Superheroes, Sci-Fi and the “insert minority here” trope.

As I noted in my previous article, just about the least interesting thing about the leaked Sony/Marvel memo is the section detailing Sony’s “Character Integrity Obligations” which stipulated that the film version of Spider-Man must be straight – at least until Marvel gives the character a gay/bisexual/non-binary alter ego within one of its comic book universes – and that Peter Parker is contractually condemned to be portrayed as a straight white dork.

To be honest, I really didn’t plan to write anything about this particular non-story because it genuinely isn’t very interesting, or more accurately the detail of the character integrity obligations clause isn’t particular interesting although the existence of the clause and the reasons for inclusion in that agreement are. But then I ran across this video by Rebecca Watson, which left me head-desking all the way to the film marked “smart people making really dumb arguments” and convinced me there is a more general point to be made on the back of this non-story that maybe is worth addressing.

What I’m not going to do is spend any significant effort on picking holes in Rebecca’s arguments. Suffice to say that if she actually knows very much about the Marvel character T’Challa beyond his name and the fact that he’s black then she does a pretty of job concealing it and her “at least ‘Black’ is in his name” argument is one that really does say “Damn, you really haven’t thought this through properly, have you?”. As for the misplaced snark directed at Stan Lee, probably the least said the better except, perhaps, to note that Lee hasn’t had any creative involvement or influence within Marvel for close to 20 years, a detail that also seems to have escaped Watson’s attention as did his earlier comments on the online campaign to get Donald Glover an audition for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man back in 2010, which do, I think, help to clarify his position.

So this is really not about Watson’s video save the for the extent to which her arguments are broadly illustrative of sheer laziness of the “insert minority here” trope in popular culture, where the arguments advanced for making a substantial alteration to the gender and/or ethnicity of a high profile, well-established, character too often fail to extend beyond shouting “EQUALITY, FUCK YEAH!” or someone’s personal fancy that a particular actor or actress would make a decent fist of a particular role.

Personally, I’m certainly not wedded to the idea that you cannot make these kinds of alterations to well-established fictional film and television characters. There is, so far as I can see, no fundamental reason why The Doctor couldn’t regenerate as a woman or why the ethnic background of a future iteration of James Bond – or Peter Parker for that matter – couldn’t be something than White European – or Gallifreyan – male. The people and companies within the creative industries who currently hold the rights to these characters could indeed, in most cases, make these kinds of changes without destroying the characters themselves but it is nevertheless the case that rarely, if ever, do I see anyone put up a compelling and, more importantly, creative argument for why they should.

And before anyone gets the wrong idea, the key phrase in that last statement is creative argument.

Okay, so what am I driving at here? Perhaps the best way to explain myself is to ask you to take part in a little bit of role-play and imagine that you are the person who will be responsible for making a fundamental alteration to a very popular and familiar TV or film character.

Which character? Well that’s up to you. Use your imagination but just make sure its a major character, the kind you can build a whole movie franchise or TV series around, one with which mainstream audiences are already pretty familiar. Oh, and don’t forget, by fundamental change I do mean fundamental. The alteration you’re going to make is going to be to something like the character’s gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. There’s no half measures here. This isn’t a daytime soap opera we’re talking about and you’re not just looking to slot an actor/actress into the role on the basis that they sort of look like person who used to play the same role.

Take some time to think about it if you like. Go make a cup of coffee if that helps. Just pick your character before you move on to the next bit.

Okay, you’ve made your choice I assume, so let’s move on.

Having made that choice, your first and most important, indeed overriding concern, is going to be that maintaining the integrity of that character within the fictional world they inhabit. If this is going to work then that character has to fit seamlessly into the fictional environment in which they are depicted on screen in a way which allows the audience to believe in both the character and the world that surrounds them. Get that wrong and you’re dead in the water before you even start.

Now if you picked a character like James Bond and you think changing his ethnic background would be a pretty neat because you might be able to hire someone like Idris Elba to play the part then congratulations you’ve made your life really easy.

