Let’s real talk: it’s tough being a woman of color. You sit at the intersection of both race and gender, and it’s an ongoing process of negotiating those identities and accepting that both parts can work to disadvantage you in different ways.
When it comes to representation in film and TV, it often means having to compromise: do you support this film because it has a female lead, even though she’s white and moves through the world in a way you know you cannot? Or do you support this film because it has racial diversity, but specifically for men, with little to no women of color to be found? Or do you support both in the name of progress, and accept that between these two scenarios your identity has somehow gotten squeezed out?
The newest Marvel film gives us a great example. Captain America: Civil War is certainly an improvement in terms of baseline representation. We got two well-developed, three-dimensional female characters with Black Widow and Scarlet Witch (and also Sharon Carter, although in a smaller role). It featured three Black male superheroes with Falcon, War Machine, and Black Panther — with T’Challa especially having a full, heroic story arc and characterization. But for the female characters of color? We got two small cameos. One woman was mourning the death of her son. The other was in a single scene and said all of two lines. (Or one, depending on how you choose to punctuate “Move, or you will be moved.”) As of right now, we don’t have a single Avenger who is a woman of color.
And here’s the thing: I loved Civil War. I liked the character development that Wanda got and I’ve fully accepted T’Challa as my lord and savior. I acknowledge the value of kickass female characters like Natasha, and appreciate the loyalty and humor of characters like Sam. But as a woman of color, I can’t also help but feel that while we’ve made some gains for white women and men of color in big blockbuster geeky films, women of color have lagged behind.
With Hollywood inching forward with diversity, we’ve seen more white female driven films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Hunger Games, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as shows like Supergirl, Agent Carter, and Jessica Jones. So too have we seen more men of color in pivotal roles with characters like Finn, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, and Luke Cage. I can’t knock this kind of progress. This is all good, and wonderful, and important, especially when we look at how sparse the scene was for any mainstream geeky film/show featuring a woman or person of color before even 2012.
But the fact is that the portrayal of women of color has not kept up at the same pace. In the study “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World”, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen found that the number of female protagonists and those integral to the plot increased in 2015, but this mostly applied to white characters. Female characters of color were 10% less likely to feature as any sort of important character in a film, and their numbers overall remained static, or worse, declined last year.
Furthermore, according to the USC study “Inequality in 700 Popular Films,” within any particular ethnicity, men accounted for around 68% of those characters, while women accounted for only around 32% — a ratio of nearly 2:1 of men versus women of color being shown on screen.
It’s like women of color begin each race 200 meters behind the actual starting line. And even when they are cast in a lead role, Imran Siddiquee writes that studios also tend to under-fund and under-advertise projects featuring a woman of color, helping to perpetuate the idea that there’s no bankable female movie stars of color, and that people do not actually want to see films featuring them. When studios want to appeal to a diverse market (and snag what I’m sure they think of as “diversity brownie points”), it seems that more often than not they either choose to just feature a white woman, a man of color, or both.
And we see this reflected in numerous blockbuster films and shows. The Ghostbusters reboot features three white women and one woman of color (who is the only one who isn’t a scientist, and is instead vital to the team for her “street smarts”). Despite being touted as diverse, the last two Star Trek movies really only have Uhura as the one woman of color with a main role. Agent Carter was one of the first solo female-led Marvel titles we had, and while it did a so-so job of including men of color in cameo roles with characters like Jason Wilkes, the Howling Commandos, and a few agents of color, there were little to no women of color. Jurassic World featured three main men of color and a white woman lead, but zero women of color with speaking roles in the entire film. Mako Mori is the single speaking woman of color in the diversely cast Pacific Rim.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens gave us both a white woman and a black male as the leads, with a Latino man as one of the secondary (secondary main?) characters. Meanwhile, the only notable women of color in the film were Jessica Pava, the Asian pilot who we but glimpsed for a few scenes, and Lupita Nyong’o doing the voice of Maz Kanata, who isn’t even human. The 2016 Rogue One: A Star Wars film is not much better. The main protagonist is Jyn Erso, a white woman. Her supporting cast is full of several men of color: there’s Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna, and Riz Ahmed. But as of writing this, not a single woman of color is listed in the cast on IMDb. The only exception we have is that Kelly Marie Tran was recently cast in Star Wars Episode VIII; but that’s a ways off still, and we have no info on how big her role will be.
The DCEU fares slightly better, but not by much. They made headlines when they cast traditionally white Arthur Curry as Kanaka Maoli Jason Momoa. “I’m someone who gets to represent all the islanders…It’s cool that there’s a brown-skinned superhero,” Momoa said in an interview with The Daily Beast. There were then rumors that Mera, his female co-lead, would also be a woman of color. But they ended up casting blonde-haired, green-eyed Amber Heard instead.
