Just a few notes on that recent controversy over a group of “fans” who had arranged to spoil the Rotten Tomatoes score for Black Panther. The group, “Down with Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys,” said they were doing this for purely non-racist reasons, but instead to punish Disney for vague “mishandlings” of the Star Wars and Marvel movie franchises. But yet they didn’t stage such a protest for the recent Thor movie…only the last Star Wars flick, which had a very diverse cast, and Black Panther.
Any person who lives in a rough estimate of what reality is—especially if they have had limited exposure to “geek culture”—read that last paragraph and felt their eyes glaze over. “WHO THE FUCK THINKS THIS WAY?,” you might be asking yourself; or, alternatively, “WHO THE FUCK HAS THE TIME TO WORRY ABOUT THIS SHIT?”
But one of the key points of this site is that like it or not, our pop-culture holds great political currency; it both shapes, and is shaped by, politics and ideology. It especially can hold great meaning to people who feel they have little control or power in their lives; becoming a referendum on their identity and status.
A person who leans towards a point of view in which whites are the persecuted group—if they are still able to hold on to such a viewpoint even with a White House (no pun intended) in place that clearly champions whites over people of color—is going to perceive the Black Panther movie as a “threat.” I mean, on the deepest, most visceral symbolic level. Literally, the name of the superhero is the same as that of a Black Empowerment group from the 1960s. The movie is directed by a person of color and features mostly empowered people of color.
And you may say to yourself, witnessing this controversy, that perhaps the Trump presidency is to blame. You may feel that this all sprung out of “nowhere.” Maybe they are all “Russian bots.”
But I’m here to tell you, based on insider experience within both the “geek” community and the business end of things, that racism—along with misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and so on—has existed in this community LONG before Donald Trump.
This is not a defense of Trump! I’m simply giving you the wider context of the situation.
And the context is: the comic book industry itself—not the movie studios who make the superhero films, but the comic book publishers who first presented these characters—has been RIFE with racism, sexism, and etc. for a long long long long time.
I know this because I’ve seen it over and over and over and over again in practice. I’ve seen it not only in the anecdotal sense—you know, overhearing some offhand comments—but I’ve seen it impact the creative direction of entire comic books, the trajectory of certain characters and their storylines.
And the prevailing belief amongst some of these people—some of whom were in positions of high status within that industry—was that only white males were reading superhero comic books. And that to “water down” the books with more empowered female characters, with more characters of color, was tantamount to alienating the “base.”
How long ago did I observe all this? Man, it started around 15 years ago at least! And then a crop of hardcore comic fans grew up around these publishers…both consciously and unconsciously picking up that insular quality and suspicion of “the other”…and these publishers basically created their own “monster.” It didn’t start with Trump…it started right there!
Here is why these big comic publishers started including more diversity in their books: because their parent companies literally ordered them to do it! Literally, I remember getting an email from a parent company in my lowly assistant’s mailbox instructing the editorial department to include more diversity in our books. And my supervisor privately responded by reciting that old chestnut: most of our readers are white males, this will only drive them away.
The bullshit of all this is: it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the comic publishers! They “pushed back” against the diversity requests and stayed as insular as possible. Because they didn’t put out books that appealed to many people outside white straight males, their audience largely remained—SURPRISE!!!!!!—white straight males. And when a book featuring something more diverse was greenlit, it often received a shitty and unenthusiastic marketing push; following this lack of PR and marketing, the book’s sales would tank, and then people in Management would point to the numbers as proving their original “thesis.”
Now, there were devoted fans outside that “base” who were passionate about many of these characters anyhow—they sort of made them their “own.” Because a Spider-Man, a Batman, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America should be for everybody. Right?
But many of those fans—women, people of color, LGBT, and so on—were routinely and grotesquely and consistently harassed by others in the fan community. It was made known to them that they were NOT WELCOME. And you can see that “line” connecting from the attitudes of those who produced the comics to the harassing fans. Behind the scenes, they were sometimes on exactly the same page. And that page was: comics were only for white, straight, cisgender males. If you were not of that category, then the best course of action was to be as invisible as possible, not create “waves” by asking for better representation within the books themselves, and just…you know, be as invisible as possible.
So that’s the true foundation of what we find today with this Black Panther “controversy.” And if there has been any significant “development” in the comics industry regarding this wider issue, it’d be these two things:
- For a while, the publishers were coasting on this BS where they would put out this super-progressive “front”—pro-feminist, diversity-loving, and so on—while behind the scenes being the same old shittiness. They coasted on this for almost a decade now. It was a good sales-point, great for press-releases. But then they started getting called out on even that.
- The public at large clearly wants more diversity. The public at large made Wonder Woman a hit, and largely rejected Ben Affleck as Batman. The public at large has made Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart two of the biggest Hollywood stars in the country. Black Panther is tracking to have a ginormous opening weekend. The thesis that the public at large doesn’t want diversity in their entertainment is self-fulfilling bullshit.
And if you are a person who is seriously bothered by Black Panther—you know, a movie—for any number of reasons…for God’s sakes, why not get upset about something truly real that is absolutely going to impact your life, like automation creating mass unemployment, and stuff like that? Go subscribe to a couple of futurist tech sites and read the posts every day for like two weeks—and then you’re going to have something more to be concerned about. Better: go supplement that reading with either The Economist or the Financial Times or even Scientific American. Get some fucking perspective.
Let people enjoy a movie. Seriously.