Bond is one of those characters who barely, certainly, has a biography let alone any kind of personal background that you need to work with. Even in Ian Fleming’s original stories it wasn’t until the publication of the penultimate novel of the series, “You Only Live Twice”, that Bond was given a family background/personal history and this has barely, if ever, been touched upon in the film series. Pretty much all we know of Bond’s life outside his role as an agent of the British Secret Service, in those films, comes from the near obligatory coitus interruptus scene that follows on the opening action sequence and the film’s main titles and which invariably end with Bond getting called into the office to be given his next mission.

You want a black James Bond? Brilliant!

All you need do is come up with a plausible sounding reason why this latest film version of the character looks, well, just a bit different to all the previous version and away you go – and actually even that bit has already been done for as there is an existing school of thought amongst some Bond that the name “James Bond” is, like his 007 designation, actually a code name that agents adopt when they become 007.

However if you’ve chosen a character like Peter Parker then you’ve given yourself a much more difficult job to manage successfully.

Yes, I do know that there is nothing at all in what many people would consider to be the essential details of Parker’s character that the character can only be a white dude. That’s certainly the argument that some people have made over the last week or so and I fully agree with them. The key features of Parker are certain that he’s a teenager – at least when he becomes Spider-Man and he’s also a science nerd who gets his superpowers, most of which mirror the abilities of a spider, after being bitten by either a radioactive or genetically-engineered spider, and there is certainly nothing in that says Parker cannot be black.

Then it get just a bit more complicated because the ordinariness of Parker’s everyday life, his efforts to keep that life separate from his web-slinging activities and the problems he faces when the two come into conflict are all major feature of the character and part of its unique selling point. He’s a character that comes with a lot of baggage that has to be taken into account if you are going to maintain the integrity of the character and its relationship to the fictional world it inhabits, a world that is closely modelled on the real world.

What that means in practical terms is that a black version of Peter Parker living in a fictional version of New York City that resembles the real thing closely enough to be recognisable as New York, would almost certainly live and grow up in a very different neighbourhood to his white middle class counterpart. He’d go to a different school and have very different friends. The idea that Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn, is the son of a wealthy industrialist who just happens to attend a fairly ordinary high school rather than an exclusively private school is one you can get an audience to buy into when they’re couple of white middle class kids going to school in a white middle class, area but if you make a Parker a black teenager who’s attending a school in a predominately black area then that idea because a much tougher one to sell.

So, in order to maintain the internal integrity and veracity of that fictional world, you’re now in the position of having to make changes to characters other than Parker and to other aspects of that world in order to ensure that everything hangs together is a reasonably believable way, and many of those changes – different neighbourhood, different school, etc. – will ripple outwards into that world creating the need for more changes until what you end up with is a fictional environment that looks very different to one that’s been inhabited for the last 50 years so by the the established white version of the character, the one with which much of your target audience is already familiar, if not from Marvel’s comics then at least from previous Spider-Man films.

Okay, so maybe you could pull a rabbit out of hat and limit the scope of those changes to Parker’s fictional world by making the character biracial. If one of Parker’s parents is white then you can still have a visibly black version of the character who, when his parent’s disappear from his life in early childhood, can go to live with his white relative in the same white middle class neighbourhood as the original Parker, which the means the character can then go to the same school, etc. On the face of it, that solves a lot of problems but then most people would still, I think, agree that the life experiences of a black teenager living a white neighbourhood and attending a predominately white middle class high school are going to be be rather to those of a white teenager living the same environment out of which will emerge a character that’s still very different from its white counterpart.

One way or another it would be difficult, if not almost impossible, to insert a black actor into the role of Peter Parker within an ongoing movie franchise. To make that work you are going to need to do a major reboot, and quite possibly a complete reset of the series back to the original origin story in order to make it all work and retain the internal integrity of the character and his fictional environment.

