From Comic to Screen – Diversity and Representation

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The Internet is in an outrage again over the latest “race-swapped” character, as Biracial Zendaya Coleman is cast as Mary Jane Watson, a character that has been White since the 1960s. From reasonable discussions to personal attacks, this is just the latest upset among geeks over changes to their favorite characters. This isn’t the first time, as there’s been backlash against everything from Michael B. Jordan cast as Johnny Storm to even Samuel L. Jackson’s casting as Nick Fury (a role that was actually based on him in the Ultimate comic series years prior to the movies!).

In all the debates about these changes, its important to avoid fallacious arguments or perceptions. I’ve compiled some of these below, primarily based on statements made by those who oppose these changes. Even then, I’ll start with a single point that those who support diverse casting often glaze over: the logic and humanity of the opposition.

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For those upset at the haters, please understand they do have a valid argument… even if you or I don’t agree or have good counterpoints. There is something to be said for consistency and continuity for characters; we all get upset when a preferred actor is replaced, so the same applies to changes between page and screen. When creating a movie or TV representation of a comic character, it makes sense people will be upset when they don’t match the visuals we’ve grown accustomed to.

Also remember that this isn’t a perspective unique to a singular, dominant demographic: White, heterosexual, CIS-males. Discussions with women, minorities, and LGBT individuals have shown no small number who are unhappy with recent changes, both on-screen and in comics. They don’t like the changes because (to them) these aren’t the characters they grew up with… regardless of how lacking in diversity or sensitivity those characters were. They expect Johnny Storm to be a cocky White guy or Thor to be the name of a Nordic man… they don’t expect them to change anymore than Black Panther not being an African prince or the Ancient One not being an elderly Asian man.

The point is, while there are a number of haters that simply can’t stand changes and/or may harbor discriminatory beliefs… there are also people with valid arguments against changes in movies and comics. While we may disagree with them, we can’t just disregard them as “haters”. Don’t try to dehumanize your opposition, talk to them… you’ll sway people’s opinions more with reasonable discourse than simply demonizing them.

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Now, that being said, many more fallacious arguments arise from those opposed to the changes from the comics. Some of these are based on personal preference and others on ignorance, but they’re all easily countered. (I’m not going to even go into those who use these arguments to cover up their own inherent discrimination.) The following are simply some of the most common claims against “x-swapping” in comic book adaptations.

“It changes the character!”

Unless race, ethnicity, or gender is key to the character’s personality or plot, it changes nothing. The Ultimate universe (and MCU) changed Nick Fury to African-American with no problem because race wasn’t important to the original character. You couldn’t do that to Black Panther or Luke Cage because their ethnicity is important to their origin, story, etc.

You can see this by looking at many of the replaced characters in comic book adaptations. Wilson Fiske, Heimdall, Johnny Storm, Tulip O’Hare, etc… while the adaptation may have criticisms, the character’s were not “ruined” by a PoC actor. In fact, these same performances were often praised even despite the movie or show. Since there’s no evidence that changing an unimportant physical aspect hurts the adaptation, and in fact evidence it helps, then there’s no support for this assertion.

“It doesn’t make sense!”

It only doesn’t make sense if you won’t let it. It’s amazing how people can accept all manner of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror nonsense, and yet not accept a race- or gender-swapped character. They can even change entire origin stories and characters for the movies, yet make someone Black or gay and people throw a fit.

No one said all Asgardians are White; this is an assumption based on the Norse ethnicity that produced the mythology… which the comic adapted. Yet, the comic isn’t faithful to that mythology in the slightest, so why should the Asgardians be anything like real-world Nordic people? Plus, Heimdall could easily be Asgardian (a culture) but from another realm (a race). After all, Hogun wasn’t Aesir (the movies claim he’s Vanir) and yet he’s considered Asgardian and a decorated warrior of that society.

Similarly, Johnny Storm and Sue Storm don’t have to be the same race. Adoptions, re-marriage, and extended families are nothing new and quite common in the 21st century. If someone easily accepts fantastic elements (aliens, magic, etc.) but can’t grasp elements based on our own reality… then that’s a problem with the viewer, not the material. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief or logic for everything else, you can certainly do it for things easily explained.

