GeekGirlCon ’15 Recap: Stealing White People’s Superheroes

In GeekGirlCon ‘15’s Sunday afternoon panel “Stealing White People’s Superheroes”, GeekGirlCon staffer Kristine Hassell teamed up with alumna Sylvia Monreal, game critic Katherine Cross, and gaming diversity advocate Tanya DePass to talk about race-bending established characters.

The panel took its title from a quote from Michelle Rodriguez. Ambushed coming out of a bar, she was asked about rumors that she was being considered for the role of Green Lantern. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said. “Like, stop stealing […] all the white people’s superheroes.”

What did she mean by that? the panel asked.

“Part of me wants to justify her comment,” said Hassell. “We should have our own.”

But as DePass pointed out, Rodriguez was reinforcing the idea that comics are for white people, that “nerd stuff isn’t for us.” The well-known names belong to white people as the default humans.

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Image source: GeekGirlCon flickr

When thinking about race-bending in casting, white people often say, “If you get a POC Aquaman, we get a white Black Panther, as if it’s a one-for-one exchange. But often casting a white person in POC roles is whitewashing–such as Tilda Swinton playing the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. The Ancient One is not only traditionally Tibetan, but in Strange’s origin story he imbues the Doctor with handwavey mystical “Eastern” powers.

There are few enough roles for actors of color that taking them away reduces their opportunities and representation significantly, such as M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender. The original series, though created by white creators in the US, was respectfully grounded in Asian cultures. People of color have had to fight for the little representation they have.

Hassell stressed that, growing up, she never saw representation of herself, but that her niece does in depictions like the Avatar-verse, so whitewashing that was insulting.

The panelists talked a little about how superheroes function as symbols, and the power of those symbols.

Cross mentioned an idea that sometimes crops up in leftist circles that representation (eg. in geeky media) doesn’t matter–that it’s all just “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” in the sense that the media itself is beyond redemption. But symbols give us context for understanding the world. Speculative fiction helps answer the question, “Where can I find myself in the future?”

She repeated the quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”  Symbols allow us to paint possibility models in our minds.

Moderator Sylvia Monreal asked the other panelists, “What changes about a franchise when a person of color is cast in a role that’s traditionally white?”

“It reflects the world we actually live in,” said Cross. The fantasy becomes more immersive. People sometimes ask her why she can’t empathize with white characters. “Well,” she replies, “we do. We have to.” She related to many white female characters growing up, because the characters of color were stereotypes. She grew up feeling like she was lacking something.

Hassell pointed out a possible downside–sometimes the creators turn their racebent characters into stereotypes. Then they throw up their hands and say, “We tried, and it was a failure.” It becomes an excuse to reduce representation rather than increase it.

What about Rodriguez’ follow up-video, asked Monreal, in which she explained that she believed people of color should create their own heroes drawing from their own cultures?

People of color can and do make their own mythologies, citing N. K. Jemisin and Daniel José Older’s works.

But furthermore, Cross pointed out, “Many people of color are born and raised in the US. This is our culture. Superheroes as an American fantasy are my fantasy as well.” People of color have their own experiences within the US, so showing that (as G. Willow Wilson has done with Ms. Marvel) is where the good work can be done.

Asked for their favorite examples of the most impactful casting of people of colors in white roles, the panelists pointed to Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor movies (whose casting caused a racist outcry), and the casting of black voice actress Kimberly Brooks as the white character Ashley Williams in the Mass Effect series.

Which heroes would you like to see recast, asked Monreal, and what would that do?

Laverne Cox as Wonder Woman, said Cross; expand who is seen as a woman and as a feminist hero.

Any of the iconic three DC characters as people of color would be a big deal, added Hassell.

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Image source: GeekGirlCon flickr

No more white Spider-Man, said DePass.

One brand new race-bent hero is Amadeus Cho as The Totally Awesome Hulk. He’s a model minority straight-A science student, pointed out Hassell, so that’s uncomfortable… but on the other hand, he’s the Hulk!

The audience Q&A touched on why Idris Elba is considered too “urban,” not “suave” enough to play James Bond (“What does that even mean? The world is not made up of old white guys. Get outside!” – DePass. “Is there something innately white about these characters?” – Monreal.)

Another questioner asked for a gentle and diplomatic way to respond to pushback about race-bent characters.

“When it comes to people erasing your identity,” said DePass, “don’t worry about being gentle and diplomatic.”

Cross gave the example of the game The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, which had an all-white cast of characters. When people of color pushed back, they were told, “You’re being racist against Polish people,” because the game has Polish mythological influences.

But the game isn’t Poland; it’s a fantasy world. And even if it were, people of color existed in medieval Poland. If you can accept Scottish dwarves in this fantasy, why not people of color?

All in all, the panel demonstrated that, while some creators are working to craft mythologies that center people of color, their success (and their sensitivity) can be hit and miss, and there is still plenty of pushback from white people who are not used to being on the sidelines.

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Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

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