Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
A mere week after I wrote a post swearing off of sharing fan news, the fandom insidiously pulled me back in.
This week, rumours began circulating that Tilda Swinton was in casting negotiations for Marvel’s upcoming Dr. Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. Swinton is being considered for the role of the Ancient One, a nearly-immortal Tibetan sorcerer who becomes the young Dr. Strange’s mystic tutor and personal mentor.
That’s right. Tilda Swinton — a British actor whose Wikipedia article notes that she can trace her Anglo-Scot heritage back to the Middle Ages and who is about as far from “Tibetan” as one might get — may be cast to play a racebent and genderbent version of one of the few Asian characters of prominence in the Mystic Marvel world.
Let me first make a confession: I don’t know much about Mystic Marvel in general or the Ancient One in particular. I have no particular love for Dr. Strange or his backstory.
But, already thinkpieces are being written declaring Swinton’s rumored casting a major feminist victory for the Marvel Universe for its willingness to recast a major male Marvel superhero’s mentor as a strong female character.
The Ancient One is one of many embodiments of the Orientalism pervasive in superhero comics, wherein the mystic arts are inextricably connected with a fantastic and exaggerated imagining of the Far East that exist primarily to imbue Western and White visitors with ancient magic or martial arts skills and elderly East Asian men with long white beards and yellow skin are only too eager to help facilitate that process. The examples abound: Iron Fist’s Yu-Ti of the Tibetan city of K’un-L’un, Iron Man’s Ho Yinsen, and even the world of Tian that has reappeared with distinctly fetishistic overtones in the most recent season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Popularized at a time when Fu Manchu stereotypes were recreated with frequency in comics, the Ancient One is no socially progressive character.
When Asians are not cast in these Orientalist overtones, we are frequently rendered entirely invisible. In Cameron Crowe’s latest film “Aloha”, the state of Hawaii — where more than 50% of residents identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander — is mysteriously White-washed into an Aryan paradise of palm trees, aviator sunglasses, and sandy beaches. The word “aloha” is appropriated without regard for the word’s weight and history. The actors drape themselves with leis complete devoid of cultural meaning. Emma Stone — another White actor — plays the hapa (a term meaning “half” in Native Hawaiian, used to refer to multiracial Native Hawaiians) and biracial Asian American character, Allison Ng. Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) issued a statement reading in part:
“Aloha” comes in a long line of films (The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor) that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. It’s like tourists making a film about their stay in the islands, which is why so many locals hate tourists. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii…
…Crowe hired at least 30 white actors, 5 actors to play Afghans, and the biggest roles for APIs were ‘Indian pedestrian,’ ‘upscale Japanese tourist,’ and ‘upscale restaurant guests.’ They didn’t even have names. How can you educate your audience to the ‘rich history’ of Hawaii by using mostly white people and excluding the majority of the people who live there and who helped build that history—AAPIs?””
Both Marvel and DC’s superhero universes are unbearably White, with few characters of colour playing more than secondary or tertiary roles. Where forced to present characters whose comic book counterparts are people of colour, the studios have invoked race-bending as a narrative sleight of hand to distract from the regressive origins of many of their more Orientalist characters. DC cast Ken Watanabe in a Japanese version of Ra’s al Ghul — who in the comics is a stereotype-riddled Middle Eastern caricature inexplicably heading a band of Japanese ninjas. The Batman films later revealed that the mantle of Ghul is adopted by each successive leader of the League of Shadows, and that Watanabe was only a public decoy. This origin story effectively erased any meaningful discussion of race with regard to the Ghul character (later, Talia — originally also of Middle Eastern descent in the comics — was also presented as French since in the mythos of the Nolanverse she is the daughter of the French Ducard/Ghul played by Liam Neesom). Marvel performed a similar bait-and-switch when they cast Ben Kinglsey to play an ambiguously Asian version of the Fu Manchu-knockoff character of the Mandarin, only to reveal in-plot that Kingsley was a penniless actor hired by the film’s main villain to play the caricatured role; the “real” Mandarin was Guy Pearce.
It seems as if Asian-ness can only occupy two poles in Hollywood: extreme fetishism or total invisibility. Yes, the Ancient One is horribly Orientalist: yet, historic racism’s solution can neither be faithful recreation of those offensive stereotypes nor the total erasure of people of colour.
The urge of feminists to celebrate a possible White-washing as some sort of socially progressive victory is disturbing, particularly to those of us who identify as feminists of colour who find ourselves being asked to tolerate the erasure of that which would represent our race in order to justify a representation of our gender.
There have been only a handful of Asian American male actors to land a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What would be progressive for the filmmakers behind Dr. Strange would be to actually cast an Asian or Asian American (male) actor in the role, while updating the character away from his Orientalist stock origin story — which would be a novelty in the trope-laden world of superhero comics. Alternatively, there’s no need to race-bend the Ancient One in order to gender-bend the character: there are so many talented Asian and Asian American female actors one might choose from.
But, no. We’re looking at Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan sorcerer. Once again, #AStrangeWhitewashing from Hollywood, indeed.
Racebending.com is proud to host our second annual C2E2 panel discussion: Racebending.com Presents Creating Diverse Characters in Fiction. The panelists represent a wide array of writing and artistic disciplines including comics writing and illustration, acting and scriptwriting, novelization, editing, and criticism. Panelists will share their experiences crafting diverse characters in each medium and tackle the issues of diversity that are at the top of discussions across all media.
Our panelists are Mary Robinette Kowal the Hugo and Campbell award winning author, puppeteer and voice actress. Wesley Chu the Alex Award winning Hugo and Campbell nominated author of The Lives, Deaths, and Rebirths of Tao. Michi Trota editor of Uncanny magazine and contributor to the Jim C Hines Invisible Anthology on diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Danny Bernardo playwright for the Balliwick Chicago whose plays include Mahal, Professor Turtel Onli visual artist and the founder of the Black Age of Comics and Babs Tarr the acclaimed artist of Batgirl.
