The Fight for Equal Media Representation Puts Power in Hands of the Fans
Though diversity is increasing on movie screens, representations of women of color still lag behind.
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Growing up a nerd of color, you're not just imagining yourself saving cities or exploring enchanted ruins; it often takes just as much creativity to envision yourself in those worlds at all. As a tween, I had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the girls who looked like me in my favorite stories--from Angelina Johnson in Harry Potter to Holly in Artemis Fowl (though apparently "nut brown" skin is up for debate in that fandom)--because they were so few and far between.
Over the last few years, however, increased pressure from fandoms--often given a voice they never had before thanks to the Internet--and general changes in demographics have led to a slight reversal in age-old trends: Not only is whitewashing roles of color becoming a deserved stain on a movie's legacy, but some roles traditionally coded as white or male are being filled with non-white and female talent. At the intersection of race and gender, however, women of color are still often excluded from the narrative. The roles have increased in both quality and quantity, but we still have a ways to go before reaching fair representation.
When women of color are showcased, it's often met with backlash.
The last decade has seen everything from Afro-Latino Miles Morales donning Spider-Man's spandex in the comics and cartoons, to Idris Elba wielding Heimdall's sword in Marvel's big screen Thor adaptations; and within the last five years, three of the most successful genre films--financial powerhouses Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and critical darling Mad Max: Fury Road--have been driven by female leads.
Representations of women of color in fandoms, however, remain relatively rare. "In mainstream media I do not think the needle has moved too, too much," Dr. Sheena Howard, Associate Professor Communication at Rider University and Eisner Award winner, tells VICE Impact via email. "However, there is a robust fandom, nerds and sci-fi community in which a lot of black women participate."
When women of color are showcased, it's often met with backlash. When the casting for the Hunger Games' Rue (coded, though explicitly stated, as black in the novel) was revealed in the form of Amandla Stenberg, fans lashed out at the casting of a black actress in often vitriolic ways. After diversifying its roster to include such characters as a Muslim-American Ms. Marvel, and Iron Man and Moon Girl with black female leads, Marvel VP of sales David Gabriel chalked up the company's declining sales to the increased representation of not-white-dude characters (disregarding the myriad problems with both storylines and productions that had plagued the comic book purveyor for years).
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"People continue to rely on myths such as, viewers won't consume a product with a female lead or a female of color lead," Howard said.
When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child hit the London stage in 2016, many fans were well aware that racebent Hermione--a creation of black girl nerds who duly noted that the brainy beloved character's frizzy hair and marginalized status as a muggle spoke to them--had been a popular subject of fanart on sites like Tumblr for years. (Indeed, everything from Frozen to Back to the Future has received the racebent treatment.) Sites such as Black Girl Nerds and Nerds of Color have popped up to specifically cater to demographics who love genres that, historically, haven't loved us back.
But in the internet era more than ever before, fans are speaking up--and studios and corporations are listening. The #Donald4Spiderman campaign might not have landed Donald Glover the role of Miles Morales in the latest Spider-man film, Homecoming, but he did get a spoiler-y cameo in the adaptation as Morales' uncle, a compelling character in his own right.
"People continue to rely on myths such as, viewers won't consume a product with a female lead or a female of color lead."
When the #MakeMulanRight hashtag went viral, Disney swiftly pointed out that the live-action adaptation of the hit animated film would star all Chinese actors.
"Though I can't say that I've ever cast anyone based on these fan campaigns, it does get my attention," casting director of several superhero shows David Rapaport told PRI. "Sometimes they'll be people that I do consider for the role or people who were already on my list. But if it's someone I've never heard of, I'll certainly go look them up and get to know them a little bit better."
"When done on a quality level we see that the myths do not hold up," Howard said. "Look at the success of Wonder Woman, shows like Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. These shows with women and women of color at the helm do exceptionally well."
Two upcoming big-screen race-bends -- Atlanta's Zazie Beetz as Domino in Deadpool 2 and Tessa Thompson as Thor: Ragnarok's Valkyrie -- offer the chance to see black women in crucial, if supporting, big screen action roles, while the diverse cast in Ava Duvernay's adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time is lead by a young actress of color.
Wrinkle will also be the first film with a $100 million budget directed by a woman of color--hopefully leading to many more.
By continually making it clear--through petitions, social media campaigns, and of course, purchasing power--audiences can let it be known that we want to see more diverse representations in our media. Who knows; maybe we can even get them to add some color to the Wonder Woman sequel.
Passionate about a casting decision? Start a hashtag or petition to get your favorite actor of color considered for the role.