I’ve talked a ton about what fandom spaces look like when Black woman steps into a racebent role, but not about what happens to Black men who play racebent roles in the same franchises.
If you think that things are any easier for Black men in fandom well…
You’ve thought wrong.
This installment of What Fandom Racism Looks Like will look at how the racism behind how the Smallville fandom treated Pete Ross – played by Sam Jones III – and how, over a decade later, the Supergirl fandom pulls from the same playbook in order to excuse heaping a ton of racism on James Olsen and the black actor that plays him, Mehcad Brooks.
It is a fact of fandom that Black characters of any gender are treated poorly in comparison to non-Black characters. When you take gender into consideration, misogynoir leaps out and the anti-black and anti-woman violence leaps out, but that doesn’t mean that Black men have ever been beloved in fandom.
Some Black men/male characters are liked a little bit more than Black women in similar shows or properties, but can you actually name one that is treated on the same level as a white male character or performer?
Can you name one that’s actually beloved?
We’re now in my fifth year of running Stitch’s Media Mix and one constant that I’ve talked about is the way that the Star Wars fandom maligns, dismisses, and makes weird shit up about Finn and his actor John Boyega.
Folks across various fandom spaces don’t limit their ire just to Finn’s existence and creating fanworks (fiction, art, and meta fandom analysis) that turn him into a villain or kill him off so that Kylo Ren could succeed as the “real” hero of the franchise.
I’m talking about folks deciding Boyega has to be homophobic because he’s Nigerian-British and because his father is prominent in their church and things like the time folks flooded his mentions calling him a misogynist and sexist and even @-ing Lucasfilm/Disney over a video of him dancing during carnival.
What Finn and John Boyega go have been going through since in 2015 is what Mehcad Brooks and James Olsen go through in 2019.
It’s an updated version of what Sam Jones III and Pete Ross went through a decade ago.
Looking back now, it’s obvious that the Smallville fandom was predictable in the same ways that many other superhero fandoms are now.
The most popular ship for the fandom was between two white male characters – Lex Luthor and Clark Kent – frenemies for life.
It’s a fandom that often treated white female characters and characters of color as obstacles in the way of the main slash relationship – instead of like Lex Luthor’s everything. It’s a ship with a fanbase that pretty much cut out or ignored the relationships either white male character had with white women or people of color in order to portray their relationship as the most important one across the series.
With that much predictability, it’s not that difficult to look back at fanworks from when the Smallville fandom was at its highest and draw connections between what fandom did over a decade ago and what it continues to do now.
Pete Ross wasn’t the first sidekick or friend in a superhero drama to be racebent.
In Smallville alone, biracial Chinese-American Kristen Kreuk was cast to play a racebent version of Clark Kent’s teenaged sweetheart Lana Lang. (And Dean Cain’s Clark Kent on The Adventures of Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the early Nineties was visibly not white.)
However, the fandom’s response to this newly Black Pete Ross was… different.
When folks in fandom deigned to write him, they wrote him as a shucking and jiving stereotype, an approximation of what they think Black men were like In 2002.
Back then, longtime fan writer teland aired one hell of a grievance about the way that folks in the Smallville fandom insisted on writing Pete Ross when the series first aired, writing that:
If I *never* see another story where Pete fucking ROSS goes around speaking stereotypical JIVE again it will be too soon. What the fuck is *wrong* with you people? Do you *watch* the show? Has Pete *ever* been anything but a normal smartass teenaged boy with a crush on Chloe and a lust for every other woman his eyes have lit upon? Has he *ever* expressed an interest in the poetry of Amiri Baraka? Does he cruise the streets of Smallville in his low-rider and do drive-bys with his do-rag arranged in Criply perfection?
Then why the *fuck* do you write him that way, numbnuts?
This fannish insistence on writing Pete Ross as hella hood despite the fact that there are next to no other Black people in Smallville – much less a “hood” of any kind – was one of the ways that the Smallville fandom made it very clear that they didn’t actually see Pete Ross as a character. He was a bad blank slate, one that they could overlay not with the nuanced characterization that white blank slates got –
But with stereotypes about Blackness.
There is no “hood” in Smallville, Kansas.
Outside of a few racebent characters, the small country town is pretty darn white. There are several episodes of Smallville where Pete is the only character of color with dialogue. He’s frequently the ONLY black character on-screen and his dialogue and motivations aren’t exactly hard to parse –
So why was fandom’s “go to” for Pete Ross a hella hood version that dropped slang and exhibited a frankly offensive stereotype of Black existence that didn’t even apply to him?
The Smallville fandom, like many fandoms when faced with having to interact with or write a Black character for the first time in ages, gravitated towards what they knew from their limited interactions with Blackness and Black people. Their biases shone through because it was, for them, the only way they knew how to conceptualize Black people.
(You can see this replicated in more modern fandom with how the MCU fandom tries to turn Sam Wilson into a hard hood stereotype in fanworks or that one horrible headcanon where Miles shoplifted to get art supplies – despite his solidly middle-class existence and strong views of right and wrong.)