The panel will be held on Friday April 24th from 2:45-3:45 pm in panel room S403. C2E2 is held at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center and runs from April 24-26th. We look forward to seeing you there!
You can view last years panel Presentation: Diverse Means for Diverse Worlds on the youtube link below.
Who will play Newton Scamander? The most recent rumors suggest that Doctor Who star Matt Smith is Warner Bros’ top pick for the role. Plenty of Harry Potter fan sites—MuggleNet included—have speculated on the young actor who would end up taking the role of the wizard zoologist living in New York in the 1920s. One common thread? Nearly all of the proposed potential actors have been white.
As moviegoers, we’re so used to seeing the main character be a white guy that Newt Scamander’s race is treated as a given. In 2015, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA released it’s second diversity report that found that 74% of lead roles go to men and 83% of lead roles go to white actors. A USC study on race and ethnicity in popular films in 2013 found that 52.1% of all speaking roles went to white male actors.
But why not a Newt of color? Or at least an opportunity for talented young actors of color to be considered for the role?
Bring up the potential for a lead actor of color and one of the first arguments to shoot down the idea will inevitably be that “most British people are white.”
That’s certainly true, perhaps even more so during the time period the Newt Scamander story is set. But this defensive reaction is more a reflection of how ingrained the “white male protagonist” default is in fandom imagination, than a compelling reason for Newt to have to be white.
The argument that “most British people back then were white,” and therefore, Newt must be white, makes no sense. People of color have lived in Britain for hundreds of years; there is no reason why Newt could not be a Brit from a diverse place like Liverpool, which has been home to centuries-old black and Asian communities.
Would a brown Newt Scamander have grown up and gone to school around a lot of white British people? Almost certainly, being a Hogwarts alumnus—and he would have had a different experience than his peers. But a character like Newt is a single individual and an artistic invention—which means he does not have to be demographically “more probable.”
Protagonists are never statistically average—if anything, they own their stories because they are improbably unique! Harry Potter was the main character of his story because out of all wizards he was the sole survivor of an encounter with Voldemort. That OzCorp spider bit the one kid scientifically savvy enough to design web shooters. Of all the ordinary citizens who live in Gotham City, the movie is about the guy who runs around dressed like a bat. All American pro baseball players in 1947 were white except for one, but all baseball movies set in 1947 are about Jackie Robinson.
Newt Scamander, ostensibly, is the protagonist of this story because he was exceptional. We know that people of color have been in the United Kingdom for centuries and we know the wizarding community as depicted by JK Rowling was diverse. We know that 1920s New York City was flourishing with diversity—this was the era of the Harlem Renaissance. The time for whitewashed “historical plausibility” is probably not when the movie is about a wizard who finds fantastic beasts.
Harry Potter’s experiences with adversity made him a relatable Chosen One to fans of the books and movies. So many components of his identity helped define him—he was an orphan and foster kid, a survivor of abuse and neglect, an average student, and wore glasses for his poor eyesight. Kids who identified with these traits were able to see parts of themselves reflected in his hero’s journey. Kids who didn’t personally identify were able to empathize with characters whose experiences differed from them.
These facets of identity were important. They’re why black haired Asian and Latino kids with glasses felt represented by Harry Potter. They’re why so many young nerdy black girls related to Hermione’s love of learning, her curly hair, and passion for equal rights. Diverse media representation is crucial. Researchers are finding that media representation can impact self esteem. A study from 2012 found that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys who are well represented in television. We all construct ideas about the world based on the media we consume and being represented helps people from minority groups feel seen and accepted. Representation of minority characters also helps people in the majority learn empathy by experiencing adventures from the perspective of someone from a different culture or skin color. (Think about how many American fans learned to appreciate British boarding school culture through Harry Potter!)
While there are many supporting characters of color in the Wizarding World, fans of color have waited a long time to be fully represented in the Harry Potter movies.
In 2005, when Katie Leung was cast was Cho Chang, she was subject to withering criticism from fans insistent that Cho Chang was white. Although the original 2005 anti-Cho Chang/Katie Leung Facebook groups are no longer online, the racist vitriol from fandom generated enough attention to be covered by media outlets. Asian fans had to weather seeing these comments. Likewise, when Blaise Zambini was revealed to be black in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there was a noticeable hostile reaction to his race among fan fiction writers. These fandom experiences are hurtful and invalidating since characters of color are already underrepresented in the franchise.
Then there’s the case of Lavender Brown’s depiction in the movies. Originally depicted by black actresses, she was recast with a white actress when the character became a speaking role. This had the unfortunate impact of communicating to fans that background characters can be people of color until they interact with the white heroes. When fans voiced their concerns, other fans would quote a vague line about her skin color from the books, as if that negated years of visual depictions of the character as a woman of color.
Like many other characters in the films, Dean Thomas’s role was drastically reduced. Still, the production made sure to develop Seamus Finnigan’s character even further than he was developed in the books—in the movies he has a running gag where he creates explosions. Although Dean has more scenes and more plot in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than Seamus, Seamus gets more lines and scenes in the movies. Additional invented Seamus scenes are in the deleted footage, compared to Dean’s story which was never shot.
Throughout this time, we’ve weathered racist debates and experienced some stressful erasures. The casting of an actor of color as Newt Scamander will almost certainly draw racist comments from our fellow fans, but there are so many more fans who would accept or grow to accept a lead character of color.
While many characters of color made appearances in the Harry Potter movies, their depiction was not a priority. The setting of Fantastic Beasts—1920s New York City—and the existing popularity of the Harry Potter movies puts JK Rowling in an amazing position to change that.
