comics / equality / Feminism / gender / race / sci-fi

Man of Steel: The Importance of Race and Gender Swapping

The equal representation of gender and race is something that has plagued comic books, science fiction and fantasy for quite some time. The inequality has not necessarily been born of discrimination, but it has to be wondered why it still continues. Arguably, with long running comic, TV or film series, such changes might be thought to alienate an audience that is presumed to be white, heterosexual and male. So it needs to be applauded when changes are made to level the playing field.

Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel is one example of how small changes can update an old story for a modern world. Because the problem is really this, people don’t like change, and this especially seems to be a problem for many long term fans who don’t like to have their fandom “messed with”. So why do people change things up?

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

The first ever Superman story was published in 1938. The United States is still recovering from the Great Depression and Hitler is making waves in Europe, a year ahead of the outbreak of World War Two. More women, who had only been given the right to vote in 1920, were beginning to work to help support their families. The idea of the career woman was to come about during the war years. Arguably, African Americans had been hit the hardest by the Great Depression and were the first to lose their jobs. Segregation was still in effect, even at this time when more and more black people had moved into the cities (from the early 20s through mid 30s) – with New York as the home for the Harlem Renaissance – an explosion and celebration of black culture.

For the fact of its birth, we cannot blame Superman for not including women and non-white characters in a way that we would wish them to be portrayed now. What we can do however, as you might hope a bitter old uncle would mellow overtime and realise the error of his bigoted ways, is expect it to change with the times.

Seriously, what's the problem here?

Seriously, what’s the problem here?

If anything, Superman is the perfect vehicle to promote a modern version that better reflects real society. Because something that is often overlooked by those who hold him high as an all American hero, is that he is actually an alien, and technically, a refugee (some excellent ideas on that in this article). On some levels this idea is actually fantastic – he truly represents what the United States is – a melting pot of cultures, some of whom immigrated to avoid persecution or to make a better life for themselves. After all his creator’s families were recent immigrants to America, so they knew what they were talking about – Jerry Siegel was the son of a Lithuanian Jewish family who immigrated to the US and Joe Shuster, a Canadian-American born to immigrants from the Netherlands and Ukraine. Superman as a character should be the embodiment of this, but truthfully it’s too easy for people to hold him up as an example of white, wholesome, American values in a way that excludes “others”. You could argue that this gives DC a duty to ensure that they include “others” in his universe.

There has been a lot written about the treatment of women at conventions (sci-fi, gaming, etc) in the last few years, and it has been appalling. We have to ask whether the subject of these conventions (comics, video games, TV and film) need to address this issue and encourage better treatment of women, and other non white males, amongst their fans.

The simplest and easiest way they can address the imbalance of male/female, white/non-white, straight/gay, etc is to update to the modern age. In this way Man Of Steel does nothing new – we’ve already seen gender/race/sexuality swaps in the genre – but MOS has the potential to reach a much wider audience with its blockbuster aim, than just the usual fans, and let’s face it, an arguably wider reach than many other Superhero movies – this is Superman after all (as a Supes fangrrl I may be bias).

Whether you are male, female, black, white, or whatever, people are often resistant to change, and this is most especially the case in “fandoms” because of a little thing we like to call canon. In fandom circles you will find storylines, characters, and a whole manner of things criticised for not being canon – essentially for not being the way they have always been. There are often whole threads of arguments on the internet criticising the casting of an actor/actress because their hair is a different colour than that of their character in the comic books. Yes, really.

To those who will argue about canon I say this – get over it. Admit you don’t like change and deal with it. Because the reality is this, canon does change. Using Superman as an example – not only has the mythos and origin story of Superman grown over the years, it has also changed. Both Marvel and DC have regular reboots exactly for this reason -because their characters and stories are no longer up to date and relevant. The Superman of 1938 is not the Superman of the New 52 series. And really, would you want him to be? Would you want him to not grow and change with time, would you like to see those around him stay static to a point where they are not reflective of modern society nor of the fanbase? Do you really have nothing better to do than argue over Lois Lane’s real hair colour? And do you realise that arguing against gender and racial adjustments is actually kind of detrimental to society?

Does this Superman look like the one you know? Yeah, thought not.

Does this Superman look like the one you know? Yeah, thought not.

I understand arguments regarding fundamental changes to the character and back story, especially a character you are attached to, but, well… just get over it. If it is not integral to that character of their story to be a white, straight male, then what is the problem with changing it (an excellent post here on that subject). Perry White is black, it has been rumoured but not confirmed that the MOS character Jenny is a female version of Jimmy Olsen. This is reflective of modern society, and if you can’t accept that then you are forever destined to live in the past, and that can kinda suck. Embrace the change, and know that it is good!

