Editorial: Race-Swapping in Superhero Movies is a Problem

No race is disposable.

By Robert Marrujo:: Part of my duties acting as Editor-in-Chief for Binx.News involve going around the Internet to watch trends among the other gaming and pop culture websites on the Internet. The distinguished competition always have something interesting to check out, be it an exclusive interview or just an editorial. One topic that caught my eye recently focuses on the idea of fostering more diversity in superhero movies by race-swapping different characters.

Basically, the notion is that if a director takes a white character like Peter Parker and casts a black actor to play him, they can still be the character fans have known and love, but now they'll have a different color of skin and the movies stop looking so monochromatic when it comes to the melanin levels of its cast. I get this. It's not a bad goal. The problem, however, is that at its core this is a wildly racist method of diversifying our superhero films.

Here's a common point that gets bandied about on social media and comments threads when people argue that they see no problem with race-swapping characters: "their race has nothing to do with the character! There's no story that make's the character's whiteness an intrinsic part of who they are!" That sounds really nice on paper, right? The problem is that it's a very flawed argument when you actually stop to think about it.

Here's why: what exactly does a character need to do in order for their race to be an intrinsic part of who they are?

What this argument asserts, knowingly or not, is that a character's race needs to be qualified in order to count. Hobie Brown can't be a "real" black man unless he does, says, or feels, x, y, or z on a checklist of things that "real" black men are supposed to do, say, or feel. That's an atrociously myopic way of looking at race and identity. It posits that there are race roles that must be followed in order for a character's race to be authentic.

Some might think that there are plenty of things that different races do or feel that others don't, so there's no problem with expecting a comic book character to represent that in order to make their race part of their identity. Except, it is a problem, and a big one. There are no neat little boxes that any race fits into. I'm a Mexican-American. I do not conform to the vast majority of stereotypes associated with Hispanic people. So if someone wants to argue that a character is authentically Mexican if they speak Spanish and watch soccer, I will look them square in the eye and say, "hardly."

Again, I'm aware that the goal isn't to stereotype or bring anyone down, but that's what that line of thinking invariably does. It sets up a scenario where the person arguing is ostensibly saying, "what 'black people things' does the character do to show us they're a real black person?" It creates this false notion that there's some set of standards out there that can be pulled from, some uniform list of check boxes to be ticked off, of behaviors by different races that can be used as identifiers to label who is or isn't part of a given group.

Needless to say, it's bunk. Bunk that, sadly, makes its way around everything from Twitter rants to misinformed articles on websites.

What's more, race-swapping intrinsically operates under the theory that certain races are disposable. In the case of superhero comics, that would be any character who is or looks white. Let's be frank: white people are the target of the vast majority of race-swaps in superhero movies. Johnny Storm, Valkyrie, Perry White, Domino, and more, have all been swapped from white to black. Ironically, in this effort to be "diverse," Asians have drawn the short end of the stick, with both the Mandarin and the Ancient One unceremoniously made white for the sake of not presenting a stereotype on screen (as opposed to, oh I don't know, simply making some tweaks so that the character isn't offensive? Just a thought). At least the Ancient One was a woman!

So why is this a problem? Why shouldn't we do this; after all, there are more white superheroes than any other race! Sure, I get that. Again, the goal isn't to be hurtful, people are simply wanting to be inclusive. The issue is that regardless of intentions, this is hurtful and it isn't inclusive, not in the way that we should be striving for. What it does is it looks at anyone who is white and says, "you don't matter. Your roots and racial identity will be sacrificed and made to seem unimportant because it makes some folks feel better about themselves."

That's an awful way to go about life. It also sets some really nasty precedents. After all, the reverse of this doesn't work, does it? Would everyone be breaking ticket pre-sale records if T'Challa was being played by Ryan Gosling? Hardly. People would be wondering why arguably the most famous black superhero of all-time was suddenly being played by a white man. Heck, they'd straight up be insulted, and rightly so. The outrage shouldn't be any less if a white character is arbitrarily switched out, too.

I'm not suggesting that we need to stray from making superhero movies more integrationist. What I'm saying is, highlight the black and brown characters that we already do have. Falcon is one of the coolest, most entertaining characters in Captain America's inner circle of friends. I don't need to make Steve Rogers black when Sam Wilson already is. If we want to experiment with a black Captain America, do it organically. Pass the mantle. But don't take an establish, decades-old character and dip them in paint and tell me they're black all of a sudden. It's pandering, it's insulting, and it's immensely disrespectful to the multitudes of POC comic book heroes that have been created over the years.

I get that there are racists out there who simply don't want to see a POC superhero, period. They don't want diversity, they don't like minorities. Race-swapping doesn't make that go away. What it does is it further increases racial tensions by trying to push that some races are expendable and others are not. This is nonsense. This is dangerous. What needs to happen is what the comics themselves have been doing for eons: grow characters organically. Amadeus Cho is a freaking awesome character who naturally took on the mantle of the Hulk. Marvel didn't just take Bruce Banner and declare, "oh, he's Asian now!" They instead crafted an Asian character (with an Asian writer, no less) who became a real part of Banner's world and earned his place.

I can't imagine comics without Amadeus Cho, or John Stewart, or Hobie Brown, or Kamela Kahn, or Kate Kane, or Riri Williams, or any of these other excellent, diverse characters that have been created across the history of the medium. Mantles can pass, different people can take on the identity of a superhero... but what can't happen is the systematic targeting of white characters and their subsequent "painting over" to lazily appease a segment of the fan base.

I'll leave with this: one of the laziest arguments I've seen of late regarding race-swapping is that Superman's race doesn't matter because he's an alien. Yes, Superman is indeed an alien. An alien who was created by two Jewish young men who crew up poor in Cleveland as the children of immigrants. This alien was an allegory for the immigrant experience in America as their parents experienced it, and as they experienced life as minorities. Superman's fair skin and dark hair is a reflection of their lives, of their experiences, and of the world that they grew up in. Unless only one color of skin of immigrant matters all of a sudden, the idea that Superman is ready for a race-swap is emblematic of just how misguided and mindless the practice actually is.

 

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