“If minorities can swap, then White actors can too!”

Ummm, no. This perception ignores the entire problem in current society regarding representation and opportunity. I’ve already covered the difference between equality and equity numerous times. This isn’t about equality but equity and equal opportunity. A White actor losing a role to a PoC doesn’t affect the larger picture, because there will always be more roles for White people. The same cannot be said when Native American actors are passed over for an American Indian character for a popular White actor.

When a playing field is unfair to start, fairness is not doing the same for both sides. In tabletop gaming, players in a lop-sided scenario are often given bonuses or extra points to compensate. You don’t see the player who starts with the advantage complaining about that, do you? No, because they realize that the fairness in the game is by helping the disadvantaged player through other routes.

The same should occur in society, from Hollywood to social support, with those who have the advantage helping the disadvantaged. Groups who are disenfranchised need extra opportunities to compensate for their lack to begin with. That’s why African-Americans and women need organizations dedicated toward equal opportunities while those with special needs receive additional support like parking spaces or closed captioning.

Yet those with the advantage ignore this, concerned only with themselves. Then they create all sorts of fallacious claims to justify their disregard for other people. In fact, I’ve already discussed this (and many more of those poor arguments) before. The point is, casting Mary Jane with a Biracial actor doesn’t strip White actors of anything; casting the Ancient One as White does do that to Asian actors.

“It feels shoe-horned, unnecessary, inorganic, etc.”

This is one I’ve heard from the original group I was discussing. Unfortunately, I feel this is still based on a lack of larger picture. At times, as a society, we have to force people to change… because otherwise, they won’t. It took major social movements, full of protests and civil disobedience, before laws were altered to allow equal opportunities for women and Blacks. Even then, you had to have the federal government step in, to force local governments and citizens to adhere to the new social norms. That’s not even going into the continuing fights by women and minorities today despite those same laws, plus newer social movements.

The same is true in geek media, where newfound popularity, exposure, and changes in demographics have warranted new standards in comics, games, and fiction. Many involved, from fans to industry, have been slow in adapting and adhering to these new norms of inclusion and representation. That means someone has to force them to change, complying with the new diverse standard. You could consider the gender- and race-swapping as the “National Guard”, sent in to force the “integration” of Hollywood and its audiences despite their resistance to the “Civil Rights Laws” of an increasingly diverse popular culture.

“These aren’t my characters!”

This is another common claim by those I talked to in my original point. The truth is… they’re absolutely right. These aren’t your characters, not anymore. The new adaptations weren’t necessarily made for you, they’re more likely for a new generation and society. One that is more diverse and open-minded than the generations prior, and faces many different social and political issues.

The original Star Trek was made for an era full of racial discrimination and wars. The Matrix targeted the tech-savvy, alt-culture, anti-establishment people sick of the dystopian corporatocracy behind their socioeconomic woes. Now we have new movies and shows intended for audiences that have become far more diverse, inclusive, and sensitive.

Many of the geeks throwing fits refuse to accept a fact: we are old and society has changed. The same way we look at racial insensitivity, exclusion, and female stereotypes from the early- to mid-20th century? That’s how younger generations look at current whitewashing, appropriation, and tropes. Just like how Jar-Jar Binks was targeting the youngest Star Wars fans and the new Ghostbusters was meant to inspire a new generation, these new versions of comic characters are meant for the latest generation of audiences.

Your choice is to adapt and accept them… or become reclusive and exclusive. Do you want to be the cool older person, like Betty White, changing with the times? Or do you want to be the bitter asshole, like Clint Eastwood, clinging blindly to archaic values.

To summarize this, there is a lot of reason why arguments against “x-swapping” in comic adaptations are unfounded. In fact, the opposite can be said in that changing a character’s race, gender, orientation, etc. is a good and necessary thing, given changing demographics and societal norms. That being said, understand that some who argue against the changes may have a valid argument. The best way to convince them is to not disregard them, but instead to discuss the matter. We may not come to a complete agreement, but we can at least find some mutual ground in our fandom and its effects on society.

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