Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Diversifying Your (Artist's) Portfolio aka My Gay Spider-Man Entry

Spider-Man, Spider-Man

Does it with either gal or man

Not restrained by gender

Unlike the author of Ender

Look out! Here comes queer Spider-Man!

Recently, Andrew Garfield made pseudo headlines by intimating that Mary Jane (or MJ) could be a dude for the next Spider-Man film and that Peter could be moving a few spots up on the Kinsey scale. As is to be expected, there were unhappy fanboys. And happy gays. And once more, the internet was at war. Ultimately, Garfield declared that, despite his wishes, there would be no queer Spidey, but people are still talking.

Ultimately, as a gay fanboy and someone who thinks about representation politics far more than the average Joe or Jane, I have mixed feelings about Garfield's ruminations. On one hand, I acknowledge that someone needs to intervene on comic book canon if we are to have anything slightly resembling diversity. Let's face facts:

there have been VERY few iconic characters who emerged after the 60s (the All-New, All-Different X-Men, Venom, and Harley Quinn are the first ones that come to mind). What that means is that most of the staples for superhero movies originated in a time where heroes were predominantly white men and (with the exception of 40s Wonder Woman and, if Dr. Wertham is to be believed, Batman and Robin) heterosexual (not to mention cisgendered). If no one intervenes, we are stuck with endless blockbusters with the diversity of 50s entertainment. Think of superhero movies up until now. Gays are non-existant and women and characters of color are often relegated to the sidelines (Lucius Fox, Pepper Potts, etc) or there's one-per-team rule (Nick Fury and Black Widow). Admittedly, the X-Men films have MUCH better gender stats, but again, that's because they draw heavily from characters which emerged in the 70s and 80s.

On the other hand, Peter Parker is very straight. In fact, he may be the straightest of superheroes. Spider-Man was the super-hero comic most defined by romantic woes - possibly the first major superhero one to focus so intently on

them. Of course, gays have romantic woes...but is being a gay teen the same as being a straight one? Is thinking we can just make Mary Jane into a guy risking universalizing the queer experience? We may live in the age of Glee and Modern Family and I'm sure things are different than when I was in high school, but I still think some things will be the same. Sure, Peter would be bullied as much as he always was, but were he queer and (more importantly) out, his bullying would probably be less likely to make him romantically unappealing to other guys (who would also be bullied) instead of how it's been so far, where he just looked weak to girls. Also, Peter would be more experienced with having secrets and a double life (even if he was out by the time he was bitten) - being Spider-Man would not equal the first time he had to have barriers between him and Aunt May.

In short, diversity is never as simple as "Just add queerness/lady parts/color." Being a minority often

entails a different experience and outlook and that should be incorporated in the character. Batman, for example, might be a great bisexual character. Bruce Wayne always wants to be dominating the headlines as luxurious and decadent - sexually fluidity might help that...and also maybe make Bruce seem more effete so no one suspects he's the uber-macho Batman. In short, some characters can be changed...and some may have a harder time.

Who cannot (without changing the character substantially)? I'd say, for starters, Captain America, Superman, and Thor, as far as gender and race goes...perhaps sexuality as well. [note of course, that there CAN be a variation on any of these characters...as long as the author is aware that they may be severely changing the mythos or some of the central character conceits]

Why? Well, for Cap, we need to consider that 1940s America would never choose a racial minority to be their icon, and that Rosie the Riveter occupied a very different spot from Uncle Sam. It'd be a white-washed history if we were to make the US government color-blind. Also...we'd lose something I always love: the irony that Cap is actually the embodiment of Hitler's Master Race.

[Granted, there is a black "Captain America" story - and an excellent one at that (Truth by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker) - but anyone who has read it knows it's not your typical Captain America story (i.e. get powers, represent the US, defeat Nazis).]

Superman is a similar story. He's the beloved of Metropolis, of everyone. Quite frankly, were a woman or a person of color to have that much power, the sad reality is that there would be more suspicion. Lex Luthor would be the norm...not the exception. Is this an interesting story here? Definitely - one that interrogate certain attitudes on race and gender and the foundations of the Superman mythos. But it's not a classic Superman story - and one that might be tougher to sell as the major, mainstream representation of the character for the decade. [However, apparently Man of Steel ends on this note, so maybe this is a moot point.] Also, I would say Lois Lane is so key here that I'd be hesistant to make Clark anything but straight.

