Blame Marvel Execs, Not Creators, For Lack Of Representation

Loki and Syvlie stand together in Disney+'s 'Loki.'

It was an unprecedented move by Marvel Studios. In the third episode of the Disney+ show Loki, the titular character was asked if he had been with any princesses or “perhaps, another prince.” He responded with “a bit of both.” It appeared he was openly confirming his comic counterpart’s bisexual identity — a first for a Marvel main character. Later, director Kate Herron confirmed the nod, tweeting that it was very important for her to “acknowledge Loki was bisexual” as it’s a “part of who he is and who [she is] too.”

What followed was a slew of response and quote tweets that either praised Loki for the canon confirmation or criticized that it was the bare minimum. The backlash was completely understandable. Loki’s bisexuality wasn’t touched on for the rest of the show, and what was presented was lackluster at best. However, a lot of these initial negative reactions were thrown at Herron, who is also bisexual and who seemed to do all she could to have this line in the show at all. In her tweet, she even acknowledged that it was only a “small step.” It seemed like the people directly working on Loki did the best that they could — their head writer Michael Waldron said that they “worked really hard” to bring a comic-accurate Loki to the small screen.

Disney, and the mainstream entertainment industry as a whole, is known for its sluggishness when it comes to increased representation. The blame for decisions around the type of representation that goes into films and television shouldn’t be directed at people like the writers and directors, but at their bosses who have the final say.

According to a Variety report, President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige essentially has ultimate control over all Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) productions, especially the new Disney+ TV shows. While other productions usually have their own showrunners with majority control over the final product, the MCU shows all filter through Feige, who then answers to Disney executives (and Disney investors). Marvel Studios’ reasoning is to streamline and make the production process more efficient. But as a result, there are likely limits to the creative freedoms that the writers and directors have to execute their plans for diverse storytelling.

While this method has created a cohesive look and feel for the MCU, the idea that one person deciding what kinds of people and stories get shown is also a monopolistic nightmare. Media companies themselves, including Disney, have been trying to achieve total control of the media landscape for years to increasing success. If one or very few people have control over what we see on our screens, the people lower on the ladder don’t stand a chance at realizing their full vision — and who knows how many stories we’re missing out on as a result.

Sylvie and Loki argue in the Loki finale.

Feige himself used to be on that lower rung. Up until 2015, he had to answer to former Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter’s command — someone known for spewing blatant racism along with partaking in other questionable affiliations. Feige’s difficulties with Perlmutter led to the power change, which shows how much the power hierarchy at media companies can stifle creative freedom, seeing as films with non-white and non-male leads, like Black Panther and Captain Marvel, came out after 2015.

However, even now when Feige is hoping that diversity and inclusion in entertainment media “will become the norm,” he — and/or the Disney executives he answers to — still seem to be perpetuating Marvel’s staunchness around representation, especially when it comes to queer representation (e.g. the Loki bisexual “confirmation”). It’s a promise of change made through a corporate smile to hide a lack of real action.

When we throw around terms like “diversity” and “representation,” we don’t mean the type that has been warped by corporate mouths to check boxes and appeal to the audience’s wallets. They are complex terms that mean a multitude of things to different people, but the overarching idea is that people want to see entertainment media properly reflect all corners of real life. We don’t need a placid promise of diversity; we need meaningful action taken to ensure marginalized voices are heard, identities seen, and stories told with no PR posturing.

And there’s evidence that people in the industry want to create these diverse stories, if only they were given the leeway to do so. Take Thor: Ragnarok actor Tessa Thompson and director Taika Waititi. Per Rolling Stone, Thompson pitched the idea to make Valkyrie bisexual, as she canonically is in the comics. Waititi filmed a scene where a woman walks out of Valkyrie’s room, and he reportedly kept it in for as long as possible. Ultimately it was cut, supposedly due to pacing and context. But would the actor and director say otherwise if it was a strike down from above?

Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok,

Even when companies seem to allow non-hegemonic identities to shine, they don’t really. Sina Grace, writer of the cancelled comic Iceman (2017), was told the book was “too gay,” and Iceman was treated by Marvel as “someone to be contained.” Similar to Iceman, Marvel didn’t “give” audiences a bisexual Loki; the people making the show fought to have it, and Marvel allowed it with stringent restrictions. This can be seen in the convoluted cop-out of having a female Loki be an entirely separate character, and in not making Loki be truly genderfluid like in the comics.

Marvel/Disney’s media meddling is a prime example of this kind of corporate control, but they aren’t the only offender. A former Superman & Lois writer alleged that she was fired after pushing back against sexism and racism in their scripts. The creators of DC’s Krypton also tried to make Adam Strange queer, but former Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns allegedly stopped them.

This all feeds into Hollywood’s general centrism. In the case of Marvel, it tries to appeal to as many audiences as it can without completely ostracising one group or another. Disney’s CEO has said that they try to stay “neutral” on topics and not take a “position that could harm [their] company.” In other words, they aren’t loyal to one thing or another to preserve profits. So when these companies claim to want change, it’s not for the sake of the creators or even the audiences wanting to feel represented. It’s a business move, a set of newly-formed diversity councils from Disney’s CEOs, an optical illusion in a ploy for positive press to reap the financial benefits. They see that audiences are clamoring for more diverse characters and correct representation, but they don’t want to take any real risks that could put their money in harm’s way. It’s how we get years of “First Gay Character” headlines yet zero meaningful representation to back it up.

(These half-hearted diversity measures are also seen in spades beyond Disney and the entertainment industry. Executives for PR companies, General Motors, and countless more claim to have some variant of a “committed to diversity” corporate platitude, but don’t do much to enforce it. It’s a common idea in the world today: diversity means brownie points. It’s a signal of virtue, something that companies have to do unless they want to be seen as “unwoke” and dated. Just look at the myriad of rainbow marketing pushed in Pride month by companies, and the social media posts last year from companies claiming support for Black Lives Matter. Hollow words for hollow actions.)

This is all to say that creators, directors, and writers who are more closely involved with the production aren’t at fault when representation is corporately controlled. (Of course, there are cases where the creator’s attempt at diversity completely misses the mark, like Joe Russo introducing a blink-and-you’ll-miss it gay character in Avengers: Infinity War because “representation is really important.” But even in that case, that decision could have also come directly from the Disney or Marvel executives.) Like all corporate decisions in the world, how much diversity a project has often revolves around whether the company makes money or not. Executives call the shots, and a lot of the time these decisions leave creators like writers, directors, and even actors in the line of fire if they go wrong. While this shouldn’t be the case in the first place, we need to start directing our anger at the right people so that the creatives attempting to pioneer aren’t left to be stomped on.

With all that said, the Hollywood landscape does seem to be changing — albeit slowly. With the MCU, two of the main characters in Chloé Zhao’s upcoming film The Eternals are reportedly deaf and gay respectively, and it’s rumored that Valkyrie’s bisexuality is going to be obvious in Thor: Love and Thunder, along with a general increase in MCU main characters of color. It’s a small hope that these depictions go smoothly. If they don’t, make sure your blame goes in the right direction so we can hold the right people accountable, and help allow for more of these unprecedented moves.

One thought on “Blame Marvel Execs, Not Creators, For Lack Of Representation

  1. I will never for the life of me understand how executives dodge so much blame for these things. It’s _especially_ weird when you factor in how much of the general public’s worldview is based in vertical hierarchy, i.e. how much do people pay attention to local politics in America as opposed to federal politics, and even then how much do they pay attention to anything other than what the President specifically does? how much of world religion at this point is explicitly monotheistic? We’re all conditioned from our earliest moments to look to the top and filter our view of “the system” and whathaveyou thru who’s at the top, yet for whatever reason, whenever issues like these come up, we look only to the immediate superiors and never who’s at the top. It’s absurd.

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