Similarly, Suicide Squad looks diverse, but there’s really only one woman of color on the team — Karen Fukuhara as Katana — whereas there are four men of color and two white women. Even if we include Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller in that count, the women of color are still outnumbered by the male characters of color in a ratio of 2:1.
With Justice League we have Gal Gadot (who, people have argued, may or may not fall under how we traditionally use the term “woman of color”; I’m not really going to go into that here). She, at least, will be leading her own film, but even that has been criticized for not featuring more Amazonians of color.
Some of DC Comics’ TV shows do better in this regard: The Flash is known for both it’s portrayal of the racebent Iris West and Linda Park. Arrow and Gotham meanwhile, are somewhat notoriously known for either killing off their characters of color or whitewashing them. And while Supergirl features two prominent men of color with Hank Henshaw and James Olsen, the really only notable woman of color is Lucy Lane (whose actress is part Lebanese); Lucy comes later in the show than both James and Hank, and at first is treated as a love rival and minor antagonist to Kara, pitting the audience against her early on, at least at first.
If we take a closer look at Marvel, the only plot-integral woman of color we’ve met in the MCU is Dr. Helen Cho, who had the important role of creating Vision’s body, but was ultimately brainwashed and shot in the chest. Meanwhile, while comic writer Brian Michael Bendis confirmed that Maria Hill is part Latina, she is played by white actress Cobie Smulders in the films. Furthermore, Nick Fury in the films looks similar to Nick Fury in the Ultimates universe in the comics; in that same universe Janet van Dyne is Asian, thus making Hope van Dyne multiracial Asian. If film Nick Fury can be black as he is in the Ultimates universe, it stands to reason so could the Wasp be Asian. But ultimately white actress Evangeline Lilly was chosen to play Jan’s daughter Hope in Ant-Man. It’s unclear if any other ethnicities were even considered for the role.
But hey, at least we’re finally getting a single woman of color in Thor: Ragnarok with Tessa Thompson. But this is six years after we’ve already had two men of color in Thor’s world with Heimdall and Hogun, as well as four well-rounded white female characters with Jane, Darcy, Sif, and Frigga.
Or consider how Doctor Strange was lauded for casting a white woman as a character who was originally male, and for having Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, as well as Benedict Wong as a rewritten, more modern Wong; meanwhile, the only women of color listed on IMDb have titillating roles such as “waitress” or “passerby.”
If we turn to Marvel’s Netflix series, there’s Jessica Jones, which features two white women and two Black men in central roles. Meanwhile, the crux of the conflict between Jessica and Luke is that Jessica killed Luke’s wife, a Black woman. The only other women of color in the show are Claire from Daredevil, who makes a one episode cameo, and Emma, one of the women in the Kilgrave support group. Daredevil at least elevates Claire to an important character, and we do get Elektra in season two — although they are, as I’ve written about before, often compared too starkly to Karen for me to be totally comfortable with. With Misty Knight and Colleen Wing cast for the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist projects, there is hope that we’ll get a little more parity. But it does feel very much like women of color have had to wait their turn for quite a while before finally getting a slice of the pie.
The only superhero properties (that I know of, mind you) where women of color seem to fare okay are in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet as two of the series’ leads. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will soon have both Zoe Saldana and newcomer Pom Klementieff on the team. Zendaya has been cast as the lead female character in Spiderman: Homecoming, and with X-Men: Apocalypse we’re finally getting Storm, Psylocke, and Jubilee (although depressingly, early reviews have noted that Storm and Psylocke have barely any lines, and Jubilee has been suspiciously left off of all team posters). We are slowly making progress.
But still. In light of things like Abbie Mills getting killed off her own Sleepy Hollow show, Amanda Waller getting killed off Arrow, Scarlett Johansson taking a Ghost in the Shell role that should have gone to an Asian American actress, and Mercy Graves getting pointlessly fridged (and given very little screentime) in Batman v Superman, it’s hard not to feel slighted and like we’re perpetually fighting for what little ground we have. I keep thinking about the Doctor Strange writers saying they cast a woman as the Ancient One to subvert Asian stereotypes, all at once erasing the existence of Asian women. I keep thinking about the one Dora Milaje scene in Civil War, and how giddy I felt because she spoke a single line. I keep thinking about how, when we talk about diversity, it’s often phrased as “women and minorities,” like we don’t exist at all.
Kevin Feige said recently that they’re committed to doing a Black Widow film sometime in the future. But honestly? I care little for that. At this point, I just want a single member of the Avengers to be a woman of color. She doesn’t even have to have her own film, because god only knows how long that would take. I just want her to exist as a member of the group, for her to occasionally talk to people, make jokes, and kick butt. Is that too much to ask for?