As fans, we can open our imaginations to possibilities and support representation so more people can be seen and share in the stories we love. The only major barriers to Newt Scamander being portrayed by an actor of color are artistic intent and Hollywood’s systemic racial bias.
As far as artistic intent is concerned, if Rowling intends for the protagonist of her next movie blockbuster franchise to be another white man, then that is certainly her prerogative. All the fans who want diversity can do is respectfully advocate for something different.
As for the studio, Harry Potter is a worldwide, recognizable brand. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to make a lot of money at the Box Office. The usual Hollywood justifications for having to cast a white guy to draw an audience don’t have to apply. (The Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that more diverse casts lead to higher box office returns, so a non-white Newt Scamander may even draw interest—especially since the majority of moviegoers are not white men.)
While there will probably be friends, sidekicks, and love interests who are not white men in the story, it would be significant if the central character in these films was a character of color. Fantastic Beasts could be the biggest blockbuster franchise to ever feature an actor of color in the lead role.
Actors of color deserve a fair shot to play Newt Scamander. Nothing about the character is necessarily race-specific. JK Rowling even recently described Scamander’s descendent, Rolf Scamander, as his “swarthy grandson.”
While there is likely nothing fans can do to persuade Warner Bros to consider actors of color alongside the white actors they are already considering, JK Rowling is in a unique position to advocate. With her voice and influence, she can ensure that actors of color are given a fair shot to the role. I hope she does. It would only make the wizarding world a more interesting and magical place.
DreamWorks has cast Scarlett Johansson in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The franchise originates from Japan where the protagonist is Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg. This casting is significant because we’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian leads–all while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen, whether through deliberate exclusion of actors of color or hand-wringing about “marketing” and “box-office potential.” “Conventional wisdom” argues that DreamWorks needs to whitewash the film and cast a “big name” actor like Scarlett Johansson for the film to succeed. The assumption is that most films star white men because supposedly, most moviegoers are white men. An additional assumption is that these white male moviegoers are less likely to embrace actors of color. This “conventional wisdom” has been used to justify lack of diverse casting in Hollywood and whitewashing in films, but research appears to contradict these assumptions.
A 2011 study published in in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business noted that “many of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood had stars, and many successful movies starred people who were relative unknowns.” It found that despite all the talk, producers are more important to a successful movie deal than actors are. A 2006 study from Harvard Business School found that stars do positively affect the revenue of films but “failed to find evidence that would suggest that the participation of stars in movies affects the valuation of studios that produce or distribute those movies.” The study estimates that stars are worth on average “about $3 million in theatrical revenues.” In contrast, Johansson is being offered $10 million dollars to star in Ghost in the Shell (Forbes contributor Ollie Barder estimates that the original anime cost around $5 million to produce, total.) Older studies from Rutgers University and University of California, Irvine have also found “no statistical correlation between stars and success” and that “it is the movie that makes the star.”
Year after year, the Motion Picture Association of America has released statistics showing that the majority of movie goers are not white men. Women have comprised a larger share of moviegoers than men since 2009. In 2013, “Hispanic”, “African American”, and “Other” (including Asian American) moviegoers all had higher annual per-capita movie attendance than white moviegoers. The average “Hispanic” moviegoer went to the movies 6 times and the average African American and Other moviegoers went 4 times, versus “Caucasian” viewers who only went to the movies 3 times.
In 2014, UCLA ran a study that showed more diverse casts in both film and television lead to higher box office returns and ratings. But Hollywood tradition is remarkably entrenched in developing and promoting white leads at the exclusion of other performers, even if that may actually be hurting profits.
Actors of color are already underrepresented, even without whitewashing. When Hollywood studios like DreamWorks Pictures decide to cast white actors in existing properties that originate with characters of color, it only further reinforces the disparity in opportunity for performers of color.
To figure out just how many opportunities DreamWorks Pictures affords actors of color, Racebending.com counted up all of the first-billed actors in DreamWorks Pictures films (1997 to present.) These are the actors listed first in movie credits, posters, and on marketing materials. What we found was pretty consistent with other studies on Hollywood diversity–the studio overwhelmingly prefers to cast white men in lead roles.
Reliance Entertainment bought 50% stake in DreamWorks in 2008, forming DreamWorks Studios. Since then, DreamWorks Studios has made 14 movies and all of them starred white actors. This whitewashed Ghost in the Shell movie is a joint DreamWorks-Reliance project.
DreamWorks has never cast an Asian American lead, though it has made three movies with East Asian actors Jackie Chan, Ziyi Zhang, and Ken Watanabe. When DreamWorks does choose to adapt Asian properties, such as The Ring, The Ring 2, or The Uninvited, white actresses are always cast to “Americanize” the film–even if the actress is British or Australian. When stories with Asian heroes are “Americanized,” the whitewashing is an integral part of the process–reinforcing stereotypes of Asian Americans as inherently less American. The British Journal of Social Psychology published a study in 2008 that found that American media consumers implicitly regarded white European actress Kate Winslet as more American than Asian American actress Lucy Liu. Regardless if the setting or name of the protagonists are Americanized or anglicized, this is a missed opportunity for Dreamworks to diversify. Changing the setting or the name of the character does not preclude the production from casting an Asian or Asian American actor. It’s disingenuous to characterize this casting as Hollywood bravely deviating from source material when it is more a reflection of DreamWorks and Hollywood’s biased casting practices as a whole.
This isn’t the first time that DreamWorks has whitewashed an Asian woman lead. If DreamWorks wants to invest in a cult classic with Asian characters, but minus Asian lead actors, they are actually missing out on a chance to create an Asian American household name.
