Panel Recap: Do Black Heroes Matter?
One of my favorite things about GeekGirlCon is the way provides a space to critique the media we love and discuss how it could be made better. The Do Black Heroes Matter? panel was a perfect example of this. The panelists included writer, filmmaker, performer, and self-described hater on twitter Isabella L. Price, writer and GeekGirlCon twitter administrator Kristine Hassell, and tech professional and self-described Superpowered Diva of Dopeness Risha K.
Isabella set the panel’s tone in her introduction when she explained that this was the panelists’ third time doing this panel and said, tongue-in-cheek, that, “this is old hat. We’ve already solved racism; this is just a refresher course.” Once the introductions were done, she went on to dedicate the panel to Darrien Hunt, a twenty-two year old black man who was shot and killed by police in 2014 while cosplaying as Mugen from Samurai Champloo. Police saw him as a threat, she explained, which is one of the reasons why the fight for representation is so important.
The panelists began by answering the question of when they first saw themselves (or a black superhero in general) in media. For Risha and Isabella, it was Storm from the X-Men cartoons, although Isabella pointed out that she was an American in elementary school when she first saw Storm, who was an adult woman from Africa, so they shared few similarities. Kristine said that, growing up Filipino-American, the first woman she saw who was like her was either Wonder Woman or Leia, and that it wasn’t until later that she realized they weren’t exactly her. She still hasn’t really seen herself, although representation has improved over the past year, which she attributed to more creative departments having people of color on their staff.
Isabella asked why this conversation around representation is relevant and what impact seeing black superheroes on screen has on black (and white) children. For Risha, one of the best things about having black superheroes is the empowerment they provide. Cartoon superheroes offer power and agency, which black children don’t often experience. When you’re a little kid and you see a normal superhero who is presented as a different race, Kristine added, it creates inclusion and breaks down otherness. If kids see more diversity and inclusion, it’s not going to hurt like it does now when the one character of color is killed off.
When asked how things would be different if the panelists had grown up with more representation, Kristine pointed to Ned from Spider-Man Homecoming. Ned’s actor is Filipino, and at no point in the movie is he made fun of for his ethnicity or his weight. Seeing representation like that as a kid would have made a difference for her. Risha said that she would have loved to have seen representation that doesn’t just act as a plotpoint, because that doesn’t actually include her in the story. She loved Indiana Jones growing up and would replay scenes with her friends. She always wanted to be Indiana, but her friends said she couldn’t because she was a dark-skinned woman. Having more media creators of color leads to more varied stories, more accurate representation, and more inclusion beyond token characters, she explained.
Isabella agreed, adding that, when we are constantly hearing about the deaths of unarmed black people, the image of Luke Cage in a bullet-hole-riddled hoodie—and the idea it represents of black children being able to exist in the world and be impenetrable—is gripping. That, she said, could only come from a black creator.
The panelists went on to discuss the problem with token black characters. Isabella pointed out that there is only one black kid in It, Stranger Things, and the comic book series Paper Girls. “If I was the one black kid in this town with all these other white kids,” she told the audience, “there’s no way my mom would let me hang out with [them]…Having one black kid tag along to check a box isn’t actual representation.”
Risha said that the one black kid doesn’t usually look like black America. When you have one black character interacting with white kids, you don’t see their culture, faith, or beliefs—they’re not a real person.
Representation is more than just seeing someone, Isabella added. White media creators tend to think they’re doing people of color a service by erasing their heritage and culture to make them “normal,” but you shouldn’t need to erase someone’s heritage to make them appear human. She called for a new version of the Bechdel Test: the Black-Del Test. It would have the same rules, just with black characters instead of women. When white media creators try to convey the experiences of black characters, they tend to leave things out. The podcast “Misty Knight’s Uninformed Afro” takes the Misty Knight comics to task over this. In one comic, Misty answers the door without a hair bonnet on. The podcast creators point out that there’s no way that would have happened if the comic were drawn by a black artist.
Isabella also noted that characters are depicted differently in comics than they are in movies. In superhero movies, all of the black women are light-skinned and designed to be “approachably ethnic.” They look strong but non-threatening, because darkness is seen as threatening. Having women superheroes dressed in leather and kicking ass is fine, but kicking ass while dark-skinned is apparently too much.
Finally, the panelists discussed what they want to see in the future. For Kristine, it was more superheroes of color. Her hope is that, five years from now, no one will even think to say, “she’s an amazing Sailor Moon…for a black girl.” Isabella agreed, wanting representation to be the norm rather than the exception. Risha mentioned the upcoming Black Panther film, saying that she doesn’t want the entire future of black superhero movies to rest on its success or failure. Film studios are constantly churning out poorly-rated white-centric movies, but when one minority movie doesn’t sell, studios argue that none of them will. Kristine agreed, saying that the goalposts keep moving for actors and creators of color. In light of this, she advised audience members to “carry yourselves with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
While Risha is right that the future of black superhero movies shouldn’t have to rest on any one film, with the US premiere of Black Panther now less than a week away, I can’t help but keep my fingers crossed that it kills at the box office. As the panelists discussed, black superheroes written by black writers are long overdue. Here’s hoping that 2018 is the year that begins to change.