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Here is completely non-exhaustive list of the first few examples of swapping that comes to mind. Would love to hear about more examples!! I’ve not included female counterparts here, because in all seriousness their early introductions were just as eye candy and love interests.

Race/gender/sexuality-swapping:

Pete Ross, Smallville (2001 – 2003).
Pete Ross was first introduced in Superboy (1961) comics as a childhood friend of Clark Kent. The popular TV show, based on Superman, updates the story to modern day Kansas, where Pete is now African American. Online there are many complaints about this, and how, in general, Smallville does not follow canon – I rather like to think of it as developing a new canon and fleshing out the back story with a generous helping of creative license. I read some arguments that Pete isn’t actually Peter Ross from the comics as he is called Pete… yeah. Seriously, it’s ok that he’s black, just get over it.

Nick Fury, Marvel (2002 – present).
Originally Colonel Nick Fury was a white, World War Two veteran, a grizzled warrior turned spy who heads up Marvel’s S.H.I.E. L.D. and first appeared in print in 1963.
In the Ultimate Marvel Universe series (2002), he was rebooted as an African American – General Nick Fury, whose likeness and mannerisms were based on actor Samuel L. Jackson, who went on to play the character in the Iron Man and Captain America and The Avengers movies.
What is great with this swap, is that race is kinda irrelevant. Marvel specifically wanted Samuel L. Jackson to be Fury, and so paid to use his likeness – this was an employment of an actor, regardless of his race and based pretty much solely on the fact that he’s a BMF! That said, Jackson’s Fury (at least in print, though not in the movies) is based in the Ultimate Marvel universe – a kind of parallel universe where Marvel can do these things without making too many waves. As such, technically both incarnations of Fury, black and White, exist simultaneously.

BMF to the max!

BMF to the max!

Kingpin, Daredevil (2003)
A Marvel super villain first introduced in 1967, Kingpin has appeared across many of Marvel’s publications, including Spider-Man, Punisher and Daredevil comics and shows. Originally portrayed as white, actor Michael Clarke Duncan was employed to fill the role in the 2003 Daredevil movie. In interview Duncan admitted his concerns over playing the role as an African-American, saying “they watch movies to say, ‘Hey, that’s not like the comic book.’ But I want them to get past that and just see the movie for what it is and see me for what I am—an actor.” Well said.

Starbuck and Boomer, the re-imagined Battlestar Gallactica (2004 – 2009).
As a massive fan of the original BSG (1978), I was really hesitant to watch this show at first, and I’m ashamed to say that naive young me did spout “it’ll be terrible, they’ve made Starbuck a woman!!” So maybe I owe my awakening to feminism to this show. Because I watched it, and it was amazing. Aside from the fact that this series is in my opinion one of the best written shows in the last ten years, it made massive waves in what it did – and that’s always good.  The backlash was interesting – there were a lot of people unhappy about Starbuck’s gender-swap specifically, some who even seemed affronted by Kara Thrace smoking cigars. But y’know – they got the hell over it. Because it makes more sense that half of the crew of a space ship in an advanced society (who even end up having a female president) would be women, that half of the fighter pilots would be women, that two of the main characters would be women (both based on male characters in the original show). Logic prevails.

Batwoman, DC (2006 – present).
Ironically, Batwoman was originally introduced as a love interest for Batman in 1956, as a way to negate the assertions that Batman was gay. As a character, Batwoman ended up falling out of use for many years, until she was reintroduced in 2006 as a Jewish, lesbian character.
This move was designed to diversify the cast of existing characters, and arguably it has done a good job of relating the comics to a modern readership. Despite the odd nah saying response, fan response was generally positive, as was the response from the LGBT community.

Yup, that happened.

Yup, that happened.

Heimdall, Thor (2011)
Introduced in 1962, this Asgardian guards the bifrost in order to protect Asgard. The character, as part of the Thor franchise, is in turn based on a Norse god. So it is easy to see why the audience may have been surprised to see black actor Idris Elba, doing a fantastic job of portraying him in the 2011 movie, Thor. This perhaps is a case of unnecessary change, however, that said  – the movie represents Asgard as an alien planet, and its inhabitants as equally alien inspirations for the gods of the Norse. This does allow a large amount of creative license, and if that license can be used to give the role to an actor who is going to bring something really great to that role, regardless of the colour of his skin, then that’s all to the good. Besides a precedence has already been set in Asgard by Hogun the Grim – portrayed as broadly Asian, this character is not originally of Asgardian descent but became a citizen, so we know other non-Norse types are out there. What’s to say Heimdall’s lineage was not that of immigrants as well?