Studios are not forced to whitewash. If DreamWorks Pictures’s stable of “big name” actors only includes only white actors then that’s certainly a problem for them, but they could have chosen to offer Johansson a different project. Nothing is preventing DreamWorks from working with ScarJo on a different property, without casting that reinforces racial disparities in Hollywood. They could have created an original cyberpunk property and even cited Ghost in the Shell as a source of inspiration. Scarlett Johansson did not become a box office draw or a big name until studios took a chance on her and made her one. It’s unfortunate studios don’t do the same for actors of Asian descent.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen. While it’s important for media consumers to be aware of the overt and subtle ways Hollywood depicts race, ultimately the onus to stop this racist practice falls on the movie studios that choose to whitewash. At this point, movie studios are aware of the backlash that happens when films are whitewashed, the track record of whitewashed movies, and the overall legacy of whitewashed movies. They have to decide whether or not they want to change. We know Hollywood can change when it wants to; for example, blackface and other forms of raceface are far less common now.
Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell is a story about what makes us human. Having access to powerful media representation is key for minorities to be seen as human. As a successful white actress, Scarlett Johansson has been privileged to play powerful women characters in action films. Ghost in the Shell was a chance for an actress of Asian descent to have that same opportunity. Instead of innovating and reimagining Ghost of the Shell in creative and diverse ways, DreamWorks Studios, Reliance Entertainment, and producer Steven Spielberg are making a conscious and deliberate decision to reinforce racist casting practices in Hollywood.
More Articles on the whitewashed casting of Ghost in the Shell
Special thanks to Jonelle D., Sade A. and Michael Le for assistance with this article
Jen Wang is the artist on the new graphic novel, In Real Life, a book that delves into gamer culture. She is also bringing a very real showcase of the diversity in the comics industry with this weekend’s Comic Arts Los Angeles Festival. Jen was kind enough to give contributor Gabrial Canada some of her time via email to talk about comics and gaming culture and the importance of acknowledging diversity as a conrunner.
RACEBENDING: The book explores a question as to why female gamers might not feel comfortable gaming with a female avatar or announcing their gender online. What do you choose when you play and can you address how this issue comes up as part of the story of IRL?
JEN WANG: I tend to choose female avatars but I’ve actually not played a lot of online games. I don’t know if other players knowing what sex I am would have an effect or not. I definitely feel more intimidated with the idea of talking into a headset because the connection is more intimate and the potential to be harassed is more direct. But that’s definitely what the character Liza is talking about, the hesitancy a female gamer might feel about revealing herself.
RACEBENDING: An artistic challenge of this book is that it takes place both in real life–as its title suggests– and in the game world. How much of a challenge was it to balance the fantasy world with the real one?
JEN WANG: Both worlds are definitely distinct, so the differences were pretty inherent both visually and in context. What I wanted though was show how they were similar and connected. I tried to incorporate lots of little moments that blended the two together like when Anda dyes her hair to match her avatar, or when Lucy names her in-game companion after her own cat. The online world is just as vivid for Anda as her real one so it was important to show that.
RACEBENDING:Women are gaining parity with men as consumers of both video games and comics and there is a nasty corner of both communities that has reacted to this change in a very negative fashion. Have you ever experienced this as a female comic artist at cons or in comics shops, the accusation of being a “fake geek” or feeling unwelcome in either fandom?
JEN WANG: I’m lucky to say I haven’t personally experienced any negativity in comics due to being a woman. Again, I want to stress that is my personal experience. The indie comics community is made up of a lot of people who aren’t being served by the more mainstream straight white male-centric industry so it tends to be a little more supportive of diverse voices. That said, no community is immune and I definitely know other female cartoonists who have faced harassment, particularly those who publish work on the web. At best, we’re just looking at communities that reflect the average societal non-nerd mentality toward women which is that we say everyone’s equal, without addressing the fact that we’re not.
RACEBENDING: How did you begin your collaboration with the Kibushi’s and the other great artists and storytellers in Flight?
JEN WANG: Flight! I met Kazu Kibuishi along with a bunch of other webcartoonists back in 2003 when we were all just getting started and a lot of us were still in school. Kazu wanted to put together an anthology and invited a bunch of us to join. As the project grew it became more and more ambitious and eventually Kazu decided to try looking for a publisher. Image Comics picked us up, and the following year at San Diego Comic Con 2004, Volume One came out. That was the first time any of us had been published and it was a pretty magical weekend. Many of the artists in Volume One are fantastic solo comic artists now and 10 years on we’re all still good friends.
RACEBENDING: Where can people learn more about the comics festival you are organizing? How does your experience organizing your own event make you feel about comics events you’ve attended?
JEN WANG: Comic Arts LA (or CALA) is happening December 6th at Think Tank Gallery in Downtown LA, and you can learn more at our website: www.comicartsla.com. I’m definitely more sympathetic to the limitations of a con than I was before. The vast majority of cons are run by volunteers and there is very little money. If you’re in a big city like New York, or San Francisco, there are only so many venues to work with and most of them are going to cost more than you can afford. You’re also working with the city so there’s a lot of technical bureaucratic stuff you have to keep track of everytime you bring a new idea to the table. On the other hand, the most impressive cons I’ve been to have definitely dedicated themselves to improving their events year after year. Because of the volunteer-based nature of cons it’s easy to stagnate, so it’s extra impressive to me when they continue to grow.
There are plenty of new cons every year that we can support. Some cons are only interested in serving a specific audience, and that’s their prerogative. But I think a smart con knows the future of the convention is to bring in outsiders and open it to a community more reflective of the general public. And that public is going to be diverse.
JEN WANG: It’s something the con organizers have to prioritize, and if it’s not something they care about we as attendees don’t need to go. There are plenty of new cons every year that we can support. Some cons are only interested in serving a specific audience, and that’s their prerogative. But I think a smart con knows the future of the convention is to bring in outsiders and open it to a community more reflective of the general public. And that public is going to be diverse. I was very happy that almost half our exhibitor applicants to CALA were women and a great many are people of color, and that was through no coercion on our part at all. This is what comics look like now.
