Posted on January 2, 2018

Superhero Narratives Striving for Diversity Are Drowned Out by the Status Quo

Noah Berlatsky, NBC News, December 29, 2017

Superheroes are not good at representing diversity. The genre has for decades been dominated by mostly to white male heroes — and, in fact, is actually tilted specifically towards rich white male superheroes. So while some show runners and producers have tried to move towards greater diversity recently, the sheer ubiquity of these narratives in our pop culture landscape means that even the best exceptions are swamped by a tidal wave of status quo white men saving the world. {snip}

This may seem like a needlessly pessimistic take in 2017, after the critical and commercial success of the Patty Jenkins-directed “Wonder Woman.,” or after “Thor: Ragnarok” introduced a black, bisexual woman hero (Tessa Thompson) in Valkyrie. This was also the year that “The Defenders” brought together characters from all of Netflix’s diverse Marvel series, including Jessica Jones (Krysten Rytter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

When you look a little closer, though, the diversity we’ve been celebrating starts to look a little threadbare.

{snip} Films like “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” and “Justice League” certainly included non-white guys as supporting actors, but white guys were in their usual position at center stage.

Worse, when non-white people are represented, they frequently still show up as wearisome stereotypes. {snip}

Superhero narratives struggle with diversity, even when they strive for it, for a few reasons. The first is that the entire superhero genre was built on characters and stories that are 40, 50 and, in some cases, almost 80 years old. Most of the major properties at that time were created by white men for an audience of mostly white men and boys, at a time during which white men were (even more than now) seen as the heroic default.

Old war horses like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and newer entries like “Dark Matter” and “Okja” have had an easier time reworking their formula to give top billing to characters who aren’t white men.


Similarly, fans were hoping that the new “Spider-Man: Homecoming” might feature Miles Morales, a popular black comic-book character who has worn the webbed-costume for years in the comics. But, again, nostalgia won out and white actor Tom Holland was cast as the white Peter Parker version of the character in the latest movie version.

Another barrier to superhero diversity is the fact that the genre is built around stories of defending the status quo. {snip}

The Netflix Marvel universe provides the most painful example of this dynamic. The first Netflix series were devoted to small scale, ground-level adventures and marginalized heroes — a victim of rape and domestic abuse in “Jessica Jones”; an African-American ex-prisoner in “Luke Cage”; a blind lawyer in “Daredevil”; But “The Defenders” crossover series chose to slight those characters in favor of multi-billionaire whiner Danny Rand/Iron Fist. {snip}

Even when scripts and directors start out focusing on someone else, in superhero stories it seems like the white men always ease their way back to the center of the action.

There are some exceptions that test the rule. The Hulu series “Runaways” features a diverse ensemble cast of teens working together against their wealthy supervillain parents. The remarkable Australian SundanceTV series “Cleverman” focuses on an aboriginal superhero who fights to protect the exploited, super-powered indigenous people, the Hairies, from an increasingly authoritarian near-future government.

Both of these shows, though, are notably different in origin and approach from most superhero fare. {snip}

It’s possible that the superhero genre will improve. “Black Panther” looks very promising, and the success of “Wonder Woman” means that Gal Gadot is going to be more central to the DC Extended Universe from now on. Superheroes are so dominant in film and television, though, that small steps forward, or even large steps forward, seem insufficient. Science-fiction, for example, certainly has its own problems, but old war horses like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and newer entries like “Dark Matter,” “Okja” and even the Power Rangers have had an easier time reworking their formula to give top billing to characters who aren’t white men.

Activists and fans should of course keep pushing superhero studios and writers to do better. {snip}