As for Thor...yeah, I suppose he should look very Norse. And still be a dude. I'll give some precedence to mythology. Of course, Asgard isn't only white in the movie, so again, maybe a moot point.

But that leaves us LOTS of characters. And major ones at that.

A common retort though would be that fans don't want movies tampering with the characters. Hawkeye is a white guy - to make him an Indian woman or a Chicano trans-man would make him not Hawkeye. He's Clint Barton. Fandom has not been overly quick to accept these types of changes - the lukewarm reception of the Latino Blue Beetle and the now-dead Asian Atom attest to that. In short, some may ask why do Hollywood and the PC police need to mess with things?

The reality is that Hollywood messes with things all the time (to the point that, all my prior exceptions are loose at best). Joker in Dark Knight no longer had an acid-changed face but wore makeup (and thus Batman's creation of Joker was lost). Jarvis is no longer a butler but a computer program. Rogue's big crush is Iceman, not Gambit. And so forth.

Meanwhile in comics, there sometimes is not even an iconic iteration of a character. Is the definitive Flash Barry Allen or Wally West (or Jay Garrick or Bart Allen)? How about Robin: Dick Grayson or Tim Drake? In fact, we've seen Robin change genders in The Dark Knight Returns and briefly in the comics when Spoiler took over the role. Same could be said for Jon Stewart, though he often pales to the love for Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner (but we'll soon get to why Stewart is 1000 varieties of awesome). Psylocke has managed to turn from British to Japanese without even changing her being Betsy Braddock! So maybe comic fans may be more pliable than they or others may think.

[Admittedly, part of this could point to an inherent racism/sexism/heterosexism/cisgenderism in certain areas of fandom, similar to that of the "Rue backlash" from The Hunger Games, that accept certain changes but short circuit at those of identity - particularly of major characters. But I don't want to push that argument just yet. I'll give those areas time to prove me wrong.]

[Also I should probably note that a lot of this problem stems from unconscious chauvinism - basically "write what you know." As one brave fangirl dressed as Batgirl pointed out at Comic Con in 2011 to many DC panelists, the comic world is a boy's club. Particularly, it's a straight white boy's club, despite our occasional Phil Jimenezes and Gail Simones.]

Furthermore, this has already been done, and successfully, in comics. The only reason Nick Fury is played by Samuel L Jackson in the Marvel movies is because Mark Millar and Bryan HItch reimagined him as a black man (who looked remarkably like SLJ) in the Ultimate Universe. Similarly, Wasp (sadly absent from the film Avengers) became Asian and Colossus turned gay. J Michael Straczynski's Supreme Power changes the old Squadron Supreme to essentially give us a tale of a Justice League
wherein Batman and Flash are black...and race is very much foregrounded. This choice was perfect for a retelling of Justice League that was meant to be darker and more realistic. In a series that did not shy away from the government realities in a superhero team, it only would make sense that the racial realities and tensions of superheroes should be considered. The DC Animated Universe's Justice League chose the lesser-known John Stewart (over Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner) as Green Lantern and threw in the double wildcard of Hawkgirl - not only avoiding one of the more famous members, but even choosing her over her "man" counterpart. Stewart's race/class background and Hawkgirl's defiance of gender expectations helped make these characters arguably the two most interesting ones in the Justice League series. And Batwoman has finally returned to the DCU - now a lesbian. Diversity is not only good for politics and morality - it's good for storytelling.

[Of course, writing this made me realize how the transgendered comic fans are still being incredibly ignored in superhero representation. So my apologies for being unable to think of any mainstream success stories on that front.]

In short, if a Justice League movie comes out of the upcoming Batman/Superman film, perhaps it should have a Wonder Woman who looks more like she came from a Mediterranean Island or a Flash who looks less like the typical Wally West/Barry Allen. But also, we need to not only ask "which character can be less straight/white/male/cisgendered," but also why this character should be so and what narrative potentials are possible. Garfield is making a start of this, and I applaud him for not taking comic history as canon, but his comments do not seem to fully consider both the reality and the narrative impact of making Peter queer. Comic characters' identities should shift for diversity, but this diversity should be more than just an accoutrement or a selling point. The diversity should be diversity, not a universalization of such diversity.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Post-Frozen Disney: A Disheartening Prospect

Hello Pop Culture Gone Bad Fans!

