We did this in 2015.
And in 2016.
Now it’s 2017 and I’ve got at least four different posts on racebending under my belt because nerds still don’t know how to behave.
This is an ongoing project looking at the continuing state of fandom’s reaction to racebending following my first piece on how badly comic fans respond to racebending in the works that they love and three years in, people are still cutting up about racebending while claiming not to be racist.
They’re not racist, they claim in comment sections across the internet, but the idea of Black women being cast as aliens, goddesses, and the iconic love interest of the Fastest Man Alive, still sends them into literal conniptions. They assume that racebending is Social Justice Gone Wild, not the best actor/actress being chosen for the role. At multiple points, I’ve seen them claim that white redheads are being erased from popular culture.
Of course, these same people screaming about authenticity and sticking to the source material stay silent in the face of whitewashing (as in the case of Deadpool actor Ed Skrein initially being tapped to play a Japanese character in the upcoming Hellboy remake).
I want to talk about these people.
I do –
But first, a quick aside:
Whenever I talk about racebending, some people always brings up the idea of racebending being done wrong and how these fans feel as though racebending being done “just for the hell of it” will result in the subpar quality of the ensuing work.
I want to address this right out at the start to maybe head off repetitive complaints before they take root: of course it’s possible to do racebending “wrong”.
However, it doesn’t work the way that many people think it does.
When these random fans think about racebending “done wrong”, they think of characters of color being shoe-horned into roles that said fans don’t think they deserve. They assume that if a major character is racebent, that it has to be pandering and that the actor chosen for the role, was picked over a better, whiter actor.
To these fans, racebending a character with any kind of significance to the chosen narrative (specifically when love interests come into play) is racebending “done wrong”.
They aren’t satisfied by any form of racebending, but they can ignore it if a one-off, minor character is racebent.
Then, conveniently, it’s “organic to the plot”.
When I think of racebending done wrong, I think of it in terms of a lack of intersectional thought going into the work. It isn’t enough to racebend iconic characters if you’re not going to think about the ways that their narrative changes alongside it.
It’s not enough to racebend Superman so that Kal-El is now visibly dark skinned and reads as a Black man. Not if you don’t address the way that this Blackness will inform his character. Not if you don’t think about how Kal-El being Black changes the way that the Kents are looked at for taking him in. Not if you don’t address the fact that a Black superhero would be treated far differently than a white one.
When characters are racebent with no care taken to flesh out their backstories – leaving them with the pre-established “iconic” backstory – it rings hollow.
As much as I loved the choice Tim Seeley and Tom King made to racebend Helena Bertinelli so that she was a brown-skinned Black Italian-American on the pages of their Grayson series, they never really addressed that. We’re presented with this new and improved Helena, slotting her into the space of the old one, without any sign that they thought about what that change meant for her as a character. Her Blackness, while present in the coloring and a word of god tweet confirmation, isn’t a thing that matters to the story told in Grayson or her story in the pages of Batgirl and the Birds of Prey.
In a similar vein, the casting of Samira Wiley as Moira in the Hulu television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale reads as racebending “done wrong” because it doesn’t make sense in the context that the book lays out.
In the book version of Gilead, a majority of Black people have been deported en masse as “the Children of Ham” while the remaining Black people are postmenapausal women (called Marthas) are treated as cooks/maids. In the narrative, many other groups of people of color were treated in similar ways.
We’re told that the narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale is a patriarchal narrative, but less acknowledged is the fact that these characters also live in a world that is explicitly a white supremacist paradise.
And yet, we have a Black woman playing the best friend of the main character – as a fellow Handmaid whose job it is to get pregnant for a white family. We have other women of color seen in the background of crowd scenes as other Handmaids.
But it doesn’t make sense.
In a piece on the series, Soraya McDonald points out that that, “In a hierarchical society propelled by religious fundamentalism, just about everything in this history of this country suggests that racial divisions would become far more deeply entrenched.”
What happens when Moira gives birth to a biracial baby for a white family? Undoubtedly, within the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, there are no Black men in power in this new and devolved version of the United States. There are no Black Wives. A white Wife cannot pretend that a biracial baby is her own. There will always be something of the birth parent in the baby even if the baby leans towards its other parent. The series doesn’t go the distance to make this change make sense and so, nuance is lost and the story actually suffers for it.
And so many other stories attempt to introduce racial diversity without actually bothering to do the math to make it work.
I just hate having this question posed every single time I talk about racebending because it’s not coming from a place of caring. As with the repeated commentary of people asking me if I’d be okay with a white Black Panther, this demand of protecting fans from “racebending done wrong” is coming from a place of silencing and smugness.
Disliking some attempts at racebending because they aren’t fleshed out doesn’t mean that I want racebending to stop or that I agree with people who cry that they want to see the work done well instead of racebending done wrong.
That’s not good enough either.
Now, let’s end this aside in order to talk about how racist comic book fans are in 2017.