I was very happy that almost half our exhibitor applicants to CALA were women and a great many are people of color, and that was through no coercion on our part at all. This is what comics look like now.
RACEBENDING: If you had to adapt one video game franchise into a comic, what would it be?
JEN WANG: If it were me I’d have to say Oregon Trail. I also know a couple artists who’d do an amazing Sonic The Hedgehog comic.
RACEBENDING: What can fans expect to see from you next and where can they find your previous original graphic novels?
JEN WANG: Comic Arts LA is the biggest thing coming up for me soon, but other than that, I’m going to be serializing a new webcomic, and I’m working on a secret project with fellow cartoonist Hope Larson. You can find my previous short comic works online at my website www.jenwang.net and my first graphic novel KOKO BE GOOD (also published by First Second) is also available.
Racebending.com thanks Jen Wang for her time and for this interview! Check out her website at www.jenwang.net
Television series Sleepy Hollow was Fall 2013’s breakout hit for Fox Television. The second season of the quirky, time-traveling, fantasy-horror series premieres on Monday, September 22nd 2014. Racebending.com interviewed the producers and cast of Sleepy Hollow as part of a promotional press line at San Diego ComicCon.
Sleepy Hollow features an exceptionally diverse cast for a network television series. When the show exceeded expectations, Fox Broadcasting execs touted the diversity in the series as part of their overall business strategy. The series even cast lead actress Nicole Beharie first, basing the subsequent casting of the Ichabod Crane character on chemistry reads with her. The show also boasts a diverse writing staff, including three women who all have sisters and bring their experiences to the story arc between Abbie and her sister.
In an interview with Buzzfeed last fall, executive producer Heather Kadin addressed the diversity seen in the cast and how the show has inverted the trope where characters of color are killed off first in horror. “It was a conscious effort to have a diverse cast just to represent our world,” Kadin said. “I don’t think it’s realistic for the whole cast to be white. I also think when you are developing a show and casting it mostly Caucasian and you get down to the bad guy and the network is like, ‘You have to have some diversity,’ then all of the sudden…that’s why the person of color is always killed [first in horror shows]. And because we have so much diversity in our cast and we’ve had the freedom to cast our villains and victims however we want, so we can kill as many white people as we want.”
Actors in the series have also shut down audience members complaining about the “politically correct” diversity in the series (even though the show has always had an established white male presence with the co-lead, Ichabod Crane, and additional white supporting characters and antagonists.) Orlando Jones took to twitter when some viewers complained that it was “unrealistic” for there to be a black woman police officer as the lead since the show is set in a suburban New England town. [The show is also about a time traveling dead guy and a demon dude with no head.] Jones pointed out that real-life Sleepy Hollow, New York boasts one Officer Wendy Yancey, a black woman and police officer. Jones has also been outspoken when media critics downplay the diversity on the series, such as when a feature story in the Los Angeles Times omitted lead actress Nicole Beharie outright.
“The show is clearly multicultural, and that is groundbreaking,” Jones said at the press line at ComicCon. “So, it’s not lost on me that that’s happening, I’m sort of very proud of it. But I’m mostly proud because it’s not about that. It’s just a fun ride with really cool characters and those other things are cool extra things but not what it’s about. For me, that’s really special.”
The show does not always handle diversity gracefully. Episodes with Romani and Native American characters fell back on cliched stereotypes. The Founding Fathers are lionized and their faults downplayed. A joke about Sally Hemmings falls flat when you remember that Hemmings was a child. Ichabod Crane is the convenient kind of time traveler–a cheerful abolitionist and a feminist. Still, Sleepy Hollow boasts more representation than other horror genre shows of it’s kind, in the show’s present and flashback settings. “We’re far from perfect (as many [fans] have pointed out) but I’m glad we’re doing our part to elevate the game,” Jones wrote in a letter to fans on social media.
The show is uniquely positioned to address diversity and representation issues and that isn’t lost on Marguerite Bennett, the author of the show’s tie-in comic book series for Boom Studios. “You can laugh if you want, when talking about a show that features demons, golems, conspiracies, George Washington, and the apocalypse, but Sleepy Hollow’s address of our own ugly history and hypocrisy is so important to me,” Bennett said in an interview with The Mary Sue. “From Ichabod’s era, when our nation was created under ideals of freedom and equality while simultaneously treating human beings as absolute chattel, to our present era, where we live in the safety of certain rights and liberties, yet still grapple with virulent racism, sexism, homophobia, the mistreatment of the mentally ill, and the erasure of indigenous peoples—Sleepy Hollow doesn;t shy away from our misdeeds, but encourages bravery and compassion the likes of which Abbie and Ichabod display.”
Fans have also stood up for the show, sparking conversations about the portrayal of Abigail Mills and other characters of color on the series. Bloggers of color have encouraged other fans to drop the word “sassy” from their lexicon when describing the show’s black women characters and noted how the character confounds tropes and stereotypes.
“Both Abbie and Jenny are normal, intelligent, flawed human beings, not cardboard stock characters,” writes Daniel Jose at The Nerds of Color. “It seems so simple yet we’ve seen it so rarely in television’s long, racist history.”
When a highly criticized, racist, New York Times feature article about television showrunner Shonda Rhimes mentioned Nicole Beharie’s character in passing and marked her a mere “sidekick,” Sleepy Hollow black twitter and fans pressured the paper into issuing a correction.