That’s a hell of a lot of work to be taking on, so much in fact that you might just be better off creating a completely new version of Spider-Man, one with a different alter ego and his own unique origin story and his own personal history. That new character could easily be black or biracial, not least because it wouldn’t have to carry any of Parker’s personal baggage, giving you the freedom to take both that character and Spider-Man in all manner of new directions. You could even give that new character a name like…

…how does Miles Morales grab you?

That, I suspect, may be at least part of the thinking behind Stan Lee’s comments that changing the ethnicity of Peter Parker would run the risk of confusing audiences. It’s not as simple as change as some people seem to think, which is not in itself a reason not to do it but nevertheless still a significant consideration if you’re in the position of trying to do it. Parker’s just not the kind of role into which you can just slot a black actor into an ongoing series of films without altering anything else and just expect it all to work. It’s potentially a major undertaking if you going to do it and do it well enough to successfully sell the audience the idea that new version is the “real” Peter Parker and not just an imposter.

The other creative question that routinely seems to be ignore whenever there’s an outbreak of the “insert minority here” trope is that of whether and to what extent making a significant alteration to an established will lead to new creative opportunities and new possibilities for that character that weren’t open to it before.

For me, personally, that’s an important question, one that can easily override any concerns about the possible impact that altering an established character might have on the integrity of that character and the fictional world in which it operates. If you want to sell me the idea that we should completely reboot an established franchise to accommodate a change to a major characters gender, ethnicity, etc. you’re going to have a much easier time doing it if you can show me that I’m going to be getting something new and interesting and exciting in return.

Offer me the prospect of something like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and I’m with you all the way but if all you’ve got to put on the table is “Hey let’s make The Doctor a woman” and then carry on more or less exactly as before then I’m going to find it a struggle to work up much enthusiasm for that idea because you’re just not selling it to me.

It’s not that I’m averse to the idea of a female Doctor or that I can’t see any creative possibilities in such a change. If nothing else there’s the question of whether or not the simple fact of having the character regenerate into a female body is sufficient to make that character a women. After all, in storyline terms we’re talking about a character that, to date, has something over 2,000 years of lived experience as a man – okay, thirteen men and counting – and for some people that seems to mean that while you could certainly give the Doctor a female body it still wouldn’t make the character a women because they just don’t have the necessary lived experience to make that claim.

Okay, that’s not a view that I personally subscribe to at all – although it is one that seems to matter an awful lot to some people to the extent of it being perennial source of online arguments – but it does point to the fact that with the right show-runner and writing team on board – i.e. not Steven Moffat, for starters – a female regeneration could easily create the scope for the series to explore a lot of creatively interesting questions, issues and ideas relating to the concepts of sex and gender, if the people responsible for the show are prepared to take it in that direction and do it properly.

This is another facet of the “insert minority here” trope that rarely if ever gets explored in any kind of meaningful or creative way. Some characters and some changes offer very little in creative terms that couldn’t be just as easily or effectively addressed in other ways.

A few weeks ago, Eli Keel, writing for Salon, floated the idea that Marvel should reboot the character Magneto in its comic book universe to make that character black rather than Jewish, and to give him a bit of credit he at least bothered to come up a idea for exactly how Marvel could make that change, by giving Magneto a revised personal history tied into the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Personally, I’m really not that keen on Keel’s ideas or the change he’s proposing but at least he made an effort but it did at least prompt Noah Berlatsky to write a response to Keel’s article which helps to illustrate my point:

In a recent interview, artist and comics creator John Jennings told me, “honestly, I think it’s more important to have black creators working than it is to have black superheroes.” Rather than asking white guys to try to rewrite their characters to be more reflective of black and minority narratives, we should simply create better, original storylines. Imagine, for example, if the mainstream could stop churning out X-movies for half a minute, and instead decided to make a film version of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

Wild Seed is about stigmatized mutants too, but none of the stigmatized mutants decide to form a paramilitary force. Instead, the story focuses on an African woman named Anyanwu, and her nemesis and sometimes friend, Doro. Rather than a confused metaphor about Civil Rights struggles, the novel is a painful exploration of slavery and sexual coercion, focused on a black woman’s power and her fear for her children. Certainly not a feel-good summer superhero bash—but then again, maybe that’s a sign that feel-good fun superhero bashes aren’t necessarily well-equipped to deal intelligently with issues of racial history.