If you’ve been keeping up with nerdy news, you’ll know that 24: Legacy actress Anna Diop has been cast in the upcoming Titans television show on DC’s currently unnamed “straight to digital” streaming service. In the comment sections of the articles that followed this casting news, nerds around the world lost their shit (while ignoring the fact that canonically Roma character Dick Grayson is being played by Brenton Thwaites, an actor that is not Roma).
These nerds are freaking out in the same way they’ve done every single time a Black woman has been cast in a racebent role and it’s annoying that it’s seen as a normal aspect of nerd culture.
Now I’ve chosen not to include the comments that called explicitly for light skinned women, Latinas (who apparently can’t be Black), and women with “better bodies” to be in the role because it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel, but let’s look at some of the racist whining that went on in comment sections around the internet following the casting news:
From a commenter named “ray” on Deadline’s coverage of the news:
Looks nothing like Starfire and she isn’t even a good actress. I bet they won’t even bother doing a body paint, she will look like a regular woman.
From “Dave” on Screenrant’s coverage:
Nice. I was waiting for them to cast a black person to appease to the minority and ensure they do not loose out on that section of viewers. Do not worry about the fact that Starfire is supposed to be really hot and young looking and goofy but in a sexy way. Let us just cast a black lady who most people would not categorize as hot. Come’on DC. You are better than this. I hated Marvel for changing the ethnicity of ‘The Ancient One’ and Mandarin but I did not expect this from DC.
Also from Screenrant, we have Mike:
STARFIRE IS SUPPOSE TO BE HOT! Not whatever that person is…
I have no problem with them casting any race in any role. With the exception of adaptations. When they do this, all it does to me is scream racial diversity. As in they feel conpelled to do it to appease someone or some groups that don’t need it.
Now if this is as simple as she was most definitely the best actress for the job, then good. I don’t want subpar actors. Let’s hope for the ladder.
Then on CBR’s coverage we have… Ivan who, with no sense of how silly he sounds asking for an actress that matches Starfire’s iconic orange skin, appears to be calling another commenter a “deluded douchebag”:
Fans are racist for merely wanting their favorites to resemble their comic look on screen. Poor deluded douchebag.
Maybe I could force myself to ignore comments like these if this didn’t happen every single time that a performer of color is cast as a “classically white” actor. However, this tantrum throwing happens every single time racebending occurs, but not when whitewashing happens.
If fans are so concerned about accuracy and about the “right actor being cast in the role” why is it that they never show up to demand authenticity anywhere else?
The same people that are frothing mad at the idea of Starfire and Domino being Black, are also pissed off that Ed Skrein has since stepped down from the role of Ben Daimio. They’re the same people that told the rest of us to shut up when Scarlett Johansson was cast to play a whitewashed version of Motoko Kusanagi or when Tilda Swinton was playing Doctor Strange’s The Ancient One.
They’re people that are all for the idea of the “best person for the role” playing any superhero role… up until said “best person for the role” happens to be an actor of color playing a “historically white” character.
Why is it that fans incensed by racebending aren’t equally upset by whitewashing or other forms of erasure?
I mean, by now we all know that the answer is “racism”. Even the fans still spitting mad about the fact that they can’t get one over the mean old SJWs by having Skrein play a character of Japanese descent know that they’re only raising a stink because of racism. Their racism.
If you’re ever unsure that comic fans decrying racebending while staying silent about whitewashing comes from a place of white supremacy, think about the reactions to both Ed Skrein’s resignation letter and to the Black Panther movie images that we’ve seen so far.
I keep coming back to Ed Skrein.
I don’t want to make him into a hero for doing the bare minimum, but I mean… I can’t remember the last time prior to him that someone playing a whitewashed role didn’t absolutely stick their foot in their mouths to defend themselves. I can’t remember the last time that an actor went “hey, I didn’t realize that this a whitewashed role” and then dropped out of the role.
In his letter (posted on twitter), Skrein wrote that:
“I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage. There has been intense conversation and understandable upset since that announcement, and I must do what I feel is right. It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic stories and voices in the Arts.”
He went on to talk about his own family (he and his partner have a biracial child) and how important it is to him to “give voice to inclusivity”.
He didn’t have to do this. He could’ve been like countless other white actors in the decades before this one. He could’ve stuffed his fingers in his ears and claimed that the people talking about whitewashing were nasty bullies trying to destroy his livelihood.
But he didn’t do that.
Instead, he stepped down from the role in the hopes that someone more suitable could take it.
(And, as of 9/14/2017, Daniel Dae Kim has been announced to take the role. For thoughts on this, including worries about the idea that East Asian identities are exchangeable, please see THIS POST by writer and activist Solace K Ames.)
However, places like the comment section of the USA Today article announcing Skrein’s exit from the role are full of complaints like:
- “But the constant blackwashing of white characters has been fine.”
