I should probably clear up the fact that, yes, the phrase “triple standards” isn’t a thing; however, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the best way to describe the situation we find ourselves in with race and casting in Hollywood. Casting the right actors for movies (and superhero ones in particular) is arguably the most important part about making one. Who you cast seriously affects the box-office turnout, the strength of your film, and its critical reception. There is a lot that goes into picking who should star in your movie because that process alone will mean the difference between success and failure. Thanks to the potential for prestige and adoration enjoyed by many prominent actors (and perhaps a genuine passion for the craft), there is a huge number of people aspiring for roles in films; all of which coming from wildly different backgrounds, but the unfortunate reality is that while many of them would like to be movie stars, most will fail miserably. A huge factor in this is the discrepancy between race and representation in Hollywood.
Images like the on above have led to wide discussion on how clearly underrepresented non-white actors are in Hollywood, with white actors taking up about 90% of lead roles in Hollywood films according to a UCLA study. Being an actor is difficult enough, but add to the mix that you belong to a minority and, god forbid, a minority that isn’t of African descent (good luck getting a lead role as an Asian actor), then “very difficult” becomes close to being “impossible”. Now consider all of that racial baggage and potential controversy and bring them to the world of comics, a world with one of the most oddly demanding audiences in history.
Many of us have heard that Michelle Rodriguez made waves recently with her comments about minorities ‘stealing’ roles from white heroes in movies (finally sticking up for white people when they need it most…!), and there has been a wide range of responses to that ranging from utter disgust to enthusiastic support. In my view, she is unequivocally wrong in this case and there are a number of reasons for it. Rodriguez’s argument comes from her belief that “people should stop being lazy and people in Hollywood should take the time to develop their own mythology”. Spun that way, it almost makes sense since the comic book and superhero film industries are sorely lacking in stories that revolve around characters of colour; unfortunately there is a very strong reason for that that goes beyond racism. To understand it, one must look through the history of comic books and recognize that it was a totally white industry. This means comics today are going to be just that, because the vast majority of major comic book series are ones with legacies that stretch beyond the years of most people reading them. Interestingly enough, this legacy of whiteness has led to a few peculiar realities for the superheroes of today:
– Iron Fist is a blonde haired, fair skinned master of Eastern martial arts mainly because audiences back then could connect to him more.
– Captain America was created in real life and in-universe to fight the Nazis, but his design was ironically the culmination of their every ideal.
– Superman, an alien from across the universe, happens to look exactly like the idealistic interpretation of an American white man.
The belief you can just go ahead and create a new IP in the comic book industry and then build that franchise up to the point where it is actually fiscally reasonable to create a superhero film based on them is naive at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Reinterpreting an incredibly white medium to allow for some diversity is far more feasible than that 4th grade reply of “just make your own superheroes”, but that brings up another array of issues, issues that will lead to the ridiculous triple standard that we’re faced with today; issues that have people say things like this:
“Does it really matter what race a character is?”
This is the main argument used to defend the blatant white-washing of characters (like that of R’as Alghul, an Arabic supervillain that has never been portrayed by anyone but a white man), but tellingly, it’s that same argument that is used to argue against making a character that is traditionally white into someone of colour (“Why change the race for no reason? Race isn’t supposed to matter”). I’m here to argue that yes, it does matter what the race of a character is. For one thing, when that race is important to that character’s background like with R’as Al Ghul (which is literally an Arabic name), that character absolutely should not be white. When a character that wasn’t previously white is changed into someone of colour like in the case on Nick Fury, there is usually absolutely no harm in doing so as long as it doesn’t interfere directly with that character’s lore. In fact, some would argue that making way for actors like Samuel L. Jackson to portray this character adds a certain flavour to the ensemble that would not have been there otherwise. Doing the opposite and white-washing characters on the other hand is problematic. There are many who like to equate the two, but there are huge reasons why that sort of logic does not hold, many of which are beautifully encapsulated in this post here. If it does nothing to interfere with the core of a character’s arc, then it isn’t the end of the world if “White Superhero #105905956” is now Latino or Asian, meanwhile changing one of the few minority heroes into yet another white hero leaves far more of an impression given the substantially smaller pool of minority characters in comics. Another reason the race of a comic book character does matter is what they represent. When you look at DC heroes, you see that they are supposed to be aspirational figures that are larger than life but are grounded by their humanity. You are supposed to look up to them, meanwhile, Marvel heroes are supposed to be relatable characters who are both elevated and cursed with their gifts. It goes without saying that people of colour do not share the same experiences in life that white people do, so having minority character to look up to/relate to isn’t the worst thing that can happen.
