The Erasure of Women of Color in Superhero Gender Politics

colbert villains

While this post will discuss the superhero genre in general, most of the attention will focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). No spoilers below.

This may as well be a continuation of my recent post about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, where I talked about how erasing Rey’s Whiteness subsequently erases women of color. As many women of color have already written and stated before, erasing women of color from mainstream feminism isn’t anything new. In the ever-rising popularity of western mainstream superhero films and TV shows, we see this erasure perpetuate.

I can’t remember where I saw this discussion on YouTube, but it involved the issue of racebending The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange film. Originally an Asian character in the comic books, the film cast a White actress, Tilda Swinton, in the role instead. Someone on the panel criticized the casting as routine Hollywood whitewashing, while another person responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s a good thing they cast a woman because women aren’t getting enough opportunities in Hollywood either.” The former countered that argument and stated, “Why not have the best of both worlds and cast an Asian woman??

What was exposed in the counter argument was the erasure of women of color – Asian women in particular – from the conversation. It didn’t seem to cross the second person’s mind that, “Oh wow, yeah, a person can be Asian and a woman!” Unfortunately, the second person’s comments exemplify normalized attitudes and assumptions that we see far too often in society. That is, race and gender are seen as two separate categories. By extension, additional factors like class, sexual orientation, religion, and ability are also seen as separate categories. I remember reading a “scholarly” journal article once that said, “LGBTQ people experience more discrimination than ethnic minorities.” Aside from my aversion to the term “minorities,” my reaction was a sarcastic, “Oh right, because LGBTQ people of color don’t exist.” The prevailing assumption in society is that people are only “one thing,” as opposed to understanding that every person has intersecting social identities. The second person in the video talks about Tilda Swinton as being only a woman, not a White woman. This reflects how people are socialized to think of the “default man” or “default woman” as being White. There is no need to specify that Swinton is a White woman because we’ve been conditioned to believe “woman = White woman,” just as “man = White man,” or “person = White person.”

I saw something similar happen a couple of nights ago in a clip from Stephen Colbert’s late night show. Colbert commented on how male-dominated the MCU is, calling it “kind of a sausage fest.” While I agree it’s important that Colbert criticized Marvel’s lack of women characters and their sexist decision to gender swap characters that were originally written as women (on the basis that women villains don’t sell toys), his arguments were grounded in colorblind gender politics. Earlier in the segment, he listed some of the main characters in the MCU, emphasizing on the “Man” in their names: “Iron Man, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther Man.” We know Black Panther doesn’t have “Man” in his superhero name, but we get the point. However, what’s problematic, and quite sad, is how Colbert completely ignores the fact that, unlike the other male heroes in the MCU, T’Challa/Black Panther is an African man. Not only that, but Black Panther is also the first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books and will be the first Black character to lead an MCU film. Him finally showing up in a Marvel movie is actually a big deal. By grouping Black Panther with Marvel’s White male superheroes, his Blackness is erased and we are instructed to view him as not only being the “same” as the other men dominating the MCU, but also as being part of Marvel’s “male problem.”

I’m not denying that Marvel is male-dominated – it most definitely is. However, placing Black Panther in the same category as Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man is an oversimplification that dismisses race and intersectionality in general. As bell hooks emphasized in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure.” Yes, all of the MCU films thus far are led by male protagonists, but they are White male protagonists specifically. Black Panther being an African man is significant and he disrupts the nauseating tradition of White male-centered superhero films. Sure, one can argue that T’Challa possesses more power and influence than Tony Stark because he is the king of an entire country, but let’s not ignore for a second the very real and violent anti-Black racism that exists in our world. Let’s not forget that opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood are still extremely limited, especially for Black women. There is a disproportionate number of films that are centered on White men compared to the number of films centered on Black men and other men of color. That number is even smaller when looking at films led by Black women protagonists.

