Beyond “Equal Representation”: Some Thoughts on Racebending Villains of Color in White-Dominated Sci-fi and Comic Book Films

Some very good thoughts by Mast Qalander on Villains of Color in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. I, for one, hope that my stories tell *our* stories.

Muslim Reverie

startrek1SPOILERS AHEAD: Don’t read further if you plan on seeing “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

I remember when “Batman Begins” was in development, I felt uncomfortable learning that Ra’s Al-Ghul, an Arab villain from the Batman mythology, was set to be the antagonist. The idea of an iconic American superhero battling an Arab terrorist sounded like a perfect set-up to propagate America’s so-called “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pitting Batman against an Arab enemy during a time when real-life Arabs and Muslims are increasingly regarded as “threats against western civilization” didn’t seem like a coincidence to me at the time, nor does it now (I’m not going to delve into the disturbing fascist, capitalist, and pro-police state politics in “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” but there have been many excellent critiques which you can read here, here, and here).

When audiences discovered Liam…

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23 thoughts on “Beyond “Equal Representation”: Some Thoughts on Racebending Villains of Color in White-Dominated Sci-fi and Comic Book Films

  1. It is a very delicate situation and one that the film makers could not possibly win. Cast an Arab to play an Arab villain and you are vilified by the hypersensitive elements of the Arab communities who are always looking for things to take offence at. Don’t cast an Arab in that role and you’re accused of playing up to the sensitivities of aforementioned Arab communities. It seems everybody spends their average day looking for things to get offended at these days!

    I’m concerned that it is going to swing the other way though – only white people are capable of doing villainous things.

    1. Very true. Even I, a brown person, wonder if I am represent my ethnicity appropriately.

      I think, though, what the author’s main gripe is that there are few examples of non-white heroes.

      I can only hope that my fictional contributions to the world help to remedy that.

      1. Thanks for re-blogging my post!

        Yes, the main problem I have is with the serious lack of people of color heroes in these white-dominated sci-fi and comic book stories/films.

        MGM75 – No one is “looking for things to get offended” by. To suggest that is quite insulting, actually. Why would people go around “looking” to get offended – that would imply that they enjoy getting offended? I write about my experiences and I share my thoughts and feelings about things that perpetuate harmful stereotypes that hurt our communities.

        I am not dissing the people who wanted an Arab actor to play Ra’s Al-Ghul, by the way. Within the context of getting an Arab actor a job to play a prominent role in a popular American superhero film is something I can sympathize with. However, my points were just suggesting that we should take things further and challenge what these characters represent. I suggested that we look beyond these villains of color and work towards advocating against racism in these films, as well as empowering people of color by creating characters that counter these stereotypes.

      2. Glad to re-post.

        I responded yesterday, but for some reason, it didn’t go through.

        Anyway, I agree completely. No one is trying to be offended. There may be people who are easily offended, but I doubt very many people go around trying to be offended.

      3. Yes, exactly. I’m actually going to write a short blog post on those kind of arguments (because it’s a common one I hear a lot!), lol.

        Thanks!

      4. Mast – some people have a victim complex. That is a fact. I do not recall levelling this accusation at you…?

        that would imply that they enjoy getting offended?

        Yes it does and that is what I am saying. Some people are hypersensitive and have nothing better to do than to whine about victimisation and want legislation to protect their hurt feelings. Again though, I do not recall levelling this accusation at you.

      5. Whoa, Matt. Are you serious?

        Granted there may be folks who have a victim complex, but saying you want to see more ethnically diverse characters in your fiction is not taking on a victim role and it is not looking to be offended.

        Step back, and look at what you are saying. Would you say the same thing to a person who said, “I’d like to see more atheists represented in films.”

        Is that person looking to be offended by the religious majority? Are they playing victim? I don’t think so. They simply want to see more atheists (or whatever) in their films.

      6. Granted there may be folks who have a victim complex, but saying you want to see more ethnically diverse characters in your fiction is not taking on a victim role and it is not looking to be offended.

        That isn’t what I am saying. I am saying I take exception to the notion that we should only portray black/arab/whatever characters as positive role models. I DID NOT ACCUSE ANYONE HERE of doing this but it does happen.

        Step back, and look at what you are saying. Would you say the same thing to a person who said, “I’d like to see more atheists represented in films.”

        It is terrible when any group is portrayed negatively in general terms in fiction or anywhere else for that matter, but creating characters for the sake of tokenism will not help.

        “Positive discrimination” is not the same as equality and it is the wrong way to go about breaking down barriers of mistrust. Then you start to go down the route of privileges for certain groups and as secularists, we should stand against all privilege, no exceptions.

      7. Hmmm, that’s not how I read his post. I’ll have to re-read it for examples of positive discrimination.

        For myself, I don’t think it is a bad thing to actively choose a more diverse cast of characters when writing, in the same way one would choose to diversify a setting or, say, the weapons your characters use. This is, of course, entirely up to individual writers.

        And as readers and movie goers, I think it is important to realize that we do have choices. We can choose to read books and watch films with over-represented characters, or not.

        And I don’t see anything wrong in asking to read/see more under-represented characters in our fiction. It would be like saying, I want more diversity in my faeries. 😉

      8. Again, I was not accusing him of anything; I was making a general point about others taking offence where none was intended and attempting to enforce a character into tokenism.