- In response to a commenter joking about Black people playing white characters (pointing out how silly a term “blackwashing is): “While I think most agree that more representation should be welcomed…I don’t quite understand how we are all suppose to be equal, skin colors shouldn’t matter and “hope” for a world where it truly doesn’t matter what skin color anyone is but yet it’s perfectly acceptable to call attention to roles being played by white actors. How is that not a racist opinion and act in itself? Is it just ok to be racist as long as it’s against white people?”
- “There should be a strict vetting to ensure actors of other races do not play roles intended for a certain race. All minor roles should be assigned on a strict quota system based on the percentage of that perceived race in the USA. After many decades of desegregation, some races wish to set themselves apart by segregation. Universties, hallowed halls of learning, support this effort. Government should retract all laws and regulations that prohibit this and let the the wishes of those racial/ethnic groups come to a happy segregated ending.”
- “Funny they call it acting because you are potraying something you are not. I guess his acting ability is not up to the job. I have no doubt that the entertainment industry needs to use more minorities but this is not the way it should be achieved. A weak attempt at a noble gesture.”
- “Remakes of the Karate Kid, Annie and The Honeymooners replaced white characters with black ones and I don’t recall any outrage over that.”
- “And yet somehow Hamilton is a-ok. Dude should have stood his ground.”
- “Never heard of Ed Skrein. Forget this PC kid. Any remake without the original Hellboy, Ron Perlman, would not be worth going to see…sorry .”
- “I’ve got to start paying closer attention….I’m sure we have germans playing russians and british playing greeks and italians playing spanish and norwegians playing irish…….this has GOT TO STOP.Good f*cking grief.Thank goodness it’s still OK for Denzel to play the equalizer…but I forget…if you’re giving black people roles, no matter the circumstances, it’s fine.”
Notice anything interesting about these comments?
A couple comments call Skrein weak.
Others mock the idea of casting diversely by suggesting that we now screen actors so that no one can pretend to be anything that they’re not. They bring up European ethnicities (mocking the idea of interchangeable ethnicities being a frustrating form of racism) as though any Irishman worth their salt would want some British bozo playing one of their historical figures.
And they keep going after Black people.
Somehow, despite the fact that this is about a white actor gracefully declining to take a whitewashed role where he plays a character created to be East Asian, many of the comments rush forward to complain about Black people in racebent roles. There’s nothing here at all about Black people or actors (the only other example of whitewashing that is even referenced in the article is about ScarJo’s dismal performance in Ghost In the Shell and that’s a skippable video).
Despite the fact this is not a conversation started by or even about Black people, white people in the comment sections of websites across the internet have rushed to complain about Black people taking all the roles in Hollywood…. Even though, in fact, Black people really don’t make up a huge amount of the faces that you see onscreen (and we tend to see the same dozen black faces all the time).
Which brings us to my next point: Black Panther.
People of color are always told that we need to make our own media.
When characters are whitewashed and we complain? “Make your own show/comic and it can be as diverse as you want.”
When a piece of media (like Fantastic Beasts) passes up on the opportunity to make the most of a fantastically diverse situation)? “If you wrote your own story/comic in this era you could have all the pee-oh-sees that you want.”
Every single time that fans of color comment on the lack of diversity in the things that we love or are trying to love, we’re told (in snotty terms usually) to stop complaining and to create our own content with the type of diversity that we crave so much.
But then… what happens when we do create our own? What happens when we write books, direct movies, or create comics centering characters of color in leading roles? Then we get accused of reverse racism or white erasure.
While a majority of the response to Black Panther has been positive, I’ve just about lost track of how many times I’ve seen white people on the internet go out of their way to tear the MCU’s take on Wakanda down. Despite the fact that the cast and crew are largely Black (coming from across the African diaspora) and that this is a prime example of us making our own… complaints still abound.
When we make our own?
We’re shamed and insulted for not… including white characters as the focus.
We’re accused of excluding white audiences.
We’re told that our work won’t sell because it’s too niche.
We’re told that Hollywood or a big publisher has already snagged their one book or movie by a person of color about people of color for the year.
If we make our own diverse content centering people of color as people of color, we’re not likely to get half as much attention for our work as we would if we were working on an established property and diversifying through racebending.
Racebending sends nerds into conniptions, but so does the idea of actual “organic” diversity straight from diverse creators.
So what is it that these nerds want?
Every year, I hope that my fellow nerds will realize that racebending isn’t an attempt to steal the game from white fans, but to level a historically uneven playing field. Every year, I try to imagine what the internet would look like if nerds didn’t accuse Hollywood of “blackwashing” or of “redhead erasure” every time a Black person is cast as their favorite white redhead. Every year, I wonder what it would feel like to make my way through nerdy websites without seeing Black people insulted or blamed for destroying nerdy media around the world.
And every year I’m disappointed.
I don’t want to make another post pointing out how comic fans around the world are still racist babies about racebending next year, but we’re three for three and as more casting announcements come out for comic adaptations, I’m assuming that this absolutely fake outrage will only increase.
Don’t they have anything better to do than get angry over casting news on the internet?
I mean… it’s just a comic book character casting. It’s not that serious.