A Social Justice Society would be a lot more interesting

The other day, I made a long and nerdy social justice warrior post on io9 in response to Evan Narcisse’s article about the hero Nighthawk.

My response doesn’t cover any new ground, and it certainly won’t change anyone’s minds, but I spent some time on it, and it’s as close to writing fiction as I think I’ve got in me these days.

With some revisions, here’s my case for retconning and reinterpreting more characters to have diverse backgrounds:

Nothing enrages a certain kind of comic book fan more than the suggestion to ‘ruin’ a white character by changing their ethnicity.

Gamergaters, news article commenters, and other alt-right critics characterize the push for diversity in protagonists as a naked quota system, empty symbolism to get attention or appease loud, angry SJWs.

I don’t think most ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have a problem with the idea of diversity for its own sake. Certainly, having more superheroes who are people of color so their demographics more accurately reflect comic book readership and general society is not a bad thing. But it’s pretty far down the list of reasons to do it.

Near the top is how it changes the dynamics of so many stories. A ‘black Batman’ whose parents were killed in a hate crime is going to target white racists, sure. Whatever. But as the Nighthawk comic shows, he’s going to have a different relationship to urban decay and the responsibility of wealthy billionaires beyond dressing up in costumes and smacking poor criminals around. That’s transformative.

Maybe a Latino Daredevil would spend more time being a lawyer to provide vigorous and competent representation to people even if they are guilty. You know, like why public defenders exist.

There was talk when the Netflix series came out that they wanted it to be more like The Wire than superhero TV. They failed. Punching stuff hard still solves all problems in that universe.

I’d be a lot more interested in the court plots if they involved tenement housing 19-year-olds from Spanish Harlem getting busted for crack possession. Our protagonist would be aware prosecutors were offering them much worse plea deal terms than was offered the younger brother of a law school colleague who got picked up for selling cocaine from his dorm room. What does Daredevil do about it? Who does he beat up?

Nobody is totally innocent, but the system doesn’t treat all people equally, and it has a greater capacity for evil than any individual.

There’s no reason that the show couldn’t have done that with a white Matt Murdock, but the inequalities of the justice system become harder to ignore when your protagonist looks like the sort of people who’s most affected by its shortcomings.

You could update the backstories of existing characters so they make sense in the modern world. For Daredevil, the idea of the hardscrabble Irish kid with a pro boxer father who’s under the thumb of organized crime is a relic of a character created in the 1960s. We’re aware of the trope, but it doesn’t ring true in a modern sense. In that way, a Puerto Rican Matt Mata would actually be more true to his fundamental conception as we interpret it now.

Magneto started out as a stereotypical supervillain before authors wrote him with a deeper complexity as a Holocaust survivor. A powerful Jewish antagonist is interesting and worked for years; those stories will never go away. But as a Rwandan Tutsi, Magneto makes sense as a character who isn’t a 90-year-old man, and it updates the moral issue further back as well as closer to the present.

The Holocaust wasn’t the final or most awful event in history; it just happened to people who looked like Europeans did. An Eric Karangwa has centuries of horror and discrimination of ‘subhumans’ to draw on. When he says the human race is awful and incapable of change, you have reason to believe him.

Pair with that Professor Xavier as a Xhosa from South Africa, which would explain his own outlook. Apartheid was terrible and inequalities still exist, but it’s possible to bridge the divide peacefully and co-exist. To draw closer Nelson Mandela parallels, make part of his back story willingly subjecting himself to imprisonment. That’s the example of non-violence he’s willing to model for his students. God, just imagine storylines with the two of them and Black Panther.

All of that said, the best candidate would be Superman.

Arguably, Superman was already created as a Jewish immigrant. In myWatsonian head canon, Superman looks like he does only because when he landed in Kansas, his pod made sure he’d have the phenotype of whoever found him and started taking care of him. It ensures he’ll be accepted wherever intelligent life finds him and handwaves all sorts of xenobiology questions.

A Superman whose ship lands in the Deep South is not the same as one who lands in Kansas. Raised by parents who lived through segregation, grandparents who were sharecroppers, and whose ancestors were enslaved would have a very different view on what it means to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. No less sincere or committed, but definitely more nuanced.

He’d understand deeply how much people can fear someone they see as different and challenging their existing social order. And I’m not the first to think that a black guy with super strength and heat vision would unsettle peoplemore than the one we’ve got.

The effect on Clark Kent’s life would be even more interesting, if subtler. Physically and mentally superior to almost everyone else on the planet, he’d still have to deal with people treating him like an affirmative action hire, editors questioning his journalistic interests as race-motivated (‘The legacy of redlining this year’s homicide rate seems kind of a niche issue, Clark’), his super-hearing making him aware of the jokes and comments people make when he’s not around versus when he is. That sort of thing.

No one is suggesting going back and re-colorizing past comics. Not every character should be re-written to be black or Latino or LGBT. We need also original characters that can establish themselves as the ‘true’ version of a superhero rather than a diversity alternate or temporary title holder. And in any case, without a diverse group of writers, you’re never going to get new ideas or new, true experiences.

Yet—it inherently changes the relationship between superheroes and how they use their power when you make a hero someone who doesn’t get to take structural power for granted. ‘If I punch the hell out of this villain, society doesn’t go back to being OK for everyone.’

That alone makes it possible to tell stories that are exciting and fresh, without otherwise altering the superhero premise.

 

I’d like to think those are good ideas and that we’re moving closer to the sort of society where those sorts of stories would be possible and non-extraordinary, or even ordinary. I don’t know.

It may not ever be high art, but comic books are fundamentally a form of wish fulfillment, and white male power fantasies are just one flavor of wish.

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