In an roundtable interview with Essence magazine, actresses Laverne Cox and Nicole Beharie discussed the reception Beharie has received for Sleepy Hollow and how it has challenged assumptions about women of color and their ability to draw an audience. Sleepy Hollow was initially advertised in the United Kingdom with advertisements solely featuring white English lead Tom Mison. “I was invited without the white male counterpart in my cast and it was packed, ” Beharie said. “They knew it was just going to be me. So that shook me.
“I ‘ve always been told and I believed that this doesn’t work without him,” Beharie said. “And there was also this notion that we [black women] don’t ‘work’ overseas. But [the event] was advertised just to be me. And they showed up…. I think what happens is it turns into less a conversation about my blackness and more about relating to humanity; because that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re just realizing that people are capable of doing it. We’re underestimating people because people said [black women] weren’t viable.”
RACEBENDING.COM: Sleepy Hollow is one of the most diverse shows on television. Do you think that has contributed to the success of the show, and if so, how?
MARK GOFFMAN: I think it has, definitely. We’re super proud of that, you know, and I think what it reflects is a real change in how it works. Movie studios are really looking at who is going to see movies and hopefully it reflects a more accurate portrayal of who we all are.
ALEXANDER KURTZMAN: It becomes organic to the storytelling. We’re able to tell a lot of different stories about different cultures and different mythologies. And it all just works really well and blends into what we are trying to do with the show.
RACEBENDING.COM: Jenny [Mills] is a unique representation of people on television who are identified as having mental illness, and so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that portrayal and how that plays into your read of the character.
LYNDIE GREENWOOD: That’s a very good question. It’s interesting because Jenny has–well, she’s misrepresented. There was a seen that was cut, unfortunately, from [Season One, episode six] where Jenny has a really good friend in the asylum. And I really wish we had shown a bit more of that world, because I think that it is important– I volunteered at mental health facilities in Toronto–to realize that these are problems that anyone can face and they’re not so–there shouldn’t be things that we don’t talk about. There should be things that are accessible. And I think the more that we have a dialogue, the better we’ll be able to understand these issues. So yeah, I mean–it doesn’t really play that much into the character, but I like the conversation in general. Get rid of the stigma, definitely, and talk about it.
RACEBENDING.COM: What’s it like to be on a show with such a big fandom? What’s your reaction to the fan fiction, the fan art, all those things.
TOM MISON: I mean, it can’t be anything other than a massive compliment. It shows that people are engaged in the show and we’ve said lots of times before, when you see people writing fan fiction and they’re drawing and they’re painting….To know that we’re doing work that inspires people to create their own stuff–there is not really much you could ask for.
NICOLE BEHARIE: Yeah, and Tom was born for this. Look at him. He was like, ready for it.
TOM MISON: I’m in heaven here.
Racebending.com is proud to announce that we will be hosting a panel discussion: Racebending.com Presents: Diversity in Comics at this years Awesomecon Indianapolis held from October 3rd through the 5th at the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Panelists include Jeremy Whitley (@jrome58), the Eisner nominated creator of Princeless, as well as local Indy webcomic artists and authors G Pike (@Gpike_) and Ginger Dee (@lawofgar) creators of Title Unrelated and The Brothers Grant. We hope to add more diverse artist and authors to our roster of panelists as Awesomecon draws near.
To get you excited, Here is a Thing…
Mitali Perkins is an author and educator. Her books are primarily focused on young readers. Her works include Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People, and Secret Keeper. Mitali Perkins is the editor and one of the ten contributors to Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices. The ten authors She brought together for open mic were herself Gene Yang, David Yoo, Cherry Cheva,G. Neri,Varain Johnson, Naomi Shibab Nye, Francisco X Stork, Debbie Rigaud, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Bboth Gene and Mitali were kind enough to step up to the mic for us as well giving us some of their time to talk about race and humor. Racebending.com contributor Gabrial Canada spoke to Mitali in October before the release of Open Mic as part of his podcast and spoke with her and Gene Yang via email one the subject of Race and Humor after the Cancel Colbert controversey and BookCon’s conspicuous lack of diversity brought #hastagactivism into the fore of public discussion on the topic.
Racebending: As a writer for Racebending.com I apprecaited your shoutout about our nifty t-shirts in Open Mic. It was fun seeing a reference to us in in print! The book is a collection about race and humor and there is certainly humor present in your work. Gene, you make use of and make fun of stereotypes in American born Chinese and that humor and embracing racial identity plays an important role in the growth of its characters. Do you have any advice or guidelines about writing this way, knowing when humor is making fun of racism or when a joke becomes racist itself. I’m thinking partly of the Cancel Colbert controversy recently.
Gene Yang: Advice? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out. Racism is funny, but it can be funny in two very different ways. We can laugh at racism because we recognize the absurdity of the racist ideas, or we can laugh because we think those ideas might be true. The dividing line is pretty fuzzy, and the same joke can be interpreted by intelligent, sincere people in very different ways.
My one regret with American Born Chinese is that I did not exaggerate Cousin Chin-Kee enough. I thought I’d gone pretty far, but every now and then I still get reader feedback telling me that Chin-Kee is “cute.” I definitely did not mean for him to be cute. I guess my advice, based on my own experience, is that if you’re in doubt, push it over-the-top absurd.
Racebending: One of the funnier things in your book is the opening in which essentially you have your ground rules there. You are trying to make sure that people can kind of exhale as it were and say, ok I do not have to worry this is not a book of racist jokes It is a book of jokes that may in fact involve race. Because it can be funny. There are funny and awkward situations that happen when anyone is growing up and that can be compounded if race is injected as something people have to contend with as a kid. Can you explain what those rules were? I think it is legitimately helpful to say this is one of the things that helps it be not offensive. To let out that deep breath and feel that this is something that is ok to laugh at.
Mitali Perkins: Right! Right! Humor is powerful and I think storytelling itself is powerful. It really becomes a question about power as I think about using humor as a way of talking about race. I feel it can be used to alienate instead of build affection.
