Monday, March 14, 2022

Heroes Like Me

Watching Pixar's new movie Turning Red with my wife and nine-year-old daughter was uncomfortable. When that one scene, you know it if you saw it, in the bathroom, happened, I had to ask my daughter if she understood what they were talking about. She said she did, and I didn't inquire any further. Now, that shouldn't come across as a criticism of the movie. If anything, as a veteran girl dad, I'm glad that the movie makes these puberty issues normal and even humorous. That scene takes some of the pressure off me. In addition, it gave me an inroad into the film, a connection to the characters and themes.

Apparently, not everyone felt the same.

In a review on CinemaBlend, which has since been pulled after much backlash, the managing director called the decision to focus on a Chinese-Canadian family and culture "limiting," stating that he had a hard time connecting to the film. He also said that the film was "exhausting," although I'm not sure if he was referring to the Asian influence in the film or some other aspect, like plot or running time, since the review is no longer available.

I mean, the movie is about female puberty, about the power of friendship, about redefining yourself apart from your parents, and about accepting the weird things that make you special, but I guess if, despite all that, you also need the main character to share your ethnicity, then all of those things might not matter.

It reminds me of the backlash against Halle Bailey playing a Black Ariel, or the changing of traditionally white superheroes like Captain America, Hulk, or Spider-Man to characters of other ethnicities. The complaints from mostly white fans amount to a couple of things. It's always that the characters will be less relatable because of the change, or that Black artists or other artists of color should create new characters instead of appropriating white ones and just changing their race, or sometimes gender. It's an argument that reveals a really nasty underlying thought process, the very one that minorities are often fighting against.

In the first case, if you believe that the only "relatable" heroes are white, then you must believe that white is the norm, the default, and that both white and non-white fans should be able to see themselves in those white characters. Even when minorities are clamoring for more representation and expressing their excitement at seeing themselves and their culture reflected back to them in positive ways, there's a sort of willing ignorance in claiming that these characters are unrelatable. Just consider, if the writer of the review finds it "exhausting" to try to find connection with a Chinese character, how tired must fans of other ethnicities feel when for decades most, if not all, of the options for heroes of all sorts were white? And how rewarding and exciting must it be to finally see heroes that look like themselves? Minority consumers of these genres have always had to look past the race of the characters and find emotional, spiritual, and moral points of commonality to relate to. It's not asking too much for white viewers to do the same from time to time. This is especially true for all of those who "don't see color" anyway.

Second, if changing Captain America's ethnicity makes the character unrelatable to you, then it's entirely possible that the most important aspect of the character was always his whiteness, not his patriotism, courage, virtue, or strength. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney Plus dealt with this issue very well, by asking the two most important questions about Captain America as both a character and a concept. On the one hand, how would the country and the fan base receive a Black Captain America? And on the other hand, why would a Black man want to be Captain America? It forced Cap fans to consider what that title really means, beyond the ethnicity of Steve Rogers.

Furthermore, there's a sort of logical breakdown in saying these two statements - first that changing the ethnicity of already popular characters is somehow wrong, and, second, that non-white characters are "limiting" and unrelatable. On the one hand, it says that artists of color should only create new characters if they want more representation. But on the other hand, it also says that if artists of color do create those new characters, the majority of fans will reject them for being "unrelatable" and studios won't back them. At the end of the day, this argument really means that some people just refuse to accept any non-white characters in any context.

In fact, complaining about a black Batman or Ariel reveals something far more insidious than just an ignorance of the fact that for so many years the only heroes were white. Telling the artists, "why can't you just create your own characters instead of stealing ours," points out two problems:

1) You are asserting that they were YOUR heroes all along. They were white heroes for white people, not intended to have the same inspiring effect on people of color. 

2) You might have the same attitude towards all other progress, whether it's artistic, educational, or economic. Regardless of the fact that white folks have had a centuries-long head start and every advantage, the attitude is, go start your own thing, in competition with ours, and don't expect any help from us. I love Spider-Man, probably a little too much, but blasting an artist of color for reimagining Spider-Man and insisting that he or she create something new that would then compete with Spider-Man for attention and market share is like asking a minority entrepreneur to open a quaint little coffee shop across the street from a Starbucks.

Furthermore, one of the functions of story is to create empathy in the reader. We find ourselves in the fiction, measure ourselves against both the heroes and villains, recognize the virtues that we aspire to and the flaws that we wish to purge from ourselves. Given that, insisting that you can't relate to a character of another ethnicity means that you probably lack empathy, and that you find it difficult to relate to a real, live human of another ethnicity as well.

So, instead of demanding that every character look like you, especially if there are hundreds of characters who already do, try making the extra effort to gain insight into the characters who don't, and then take that experience out into the world and apply it to the variety of people around you. After all, that's what heroes are supposed to do for us, make us better people.

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