It's been a while, hasn't it? But I, like King Arthur, Jean Grey, and Grover

Cleveland, have returned! And instead of ruminating on my absence, why not delve into another pop culture staple, which is almost by this point distinguished by its waxing and waning.....

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

Over the past two years, in an attempt to give myself time off from my graduate studies but still assure my grad student brain that I was being productive, I underwent another movie-watching mission (afficinados of this blog will remember the first one in The Kane Mission). This time, I watched all 52 animated Disney movies (as well as all the Pixar ones, but they’re not too important for the purposes of this entry).

What I noticed over this mission is that Disney undergoes cycles of quality. There is, roughly every generation, a period of amazing, highly praised films (usually with a misstep in the midst), one following which consists of decent films that have their fans, their diehards, their haters, and their meh-ers, and then just a period of god-awful. Furthermore, usually this period of quality is prefaced by a film or two that isn’t as good as the high points of this renaissance, but certainly better than the schlock that preceded it.

And all of this should have us very worried for what film comes after Frozen.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Period 1:

Classics: Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi. Even though I honestly can’t stand Bambi, I’m trying to leave my own personal taste out of this asmuch as possible.

Decent films: The South America ones, i.e. Saludos Amigos and especially Three Caballeros (really, it’s the only film people know from the 40s after Bambi)

Forgotten failures: Make Mine Music (again I’m a fan of this one, but let’s be real here), Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time

Period 2:

Preface: Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (not a full-on classic, but definitely has more a seat at the Disney table than Melody Time)

Classics: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland (arguably the misstep of this period as it was a critical and commercial flop), Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians. Admittedly, some would put these last two in the decent category, but I’m in charge of this list and allowed my little power trips.

Decent films: Sword in the Stone (actually - as with many of the divisive films of the late 90s - there’s no middle ground on this film…people either have it as a continuation of the classics or something akin to shoving a hot coal covered in vinegar in an open wound), Jungle Book, Aristocats, Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers

Forgotten Failures: Fox and the Hound, Black Cauldron. This may seem like a small period, but it actually lasted almost ten years. The lack of animated features in general could be construed as its own aspect of the dark period. Also, The Rescuers may have been a hit at the time and even have gotten a sequel, but it has more or less lost its place in Disney history by now.

Period 3:

Preface: Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company

Classics: Little Mermaid, Rescuers Down Under (Misstep), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King – duh.

Decent films: Pocahontas, Hunchback, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan. All of these films are fiercely debated. They all have their haters, as well as their fans who think they’re terribly underrated. My theory on this lot is no one likes all five. At most, you like two…maybe three. And you viciously hate at least one of them.

REALLY murky area of decent or forgotten: Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur (well, everyone hates this one), Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis (surprisingly, this has its fans. I blame Joss Whedon), Lilo and Stitch (mainly because Disney has done all it can to shove Stitch down our throats)

Forgotten Failures: Oh this list is fun…Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons. Man, it’s like listing horcruxes.

We are now in Period 4. And it looks a lot like period 3.

We have our preface, Bolt, which like Great Mouse Detective (or Oliver and Company, if you’re a fan of that) is a cute talking animal film that’s far better than you expect it to be but isn’t the huge hit or inducted into Disney canon as quickly as what will follow it.

We have our Princess Fairy Tale musical (after a period of non or less musical films that often take place more in current – or future – time and are less reliant on old classic fairy tales) that really garners attention from the mainstream public back to Disney Animation: Little Mermaid, meet the Princess and the Frog.

We have our second Princess Fairy Tale music that pretty much follows all the rules of its predecessor to equal or slightly greater/lesser success. Don’t let the Oscars fool you: the debates over Little Mermaid vs. Beauty and the Beast are as fierce as those over Princess and the Frog vs. Tangled.

We have our more boy-centric, more adventurey film: Aladdin and Wreck-It Ralph.

We even have an animal-centric, sequel misstep that’s a complete flop in the midst of this renaissance: Winnie the Pooh plays the role of Rescuers Down Under.

And now we have Frozen. Reports on Frozen thus far have been mixed. I’d actually be less optimistic if I wasn’t convinced it will be The Lion King of this period.

But I could be wrong. It could be Pocahontas: a Princessy story…that’s really isn’t exactly right. But even if it is The Lion King of this period…that means Pocahontas is next. We have nowhere to go but down right now.

So what do you guys think? Am I just superstitious? Or are you ready to just hunker down for the next decade or so until another fairytale finally stumbles our way?