How Superheroes Can Demonize People of Color

I went to an anti-police brutality rally protesting the death of Mike Brown recently. But it wasn’t just about Mike Brown. It was Trayvon Martin. It was the woman down the street.  It was for everyone who ever suffered under a racist police system.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/8460113914/

Anti-police brutality rally, Feb. 2013.

And as I stood in the crowd and chanted and yelled with my voice ringing with a myriad of voices around me, I thought about superheroes. I thought about the Justice League coffee mug I own and how out of all the superheroes depicted everyone is white.

jla

The mug features head shots of Robin, Batman, Superman, The Flash, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and Wonder Woman. Everyone is white. What this means is that the heroes are white. The good guys are white. The guys who win, the guys who have the power, the moral righteousness that lets them make difficult choices. These heroes are white (and overwhelmingly male). I know not all police officers are white. I know you can be a person of color and still be racist both against your own race and against others. But I also know the message DC sends to its fans when it produces merchandise like this.

Cyborg is now on the Justice League and I’m thrilled that DC has taken this step, but it’s not enough. We need to show comic book readers of all colors  that your race has nothing to do with your morals. We need to show casual fans that in a world where racist police exist, at least in fiction it doesn’t have to. That’s the joy of fiction: it can illuminate the world’s problems and it can also offer solutions to them. And sometimes the solution is depicting a world where it has already been overcome.

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Terra: Radical Rocker of Teen Titans

I’ve noticed a trend in my favorite fictional characters: at least 90% of them are male. What surprised me the most about this realization was that I have way more female friends than male friends. There was no way I couldn’t brush aside this point and say that maybe I just “don’t connect with women”.

I have heard women talk about how women are annoying, petty, and more difficult to be around because of their tendency to be overly emotional. This seems to be less about how women actually are and far more about how they are portrayed in fiction, especially in relationship to how their male counterparts are portrayed. In short, the men (even men who are evil) are almost guaranteed to be people in their own right and therefore more likeable. Rarely are male characters designed to benefit a female character. Chances are it’s the other way around.

Now, when I first began to be interested in superheroes I fell in love with the Cartoon Network series Teen Titans. While I do have a few complaints about the female characters in the show I was floored by one character. I fell in love with Terra.

She was the first female character I had a genuine connection with. She was a young girl trying to be a hero with her powers of earth manipulation, but because she could not control these powers she would inevitably cause more harm than good. When she is introduced in Season 2 she was a live-life-to-the-fullest go-getter hiding her massive insecurities about her powers, her past, and her ability to have normal relationships. Her backstory is never fully explained in the cartoon, but watching the series and seeing how she interacts with main cast of Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Raven, it is easy to see she is a rounded character.

Terra reacts out of fear, love and pain, just to name a few of the emotions she goes through. Her character arc is treated with respect and even though she is paired with Beast Boy she was not created to be his love interest. She is her own person no matter that her arc is bound up with the male characters of the series, Robin, Beastboy and Slade.

I feel the most interesting thing about Terra though, is that she is not a feminist character. For all that I could rave about her being a rounded character, that does not mean that she is a feminist or that the creators of the show wanted her to be one. And that’s alright.

I love her because I connect with her on the basis that I could meet someone like her on the street. She doesn’t fit into the women-are-either-angels-or-monsters paradigm.

The irony to all this is that her comic book version created in the 1980s (read “Terra Incognito” and “The Judas Contract” for her comic book arc) was designed for her to be a loud mouthed jack ass who hates the Teen Titans for no other reason than that they are good. She is sexually involved with Slade Wilson, a man at least 40 years her elder and it is only to prove that she is psychotic. She is a “monster” in the comics, but the cartoon made a different call. The cartoon wanted a female character who was well developed and wasn’t created to further the story of the male heroes. Although she isn’t a feminist character this doesn’t mean she doesn’t do radical things for how female characters are perceived and written.