If you know nothing about Black people outside of what like… Fox News and your elderly grandparents in the Midwest tell you about Black people and have no interest in seeing us AS PEOPLE or doing the work to unbuild those biases, your fanworks that reference or even center Black characters will hold those beliefs.
Pete Ross was on Smallville for three seasons. In those three seasons, the fandom pretty much decided that he was set up to sit in one of two roles. Either he’d be a supportive sidekick to Clark and company, or he’d be a villain. And either way, when they wrote him, they often gravitated to writing him as a hood stereotype.
Again, there are next to no other Black people in Smallville on the seasons Pete Ross is one of Clark’s closest friends.
Smallville is a picture of white Americana right down to how the show and town takes a Highlander-esque approach to diversity where only a few characters of color are even allowed to inhabit the same space at any given time.
Unlike many of the other Black male characters that set fandoms afire with their ire, Pete Ross wasn’t a threat to established ships or character arcs. He was gone before he really had a chance to shine, written off and moved out of town as other characters took his spot at Clark’s right hand.
What happens when a Black male character is in the way of one ship or poses a threat to another?
Well, for the answer to that, we need to fast forward over a decade to the Supergirl fandom and how it treats Mehcad Brooks and his character on the show, James Olsen. From the start, racebending Clark Kent’s most famous sidekick didn’t go well. His casting was met with frustration from all corners of fandom from folks that hated that he was a) Black and b) potentially in a relationship with Kara.
Then season two on The CW happened and the fandom kind of… started mutating in the worst way.
Certain parts of the Supergirl fandom will have you believing that James Olsen is the worst character on the show and that Mehcad is the most problematic person to ever work on a CW show.
They cite Mehcad’s (admittedly offensive) Instagram username, his championing Lena/James as a ship on instagram using a hashtag commonly associated with LGBTQ people, and a comment about how his girlfriend at the time told him that he’s “a lesbian trapped in a football player’s body” made to a trans reporter.
None of those things are great, let’s be very real here.
I don’t actually like or support a lot of how Mehcad Brooks carries himself. I don’t need to like him in order to be very aware of how he’s treated by the fandom from even before he was deemed Problematic.
One of the things I’ve been hyperaware of in fandom is how celebrities and fans of color are shunned for problematic thoughts and behavior in a more… permanent way. There are non-Black CW stars who are problematic – some of them are even on Supergirl – and who’ve presented themselves in ways that aren’t great.
But for the most part, they don’t have people calling for them to be fired or for their character to be killed off.
They don’t have folks pretending to care about marginalized people to cloak their anti-Blackness.
Which is one of my biggest issues with the way that Black male characters are treated in fandom spaces: the way that folks use social justice rhetoric and a vague “desire for representation” to excuse unsubtle racism towards these male characters and their performers.
I know we covered that folks performing wokeness is in the minority of Things That Happen In Fandom, but let’s be clear: this is one occasion where it’s frequent and obvious.
One of the ways that Black characters and performers are subject to racism from fandom is in the way that non-Black fans will reframe them as “too problematic to support” (which therefore allows them to be dehumanized by the fandom that dislikes them). If folks in fandom can claim that they really don’t like a Black character because they need to protect marginalized (white) fans from their existence, then they can’t be called racist.
Because they’re doing it for (white) queer people.
Or (white) women.
But it’s terribly transparent.
Someone celebrating (with champagne and all) that James Olsen has been shot and that Lex Luthor called him a dog does not actually give a shit about representation for people of color.
Someone fretfully worrying that John Boyega, thanks to his father’s role in their church, is a homophobe that doesn’t actually want Finn/Poe to be canon, doesn’t actually care about queer people.
Someone positing that a Black male character is actually harmful for a non-Black character – and that’s why the fandom has to distrust and dislike them – doesn’t actually care about Black people.
And if you’re out here championing a non-canon (fem)slash ship because #RepresentationMatters at the same time that you’re out here actively wishing evil on a Black performer and hoping that their character gets killed off… you can’t possibly care that much about representation for anyone but white queer people.
It continues to boggle my mind how non-Black fans seem incapable of understanding that we can see their tweets and tumblr posts. They seem incapable of understanding that we know the script as well as they do because we’ve seen them use it across the years of fandom and that we see it put into play, we’re not going to fall for it.
Hell, we’re going to call that crap out.
Pete Ross wasn’t the first Black male character to be mistreated by a white fandom. We’ve got years of evidence of Black male characters being rewritten and misrepresented and torn down in order to lift up non-Black ones. Name me a Black male character in a franchise or fandom and I’ll probably be able to tell you at least two ways that fandom mistreats them.
As we can see with James Olsen, the disgusting way folks in fandom treat and talk about Black male characters and performers. is just going to continue until non-Black fans step up and throw away the script they’re adhering to so hard.