Note: This piece largely revolves around sexual racism and the sexual objectification of Black male bodies. There are references to sexual assault, descriptions of objectified Black bodies, and a link to an article on the “Brute Caricature” that includes images of lynchings.
Fandom seems to think that Luke Cage “Looks like he could kill you, but is actually a cinnamon roll”.
To them, Luke may read as a threat, “but is actually a cinnamon roll” because they see that he has tender and sweet moments throughout his appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a result, fandom sanitizes his character so that it can fit this super narrow archetype about what he should be – all while assuming that he was a threat to begin with.
I’m assuming that most, if not all, of the nuance written into his characterization in Luke Cage just went right over their collective heads because a huge chunk of Luke’s arc in his solo series revolves around him trying to figure out how to effectively use his body (rather than having other people use it).
At several points, the series actually addresses Black masculinity and how Black men are inherently seen as violent threats just by existing. And yes, Luke is one of the heavy hitters of the MCU, but he doesn’t want to hurt people: he’s just constantly backed into positions where he has to use his strength to hurt people in order to protect the people in his life.
I’m also assuming that the people who look at Mike Colter and immediately go “wow, this guy looks like he can kill me” haven’t watched the news in a while to see what many killers these days look like. They also have zero common sense because Mike Colter hardly looks like he could hurt a fly.
Saying that physically powerful Black characters such as Luke Cage and American Gods‘ Shadow Moon (played by biracial Black actor Ricky Whittle) “look like they could kill you” prior to calling them cinnamon rolls seems harmless and endearing, but can be linked back to the fact that their bigness and their Blackness are what cause white audiences to view them as threats in the first place.
It’s only after these characters prove their value and their softness (usually in a way that appeals to whiteness), that they’re revered for cinnamon roll status.
But it’s rather clear why fandom does this.
Fandom has a major problem when it comes to the way that certain characters of color are objectified. (Here, I’m focusing on how this objectification plays out against Black characters that either have or are perceived to have a certain, bigger build because that’s what I’ve done more research on, but for real, fandom has always objectified characters of color.)
Of course, these big Black male characters are immediately dismissed for what fandom perceives as the innate violence contained in their frames. We live in a society where nonblack people view Black men and boys as larger than they actually are and where that has historically contributed to their deaths.
In a study from the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology referenced in the above article, researchers found that “nonblack participants believed black men to be more capable of physical harm than white men of the same size”.
When Overwatch character Akande “Doomfist” Ogundimu (voiced by Sahr Ngaujah) was first announced, fandom immediately assumed that he would be this savage bruiser type that could barely string two words together. They assumed, because of the combination of his Blackness and his name, that Doomfist would be little better than Winston: a genetically modified gorilla.
Only infinitely more fuckable.
Fandom was ready for him to be a sex-obsessed beast ready to be ridden by white female characters like Mercy (here’s a link to some of the content created for the ship) or Widowmaker and then… we get more backstory on him that includes how brilliant he is.
The problem about saying that a powerfully built and Black male character of color “Looks like they could kill you, but is actually a cinnamon roll” is that it actually and subtly plays into actual centuries of racist beliefs about Black bodies and masculinity.
Beliefs that got (still get!) Black men assaulted and murdered under the guise of “protecting” white womanhood.
This characterization of Black men as brutish, sexually aggressive, beings is discussed in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia’s “The Brute Caricature” (warning for images of lynching at the link):
During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many white writers argued that without slavery — which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies — blacks were reverting to criminal savagery. The belief that the newly-emancipated blacks were a “black peril” continued into the early 1900s. Writers like the novelist Thomas Nelson Page (1904) lamented that the slavery-era “good old darkies” had been replaced by the “new issue” (blacks born after slavery) whom he described as “lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality” (pp. 80, 163). Page, who helped popularize the images of cheerful and devoted Mammies and Sambos in his early books, became one of the first writers to introduce a literary black brute. In 1898 he published Red Rock, a Reconstruction novel, with the heinous figure of Moses, a loathsome and sinister black politician. Moses tried to rape a white woman: “He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast” (pp. 356-358). He was later lynched for “a terrible crime.”
The “terrible crime” most often mentioned in connection with the black brute was rape, specifically the rape of a white woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the black rapist. The claim that black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping white women became the public rationalization for the lynching of blacks.