Green Lantern – Earth 2, New 52, DC (2011 – present). 
Those of you who know your Green Lantern will know that there have been several characters who have held the mantel of Green Lantern, and worn that Power Ring, and the writers just can’t stop getting it right! Previous Green Lanterns have included John Stewart (first published in 1971/2), an African American Green Lantern who had several storylines related to fighting racism, and Alan Scott – the first ever Green Lantern, appearing from 1940, and father to gay superhero Obsidian. In the 2011 reboot, New 52, Alan Scott was reintroduced as a young man, so although his children (including Obsidian), were flat lined, he was reintroduced as a gay character. Again, this is in an alternate reality, DC’s Earth 2, but it is a compelling and sensitively handled story nonetheless.

This also happened.

This also happened.

Not Quite Swaps:

M, James Bond franchise (1995 – 2012)
This isn’t so much a swap as a passing on of a job title, but it’s an important move nonetheless. The testosterone heavy Bond franchise, where women usually exist as objects, villains or both, desperately needed to update their equal opportunities hiring process. As such, from the most recent incarnation of James Bond franchise, we have been given the wondrous Dame Judi Dench in the role of M. The implication is that this is a code name/job title that goes with the position, rather than an actual gender swap, but it’s importance lies in the fact that, firstly, a woman can hold such a position (after all, the head of MI5 during part of the 1990s was a woman), and secondly that the franchise now features a woman who is not just intended as eye candy for both James and the audience. Brilliant!

Batman Incorporated, DC (2010 – present).
An interesting concept, in this series Batman essentially creates crime-fighting franchises across the world under the umbrella of Batman Incorporated. This has led to the creation of “Batmen” across the globe of all ethnicities and religions including Nightrunner, a Paris based Sunni Muslim, whose creation kicked up quite the fuss! Oh well, I’m sure the fans will survive.

Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Marvel (2011 – present).
In the Ultimate Marvel universe (so again, this is the parallel universe in which we find General Nick Fury), Peter Parker is dead. After his death, his abilities (through a series of events), his costume and mantle are picked up by Miles Morales, a Brooklyn boy of Latino and African-American heritage. The introduction of a non-white superhero had been in the works at Marvel since at least 2008 –  Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Axel Alonso said in 2008, “We realized that we were standing at the brink of America elected (sic) its first African American President and we acknowledged that maybe it was time to take a good look at one of our icons”. Spider-Man turned out to be the perfect fit, and Miles Morales was brought to life. Good call Marvel.

How will the world cope with a black Spider-Man?

How will the world cope with a black Spider-Man?

An example of  when it’s not done right:

Khan, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).
In Star Trek the obsession with canon is particularly rife, and on a technical level I am a stickler for it myself. And so I personally applauded JJ Abrams for his first trip out as Star Trek helmer, where he immediately took what fans knew and created a new timeline – effectively excusing himself from following canon on anything that occurred after the timeline split (at the time of Kirk’s birth).
The use of Khan in Into Darkness, given the consequences of the previous movie, does make canonical sense, but something went horribly, horribly wrong! Even on the level of canon, the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh doesn’t work. The timeline split occurred centuries after the Eugenic Wars of the 90s and so this character should not have changed, he would have been unaffected. But change he did, and not for the better. When making racial or gender changes in these genres, making the person in question either white, male or straight when they formally weren’t, is a massive step backwards, and arguably a case of white-washing. Khan was originally envisaged as being of Indian descent, and in both Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was played by Mexican Ricardo Mantalban. As amazing as Mantalban was in the role, Into Darkness became a missed opportunity to re-cast an Indian actor to the role. Instead not only is the role played by a white man, but the fundamental sense of the character has also changed, from charismatic and gracious to cold and calculating.

Khan in TOS episode Space Seed looking at a sketch of himself - does this bear any resemblance to Cumberbatch??

Khan in TOS episode Space Seed looking at a sketch of himself – does this bear any resemblance to Cumberbatch??

In contrasting the use of Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and that or Cumberbatch as Khan, it’s difficult to work out how Abrams got this so wrong! Two movies that were released in the same season and had the same opportunity to cast ethically – MOS takes what is essentially a support role and with no fanfare, just quietly and calmly swaps his race, because it’s not problem. Done. On the other hand, Into Darkness takes an iconic villain and whitewashes the hell out of him and giving him a personality make over to the point where no aspect of this man tallies with the original Khan that we know (and hated to love!). Sad times.

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I don’t think I am bias in all of this, truly I get it – I’m canon-crazy when it comes to Star Trek, but with comics, that change over time in a very different way than TV and film, surely we can’t be as rigid? For me, especially with Superman, it’s about staying true to the essence. That’s why, despite changes and tweaks I love Smallville, and I love Man of Steel.

I’m going to hope that the creative teams out there continue to make these changes. No one is asking for every other character to be transformed into a different race, gender or sexuality than they previously were. It just seems logical that as time marches on as much as possible is done to make these creations reflective of their fanbase, and society as a whole.

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6 thoughts on “Man of Steel: The Importance of Race and Gender Swapping

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