part of it. We have the ability to change the world, we just need to realize it.