The literary Black brute has existed for at least a hundred years and it is inextricably linked with fears of Black masculinity and Black male sexuality. It’s also a literary trope that is present in media to this day.
Black male bodies are objectified in a very specific way: The bigger they are, the more inherently violent and sexually accessible they’re portrayed as.
Hell, even when the Black characters in question aren’t huge, they’re turned into these hulking hardasses out to bust a nut in the nearest vulnerable non-Black character. Back when I had the opportunity to come on the Fansplaining podcast and talk to Flourish and Elizabeth about race in the Star Wars fandom, one of the things that I brought up was about how claiming that your love of sizekink has nothing to do with race doesn’t mean anything if you’re going to portray Black characters in ways that explicitly call back to or mimic sexual objectification in mainstream society.
That fandom immediately rushed to center size difference in Poe/Finn stories on how much bigger (taller, muscular, dick…ier) Finn was than Poe.
Except… both John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are the same height and while John is a bit thicc, there’s no glaring size difference to be had. There’s nothing about John Boyega’s body that renders it immediately more intimidating than Oscar Isaac’s. So why is it then, that when fandom portrays their characters in relation to one another, Finn is frequently portrayed as a behemoth standing besides Poe?
We call it “sexual racism”.
Because that’s what it is.
It’s racism along the same lines as discriminatory practices that lead to people listing their preference for white people on dating websites. It’s the other side of the coin so to speak. We frequently see people talk about sexual racism from a place of revulsion, but the opposite is also racism. Objectifying someone because of their Black body and your beliefs about what said body can do for you in a sexual capacity is racist.
At one point in “Sexual Objectification of Black Men, From Mapplethorpe to Calvin Klein”, writer Charles Stephens talks about the way that Robert Mappelthorpe’s objectification of Black male bodies (most notably in his exhibition “Black Males” and the following collection The Black Book) is emblematic of an objectification that is present in portrayals of Black male bodies to this day.
Stephens writes that:
Scientific racism is never far from sexual racism, and photography has at times been a dark art in service to both.
No image speaks to this point about objectification better than one of Mapplethorpe’s most famous and certainly most infamous images: Man in Polyester Suit. The model was Milton Moore, wearing a tight suit with his long black uncircumcised penis dangling out the zipper like an elephant’s trunk. His face is not in the frame, so we only see his body in fragments.
Writer Edmund White, in defense of Mapplethorpe, argues that many of his models, including Moore, were in fact his lovers, and Moore in particular requested that his face and penis not appear in the same image. However, having sex with black men does not exclude a white man from racism, and in the case of Mapplethorpe, black men were not only a fetish but racism itself.
So how does this relate back to the way that fandom treats Black male characters of a certain (often perceived) size?
Characters like Luke Cage, Shadow Moon, and even Finn are seen to be simultaneously threatening and titillating. They disrupt established societal beliefs about Black men and black masculinity on multiple levels just by existing in their respective canons and so fandom returns to one dimensional characterization and tropes for them.
All three of these men are in canon or fanon relationships with white women and that’s another threat.
These Black male characters are ones that dudebros on Reddit (and, grown women in many “progressive” fandom spaces on tumblr) don’t want to see shipped with white women and who are often reduced to their sexual power and presence. When The Force Awakens came out, dudebros across the world accused JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm of being cucks for daring to have a Black man and a white woman be close friends.
But at the same time, in fandom, the same people condemning racism from dudebros were themselves writing essays about how Finn was a “beta male to Kylo Ren’s alpha” or talking about how Finn wasn’t worthy to hold Rey’s hand because she might be a Skywalker while he was “just” a sanitation worker. The same people who continue to be so very offended by racism in fandom also write stories where Finn is shipped with Poe and is basically written to be a sexual machine with no purpose but to satisfy Poe’s sexual and emotional needs (as Poe is frequently stereotyped as a lusty Latino).
With Luke Cage and Shadow Moon, we saw similar racism play out in how fandom seriously shipped Jessica Jones with her rapist rather than with Luke and with how Laura Moon, despite being actually the worst, was quickly recentered as a focus in the American Gods fandom once she interacted with Mad Sweeney a couple of times.
If you think that a muscular black man “looks like he could kill you but is really a cinnamon roll” or say that you want him to step on you/beat you up (something that actually occurs quite frequently in relation to the former) that actually can say quite a bit about how you perceive Black men and masculinity.