Karen Janowsky

Superheroes in Love

And here we go again

Jul 17, 2022 by Karen Janowsky
Since comics never really shied away from social politics (especially MC and DC), I'm gonna dive into a recent conversation I had on social media. I posted someone's tweet (see right) about the Batman TV series from the 60s (which rocks, if you haven't seen it. Omg does it rock):
Someone said that racism isn't as rampant anymore, and that no one batted an eye when characters like Nick Fury were cast as Black in the MCU. 
First of all, the meme isn't quite accurate. Eartha Kitt's casting as Cat Woman was met with plenty of loud resistence at the time, especially from (where else?) the southen part of the country. The meme is a little complicated. Fans who already didn't have a problem with diversity didn't necessarily bat an eye over Julie Newmar's replacement. Just because there's no Internet trail doesn't mean a gazillion people's hackles weren't raised over her. As far as Romero--his face was covered. People couldn't SEE his ethnicity, therefore it wasn't as big of a deal (I could be wrong; I didn't do a lot of research about his reception as Joker).

Regarding writing or casting for race, comics especially have made little secret about their goal of diversity. First, comics have a long history--from the inception of some characters--of pushing hard against social inequality. Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men to this day receive backlash over storylines and character variations regarding race and gender. As far as Fury, people did and do have problems with the complicated issue of racial presentation in the MCU, so casting for balance isn't necessarily an afterthought in many instances. As for lessened racism in this country, it never changed. I think the events of the past 6 or 7 years confirms this. 

Indeed, race and other social issues has been a point of contention historically through the present. In the 50s, the Comics Code Authority effectively censored any mention of social inequality, or race, gender or sex-related depictions that were not cis-straight in a good light .The Authority was based on the work of Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. The work claimed that comics championed disregard for authority and encouraged deliquency in children. Interestingly, there are faint(ish) echoes of that sentiment in the current, ultra-conservative argument that CRT is somehow bad. Famously, a recent example of ongoing backlash against social justice storylines and diverse characters can be found with Fox News' wondering why, in a scene, Superman came to the defense of a Muslim family instead of letting them die. Others, from the artists' perspectives, are storylines where Captain America disowns the United States altogether a few times over the course of his comic book lifetimes. Similarly, Superman renounces his American citizenship around 2010 or 11, claiming, "“The world’s too small. Too connected" for "The American Way" /patriotism to be a priority anymore. 

Other examples: Wonder Woman originally was meant as Marston's answer to the stereotypical weak roles women had in real life and in the media. In the movies, Gal Gadot received all kinds of flak for either being too ethnic or not ethnic enough. In the MCU, Sure, there wasn't as much fuss about Jackson (but there was a lot of commentary at the time on making Fury Black), but there has always been racial backlash toward the franchise. People are up in arms that Ms. Marvel is Muslim. A Black man is the new Captain America, and there are calls for boycotts. Falcon and the Winter Soldier was lambasted about having a "leftist agenda." Black Panther had the gall to point out explicitly the racial inequalities in this country, and that the former administration put currency in classism and racism. Again, it was boycott time from the offended far right. There's also the matter of many characters (Superman, Spider Man, Captain America come to mind) who were metaphors for the Jewish immigration experience of the first half of the 20th century.

I've said this already in one or two blog posts: comics reflect, question, and respond to contemporary pop culture and its social controversies. Escapism is great, and they provide that too. But, reading just for escapism and not looking deeper (and I don't mean deep study and analysis; I mean casual observation and acknowledgement) into the subtext robs the audience of the reading experience, in my opinion.

The point is, even if the casting for TV and movies is explicitly racially sensitive, it doesn't matter. There is a loud contingent of people in this country who are apparently deathly afraid of people of color and non-cis male figures approaching power (even through entertainment and pop culture) and influencing attitudes. To the meme's wording: why not the attitude toward Kitt and Romero? Well, there was. People hated it, especially in the South. The meme above points more to white nostalgia than the reality of 1967. The most recent kerfuffle over race and social equality came when (who else?) Fox News called the new Star Trek series "woke," ignoring that Rodenberry's original idea was racial and gender equality. George Takei shot back, "Who wants to tell them?"