“Black Panther” opened last weekend, securing the slot for the fifth-largest opening in film history, suggesting that nerd culture is not as homogenous as many insist — the success of Ryan Coogler’s film might finally break the white, male stranglehold on the industry.
Though racism and sexism are no doubt persistent throughout all media, it seems particularly pernicious in franchises with devoted fanbases.
It took the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, 10 years and 17 movies before releasing a film where a person of color receives top billing. It took 9 years and 16 movies before Marvel hired a person of color to direct one of their movies — that honor went to Taika Waititi with “Thor: Ragnarok.” To date, Marvel has no female-led or female-directed movies, as “Captain Marvel” is not set to be released until 2019.
This diversity problem is not confined to the MCU. Though the “Star Wars” franchise has made inroads with diversity — with the casting of John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran and much of the “Rogue One” cast — the franchise persists in only casting uncannily similar-looking white, brunette women.
Similarly these major franchises remain woefully without LGBTQ+ representation. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was a hit among MCU fans. The studio knew this and capitalized on it — some may remember Hiddleston’s famous San Diego Comic Con appearance. In both the comics and Norse mythology Loki is bisexual and genderfluid. The films have not addressed this at all.
Even when there are opportunities to depict LGBTQ+ characters, it often gets vetoed. It’s significant that in “Thor: Ragnarok,” Tessa Thompson, a woman of color, was cast as Valkyrie — a traditionally white, blonde character — but the exclusion of her bisexuality is disheartening. Still, Thompson deserves credit for her vocal support of Valkyrie’s identity, even going so far as to suggest that her character’s female lover did make a brief appearance.
Similarly, there was some consideration of including a scene in “Black Panther” where Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) briefly flirt with each other. This scene ultimately did not make it into the film. Again, this failing is not confined to the MCU, as the “Harry Potter” franchise has repeatedly neglected opportunities to include explicitly LGBTQ+ characters, shying away from Dumbledore’s homosexuality.
This tendency to shy away from representation is all the more frustrating because of the significant inroads being made in the comics themselves. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey have all recently written a number of “Black Panther” comics, which featured a romance between the female warriors Ayo and Aneka. Additionally, Ms. Marvel’s mask is worn by Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager, while Riri Williams, a Black girl and certified genius, has taken on the Iron Man legacy, going by the moniker Ironheart. Even Thor’s hammer was briefly taken up by a woman. The comic industry is by no means perfect with representation, but it is outshining the onscreen universes.
Not only do major franchises not represent the diversity of their audience, these fandoms can be outright predatory towards marginalized groups. The harassment and doxing brought on by Gamergate controversy — an online campaign intent on targeting women in the video game industry — drew the attention of many. Worse yet, harassment at conventions is an expectation, rather than an exception.
Fans and characters of color suffer even more harassment. CW’s “The Flash” cast Candice Patton as the traditionally white Iris West. The show is in its fourth season and there is still backlash to Patton’s character. Zendaya’s casting in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was also met with resistance. Twitter users may remember the massive attack mounted against Leslie Jones after the release of the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot, which resulted in Milo Yiannopoulos being banned from Twitter — a rare move on the part of a website notoriously resistant to banning users.
The myth of the straight, white male as the default nerd is a trend that just won’t die. Shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” capitalize on this stereotype. We have been told time and again that comics, sci-fi and fantasy are for white men. But this is not, and never has been, true.
In the ‘60s, “Star Trek: The Original Series” was given a third season because of a letter writing campaign organized by a woman, Bjo Trimble. 50 years later, the most recent “Star Trek” television show, “Star Trek: Discovery,” stars a black woman (Sonequa Martin-Green). Additionally, the success of “Wonder Woman” demonstrates that female-led and -directed movies sell tickets, confirming that the poor box office performances of “Catwoman” and “Elektra” had nothing to do with their female heroes.
Such a belief is an obvious double standard — the 2003 “Daredevil” film is also widely panned by fans, but that didn’t stop the slew of male superhero stories we’ve seen in the 15 years since.
To date, “Wonder Woman” is the only female-directed film in the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU — still beating out Marvel’s utter lack of female-directed films. Though the DCEU is not nearly as critically praised as the MCU, there’s something to say about the rapidity with which DC has incorporated characters who are female and people of color — of the five released films, three include women and people of color in main roles.
In the current moment, the staggering success of “Black Panther” proves that films led by people of color sell tickets — and even more importantly, that representation is an incredibly empowering thing. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) may have been the film’s hero and villain, but Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye were just as instrumental to every aspect of the film.
Fandom is not without individuals attempting to infuse these spaces with necessary representation, such as Michael Dorian Parks of Geeks of Color, and Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds. These efforts are often met with the excuse that movies targeting a certain demographic — any movie that does not explicitly include a white, straight, cis male insert for fanboys — just won’t sell enough tickets to justify the monetary investment. This is objectively false.
There is no excuse for this continued resistance to diversity. Everyone should have heroes who look like them. Stories teach us how to believe and hope and dream, and heroes were always meant to give us ideals to strive towards. The basketball-playing Oakland kids who begin and end “Black Panther” see themselves in their heroes — the king of Wakanda and his genius sister.
Every kid deserves that.
Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].