Saturday, September 17, 2016

Batman, Wonder Woman, and Identity Politics

I thought about this a while back when people were complaining about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a traditionally Japanese character in the upcoming "Ghost in the Shell" movie and flashing back to Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in "Thor".
That the Norse gods should be a definitively thought of as a white group of characters, seeing as the Vikings were in fact white.  This argument ignores that the Vikings also traveled the world as sailors and discovered many different races and could have acknowledged this diversity in their myths.  This also ignores the fact that the myths were collected 200 years after they stopped being actively practiced, this collecting was done by a white person in a predominantly white world and... the "races" of the gods become a little more fluid as the original iconography of Vikings in the pre-Christian academic world is not very clear.
Heindall as he might have once been perceived.

And as the fictional character is now perceived.
I would also see online people asking, "What about a white/Caucasian Luke Cage? Or Black Panther?" saying that you could color blind cast in both directions.  Ignoring for a second that taking one of the few recognizable minority characters and casting them with a white actor is in no way equivalent to casting a minority into one of the many-many roles that has been traditionally considered white, my response was that being black is a big part of those character's identities.
Luke Cage is blacker than the ace of clubs and Black Panther was designed to be a distinctly Black character, with a mythology that is all about being a mysterious and powerful head of an African nation that itself is cloaked in mystery.  Most (if not all) white heroes of the Gold and Silver Ages of comics are white because that was the default at the time they were created.  The books were marketed to white children and teens and the characters were white "role models".  Race as it informs or relates to their characters is nil and the number of times the subject is approached it is very lightly touched and then moved away from (mostly because of an industry wide “mums the word” policy of not discussing social issues).
So I asked myself what character would be the definitive WHITE character because you could easily see how their position in their world is informed by and tied to their being white.
Mr. Sunshine and Happy Times himself.
It's Batman.
Bruce Wayne is old money New England elite.  His family has a crest, they have an estate, and they have been part of Gotham (New York) high society for decades or centuries and can trace themselves back further.  The KNIGHT part of Dark Knight seems to very much infer the idea of old time very wealthy royalty using their money and means to protect the people of their Barony/County/Kingdom.  Bruce is the Prince of Gotham and Batman is his suit of armor both literally and figuratively.
Now other cultures have crests and shields.  They have totems that can be utilized to strike fear into the hearts of their foes.  They have family lines... BUT! We live in a culture in which the idea of a wealthy landed elite family THAT WAS BLACK did not, and still for the most part does not exist.  If Thomas and Martha Wayne were seen as upper crust high society people descended from well to do old money and they managed to navigate the racial politics of their day to plant Bruce as the wealthy playboy and Inquirer target… well, that just doesn’t exist in Americana.  It would ring false to the audience.  So, with that in mind, Batman is very "white".
In fact, we already know what you would have to alter and tweak to make a black Batman work, I have already mentioned him.  Black Panther is basically Black Batman.  The totem, the royal trappings, the legacy of wealth, and being the best as a service to one’s city/nation.  Also the reliance on gadgets and martial arts but also having frequent elements of mysticism present in the background.  That is how you would have to change the character to make the premise work, by so fundamentally changing the setting that the idea of changing the race becomes a non-issue.
"I don't see the resemblance." -Moron.
Superman could be any race (you can tell because they have made 10,000 knock-offs of the character and many of them are of different skin tones).  Martian Man Hunter frequently is multiple races and different authors have expressed the Martian race as being gender fluid as well, because of their shapeshifting (and I personally see that as the better interpretation, that when “he” refers to his “wife” who died on Mars, “he” is using terminology that makes the most sense to those “he” is talking to).
Wonder Woman, Flash, the various Green Lanterns (though they really need more women from earth to be considered diverse to audiences), and nearly everyone else on the Justice League could be a different race. Mr. Terrific was a white guy in the Golden Age of comics and Michael Holt, the character that carries the mantel now is a black guy (and atheist which is its own sort of minority in the Comics industry).