“Well, they just turned *X comicbook character* into a *non-white race* person”
There is nothing wrong with the phrase itself, except for the fact that most of the time it is, well, it’s wrong (or incorrect more accurately). Nobody is thinking of turning Spiderman black when the question of Donald Glover portraying Spiderman comes up, they are referring creating a story about Miles Morales, an entirely different character from Peter Parker. Green Lantern wasn’t “turned black” when Jon Stewart put on the ring, and Ms. Marvel wasn’t “turned Pakistani” when Kamala Khan took on that mantle. These characters just assumed the roles that were traditionally performed by white characters. I bring this up because people seriously lose their temper if someone other than the original character takes on the mantle of a superhero if the replacement is a minority, but most don’t realize that this is a thing that happens all the damn time with comics. Did you know there has actually been four different Robins? Did you know that there has been three different Flash’s? Nobody cares about that because every one of them were white (well technically the 4th Robin is Batman’s son and Ra’s Al Ghul’s grandson, making him mixed race). Different characters assuming superhero identities in comics is a regular occurrence, but the general public only seems to care when a character of colour takes on a mantle because of this ridiculous triple standard that exists. I say triple standard because I’m directly arguing against the common complaint of a double standard that occurs with these discussions. People who don’t want to see non-white characters in superhero films often argue with something to the effect of “change a white character into a minority one and no one seems to care, but if you turn just one character white then everyone loses their minds”. The triple standard comes from the fact that this “double standard” argument specifically is used so often, that now there are more people complaining about “diversity” casting than there are people complaining about white-washing. It’s something Donald Glover had to face over making a simple twitter joke.
These two scenarios are not equivalent to each other. I’ve discussed why earlier, but to simplify it, I’ll tell you that it’s the superhero casting equivalent of arguing “nobody bats an eye when this homeless man goes to a soup kitchen, but when a millionaire does it, suddenly it’s a huge problem.”
“Changing the character into a different race is too risky a move”
This argument right here is probably the one Hollywood execs cling to the most. If you’re making a movie, then your goal first and foremost is to make bank on it. That’s why you have Christian Bale playing Moses, why Jake Gyllenhaal gets to be the Prince of Persia, and why Johnny Depp is acceptable as Tonto. When execs want to make a movie, the first colour they’re thinking of is green, which is why Will Smith was approached to play the role of Neo on The Matrix before Keanu Reeves was. The racist attitudes in Hollywood do rear their ugly heads though when the casting of minor or antagonistic characters come in to play. If the character is meant to be seen in a negative or subservient light, you better believe directors will have no issue having a minority actor portray them.
The concerns for making a profit are legitimate, but the result absolutely isn’t worth it. This kind of gutless decision making based on “what-ifs” only reinforce negative perceptions people have about certain groups of people (and if you’re really wondering, yes, this is absolutely a thing that happens). It’s also the kind of decision making that means things are never going to change for the better. Meanwhile, doing what is quickly becoming their signature course of action these days, Marvel took a risk by creating a new Ms. Marvel in Kamala Khan, and it paid off big time. That kind of success story, one that wouldn’t exist if the likes of Michelle Rodriguez had their way, is the kind of thing that speaks to what comics are really about at their core – the belief that something positive yet improbable can be achieved if you just put work into it. Chris Rock was right when he once stated that Hollywood is ultimately a white industry, but it’s because of negative and reductive values that hold it back from becoming more; values that I truly believe can change for the better.
The next time someone tells you the portrayal of minority heroes on the big screen doesn’t matter, think about the horrible garbage that goes through the minds of people who really should know better, and think about the difference one positive portrayal can make in the real world.
I don’t know about you, but that’s what real heroism looks like to me.
Quote of the Day:
– Mason Wong (not anyone famous, just a really smart guy I know personally)