A couple of years ago, I read an interesting article about a young woman moved to tears by a panel discussion on “Women Who Kick Ass” at the San Diego Comic-Con. While waiting in line for hours to see the panel, our narrator had the misfortune of standing behind a few white dudes who continuously made derogatory remarks about women, black people, and the developmentally disabled. By the time she entered the hall to hear the discussion, she felt marginalized, uncomfortable, and downright fucking angry.
The line-up for the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel rightfully featured noted ass-kicker Michelle Rodriguez, who, along with the other panelists, described moments of “egregious sexism” in the entertainment industry. Rodriguez struck a chord with the women in the audience, imploring them to create their own stories to help rectify the shitty way women are portrayed in some films. “We gotta start writing,” Rodriguez said. “Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change.”
Wise words. I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes find myself cringing when I come across unintentionally horrible portrayals of women, people of color, LGBT, or disabled characters in comic books or movies. The best way to fix this would be to either a) start getting some input from real live diverse humans before publishing depictions, especially if you are not a part of this community yourself and you are on the fence about how to portray the character, or b) start hiring, supporting, or becoming diverse creators. Simple enough.
Recently, gossip rag TMZ caught up with Rodriguez, who apparently turns into a drunk uncle after a few drinks. The camera guy asked if she would be playing Jessica Cruz in an upcoming Green Lantern movie.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” she laughs. “Because of this whole ‘minorities in Hollywood’ thing. It’s so stupid. It’s like, you know, stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own.”
Whoa. When I caught wind of these comments, I immediately recognized that fire of independence I had read about during the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel. But something else was also present — something mean-spirited and short-sighted that didn’t seem to come through during her empowering words at the San Diego Comic Con.
Interestingly enough, Rodriguez’s comments initially focused on race rather than gender. Once TMZ aired the video of her making the comment, Rodriguez quickly uploaded a video to her Facebook page clarifying her statements: “I’m just saying that instead of trying to turn a girl character into a guy or instead of trying to turn a white character into a black character or a Latin character, I think that people should stop being lazy and, you know, that people should actually make an effort in Hollywood to develop their own mythology.”
Many took her original comment and the light-hearted Facebook video (complete with giggling and a really cute cat) as a major insult to those working hard to incorporate diversity into popular comic book franchises.
I can understand their frustrations. Maybe Rodriguez isn’t hip to this (although I find it hard to believe, as she is a woman of color herself) but whitewashing characters is a huge thing in the entertainment industry. It’s incredibly discriminatory, and it’s a longstanding practice that reinforces the notion that people of color have no place on the big screen.
It is a bit weird that Rodriguez defends the notion of White-Men-as-a-Persecuted-Minority, but honestly, I understand what she is saying. I know what it is like to develop an emotional attachment to a particular character or person, and then be absolutely shocked when a depiction goes in an entirely different direction. It happens all the time.
Often, when producers cast a person of color, and regardless of how they were originally intended, the character is depicted as racially ambiguous or “passable” for white. I love Halle Berry, but was a little letdown when I found out Storm would not be portrayed by a darker-skinned woman, as she is portrayed in the comics. And recently, Jem and the Holograms producers announced that Aurora Perrineau, a biracial actress, will be cast as bad-ass brown-girl bass guitarist Shana. I’m sure Perrineau will do an amazing job. However, as a dark-skinned little girl, I used to look up to Shana. She looked like me, with a huge afro and a deep brown complexion, which was rarely seen as a positive in the entertainment industry.
Shana also blew my mind because she had fucking purple hair. Purple hair on a dark girl! That shit was groundbreaking. On Perrineau, probably not so much.
Both Halle Berry and Aurora Perrineau are black and beautiful. However, I can’t help but to feel like I’m being force-fed a different version of whitewashing, one where it’s not as easy to call bullshit — but I can still smell it, all the same.
The bottom line is that Hollywood has never really been here for people of color, and neither have most comic book franchises. The superheroes created during the Golden Age of Comics are a reflection of their time… an extremely white reflection. If we’re still using characters created during an era when racism and sexism were systematically institutionalized and ingrained into almost every aspect of American life, why should we be surprised when these stories lack diversity?
It used to be notoriously difficult to inject authentic and balanced diversity into these stories, although efforts were made. Back when most comic book artists and writers were busy creating all-white, all-male superheroes, the Comics Code Authority even attempted to censor works featuring black protagonists. During the creation of the 1950s sci-fi comic Judgement Day, publisher William Gaines went up against Code authorities for having a black astronaut as the central character. He won the argument after threatening a lawsuit, but he abandoned the comic book publishing industry out of frustration and went on to focus exclusively on MAD magazine.
During the Golden Age of Comics (and still now?), white readers were confused about black characters that didn’t talk like slaves or look like monkeys, such as the beloved Ebony White character from Will Eisner’s Spirit – a depiction I can’t look at without feeling angry and offended.
Similarly, in 1942, Fawcett Comics added a black valet named “Steamboat” to their best selling comic Captain Marvel. Although the character was meant to be positive, his language and depiction was incredibly derogatory to black people.
The African-American community protested the comic, taking the issue to the Fawcett offices to express their frustration. Editor Will Lieberson listened to their concerns, and dropped the Steamboat character from Captain Marvel in 1945. By the early 1950s, Fawcett made up for this misstep by publishing the astonishingly stereotype-free, all-black comic Negro Romance. Drawn by black artist and painter Al Hollingsworth, the comic unfortunately only ran for three issues.
In this modern age of comics, artists and writers from different races, cultures, creeds, genders, and sexualities are perfectly situated to take control over our own characters. Thanks to the web, we have an enormous platform with even more enormous potential. We have moved beyond demanding “inclusion” – fuck that. We have our own stories, our own perspectives. Now is the best time to make our own voices heard – not tone-deaf, half-assed representations of who we are in a couple of panels of a comic book, forced into the story as a feeble attempt at politically correct diversity.
Obviously, this is already happening in the world of self-published and independent comics. At big-time publishers like DC and Marvel, however, it’s a different story. Last year, less than three percent of black creators and less than six percent female creators worked for DC, and the numbers aren’t that different for Marvel.
If you’re only consuming DC and Marvel comics (or if your name is Michelle Rodriguez), you may have no fucking clue that a big giant world of underground comics culture exists, where diverse creators are anything but lazy– as Rodriguez called us. We are already making efforts to develop our own mythology, and we’re already publishing it ourselves or shopping it around in hopes it will make it to the big leagues of the entertainment industry. We are already supporting Milestone Media, and Iron Circus Comics, and Priya’s Shakti. We are already here.
For right now, it’s okay that big Hollywood producers or comic book franchises are confused by minority characters who speak plain English, or women that are not sex objects. Because we – creators representing different walks of life – are not confused. Underneath Rodriguez’s misguided comments lies a hint of truth: there are stories residing in all of us that reflect our diversity, and we need to continue to tell these stories through characters voiced with clarity, authenticity, and familiarity.