The NEXT person to hold a particular mantel (including that of Batman) could be any race without question, and many characters do have minority characters taking on the role of following the legacy of a character (Rhodes served as Iron Man, Sam Wilson is currently a Captain America, Miles Morales is a Spider-Man… Notice how much of this is taking place under the MARVEL header?  They are better at this).  BUT, Bruce Wayne-Batman makes the most sense in the context of Americana as a White person.
Let me take this a step further with discussion of another character that I imagine people would insist is “white” or “Mediterranean” depending on how particular you are of ethnic and racial identity.  You know, Wonder Woman really doesn't have to be Greek.
I think I might be the only person who thinks that the trailer to her upcoming movie looks awful too.
Like the Vikings, the Greeks were sea fairing and were aware of lots of races and cultures outside of their own. They would have seen black people.
The idea that Wonder Woman’s homeland of Themyscira is some extra dimensional utopia that is nothing but white women is also really fucking racist.  Like on its face.  Writing tip, if you ever make a Utopian society in fiction and go out of your way to point out that everybody is the same racial group, it is explicitly racist.  Having Themyscira be a multi-ethnic/racial matriarchal utopia that follows the principles and religious guidance of a very modern interpretation of the Greek Gods... not racist.  It is still SEXIST, no question there, but that is kind of the whole point/conflict of the character of Wonder Woman when she acts as a liaison between Themyscira and Earth.
I would also draw comparisons to Asgard and Marvel’s mythical Asian city of K'un-L'un (a popular destination for the superhero Iron Fist).  Certain earth cultures saw advanced and mythical civilizations and chose to emulate them creating the distorted myths that we know today in our world.  So, rather than the Marvel comics being inspired by the myths and everyone in real life bitching about how the comics and movies do not follow the myths, instead the myths were inspired by the Marvel civilization.  In that case Wonder Woman, Thor, or any other mythical figure could look however the comic artist wanted to draw them (African, Chinese, Hindi, Samoan, or European) and the "real" myths and history could be seen as the white washed versions.
Essentially in the DC universe Greek civilization emulated the Amazons (who are actually very diverse and “wise” … though still somewhat big into misandry) rather than the Amazons following and emulating Greek society. When the Greeks copied the history and myths of the Amazons they just made everyone Greek, and made Hercules the good guy of the story and played up the "masculinity = Good" angle (in the Wonder Woman comics Hercules was a villain).  You could even see this as a form of… It is white washing, but it is also male-ifying things… Penis-Washing?
Not to mention all the typical weird stuff going on in comics from the era of her creation that got thrown in right along side the strange sexual imagery.
This sort of Greek re-writing of Amazon myth would explain the disdain Themyscira has for Earth, and why the Amazons did not interact with "Man World" for thousands of years.  The Amazons did not like being taken out of their own stories and having their worldview coopted and corrupted to a Patriarchal and Misogynistic Greek culture which saw women as inferior.
“Women are the weaker sex… being born a woman is a divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal.” -Socrates
“The Male is by Nature superior and the female inferior and one rules and the other is ruled… This inequality is permanent because the woman’s deliberative faculty is without authority, like a child’s.” -Aristotle
Nothing going on here.
            It is easy to see how the Amazons might have interacted with Ancient Greece, taught them some things about the gods, art, and their history, and then left because they saw it getting appropriated.
            Of course this is all the diegetic explanation of things.  All of this is fiction.  Made by people to sell books and toys to children.  Batman was not made to push an Alt-Right dream of a world protected by its white betters, but I would point out that Wonder Woman was specifically designed to be a female icon in the genre and is rife with text of female empowerment, and subtext of bondage and sexual politics.

All of this is up to the authors and readers to decide what they want.  But the idea that a fictional character must be a certain way should be looked at in the context of what that character is and where they exist in their world.  Whether race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or politics makes sense for that character should inform and be informed by who and what the character is.  Otherwise it is all just weird.
There is a great big multiverse out there, waiting to grow with weirdness though.  So whose to stop us?
If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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