Personally I’m with Berlatsky all the way up to that last sentence. I’d love to see someone tackle a film version of Wild Seed, or indeed Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, because I love that kind of intelligent, thought-provoking, science fiction but I do kind of part company with him on his last point because I think you can deal intelligently with issues of racial history via a superhero movie as long as you choose the right superhero character as the focus of your story.

One of the key why I wasn’t particular taken with Keel’s idea for a black version of Magneto is simply that its relies too heavily on contrivances. It’s too forced. The creative possibilities just don’t flow naturally or easily from either the character or the changes he’s proposing, so he has to keep welding bits on the character at rather odd angles to make the whole thing work. That’s true of Magneto and of a hell of lot of other established comic book superhero/villain characters but as I see it there is one very notable exception, and in terms of the entire superhero genre it’s a big exception – Superman.

Everyone knows Superman and they know what that character stands for, “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. But what does “Truth, Justice and the American Way” actually mean, or rather how might that meaning change if you make a few relatively straightforward changes to the character and its origin story?

Pretty much everyone knows Superman’s origin story and how, as very young child, he was sent to Earth by his parents to escape the destruction of his home planet and how his spacecraft landed on an ordinary farm somewhere in the Kansas where he was raised by an ordinary, salt-of-the-earth, American family. That’s the core of the classic origin story and its a story with creative possibilities, some of which have already been explored by Mark Miller in Superman: Red Son, in which he turns the character on its head by the simple expedient of altering the time of his spacecraft’s arrival on Earth so that instead of arriving in Kansas, it’s on a collective farm in the Soviet Union.

Okay, now let’s play with that same idea that Miller used to create Superman: Red Son ourselves by changing both the time and location of Superman’s arrival on Earth. Instead of this being either Kansas or the Ukraine sometime in the 1930s, in our version he’s going to land on a small farm somewhere in, say, Mississippi, sometime around the end of the 1940s and he’s going to be raised from that point on by the black family that live on that farm, which is probably just as well as our version of Superman is going to be black because there’s no rules to say that aliens can’t be black.

So our version of Superman is going to grow up in the Deep South against the background of segregation, the Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement until he heads off to Metropolis to make his first public appearance in the classic blue onesie and red underpants ensemble around 1970-71 and he still going to stand for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” but what that means to a character that grew up in those circumstances is likely to be just a bit different to what it means to the original Superman/Clark Kent character that everyone’s familiar with but then that’s the whole point of this version. That where the creative possibilities lie – and there are lots of them – and the flow naturally from the background of the character without the need for any awkward kludges and bolt-on features.

Okay, it wouldn’t be the first black version of Superman – there have been two so far in DC’s comic book multiverse, neither of which has been – for me – that successful in creative terms but then neither of these version has yet been given the opportunity to develop properly and both have been alternate universe characters from fictional environment which appear to be just that bit too far removed form our own world to explore the kinds of ideas and issue that I have in mind, which are very much rooted in the real history of the United States over the last 60-70 years.

What I have in mind is very much along the lines of Miller’s Superman: Red Son and not Grant Morrison’s Multiversity.

So, if there are any talented writers or artists who’d like to pick up that idea and run with it, maybe even pitch it to DC, then knock yourself out. Personally I’d buy it and I think a lot of other people would too because in the right hands it’s a really interesting premise with a host of creative possibilities and scope for intelligent story-telling that flows naturally from the revised version of character and its origins, and for me that’s a much more enticing prospect than just picking random characters and shouting “insert minority here”.