By Teresa Jusino
As you all read in Lisa’s article, there’s been much ado about Donald Glover having the chance to play Spider-Man. As I type this, I’m engaged in a Twitter debate with Dan Slott and others about it, and I find I’m getting angrier by the tweet.
Now, I have absolutely nothing against Donald Glover. He’s great, and talented. What I’m about to say has nothing to do with him. It has to do with me wondering why everyone is getting so distracted by whether or not this one black actor gets to play this one white character and doesn’t see how inherently insulting that is!
Think about it. A talented black actor can only find inspiring, fun, challenging superhero roles outside his race, and has to force the Hollywood studio system to retcon years of film history as well as years of comic history, because his options for playing an iconic superhero of his own race are THAT limited. HOW MESSED UP IS THAT?!
Dan Slott, in his tweets, brought up the example of kids playing make-believe, and asked “Is it WRONG for an African American kid on a playground to PRETEND he’s Spider-Man? Because– –THAT is all this is– PRETEND. It’s all story. And there’s nothing intrinsically WHITE about Spider-Man.” True, there’s nothing intrinsically white about Spider-Man. Yet, he was created as a white character by default. Why?
And no, there’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with a minority child pretending to be Spider-Man. But here is where we can really break down how sad this whole situation is. I’m a Puerto Rican with a dark-olive complexion. I remember being a little girl and pretending to be all sorts of characters, like Jem, or Cheetara from Thundercats, or Vicki on Small Wonder (don’t ask). Thing is, I wasn’t imagining ME as those characters. I was imagining BEING those characters. Looking through their eyes. Being in their skin. I think that, very often, this is what happens when children pretend to be characters. And with so many awesome white characters, minority children are subliminally taught that in order to be awesome, you have to be white. They’re not seeing themselves as Peter Parker, I think they’re seeing themselves as White Peter Parker. And so, most of the time, girls of all races will choose white Barbie dolls over black Barbie dolls unless their parents make it a point to buy the black ones. Recently, I went to FAO Schwartz and was in their Lifelike Baby Doll section, where they have a full-on “nursery” set up where you can “adopt” a doll. The white doll case was almost empty. The black doll case was mostly full. What’s worse? There was a young, well-to-do black family there when I was there, and their little girl was over at the white doll case picking one out. I’m not making this up.
Far from improving the visibility of minority actors and being inspiring role models for minority children, a minority actor playing an iconic (and historically white) comic character is meaningless, because they will always be the other version. When people think of Sue Storm, they don’t think of Jessica Alba. They think of the white version from the comic. Though yes, as Lisa pointed out in her article, the Fantastic Four film tried to avoid that by having Jessica Alba look as white as possible. However, as both comics and film are visual mediums, I respect their trying to make Jessica Alba look like the character there. Still, they didn’t have her play Hispanic Sue Storm. When people think of Catwoman, they think of the comic, or they think of Michelle Pfieffer, not Halle Barry (and they also think of what a crappy movie Barry was saddled with!). When people think of Kingpin, they think of a fat, white guy, not Michael Clarke Duncan in the crappy Daredevil movie. Now that I think about it, all three of these minority actors got saddled with low-quality films. I don’t think they were saddled with them because of their races/ethnicities, but I do think that the fact that the producers randomly decided to cast minority actors in these roles just for its own sake was an indicator of how little thought was generally being put into the quality of the films.
There are so many well-meaning white fans and comic creators on the internet saying things like “It wouldn’t bother me in the least if Spider-Man were black!” Well, thank you very much, but that’s not the point. Also, please do tell us about some of your best friends who are black. Pretending that race is a “non-issue” is silly. It IS an issue, and it’s always important. If it weren’t, comic creators wouldn’t default to whiteness all the time. They’d be alternating races for the sake of variety. But they don’t. Why is that? Race is SUCH a non-issue they’re not going to include differences at ALL! Isn’t that GREAT?!
If movie studios and comic creators are really concerned about diversity in superhero films, it’s all about the source material. It’s all about purposely (and purposefully) writing/drawing minority characters so that those kids on the playground have someone they can relate to who looks like them. Having a minority actor play a character that has already been white for decades in the name of Cultural Diversity is simply throwing minority communities a bone. And a small one at that. It’s giving them Sloppy Seconds.
When asked about the need to create minority icons, Dan Slott’s response was “Can’t we do both?”, meaning have minority actors play historically white superheroes AND create minority icons. He signed off before I could give my answer, but my answer is no. Because doing the first thing makes people complacent, which distracts them from the second. See? Black actors totally have opportunities! Donald Glover can play Spider-Man if he wants to! So, there! Problem solved. Black actors can simply play THESE roles! Huzzah! Yay for racial diversity! And so creators will continue to default to whiteness, and children will continue to think that the only way to be awesome is to be Caucasian.
Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a contributor to Tor.com, a website that covers sci-fi, fantasy, “…and related subjects.” Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.
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