        I already made the point about Will Smith playing Robert Neville. I had no problem with him being black because Neville’s skin colour is irrelevant to the role. However, if there had been calls to make Neville black just for the sake of it then I would have taken exception. Why “must” Neville be black in the film? What would it add to the role (in the way that Denzel Washington’s character being black added a plot device into Philadelphia)? The same for an atheist character. Does being atheist add to the character or are we doing it to pander to sensitivities? Are we doing this for tokenism? Smith did a great job and Neville’s slow descent into despair was heartfelt (more so for me because I’m a dog lover!) Smith played the role perfectly… but not because he was black.

      9. Ah, I see your point. And, yes, I do agree that making a character ethnic for the sake of adding ethnicity is bad. (Though with the examples that Mast was using, those characters were clearly drawn with those ethnicities in mind, but let’s move on).

        What I would like to see are more diverse characters because I want to know *their* story.

        Take the Life of Pi. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read the book. And while I don’t believe in god or spirituality, I found the book incredibly moving and profound. That character’s (very Indian, very religious) story is one that many of us in the western world do not get to know. After reading it, I definitely feel enriched.

        I, for one, write stories from those different (under-represented) perspectives, because those are the character whose stories I want to tell – like a Spanish atheist.

        It would be nice to see more of that in mainstream fiction, but I guess that’s just not in the cards right now.

      10. Interesting you mention “The Life of Pi”. I think the book did very little for me – I found it quite wishy washy. But then, I have been surrounded by Hindus and Sikhs most of my life so I probably have a fairly better than average understanding of those belief systems.

        That said, it was a good story in its own right.

        I, for one, write stories from those different (under-represented) perspectives, because those are the character whose stories I want to tell – like a Spanish atheist.

        Hmmm. Yet when I write it isn’t so much about who they are as where they are going. Their ethnicity, culture and religion I use as plot devices rather than the core of their characters. I like it to add to the conflict, to be part of the character’s humanity rather than let it define them.

      11. Very interesting! I go the other way around. I ask: What would this person, with this background, do in these circumstances?

        I’ll definitely think of character in different terms now. Thanks!

      12. No problem, It’s been stimulating! I guess that demonstrates that though we both put a lot of thought into our characters, it seems you lean more toward the literary end of the scale and I lean more toward concept.

      13. I must say Nila that when creating any character I go with what feels right. As an atheist I am far more concerned with presenting people as individuals with individual traits, virtues and faults.

        I think, though, what the author’s main gripe is that there are few examples of non-white heroes.

        I agree with that. If a characters works better as a female or as an ethnic or religious minority, depending on the plot into which I am trying to fit them, I’ll do that. I did it with my novel where I changed a major secondary character from a Prince to a Princess and made her mother a character who converted from Catholicism to increase the level of distrust toward her from certain elements of society.

        I don’t believe though (as some seem to suggest it seems) that we should be artificially enforcing a set of character traits just to please certain groups – for starters that is narcissistic and secondly it is just as dangerous as making all villains black, arab or male.

      14. I don’t think anyone wants to artificially enforce ethnicity on a character. If you’ll note, the two characters Mast talked about were originally ethnic in the source material (Afghanistan, for Batman, and Arab, for Star Trek). Both were played by white actors instead of actors who might actually look like the characters from the original source. Why is that? For fear of offense.

        Now, there is racism in the world – on all sides of the fence. Much of that source material was written during a time with culturally sensitive ideas were not front and center. And I imagine that the writers very well may have agreed with some of those sentiments. A lot of people did. They were the majority and thought like the majority.

        Anyway, the point is, in much of this source material, the dark is bad, white is good. It is a paradigm that we see over and over. What Mast and I are saying is, why not change that paradigm? No, that’s not to say white is bad/dark is good, but that life is more complicated than that and our fiction should be too.

        Anyway, this is a tough issue in the SFF genre. To find folks who are trying to inject more diversity in our fiction, check out these sites:
        http://crossedgenres.com/
        http://internationalsf.wordpress.com/

      15. “Both were played by white actors instead of actors who might actually look like the characters from the original source. Why is that? For fear of offense.

        I agree that that is wrong. That was my point, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Kahn had been played by an actor from the region of the world that those names originate then no doubt you will have found people offended at that too. Look at the film 300 and how deeply offended people were that the Persian Empire were shown to be an an aggressive and militaristic empire. This film, apparently, was offensive to Muslims despite that neither Xerxes not his empire Islamic. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

        No, that’s not to say white is bad/dark is good, but that life is more complicated than that and our fiction should be too.

        And I am not disagreeing with that but unfortunately people are too quick to take offence and attempt to shut down debate of this issue by claiming offence.

        I want a world of fiction where characters are seen as human beings with all the flaws and virtues that means rather than holding them up as icons as representative of certain races or religions, whether that be overtly positive or negative portrayals.

  2. Great blog post, thanks for sharing. And… sigh… I see a white actor has been cast as Tonto in the upcoming Lone Ranger movie. Even if it is Johnny Depp. Surely they could have found a Native American actor to carry an action/comedy role?

    1. I THOUGHT THE SAME THING. I turned to my husband and said, “Oh, look. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean Goes West.”

      I adore Johnny Depp, but I was highly disappointed.

      1. I think that at something to do with it: the fact that you, and millions of others (including me), love Johnny Depp.

        And I guess that is something to consider. The producers want actors (villain or hero) that will drawn in the largest audience, which means the ones we always see.

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