What is also overlooked in Colbert’s segment is how the upcoming Black Panther film, which is to be directed by Ryan Coogler, will feature a cast that is “90% African or African American,” according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. This news sparked the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit on Twitter, where fans expressed their excitement about seeing a superhero film with a Black-majority cast. Selma director Ava DuVernay and Twitter user ReignofApril, who started #OscarsSoWhite, also chimed in to share their enthusiasm. The news of a 90% Black cast also means more opportunities for Black actresses to play significant roles in a superhero film. In fact, Lupita Nyong’o has been reportedly cast to star alongside Chadwick Boseman. Additionally, Captain America: Civil War seems to have introduced us to a Black woman character who may play a major role in Black Panther. Played by Ugandan-born German actress Florence Kasumba, the character was seen as one of T’Challa’s security chiefs, possibly a member of the Dora Milaje. Though only appearing briefly in Captain America: Civil War, fans on social media have been praising the character and hoping to see more of her.

None of the above is to excuse the fact that women of color superheroes are hard to find in the recent influx of comic book movies. The last superhero film I remember with a woman of color lead was 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry (more on this later). In 2014, Marvel Studios announced plans to produce a Captain Marvel film (set for a 2019 release), which will feature a White woman as the title character. As exciting as this news is, we see the exclusion of women of color yet again in the commentary surrounding the film. While Black Panther is described as a “Black character,” Captain Marvel is referred to as a “female character” or “woman character.” The former mentions the character’s race, but not gender, while the latter mentions the character’s gender, but not race. When we hear “Black character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a Black man, whereas when we hear “female character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a White woman. As a result of these assumptions, women of color are erased. I believe what we see reflected here is what Kimberle Crenshaw addressed in her article (PDF) on intersectionality:

Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.

Crenshaw wrote the above in 1991 and it’s sad that the marginalization of women of color and the either/or ways of thinking that she described is still so prevalent. When I think about the MCU films, it is difficult to find women of color characters in prominent roles, let alone portrayed as superheroes. However, I can name a lot of the White women characters: Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, Hope van Dyne, Janet van Dyne, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Frigga, Irani Rael, and Scarlet Witch (who should have been played by a woman of color because the character is Romani, though nothing about her Romani Jewish heritage is mentioned in the films). Avengers: Age of Ultron has an Asian woman character, Helen Cho, and Guardians of the Galaxy features Zoe Saldana in a leading role, but her skin is colored green as her character is of a non-human species.

In the MCU TV shows, we see a couple of women characters leading their own shows, namely Jessica Jones and Agent Carter (though the latter was recently cancelled after two seasons). We do see more women of color in the TV shows than the films. There’s Claire Temple and Elektra, who are not relegated to small roles, thankfully. I don’t watch Agents of Shield (I couldn’t get beyond the first season), but I know there are women of color characters like Melinda May and Skye. I have heard there are more women of color characters in the show, but those are the two I remember off the top of my head. Outside the MCU, we do see more White women in leading roles in blockbuster films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, DC’s forthcoming Wonder Woman film, and the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which has a racially diverse cast of men of color, but again, where are the women of color? White women can be found playing superheroes in popular TV shows like Supergirl and Arrow as well

I remember when Jessica Jones and Supergirl were being released around the same time, there were some on social media who debated about which one would be better. A third group argued that it didn’t matter which one was “better” because what really mattered was how revolutionary it was to have two TV shows with women superheroes. I don’t downplay the significance of seeing more women superheroes. But again, which women are we talking about? It’s not Black women or Latina women or South Asian women or Arab women we’re seeing in these roles. We continue to see the trend of White men dominating roles in mainstream film and television, and now it seems that movies and TV shows with women main characters must also be White. As if only White women can challenge the White male-centered industry, while women of color play supporting or tertiary roles, or are excluded altogether. It’s the pattern of Whiteness that we are seeing with women characters in these blockbuster films and TV shows: Furiosa, Rey, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Jyn Erso, Black Widow, and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel.

Women of color are not given the opportunity to lead superhero films and when they do, there are still restrictions. I mentioned Halle Berry’s Catwoman film earlier, which received terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. But the movie was doomed from the start because the film made every attempt to distance itself from the source material. For instance, there was no mentioning of Gotham City and Berry’s character wasn’t Selina Kyle, but a new character named Patience Phillips. There was no indication that Batman or anyone else in his universe existed in the film either. It was as if Halle Berry wasn’t allowed access to this character; as if the producers said, “Ok, we can make a Black Catwoman, but let’s not make her Selina Kyle. We don’t want people to think the real Catwoman is Black! This will be someone else!” Of course, much of the blame goes to the studio for the failure of Catwoman, but it’s hard not to overlook how a comic book film featuring a Black actress in the lead role was handled so irresponsibly.