So my first rule is good humor pokes fun of the powerful and not the weak. There is a nice video by Craig Ferguson from when Britney Spears was having her complete breakdown he had this eleven minute monologue on How the best kind of humor does not pummel someone who is down, who is weak who is broken. It really takes aim at the powerful.
My second rule is that it always builds affection for someone who is other. So it does not alienate as I said. When I teach it to my class, I teach a class on this issues of race and culture in storytelling, I show some different youtube clips to show what I mean. There are some comedians who really succeed in this. At the end of the comedy rift you feel very close to the person who is other than you. There are other (comedians) who are really funny but at the end of it you feel you have been made to laugh at someone who has been pushed away from you, its is a wider rift. I think that is another rule that it builds affection and not alienates.
The third rule is that the best humor is always self deprecatory. Usually I am very free about who can write for whom but when it comes to jokes and humor because I think the best humor in this category is about yourself, it almost seems as though it should be a little more restrictive. You can see this in jokes. When people tell jokes its like you can tell a joke about your own ethnic group but if you tell a joke about another ethnic group it just does not come off as well. So I guess it is just poking fun of your own culture that is the best way to stay out of trouble. Though there are lots of areas where it can get murky there. What if I am biracial what does that mean? How much of that race do I have to be to be an insider and to tell that joke?
It can get very complicated. It is a question of identity and self affiliation. If you are telling a joke as if it is one of us against me than it is different than if you are telling a joke about “them.”
Racebending: The Cancel Colbert Campaign recently highlighted the importance of understanding race and humor. I wonder if you had any opinion on the discussions it engendered and at the same time diversity in publishing has also come to the fore in recent weeks with the question, why do we need diverse books as the rallying cry. I would love to add your name to the chorus of authors answering that question. Why do we need diverse books?
Mitali Perkins: The Cancel Colbert Campaign underlined the need for a renewed combination of freedom, humor, and civility in discussions about race. It’s become such a fraught subject that an attempt at satire brings about a knee-jerk attempt to censor. People are increasingly worried about saying the wrong thing, resulting in a climate of suspicion, hostility, fear, and silence. To renew the conversation, smart, self-deprecatory humor is key. Funny, intelligent books and movies featuring this kind of humor can be the “water cooler” around which people gather to talk again. That’s yet another reason why #weneeddiversebooks.
You can listen to the entire interview with Mitali Perkins on Kind of Epic Show. Please note that the opinions expressed do not necesarilly represent the view of Racebending.com and the discussion itself is meant to be humorous and entertaining to fit the subject material of the book: Mitali Perkins Steps up to the Mic
Gene Luen Yang was nominated for an Eisner for his recent work on Boxers and Saints at First Second Books. The two companion graphic novels focus on the story of the Boxer Rebellion: One from a Chinese fighter who has joined the Boxers in order to preserve his way of life and the other from the vantage of a Chinese Christian affected by the conflict. Gene’s previous work has been profiled at Racebending.com externsively including his Avatar the Last Airbender comics for Dark Horse. Gene has also kind enough to sit on some of our panels which you can watch here. Gene is currently working on the third season of his Avatar the Last Airbender comics, The Rift.
We talked to Gene via email to discuss his recent Eisner nomination. His work on The Shadow Hero, a retelling of the origins of the first Asian American Super Hero, The Green Turtle. We discuss the importance of diverse heroes and diverse books. Finally we discuss his free comic book day title as well as what we can expect to learn about Toph in The Rift.
RACEBENDING: First Congrats on the Eisner nomination! You pointed out that there were other entrants from First Second in your category, why do you think First Second is able to cater so well to readers in this category?
GENE YANG: Thank you so much! I’m such a huge fan of Will Eisner. It’s an honor to be nominated for an award named after him.
My publisher First Second Books got three out of the six nominations in the Best Publication for Teens category. First Second does books for every age. They publish books for the younger set like Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon’s Odd Duck, and adult books like Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s Feynman. I do think you’re right, though. First Second seems to do especially well in Young Adult.
I’m not sure why this is. From the very beginning, First Second editorial director Mark Siegel wanted the imprint to be in between worlds. First Second publishes books from all three major comics cultures: American, Japanese, European. First Second also has solid footing in all three major markets for comics: bookstores, comics shops, and libraries. Being “in between” has been a part of the imprint’s DNA from the very beginning. Maybe First Second does well with teens because Young Adult is an “in between” category.
RACEBENDING:Are there any other golden age or silver age characters that you would like to write or reinvent as in the case of the Green Turtle?
GENE YANG: There are so many crazy Golden Age heroes out there! Too many to choose from – just google “public domain superheroes” and you’ll see what I mean. It’d be fun to revive a bunch of heroes around a theme, like the color green: Green Turtle, Green Lama, Green Mask, Green Sorceress.
RACEBENDING:Why do you think Superheroes are an important embodiment of America and how important is it that those heroes then also embody the actual diversity of America?
GENE YANG: America is embedded within very foundations of the superhero genre. Superheroes came around just as America was becoming a superpower. They were created by poor, teenage children of immigrants. You can find the fingerprints of that immigrant past in almost every origin story. Superman, the prototypical superhero, is also the prototypical immigrant. He was sent to America by his foreign parents so he could have a brighter future.
Superheroes embody American idealism, American hope, American bombast. There’s just something joyfully goofy – or goofily joyful? – about running around rooftops in brightly colored tights fighting crime. Deep down inside, we superhero fans know this. We understand the symbolic value of Spider-man, Batman, and Wonder Woman. That’s why there’s such a push for diversity within the genre now. We want to see in our comics that anybody can be a superhero, that anybody can be an American.
America is embedded within very foundations of the superhero genre. Superheroes came around just as America was becoming a superpower. They were created by poor, teenage children of immigrants. You can find the fingerprints of that immigrant past in almost every origin story.
