If anyone has had any complaints about Marvel Studio’s critically acclaimed superhero blockbusters, it’s their tendency to focus on stories starring straight white dudes, despite fan outcry for protagonists who deviate from this norm.
By contrast, recent issues of Marvel’s beloved comic books have been bucking this same trend by having other characters take up the mantles of well-established superheroes, such as Captain America, Thor, and Spiderman. Since these new comics were ultimately praised for introducing unexplored perspectives in established universes, it’s easy to mock the fans who initially panned these changes as being culturally backwards. But we should seriously examine the introduction of new perspectives and especially the discomfort they can bring, as we become a “minority majority” nation.
I personally felt such discomfort due to one of my favorite comics, which isn’t a part of the superhero canon. “The Wicked + The Divine” illustrates a world in which, once every 90 years, 12 gods and goddesses are reincarnated as musicians with supernatural abilities. Rather than relying on the tired Greco-Roman pantheons, the comic uses deities from cultures around the world, imagining their music styles and personalities accordingly. (Baal Hadad as a badass, lightning-slinging Kanye-esque superstar? Consider me sold.) This cultural diversity is further highlighted by the gender, racial, and sexual diversity of the comic’s characters, resulting in a world as colorful as its story is intriguing. Yet, something about the comic still put me off.
I couldn’t figure out why until I came to a three-panel sequence in the neon-soaked eighth issue, in which the protagonist Laura dances with another girl at a rave. The goddess Amaterasu then grumbles, “I’m the boring one. I prefer guys. I’m so boring.” I suddenly realized that, as much as I enjoyed the concept of these diverse characters, I was failing to relate to any of them.
The narrative is so saturated with distinct cultures and identities that I felt like there wasn’t any space left for me.
I fully recognize the benefit of seeing your identity in the pages of a book or on a TV screen; I sometimes have difficulty immersing myself into a video game unless I can create a black avatar. However, what happens if the range of identities presented in a work is so wide that you can’t find your own? Picture this: You’ve always seen yourself in some form in your favorite shows, novels, and movies. Suddenly, many are creating new media—and recreating media with which you’re already familiar—with characters and worlds that no longer resemble what you know. Wouldn’t you feel a little uncomfortable?
That discomfort was finally resolved for me when I looked beyond the comic’s diversity. While the characters’ gender, race, and sexuality can provide some insight into their personalities, it does not define them—nor does the comic excessively highlight those characteristics. Why should I primarily know Cassandra—the snarky reporter who doggedly and bluntly interrogates everyone involved in her search for the truth—as a transgender woman? Why focus on that one characteristic at the cost of all else, when her personality and motivations have a complexity far beyond just her gender?
Part of the problem is that much of the diversity presented in contemporary media is still grounded in prevalent social norms. No matter how fleshed out they may be, if characters deviate from those norms, they are primarily defined by that deviation: the gay best friend, the wacky black sidekick. Truly diverse media, therefore, ignores or even replaces prevalent social norms so that its characters can be seen as complete persons, rather than just variations on stereotypes about minorities. By focusing too heavily on the characters’ minority status even while the comic did not, I kept myself from being fully immersed in the world of “The Wicked + The Divine.”
Striving for diversity means expanding our capacity for empathizing with those with whom we usually do not. It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and scary to dismantle norms that reassure you of your place in society, but that discomfort is a stepping-stone to a society in which you can deeply relate to others, regardless of their identities. Superheroes are meant to represent the best of us, how we rise up for the greater good due to (or even despite) our backgrounds. If we can see their heroism first and their race, gender, or sexuality as an integral yet ‘normal’ second, then we’ve taken a step in the right direction.
Hansy D. Piou ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator living in Quincy House.
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