The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA recently released their report on diversity in Hollywood. Their findings illustrate that Hollywood is still contending with large racial and gender disparities in everything from acting, to directing, to studio heads. In fact, even though we are seeing greater representation of characters of color and women on screen, these characters are still very likely to be written and directed by white men. These trends are further exacerbated in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and superhero films. However, recent news From Marvel Comics has many believing this is soon to change.
The nerd and geek communities have recently been abuzz with news that Spiderman, one of Marvel’s most iconic superheroes, is coming home. Sony Entertainment has controlled the rights to the Spiderman franchise since 1999, however, due to the limited success of the most recent reboot Sony has entered a partnership with Marvel, making Spiderman a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This means a lot for us nerds; Spiderman can finally take his rightful place among his fellow Avengers. However, most importantly, there’s a good chance Spiderman won’t be White.
Despite recent moves by Marvel and DC Comics to diversify their characters both in print and on the small screen, we haven’t seen the same commitment to diversity in film until fairly recently. Now, we have an opportunity to make the next Spiderman a person of color. There are a number of positive outcomes that can come from this casting decision and a million and one articles and blog posts on the internet arguing for the casting change.
I’m not here to make a case about whether or not Spiderman should be a person of color. I mean, duh. Of course he should finally be a person of color; however, it is not enough to just make Spiderman Black, or Latino, or Asian. If we only change the color of Spiderman’s skin without giving him the common, everyday experiences people of color have in this country, should we be making the change at all? If comic book companies and other content creators like Marvel seek to increase diversity in print and on screen, it is not sufficient to merely draw people of color and hire them as actors. It is imperative to also represent a diversity of experience; applying a colorblind ideology to these stories is disingenuous and quite honestly a waste of everybody’s time.
If Marvel wants to portray a multi-dimensional character whose narrative is relatable, there are few things they will have to consider:
#1 How does being a person of color change Peter Parker’s everyday interactions?
Though people of color in this country are multi-faceted and have several overlapping identities, many people of color have common experiences in this country. For example, many of people of color share the commonality of experiencing racial micro-aggressions. The term micro-aggression, coined by social psychologist, Derald Wing Sue, refers to “one of the everyday insults, indignities, and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them”. People of color can and do experience racial micro-aggressions everywhere from the classroom to the corner bodega.
If Peter Parker is Black, does the white girl that sits behind him in history touch his hair without asking? Do his teachers tell him he’s articulate? If Peter Parker is Latino or Asian do other students ask him where he’s “really” from? These experiences are important for us to see on screen. Not only are these common everyday experiences that many members of the audience will be able to relate to, but they provide the character with authenticity and realness (Well as real as a person who can stick to walls can get).
#2 How does race affect the relationships Peter Parker has?
Peter Parker may be a bit of a loner, but there is a relationship that is central to the narrative. If Peter Parker is a man of color, does his love interest Mary Jane remain White? If the writers decide to cast a White Mary Jane, does it affect their experience with each other? Is Peter nervous to speak to Mary Jane at school because there are so few representations of Asian males as viable romantic interests? When Peter has dinner with Mary Jane’s family are they baffled, concerned, worried?
What if Mary Jane isn’t White? Women of color have rarely been featured as the prominent romantic interests in this genre of film.
Zoe Saldana, an Afro-Latina actress, has played multi-dimensional women who both kick ass and capture the heart of the male protagonist in two huge Blockbusters from this genre: Avatar and Guardians of Galaxy. However, in both Saldana is an alien, a blue CGI creation in Avatar and green from head to toe in Guardians. Women of color have systematically been boxed out of these roles; is it their turn as well?
#3 Hiring people of color behind the screen?
As the Bunche report illustrates, a fairly large portion of writers’ rooms are all white. This is a problem for several reasons. One, it means that most of the characters we see in the media are white. Two, when we do see people of color they often lack authenticity or their representations rely too much on stereotypes of the group they are a part of. Writers of color can bring authenticity and multiple dimensions to characters that look like them, and it’s about time more people of color are hired behind the camera.
Regardless, this film is going to be made. Millions of people here and abroad will fill rows of seats in theatres worldwide to see one of their favorite heroes. American movies make billions of dollars overseas. When Marvel and Sony release Spiderman abroad, they are not solely telling the story of a boy from Queens who gets super powers. They are adding to the narrative people from other countries have about Americans.
Storytelling is important: it nourishes us, it teaches us, it enriches us. I hope the story of Peter Parker is always a part of our culture. And with the supremely creative minds at Marvel, Peter Parker can stay relevant by adapting to our changing world. Spiderman is coming back and soon; for comic book fans, specifically fans of color, this news goes much further than the excitement we all feel when DC or Marvel rolls out their release dates. Marvel and Sony have the opportunity to not only make an amazing reboot of an old and treasured story, but they can expand our understanding of a hero. Nerds of color across the country are yearning to see a hero who looks like them on screen and they deserve to see it. So whether Peter Parker, be Black, Latino, Asian, or some combination…we’re ready.