The presence of women of color in superhero films can also lead to erasure of race. As much as I love CW’s The Flash, the way Iris is depicted has raised critiques about the show’s colorblindness. As Shannon Gibney writes in her article, “Color Blindness and the Black Girlfriend: The White Male Superhero’s Ability to Erase Race:”

I’ve gone and broken the unspoken rule for successfully creating interracial relationships on television and in pop culture: You can’t actually be Black, or have a Black consciousness in said union. Nope. You can be cute, in that hip Black way, but please don’t show your blackness, or God forbid, the often casual, everyday ways that race and racism affect your life and relationships. In this way, The Flash writers and producers have made a choice to embrace a color blindness narrative, for not only the Barry/Flash-Iris relationship, but also, for the Iris-Eddie, and Barry/Flash-Joe relationships.

[…]

One of the strongest things The Flash has going for it is its patient, layered character development, and complex storytelling. How might this be deepened even further if Barry/Flash and Iris had to truly reckon with how they move through the world very differently in their respective White male and Black female bodies?

The above is a great example of how visual diversity is not enough. In other words, improving the lack of women of color in film and television (both in front and behind the camera) isn’t simply, “Oh hey, let’s just fill up the screen with more women of color!” There are other issues involved, including colorismhow the characters are portrayed, the amount of screen time they have, how much creative license is granted to a woman of color director, etc. If Hollywood decides to make a film featuring a brown Muslim male or female character, but that character is used to reinforce an assimilationist, “U.S. versus immigrant,” or “Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim” narrative, that doesn’t do anything to challenge Islamophobia. It merely reinforces the status quo and how the State wants Muslims to be.

To clarify, when I list all of the White women characters we see in comic book movies and TV shows, I’m not saying, “See, look, there’s no problem with sexism! There are plenty of women characters!” I’m not saying we shouldn’t have White women as lead characters either. My point is that liberal commentaries need to challenge simplistic understandings of social identity and center their advocacy on women of color in particular because not only do we see White women receive more opportunities to play heroic (and better paid) roles in sci-fi and comic book movies than women of color, but we also need to connect the media’s erasure of women of color to the racism, misogyny, and other oppressions they experience in the real world. Is it any surprise that Black women receive the least amount of opportunities in the entertainment industry when Black women and other women of color are over-represented in the low-wage workforce?

On this note, I find it concerning when I hear people defend the casting of Ghost in the Shell on the basis that Scarlett Johansson was needed to sell the movie because “an Asian actress wouldn’t be able to sell it.” These comments are paradoxical because on the one hand, they acknowledge the casting is wrong, but then they justify it by essentially saying, “Well, that’s how the industry works!” What I rarely hear from these defenses is outrage — outrage at how racist the film industry is. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo, that White people, whether man or woman, must be lead a film in order to be successful (and that success is measured by how much money it makes, of course). It is interesting that the very same people would rage against producers and say, “These people don’t know anything about adapting (insert comic book/video game/novel here)!” and go on about preserving the “source material,” but when they defend the casting of a White woman in a Japanese role, they suddenly side with the producers!

I don’t believe Ghost in the Shell would be a box office failure if a Japanese actress was cast in the lead role. The movie already has a strong fan base of the original Anime, it is bound to make money. What’s more concerning than how much the movie makes is the acceptability of studios and movie producers conveying the message that people of color, in this case, women of color, cannot play main characters, even if the original character was written as a woman of color. At the end of the day, it’s another White actress getting paid for a role that a woman of color actress should have played.

Hopefully, with the recent casting of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarak and Rosario Dawson returning in Marvel’s Luke Cage, we’ll see producers of superhero movies and TV shows cast more women of color in prominent roles. I don’t expect anything radical from Marvel or Hollywood for that matter, but I think it’s important that we challenge conversations and commentaries that pit race and gender against each other as if they are “two separate categories.” Advocating for a “woman character” should not be synonymous with “White woman,” yet we see it reinforced in movie talk shows and websites that act as if women of color don’t exist. Indeed, it is great that mainstream films are featuring more women characters and integrating feminist themes, but when the vast majority of these women are White, it reflects an oppressive manifestation of white feminism that has long attempted to marginalize, silence, and erase women of color.

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