RACEBENDING: The recent controversy surrounding Bookcon was summarized in a tweet last week as “having more cats than writers of color” in its featured guests list. While this has been remedied in the past week with the addition of Alaya Dawn Johnson, Marie Lu and others the ratio of cats to people of color is still not all that favorable. Authors have responded to this by answering the question, why do we need diverse books and I would like to ask you that same question now? Also how important is it that these cons and expo’s are inclusive? Have you ever felt unwelcome or tokenized at conventions?
GENE YANG: We need diverse books because our world is diverse. I believe in that notion of literature serving as both a mirror reflecting our own experience and a window into The Other’s experience.
I’m a comic book guy. Comic books have traditionally been a medium for the marginalized. Many of the early greats were the children of poor, Jewish immigrants. They came from families so marginalized they had to flee their home countries. Then later, the underground comix movement of the 60s served as an outlet for the voices and ideas of the outcast. “Outsiderness” is an embedded comics’ DNA.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt at home at comic book conventions. Everyone I met seemed a little offbeat. Everyone seemed like somebody I would’ve hung out with in the nerd corner of my high school cafeteria.
That’s my experience as a comic book *guy*, however. I know has been really different for comic book *girls*. The relative gender balance we see at comic book conventions these days is a fairly recent phenomenon.
We need diverse books because our world is diverse. I believe in that notion of literature serving as both a mirror reflecting our own experience and a window into The Other’s experience.
RACEBENDING: Free Comic Book day saw the release of an (amazing!) Avatar the Last Airbender book and you have The Rift upcoming. Suki took a leading role in the free comic book day issue and the focus of the story was on male gatekeepers in the culture that stigmatize girls as only being fake when expressing the same interest or expertise as men. Why do you think that kind of a culture persists in comics and how do we overcome it as fans?
GENE YANG: I don’t know why that fake nerd girl thing exists. Clearly, there are nerdy girls. Just go to your local high school, your local library, your local mall. Look around.
As a lifelong geek, it’s weird to see the obsessions I used to hide celebrated by mainstream culture. In high school, me and my comic book buddies had to sneak to the comics shop on new comics day like we were going to a crack house. Now, everybody’s talking about Batman and the X-Men and the Avengers.
I have to admit, I do get that feeling sometimes, that same feeling you get when everybody discovers your favorite indie band. It’s not logical. I should be happy everyone loves geek culture now because it means there will be more of it. And most of the time I am. But every now and then…
Maybe that fake nerd girl thing is a weird, sexist expression of that sentiment? Or maybe humans are just jerks.
RACEBENDING: In a related question will we be seeing more of Suki in the Rift and are there any other familiar faces that we have not seen represented from the show in the comics that will also be in The Rift?
RACEBENDING: As The Rift has Toph as a more central character and you have already answered some of fans’ biggest questions in past entries what questions about Toph will be answered or addressed in the new series? Does she finally get a positive life altering event because of a vacation with Zuko? Everyone else in the gang got one!
GENE YANG: Haha. Zuko doesn’t show up in the Rift either. But Toph gets a lot of panel time. I love her. We do get into some of those lingering questions about her family.
RACEBENDING: Did you feel your nomination for National Book award was an acknowledgment of comics as a medium as well as your work. Should more comics be considered for the honor?
GENE YANG: Having my books nominated for the National Book Award was one of the biggest thrills of mylife. I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky. Creators like Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez Brothers,Lynda Barry, Osamu Tezuka, and Neil Gaiman have been pushing the literary boundaries of comics for decades. They created a “literary comics” category in the minds of the general public, and I am one of the many beneficiaries of their work.
I absolutely think more comics should be considered for the National Book Award, but this is largely in the hands of the publishers. A few years after my first nomination, I had the honor of serving as a judge for the National Book Awards. Judges can request certain books, but the vast majority of books being considered are submitted by the publishers. There’s a submission fee,but if a comics publisher puts out a graphic novel they feel is particularly worthy, they ought to. In fact, I would suggest that even fans can get involved. If you read a graphic novel that completely blows your mind, write to the publisher. Ask them to submit it to the National Book Awards. And if you’re feeling generous, offer to donate a part of the submission fee.
Racebending.com would like to thank Gene Yang for this interview! Visit geneyang.com to learn more about his books.
The panel is focused on art and storytelling techniques in comics that allow fantasy worlds to mirror real world diversity. It is presented by an equally diverse roster of panelists whose own work and experience range from webcomics to running comics conventions. The panel presentation will be held on April 27th from 2:45-3:45 in panel room S402 at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center. Panelists include Gail Simone, Turtel Onli, Gene Ha, Jay Fuller, Ramon K. Perez, and Marjorie M. Liu with moderator Gabe Canada.
Racebending.com is an international grassroots organization of media consumers who support entertainment equality. We advocate for underrepresented groups in entertainment media. Since our formation in 2009, we have been dedicated to furthering equal opportunities in Hollywood and beyond.
This website was founded by fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender who were appalled by the casting discrimination that occurred during the production of the The Last Airbender film adaptation. We are now comprised of thousands of supporters in 50 countries around the world. We are a coalition and community dedicated to encouraging fair representation in the media. As a far-reaching movement of media consumers, students, parents, and professionals, we promote just and equal opportunities in the entertainment industry.
The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo – also known as C2E2 – is a convention spanning the latest and greatest from the worlds of comics, movies, television, toys, anime, manga and video games. Bringing the best of popular culture to Downtown Chicago, C2E2’s show floor is packed with hundreds of exhibitors, panels and autograph sessions giving fans a chance to interact with their favorite creators and screening rooms featuring sneak peeks at films and television shows months before they hit either the big or small screen!